Spoilers for the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare campaign incoming.
Call of Duty is back in a big way. Over the past few years, the law of diminishing returns has been in full force and the games have gotten so steadily worse that I didn’t even bother playing the last two. But 2019’s entry in the series had me intrigued from the start, largely because it was titled Modern Warfare. I enjoyed the alpha and the beta but that was just a taste of multiplayer. What about the campaign? That was the mode I always used to play first and I love a good single-player FPS experience. The original Modern Warfare sub-series were some of my favourites and so while the return to this title excited me, it also concerned me. Is this just a last ditch effort to bring players back using a familiar title, or is the game truly a return to form and worthy to carry the ‘Modern Warfare’ brand? Now that I’ve played through the campaign a couple of times, it pleases me to no end that the case is most certainly the latter.
I was surprised to learn that the return to Modern Warfare wasn’t just a fun reprise, but one that feels necessary. The new game is a much-needed update because what constitutes warfare in the modern world has changed dramatically since the release of the original. The first game was released during the war in Afghanistan and the peak of ‘oorah’ mentality, and the game explored those things. But war has changed and Call of Duty has changed with it. Modern Warfare 2019 is instead concerned in the much more complex ideas of proxy wars, highlighted in the depiction of Urzikstan which is clearly a parallel for Syria. Where in the previous game there was a hunt for nuclear weapons, now the danger is chemical weapons. The villains of the game are now more complex and often arrested or given to foreign nations rather than killed in explosive battles. War is on the cards not because of attacks but rather because the information of who’s carrying them out might leak. The cost of war on people and countries is now explored after being absent from the franchise, as well as the dark and terrible places the ‘heroes’ tread to prevent disaster. But of course, these things aren’t all explored in particularly deep ways because this is still a fast-paced FPS, but overall, I was impressed. The game strikes a good balance between believability and larger-than-life action and story. It’s very deserving of the title ‘Modern Warfare’.
The perfect example of how the game homages the original Modern Warfare while being updated for modern times is the scene in which the chemical weapons are released. Hadir, a freedom fighter and ally up to this point, releases the gas that had been used against his people for years, an action that sees his sister disown him and the US/UK governments mark him as an active threat. Alex, the playable character, is at ground zero and we see him briefly succumb to the effects of the gas, fall to the ground and eventually start crawling and it immediately struck me as a brilliant parallel to the famous nuke scene in the first game. Back then, while still unrealistic, middle eastern countries having nuclear weapons was a major concern but now the much more modern and real threat is chemical weapons and so the game switches them but keeps the gameplay experience similar as an active call-back. While the nuke scene in the first game was a vital plot point, it was also a big showy sequence meant to impress on a purely visual level. Modern Warfare 2019 has altered this to make the moment not just a key plot point but the height of the game’s character drama, as allies become enemies and the levels some are willing to go to protect their homes is made apparent, rather than just an incredible spectacle.
And while the game is exploring all these issues, or at least mentioning them, it’s fun to play. Yeah, it might make you think a little about the ramifications of what’s going on in the story but not enough to make you quit shooting digital bad guys with a smile on your face. The combat is crunchy and satisfying and the movement in Call of Duty has never felt better. It’s smooth but still boots-on-the-ground believable, none of this jetpack nonsense of recent previous entries. And playing on a PS4 Pro, the game looks incredible. The mission variety is strong, with a mixture of close-quarters and stealth encounters that ratchet up the tension and large-scale battles that feel like classic Call of Duty. Missions like ‘The Embassy’ and ‘Hunting Party’ feel like they could be missions cut from the original Modern Warfare 12 years ago, and I mean that in a good way. And I absolutely love the stealth missions, even though that’s not a word you’d expect to hear in Call of Duty. Donning night vision goggles with a Splinter Cell-style light meter, you feel equal parts powerful and vulnerable with a one-shot kill gun in your hands in an area in which you can maintain stealth. When I was replaying the campaign, this time on Veteran difficulty (the last trophy I needed for the Platinum), I realised how short it is but it didn’t feel so the first time I played it when I was taking everything in and exploring. On replay it doesn’t feel frustratingly short however and overall, I’m fairly content with the length.
