Isn’t It Technically Postmodern Warfare?
Call of Duty, like Final Fantasy, is one of gaming’s biggest hot zones for “The Best One” arguments. Everyone has their favorite blockbuster shooter, but Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare trilogy often stands victorious. Before Modern Warfare, Call of Duty was a budding franchise mostly about World War II. Modern Warfare took the series in a new direction, not just in terms of technology, but in terms of structure. A focus on bombastic, setpiece-driven narratives took over, alongside the whole “adding xp and levels to shooter multiplayer” thing that has permeated the industry. Since Call of Duty has suffered a bit of an identity crisis lately, Infinity Ward has gone back to what made Call of Duty a household name. Rather than a sequel or something new, we’re basically looking at a remake of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.
While Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is one of the most visually impressive military shooters I’ve played, it still manages to fall short of the original’s high points. There are some very cool ideas in the campaign, in terms of gameplay, and it somehow hosts some of the best acting and character work I’ve encountered so far. But the actual storytelling in this new vision of the classic trilogy is at best a wet blanket and at worst a comically botched attempt at propaganda. Multiplayer is equally conflicted, with some odd balance choices that will likely be ironed out over time, effectively rendering that criticism pointless. We’ll see.
If you turn your brain off, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s campaign is a pretty wild ride. Like I was saying before, it’s one of the most amazing-looking games with no discernible art direction I’ve ever laid eyes on. It’s realistic military shooting drama at its current peak, with truly impressive lighting and lifelike facial animation with emotive expressions.(Also, the gunplay looks really good.) The lighting engine does a lot of work, as Infinity Ward’s team found every excuse it could to show off. From crawling through underground cave systems to exploring a massive estate while Captain Price shoots spotlights for you, Modern Warfare practically orients its play scenarios around lights and shadows.
Some of its scenarios are awesome. There are a couple of nighttime raid scenes that are especially impressive; a small military unit creeps up multiple flights of stairs, faintly pushing doors open and quietly eliminating enemies. At the same time, the game tries to trick you into tagging civilians, meaning you have to be paying even more attention in the middle of such a tense stealth operation. There’s also a notable sequence in which the player directs a civilian through an office building under attack, giving orders through a cell phone while relying on security cameras for visuals. Moments like these are both creative and so finely-tuned that playing them almost feels passive, but in a good way.
I was enjoying Modern Warfare’s campaign until I started thinking about it. I was really into the original trilogy (especially the second game), because of its surprising nuance. It seemed to start as a typically hoorah action joint, but started really looking inwards at the role America plays as “world police,” despite its clear lack of qualifications. Corruption and ambition are shown as the real fuel for war, for example. This new Modern Warfare feels a lot more afraid to engage with similar introspection. We can crack jokes about those “political” comments and interviews all we want, but in what feels like an attempt to avoid “politics,” Modern Warfare does such intense mental gymnastics that it twists around and plants its head firmly inside its own ass.
Modern Warfare wants the player to think about the Rules of Engagement. Through multiple sets of eyes, we see what limits different people are willing to push in order to achieve their goals. We see Captain Price, a fan-favorite, who just wants to do what needs to be done to do the right thing. There are Farah and Hamir, two siblings living in a war-torn, fictional Middle Eastern country fighting to regain normalcy. Then there are the villains, who spout vague proclamations about foreign invaders, despite being a quiet partnership between Russia and pretend ISIS. Each of these pieces on the board do some wild shit, and every now and then a character comments on something another character did.
You’ve probably read reports on brutality in this game, and they’re true: Modern Warfare wants to shock you with “War is Bad for Everyone” scenes of violence, and it spares no quarter. Women and children are constantly used as proxies for innocence, and kids especially become easy targets for narrative intensity. Both the protagonists and antagonists keep doing awful stuff to and around children, and the takeaway from these moments is often frustratingly muddled. As the player, we’re supposed to be driven by a desire to stop the bad guys from using devastating chemical weapons. At the same time, Captain Price gives the player an option to participate in an interrogation doubling as War Crime Roulette. It’s hardly acknowledged in the dialogue before the next big thing needs to explode.
Naturally, the big reveal at the end is essentially a giant nudge and wink for fans of the original trilogy, in that corny way blockbuster movies based on franchises often use “character says other character’s name while staring at the camera” to excite crowds of opening weekend moviegoers. The entire payoff for “Is illegal war violence bad?” is that Red Letter Media video about nerds screaming over Star Wars self-references. Ultimately, the answer is “war crimes are okay, as long as America does them,” along with some pretty impressive revisionist history changing actual, real-life events to make us look better. Man, I sure do wish Modern Warfare didn’t have politics, because these suck.
As for multiplayer, Infinity Ward is trying this thing where it rotates game modes in and out on a schedule. On paper, it encourages people to not abandon fringe modes. In practice, it ensures Modern Warfare’s shelf life. But that said, there’s a 2v2 mode that’s really cool, pitting four players in close quarters combat that hasn’t been done in Call of Duty before. On the other end, there’s a new mode that boosts the number of players big time, making Modern Warfare feel more like a new Battlefield. Speaking of battlefields, the big Modern Warfare multiplayer consternation at launch is that the early metagame encourages camping and distance battles, because visibility is poor and time to kill is super fast. Hiding with a long distance weapon is much more profitable than classic Call of Duty gunslinging. Fans are currently kinda unhappy about it, but these things tend to change over time.
Ultimately, I came away from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare confused about how to feel about it. I’m always down for some Call of Duty campaign nonsense and was super looking forward to it after Black Ops 4 skipped it entirely. When I started this story, I was stoked. It felt great to play, looked better than any previous entry, and seemed to have some real dramatic ambition. But then the story got going, and it was less thematically coherent than a Tom Clancy game. Both the campaign and (currently divisive) multiplayer add a lot of new angles and depth to the usual Call of Duty experience. Unfortunately, that all comes at the cost of a good story, and the last Modern Warfare had a great story.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 5.0 Graphics
There are seriously impressive levels of visual fidelity: a first for the series 4.0 Control
Too much weird minutia is tucked away in weird spots, but the basics are fine 4.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
It has more top-notch production values and mostly solid acting from the voice cast 3.5 Play Value
The campaign is neat, but disappointing, and multiplayer was hit-or-miss at launch 4.0 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend|
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid||2.5 – 2.9 = Average||3.5 – 3.9 = Good||4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy|
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor||3.0 – 3.4 = Fair||4.0 – 4.4 = Great||5.0 = The Best|