In 2019’s Modern Warfare, a reimagining of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare from 2007, you’re taking control of SAS and CIA operatives as they aid rebel forces within the fictitious country of Urzikstan, which borders Russia and is fighting for its independence. A stash of chemical weapons has gone missing and must be located while an extremist Russian military faction is quelled.
Call of Duty is probably the foremost divisive mainstream gaming brand of all time; a gung-ho, partisan blockbuster combat romp selling us a vision of rough and prepared spec-ops superstars traveling the world with their guns and their competence, helping freedom fighters while killing rogue paramilitary groups, without pausing too long to think about the differences between them.
The story may be a pulpy, mashup of real-world proxy wars and brutal localized conflicts that panders to US sensibilities. Urzikstan might be Syria, it might be Afghanistan, it might be the Ukraine or Chechnya. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that tough men and ladies are putting their lives on the road in hidden, deniable ops where the principles are bent – which can include the odd crime.
The problem is, it’s fun and it’s rather well made. Modern Warfare looks astonishing, from the just about photorealistic cinematic sequences to the intricately detailed in-game environments: the desert towns, the town streets, the remote villas. Sometimes you only need to stop and admire the orange glint of the sun of a burned-out vehicle.
And this is often the simplest campaign since Call of Duty 4. From an incredibly tense raid on a terrorist stronghold in north London to a bloody siege on an embassy roof, it’s exciting and brilliantly paced. There are references to the series’ past, with particular moments – a helicopter raid during which you’re taking control of missiles from the air; a long-range sniper mission – which will remind veterans of classic missions Death from Above and every one Ghillied Up. there’s always some new high-tech toy to undertake or a fresh perspective on the battle in hand.
All the while, you concede that this is often a refined game made by a US studio, studying, and arguably excusing, American military and political methods. There has already been significant controversy surrounding the Highway of Death mission, which features the slaughter by the Russian military of escaping civilians but bears an in-depth resemblance to a real-life US-led action against retreating Iraqi military personnel in Kuwait in 1991, also later referred to as the Highway of Death. This switching of culprits has led to the game’s rating on review site Metacritic being bombed with negative comments from apparently Russian players.
True, the sport does attempt to muddy (or perhaps more accurately bloody) the waters of which side is sweet or bad, right or wrong. There are key Russian allies within the game who are crucial to your mission, and we’re encouraged to look at the most antagonist, Russian general Roman Barkov, as a rogue player, disowned by his country. At an equivalent time, we see western forces break the principles and commit ethical crimes which the player has got to decide whether to be a neighborhood of it. there’s tons of bluster about blurred lines and “fighting with gloves off”, but it just amounts to chatter within the wind before subsequent barnstorming set-piece.
Meanwhile, within the multiplayer section of the sport, where players fight each other during a range of team-based pursuits, some long-term fans have complained about the new maps, which are more naturalistic in design than the previous Call of Duty online maps, which work like little purpose-built sports arenas of death. There are more places to camp and to snipe from, so players need to be more guarded, slowing the pace.
Yet the ridiculously chaotic Ground War mode, which pits two teams of 32 players against each other on a large map with armored vehicles and helicopters, is exhilarating if wildly unpredictable, while the more contained mode Gunfight has teams of two competing in very small areas with a range of weapons. This is tense, highly controlled multiplayer action – not quite up there with Counter-Strike for tactical purity but as close as Call of Duty is ever likely to get.
Can we enjoy Call of Duty: Modern Warfare without being revolted by or sucked into its skewed, cliche-ridden interpretation of geopolitics and asymmetrical warfare? We have, after all, had many years of the Hollywood-military complex selling us smartly packaged, exciting thrillers such as Black Hawk Down, Hurt Locker, and Act of Valor, all of which have been questioned for their depiction of US military actions. The Liam Neeson movie Taken is an awful analysis of human trafficking but an amazing mainstream thriller.
Call of Duty Modern Warfare, meanwhile, is a slickly produced, well constructed military shooter filled with thrilling set-pieces and moments of fraught tension. It’s also a good run-and-gun online shooter, which wants to bring something fresh to the way online team-based competition works in this genre but isn’t quite there yet – new maps will inevitably follow.
If you tire of the online auction, there is always the campaign to replay at a higher difficulty level. A new “realism” mode takes the challenge up to the max, removing all the on-screen information so you have to rely on memory and your senses to know if you’re about to run out of ammo or if a grenade has just rolled up alongside your cover point. This mode brings a whole new dimension of heart-in-the-mouth suspense, completely changing the face and complexion of the action. Despite yourself, you are dragged into the fray again.