Upon release the game has garnered some controversy. Most comes from just the subject matter it covers rather than individual scenes, and those scenes deemed controversial still don’t come anywhere close to the ‘No Russian’ mission in Modern Warfare 2. While I’m not offended and always chose to play that earlier mission, it did always seem unnecessary and included just to get people talking. Nothing like that exists in Modern Warfare 2019 but there may be some instances of it being taken slightly too far. The mission ‘Hometown’ is one of my favourites of the game because it really shows the cost of war and the tragic backstory of a couple of lead characters. Whereas the rest of the game will have characters discuss the themes of the game, it was refreshing to actually be shown something rather than told. I think the most effective thing the mission does is just show us the beauty of Urzikstan before it’s turned into the war zone we see throughout the rest of the game. The level has us play as Farah when she was a young girl during the Russian invasion, and we see her and her brother attempt to escape after the death of their parents. It’s a heart-breaking chapter and exposes the horrors innocents are forced to face in such circumstances. Playing as a child makes you feel vulnerable and instantly empathic, as well as accentuate the horrors around you. Seeing Farah have to kill to survive is tough, much less then when you’re in control of her, but I feel it may lean into the brutality of her first kill too much and sometimes less is more. The game occasionally amps things up a little too much to highlight how terrible what we’re seeing is when we already know, and it’s distracting.
Another moment sure to incite discussion comes later in the game when you have to interrogate a terrorist and coerce him into revealing information by pointing a gun at his wife and son. It’s a tough scene but one I think helps define this new iteration of Modern Warfare. Is the game condoning this course of action? I don’t think so, it instead pushes the difficult questions onto the player. Captain Price approves of the methodology, stating that for the world to stay clean they need to get dirty, but the playable character in that scene – Kyle Garrick – struggles with it, both during and afterwards. How far that scene goes is left up to the player, as is whether you play it at all. On my first playthrough I chose to stay outside of the torture room and wait for Price to return having got the information himself and it was only my second time playing the mission I discovered the full sequence. You can aim at the wife and child and pretend to shoot them, before loading the gun with bullets and threatening them again. They can’t be killed but once the subject gives up the information he can be shot or left to be arrested. I chose the latter but earlier in the game we see him kill innocents himself – including a child – and so taking more definitive action is certainly tempting. Again, like reality, there is no clear answer of the right and wrong way to act in those situations but our personal line in the sand, and the game lets us draw our own rather than do it for us. Compared to other games, it may not be the best or subtlest exploration of such themes but for Call of Duty this is ground-breaking stuff.
In terms of characters, we’ve certainly come a long way from the silent protagonists of the original Modern Warfare. Kyle Garrick has a nice arc over the course of the game. After the attack on Piccadilly at the start of the campaign, he’s desperate to get out there and kill those responsible but by the end he learns the complexities of such conflicts and struggles personally with the dark actions he has to take in order to keep the peace. It’s also quite strange and very immersive to be playing as a character who shares your name. Anytime Captain Price orders you to do something by name there’s no doubt you’re going to comply. And Price himself gets a good modern update with a great performance by Barry Sloane behind it. Having that older soldier who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty gives a needed contrast with the younger and less-experienced playable characters. The other of which is Alex, a CIA operative, who is maybe a bit too generic. He’s not very interesting but he’s good enough and has an okay arc. He learns to fight for something he believes in instead of what he’s ordered, although it happens a little fast. He begins the game losing the chemical weapons at the centre of the plot and he feels that guilt until he sacrifices himself to stop the production of more in the game’s final mission.
