LOS ANGELES – I am hardly the first person to point out that the Call of Duty series is in dire need of a reimagining, at least from a single-player perspective. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare had a legitimately interesting antiwar narrative that mixed spy thriller tropes with real fears about nuclear escalation. The series could have gone in a very interesting direction after that.
But instead, it leaned harder and harder into the implausible espionage. And then it got a little racist. And a little weird. And then it kind of eschewed single-player entirely. To be fair, some folks are still invested in the ongoing Call of Duty story, but given the polished gameplay and impressive production values that the series brings to the table, it’s not wrong to hope for something a little more ambitious. And that’s what Call of Duty: Modern Warfare wants to bring to the table.
I saw a short, prerecorded gameplay demo of Modern Warfare at E3 2019, and I’m of two minds about the game. On the one hand, the central premise is a good one: a rebooted Call of Duty that focuses on urban terrorism. The game will put players into morally gray situations where the line between civilian and combatant is blurred, and focus on methodical sweeps rather than run-and-gun action. But as interesting as that sounds, I’m not sure how well it will mesh with Call of Duty’s well-established game mechanics — and I’m not sure whether the demo was representative of every mission, or just certain ones.
Terrorism in London
The demo comprised parts of two early-game missions: Hour of the Wolf and Red Crown. In the former, a terrorist attack in downtown London kicks off an intense manhunt, where it’s not clear who’s behind the ensuing chaos. In the latter, CoD mainstay Capt. Price and Sgt. Kyle Garrick (the player character) infiltrated a London townhouse that sheltered the extremists behind the plot.
Red Crown made up the bulk of the demo; Hour of the Wolf was really just there to demonstrate that it will be difficult to pick out a terrorist — even one with a detonator — in a crowded urban setting, full of cars and people, none of whom is dressed in “enemy” colors. While Capt. Price nearly shot a civilian, the actual terrorists drove away in a van, kicking off the next part of the story.
Infiltrating the townhouse in Red Crown was very different than anything I’ve seen in a Call of Duty game before. It wasn’t about kicking down a door and gunning down every hostile in the building; it wasn’t even about sneaking in stealthily and dispatching foes with stealth. Instead, it was a slow, methodical sweep where the characters had to make split-second decisions about who was a terrorist, and who was a civilian caught up in their plans.
Garrick and his team approached the townhouse quietly, under cover of night. After sneaking in through a second floor window, a squad mate grabbed a woman in the kitchen, threw her to the floor, and demanded that she stay quiet. The squad cut the lights and turned on night-vision goggles, giving the whole level an eerie black-and-green palette. There was no music; the only sound was of muffled footsteps, labored breathing and whispered dialogue.
The vibe was much closer to that of a horror game than a first-person shooter. I never expected to feel scared and startled in a Call of Duty game, but when the squad ascended to the third floor and an unexpected round of gunfire pierced the air, I nearly jumped out of my seat. If the game set out to capture the intense, hurry-up-and-wait nature of urban warfare, it succeeded.
The demo proceeded just like that for a few more floors. Garrick would creep up the stairs, slowly open a door, see if there was anyone in the room, and react accordingly. Often, a character would put his or her hands up in mock surrender, then reach for a hidden pistol, assault rifle, or detonator. The squad had to incapacitate these combatants before they could get a shot off and alert the rest of the house. Sometimes, enemies would shoot through walls or doors; other times, civilians who had no part in the plot would beg for mercy in earnest. The whole experience felt morally ambiguous and unsettling.
And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder how the experience might play out, outside of the confines of a tightly scripted demo. What would happen if you accidentally did shoot a civilian? Would the game simply send you back to the last checkpoint? If so, the challenge and tension of the encounter would be gone. Would the game continue as normal? Is there some maximum number of allowable civilian casualties? Could Garrick be tried for war crimes at some pivotal story moment later in the game? These questions may sound a little tongue-in-cheek, but if separating civilians from combatants is a central mechanic, there has to be some kind of penalty for failing to do so.
There’s also a question of gaming the system. In most Call of Duty games, you can withstand a few rounds of gunfire and simply regenerate your health between encounters. In others, you can restore your health completely with strategically placed medical kits. That means there’s very little risk in soaking up a few gunshots, so why not just treat every enemy as a civilian until they pump a pistol round into you? I also wonder whether the whole game will be intense investigations in confined quarters, or if you’ll be fighting in big, open-ended spaces most of the time, as in other games in the series.
Finally, while it’s impossible to gauge the game’s tones or themes from a 20-minute demo, it’s hard to ignore that you’re still playing as a group of British and American soldiers, kitted out in impressive tactical gear, brutalizing a group of poorly armed, desperate Middle Eastern immigrants. The CoD series has fallen back on xenophobic tropes in the past, and it has the opportunity to transcend them here — but I don’t yet have the necessary context to comment further.
Modern Warfare will come out for PS4, Xbox One and PC on Oct. 25, 2019, so players can judge the full story for themselves then. Expect to hear more about the game’s multiplayer modes before then, too.