REVIEW: ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’ Is a Return to Form for the Franchise (Xbox One)

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Modern Warfare

My first Call of Duty game was Call of Duty 2 and some of my best memories of playing competitive multiplayer modes come from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and of course, Modern Warfare 2. As a franchise that puts out at least one game per year, alternating developers while the publisher remains Activision, I had fallen off of the convoluted storylines that seemed to push more towards condensing gameplay and campaign experience in favor of allowing for quicker output, or at least that’s how it felt as a longtime fan.

Having fallen off of the series at Call of Duty: Ghosts, I expected to have a lot of catching up to do, but instead, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019) was a return to form for the franchise and was just like riding a bike. For the sake of brevity, given that the campaign is filled with enough depth to warrant several pieces on it, I will only be addressing the game’s single-player campaign and will be avoiding major spoilers past the half-way point of the game. That being said there is a spoiler or two below for some of the earlier missions.

Going back to its roots in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019), developer Infinity Ward brought back familiar faces to the campaign and reinvigorated the mechanics that made the original so immersive and ultimately, a fan-favorite franchise within the franchise. As for the story, it takes place in 2019; during a covert mission to recover shipments of dangerous chemical gas headed for Urzikstan, CIA officer Alex (Chad Michael Collins) is intercepted by unknown hostiles who kill off the Marine raiders accompanying him and of course, steal the deadly gas.

Following this opening mission, Alex’s handler Station Chief Kate Laswell (Rya Kihlstedt) requests the assistance of SAS Captain John Price (Barry Sloane) in recovering the chemicals and de-escalating the situation with Russia. It’s not long after that a group of suicide bombers, affiliated with the terrorist organization Al-Qatala, attack Piccadilly Circus in London. SAS Sergeant Kyle Garrick (Elliot Knight) dispatches to contain the situation with the assistance of Price and local police forces. Afterward, Alex is sent to Urzikstan to meet up with rebel leader Farah Karim (Claudia Doumit), who agrees to join forces to track down the chemicals. Alex also acquires Farah’s help in fighting off the Russian forces stationed in her country who are led by General Roman Barkov (Konstantin Lavysh), or also known by his more menacing name, The Wolf.

While I love a lot about the Modern Warfare campaign, there is nothing I love more than Farah. She’s tough and she’s powerful. The game makes this known not just through the respect that her fighters show her, but also through the respect that your character Alex shows her. While the game is not unproblematic, specifically in its choices to allow players to kill civilians both in the streets and while breaching a house, there is a relationship that Alex builds between Farah and her group is a shining star in the campaign. Their relationship, as individuals who respect each other is something you don’t see much between men and women in games of this type, given that women rarely appear in them outside DLC.

From observations of Farah’s design, the dialogue, and the struggle of her people in Urzikstan, the Urzikstanis seem very much modeled after Kurdish fighters, who in real life are currently just trying to survive in a conflict that is effectively wiping out their people. The choice to model the Urzikstan freedom fighters after Kurds is noticeable, from their struggle to the use of women in high ranking positions. It also seems that the developers at Infinity Ward were putting in a larger statement underneath this first-person shooter. That said, the story stops short of saying anything beyond what most players would already know, granted the recent state of the Middle East occurred after the game’s campaign completion.

It’s also amazing that out of the characters in the game, we learn the most about Farah. The only playable female character, we see the darkness of her childhood and the trauma she’s experienced. While some female players have taken issue with her depiction, confused as to why Alex and Kyle don’t receive the same treatment, the answer is simple. Outside of choosing to join the military, they have not been fighting for their life. We’re used to the Call of Duty series calling out issues in our military, but we’re not as familiar with it providing us with raw, shaking moments.

As Farah, you kill as a child, you’re tortured, and the game puts the player through this not as a cut scene, but as a player. For me, as a woman of color, and honestly, as a woman who has been in love with the series, we’ve seen our male players go through things similar to Farah in ways of torture – granted not as viscerally for some. For me, Farah has a more prominent and detailed role than any woman in a Call of Duty game before. While the writers are obviously male, I don’t take issue with the depiction of her in a warzone, or the exploration of how she became the fighter she is today. I mean, how many war games do we play where we have just that for the male characters?

Farah isn’t a prop for the male characters in the story. She isn’t an agent of anyone else but her own push for not only revenge but for freedom for her people. She leads an army, she leads Alex, and he respects her. I can’t speak for everyone who plays the game but I can recognize that the inclusion of trigger warnings for the game before specific scenes, like Farah’s waterboarding, may help some players with their both their gaming experience and mental health, even if I didn’t need them. It’s something a patch could easily add and a piece of a game that will allow more people to comfortably play through it.

Modern Warfare

As a reboot of the sub-series, Modern Warfare can be seen as Infinity Ward hitting the reset button, especially bringing back Capt. John Price who, while you don’t play as him, has a strong presence and role throughout the game. Throughout the story, you rotate between Alex, Farah, and Kyle’s points of view. You complete missions as the three of them and work with other important members of their team to work against Barkov and his motives.

A first-person shooter, Modern Warfare is the sixteenth overall installment in Activision’s Call of Duty series, and while I grew fatigued on the series as a whole, I’m glad I came back. In contrast to others in the franchise, this game puts more of a focus on a realism that goes beyond just the dark sides of war which has garnered ire from some game journalists prior to release. While Call of Duty, and the Modern Warfare franchise, has been lauded for its gritty realism, and chided for it as well, this new step for the franchise is an evolution of existing mechanics that pushes the setting and player experience to new heights.

