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Preview: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare isn’t as bold as it thinks it is

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is easily one of my most anticipated games of 2019. That said, after seeing a roughly hour and a half long presentation of the FPS reboot on the eve of E3, I felt slightly timid.
As you may have heard, this is a reimagining of the Modern Warfare moniker. It has the likes of Captain Price and is set in the modern day time period (our demo took place 5 days before the game’s launch this October) but it’s not a summer blockbuster-esque story. No, Infinity Ward is boasting a bold new campaign that will push you to uncomfortable boundaries.
That modern-day time period is used as a storytelling device. Infinity Ward aims to rip from the headlines and put players in the most horrendous scenarios one can imagine, causing you to feel tense, uneasy, and reflect on what war is like today. There aren’t really clear cut good guys and bad guys, we live in a morally ambiguous world. It’s not as easy as looking at a uniform to find your enemy.

With all that said, our demo for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare starts us in London on October 20th, 2019. A massive terrorist attack happens in a populated part of the city and a group of Tier One operators reacts accordingly shortly afterward. Our soldiers led by Captain Price stack up outside a townhouse in the city, a group moves in through a door while you climb a ladder to get through a window.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

The soldiers then proceed to breach and clear this townhouse, moving through it with ease and precision. Headshots and clean kills showcase a sense of tactical-ness not found in their opponents. Every bit about this is quite violent and bloody, sometimes people don’t die right away and groan in pain as they either reach their hand out to you or try to get their gun.

Both result in brutal and relentless executions. Your group of trained soldiers are not here to offer mercy, they know that these are terrorists and can’t risk letting their guard down no matter how savage it may seem. Even so, you can’t have an itchy trigger finger.
There are women and even children here, while they could realistically still pose threats, there are lines that can’t be crossed without carefully examining the situation at hand. Outside of a woman who surprises you by rushing to protect her baby, pretty much everyone in this house is shot and killed.
Infinity Ward kept emphasizing the tension of it all and how you shouldn’t be so quick to pull the trigger… but every time they did, there was a threat. There was only that one instance where someone didn’t hold a gun, have a detonator, or pose harm to you. It also felt as if maybe the illusion of choice was being presented as opposed to actually having a choice.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
Infinity Ward was quite vague as to whether or not there were alternatives to what we saw. Could we take these terrorists out non-lethally? Who knows, they wouldn’t really give us a straight answer. They danced around the subject quite a bit with vague possibilities.
We were also told that if we were to kill someone who wasn’t an actual threat, there would be consequences. Initially, this will be branching dialogue choices from your squadmates who react in disgust or shock. If you continue to push it in an aggressive way, the game will recognize this and tell you that you’re done with a game over screen.

This will likely bring you back to a checkpoint which definitely has a sense of ludonarrative dissonance to it. Is that really a punishment fitting of the deeds you’ve committed? They want to push this very heavy tone and story but does that work when the player lashes out and you slap them on the wrist and say “No, don’t do that, try again”?
Perhaps the most jarring moment of our Call of Duty: Modern Warfare demo was in the second mission we saw which was a flashback set 20 years ago. We play as a little girl from the middle east who is trapped under a ton of rubble, she’s pulled out and carried home through a war zone by her father. It’s heavy stuff and as it unravels, it gets heavier and heavier.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

The horror is real, it’s the stuff of nightmares except it’s a reality. Fighter jets fly over and drop bombs, trucks of soldiers pull up and unload bullets into crowds of civilians, and more. This isn’t the jarring element, it’s totally in line with the tone they’re establishing.
The jarring part is when the father and daughter get home. They meet up with the little brother, the father gives them cell phones when all of a sudden a brutish soldier comes in. He kills the dad and starts hunting for the kids when a cat and mouse boss fight occurs using the classic rules of threes (attack three different times until you trigger the next sequence).
It takes an otherwise very real and grounded moment and turns it into a very video game-y moment. It continues to do this for the rest of the level with a tried and true Call of Duty stealth sequence. You know, the ones they do in pretty much every game where you have to sneak past groups of enemies without alerting them. The very slow and boring sequences we’ve seen time and time again in this series.

While I do have my fair share of criticisms with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, it’s not something I want to dislike. It’s a series I love a lot and want to see succeed. The first level they showed was incredibly tense and enjoyable to see, it looked like exactly what I wanted. There are just some questions that began to arise after the fact in terms of how linear it all really is and how punishing it is/isn’t.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

The second level started off very strong but quickly turned into a jarring and even boring or stale mission.
This is the kind of story that a game like Spec Ops: The Line captured perfectly. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare seems to be struggling to find its footing in its narrative ambition at the moment, perhaps it’s something that needs to be seen in its full form to truly judge it. There are lots of incredibly talented people behind this game and Infinity Ward presented the game to us with an impressive amount of confidence so I’m not willing to cast any kinds of significant doubt quite yet, I think we just need to see and know more.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare will release on October 25th, 2019 for Xbox One, PS4, with a PC release coming shortly after.

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