As for villains, we get both The Wolf and The Butcher who serve their purpose to the plot and get little development, but considering their short role that’s an acceptable issue. Less acceptable however is the characterisation of Barkov, the game’s lead antagonist, who is nothing but a disappointing stock evil Russian General character. Compared to the rest of the game, he’s just so basic and uninteresting. We don’t get to know him and he barely appears; he doesn’t make his first proper appearance until far too late into the game. And when he does show up the game uses cheap and easy ways to present him as the villain. Not only is he the leader of the Russian invasion of Urzikstan, he also personally captured Farah and Hadir as children on the day of the invasion as well as being the personal torturer of both of them a decade later. And some of those torture scenes are embarrassingly awful. “Oh, you want some water? Too bad, I’m just going to pour it on the ground right in front of you!”. Gimme a break. The game is so much better than that character.
Hadir is the much more interesting antagonist of the game because it can be debated whether he actually is one or not. The twist that he’s the one who stole the weapons is absurdly obvious but the drama that comes from the fact – and his eventual use of them – is really well done. He’s fighting on the same side as our hero characters, he’s just crossed a line in how he fights and is made a target because of it. I like that conflict a lot and he becomes an understandable villain, maybe the most complex of any Modern Warfare game. Once that twist happens the game gets even better but sadly, he’s arrested in the penultimate mission and the finale once again shifts to Barkov being an antagonist. Hadir is much more interesting, especially when paired with his sister Farah who leads the freedom fighters and wants him dead after he dares to use the very weaponry that destroyed their home. Price and Garrick don’t want him dead however and even end up working with him again during his final appearance, where Hadir’s name in the subtitles appears in yellow rather than the green for good or red for bad. Alex even uses Hadir’s sniper rifle in the final mission, an indicator that Hadir’s legacy of good lives on and that he is still somewhat celebrated by his fellow freedom fighters.
I will say that I was slightly disappointed with the game’s ending. Farah’s fighters along with Price, Garrick and Alex storm Barkov’s chemical weapons factory to kill the baddie and blow up the base in a surprisingly simplistic turn of events. I really don’t like that Alex dies offscreen. It seems like they wanted his final big moment to also be Farah’s big moment too, where he accepts what he might have to lose when fighting for something he truly believes in and she has to fully embrace leadership and order him to sacrifice himself, but it’s awkwardly executed. Particularly when the explosion of the base at the end is played purely as a triumphant moment when, offscreen, the game’s protagonist is also blown to pieces. And Barkov’s death? It’s okay, I guess. It’s gratifying to witness Farah be the one to end Barkov, especially in a way that mimics her first kill, but there’s something about the whole finale that feels a little unsatisfying. But maybe that’s the intent. I mean, what better way to show the reality of modern warfare by having an unsatisfying conclusion that doesn’t really end the conflict?
While the game is largely concerned with breaking new ground for the franchise, there are plenty of fun call-backs and references to the earlier Modern Warfare game. There are similar scenes and moments to those in that earlier instalment but the context has been changed, from a cool sniper level to having to hide in long grass and crawl under trucks to avoid detection, as well as reprisals of lines of dialogue that are forever burned into my memory. Price shouting, “We. Are. Leeeaving!” for example, as well as a cheeky “His fruit killing skills are remarkable” joke. There’s an extended chase mission like the one with Viktor Zakhaev in the original game, as well as returning characters like Price, Griggs, Nikolai and of course the reveal that Garrick is none other than Gaz, which I like a lot. They do go too far with the references in the final scene however. After a campaign of slowly and slyly reintroducing elements, the developers just open the floodgates and throw everything at you. Task Force 141, Shepherd, Ghost, Soap, mentions of the Pripyat mission in CoD4 and name checking MacMillan and Zakhaev, and then the post credits scene of Al-Asad and Kamarov. It’s fun but feels very unnatural and is the wrong kind of fan service.
After taking a break from the franchise for the past couple of years, I love that I’m a Call of Duty fan again. Modern Warfare is not only a return to form for the series, with an addictive multiplayer experience that I’ve already sank many hours into, but it has evolved the single player experience into something very modern while still harkening back to the originals. It’s rejuvenated the franchise and made me feel like a teenager again, when I was always going back and replaying the campaigns over and over again. And I sense myself do that with this new Modern Warfare too. Well, at least until Modern Warfare 2 is released. The second Modern Warfare 2 that is.
What are your thoughts on Modern Warfare 2019? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.