While you have always had to restart a mission because of friendly fire, now, the game continues if you hit a civilian. This may come off as less realistic but it’s the contrary. Killing civilians, purposefully or accidentally, doesn’t earn you a restart because there isn’t a restart in war. Instead, the game forces you to feel the ramifications of your careless choices by enforcing a morality system that impacts how those in the game view you. The campaign forces players into a tactically-based moral choice system in which your every choice, gunshot, and movement is evaluated and assigned a score at the end of each level.

While this may seem tedious even when playing on recruit difficulty, it does force the player to think before they act. This complicates a game where shooting first is usually the best option and friendly fire doesn’t always exist. Instead, you’re forced to quickly decide if NPCs in an area are a threat or not. This takes multiple forms throughout the game. Some moments are slow and intimate, as you raid the townhouse of Al-Qatala to find the whereabouts of The Wolf. Others are large and hectic as you try to shoot bombers in the middle of London as bystanders run past you.

It was the Piccadilly level when I realized that the NPCs weren’t bulletproof and that I would really have to watch my shots, not just because you’re graded on it, but also because I felt undeniably bad about accidentally hitting a civilian. There are hardly any distinguishable features between the crowd running to safety and the men looking to harm them, which left my play-through with a lot of collateral damage. This collateral damage score, referred to as a threat assessment, is based on how many civilians the player injures or kills and ranges from rank A to F with rewards being introduced to those who score higher.

It was perhaps the level in the United States Embassy where I was left most gutted by Modern Warfare. As Garrick, you accompany Capt. Price through the Embassy, looking to secure extraction for the Ambassador and ultimately take the captured Barkov to be interrogated. Then, you enter a room with glass between you, Al-Qatala, and a character known as The Butcher. As he pushes you to open the door he holds a man and his son hostage. Price is focused on opening the next door to move and you have to make a choice, go with Price and ignore The Butcher or give in and let the man into the embassy, in order to save the pair. Only, you can’t save them. Instead, if you choose to, The Butcher will kill you and if you’re like me you’ll find yourself in a loop of death until you have to give up in order to progress in the story. This illusion of choice is heartbreaking, but makes the game’s aim at realism standout. Hard choices, are sometimes realizing that you can’t make any choice at all.

In addition to tough tactical choices, and honestly, emotional ones, the character dialogue will differ depending on the choices the player makes in the game, offering up not only score consequences for killing civilians but story ones as well. The developers want us to be careful, and as you move to the end of the campaign, you’ve hopefully moved away from run-and-gun and into precision to avoid causing harm. Tactical decisions are also included in the gameplay that makes you adjust your weapon choices to the environment in which you’re shooting. You can’t just run with a sniper and attack because you’re comfortable using it. Instead, you have to hit targets by doing things like shooting out lights in favor of using night-vision goggles during breaching and clearing the areas more skillfully.

Modern Warfare

Outside of narrative, the reason this character-driven story works is because of the beauty of the character models for the main characters in Modern Warfare. The detail in the cinematics and the transitions from that mode to playable is mostly seamless. The hair, the pores on the skin, the eyes, it’s all alive. And if I’m honest, Alex was given one of the most amazing butts in all of video games. That being said, the beautiful attention to detail in the main characters is what makes the background characters and glitches in animation stand out all the more.

There were multiple instances of objects in the world shaking and moving through other objects, like boxes on a shelf or weapons in an armory. Additionally, in NPC crowds I spotted many casualties who were not only the same character model facially but also wearing the same clothes, body positions, hair, and all. While it isn’t make-or-break when a pair of twin character builds pop up in a game with nearly perfect main character visuals, it’s hard not to fall out of the immersion.

That being said, one of the other reasons that I’m in love with the gameplay, even if not much has changed in the way of actual shooting or fight mechanics outside the need for precision, is the creativity when it comes to the in-game Xbox achievements. After getting my first achievement in the game for shooting down a helicopter by killing the pilot I was excited once I saw the rest of them. The achievements aren’t easy. They take tactics and honestly, a second playthrough. Some you can luck into your first time and others will take time to complete, like saving a team member from being downed, or killing all enemies with a cinderblock. This greatly increased replayability, although the achievements also offer a sore spot for completionists like myself.

While Modern Warfare is the first in the series since Ghosts not to offer a Zombies mode, made famous by Treyarch’s games and iterated on by other developers to become a staple in the series. Instead, the game is going back to co-op with a Spec-Ops mode, which I won’t be able to talk about since Activision made the choice to lock out Xbox One and PC players from the mode for the entire longevity of the game. That said, the current unlockable achievements for the game include Spec-Ops ones, which means that players not on the PlayStation4 will keep an incomplete until the next Call of Duty comes out. Which, is incredibly frustrating.

All in all, the campaign for Modern Warfare is gritty, raw, heartbreaking in spots, and will push players to think before they act. Because of this, the leveling system for difficulty doesn’t map to where it has in the past. Even having completed the games from four to eight on highest difficulty, there were moments of impossibility that for the sake of completing the game for this review, I needed to lower the level. But, once you know what to look for, pursuing the game on a higher difficulty won’t be a problem.

While I’m unsure if this will pull in new fans of the original Modern Warfare series, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is something that works perfectly for longtime players and fans looking for a solid story and new challenges.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is available for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
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    Rating - 8/10
8/10

TL; DR

While I’m unsure if this will pull in new fans of the original Modern Warfare series, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is something that works perfectly for longtime players and fans looking for a solid story and new challenges.