Home Features Consequence and ambiguous morality: How Modern Warfare has changed Call of Duty

Consequence and ambiguous morality: How Modern Warfare has changed Call of Duty

11 min read
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Los Angeles, USA.

The black van rumbled into the parking lot and stopped outside a building complex. The small group of foreign representatives (including yours truly) climbed out and looked up at the glass buildings surrounding us. With anticipation rising, I wondered which reflective window hid the creators of the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series, the primary source behind many hours of my youth that I’d spent playing their games.

Escorted into the lobby and then to the elevator, we rose up slowly to the sixth floor. The doors clanged open and we were welcomed by a familiar Call of Duty: Ghost logo on each of the surrounding escalator doors. Taking a sharp right, we walked excitedly towards the final destination and the reason behind all of being us gathered, in secret, to this one location – Infinity Ward.

Knowing nothing of what was to come, we shared glances of excitement at one another as we were led to a private cinema. Silence fell over the room, as the lights went down.

This was it, our reason for being there: The reveal of the next Call of Duty.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

The next Call of Duty is not game number four in the Modern Warfare series, nor is it a prequel, but rather a reimagining of what was and a new take on what is still to come. Sound vague enough for you? Well don’t fret because there is some serious depth behind it all.

Starting off with the basics, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare will see a return of the narrative-driven campaign that is based in our current time, 2019. The campaign will be split into two elements, where for 50% of the story you will play as a Tier 1 operator who has the latest technology at your beck and call. The other 50% of Modern Warfare will see you as a rebel fighter, where you will be the underdog and guerrilla tactics will need to be used.

Also confirmed is the return of characters from previous titles, one of whom being the main protagonists of the old Modern Warfare series, the legendary veteran Captain Price

According to the team at Infinity Ward, they are taking the characters in an entirely new direction by doing, what they describe as, “…what the ‘Dark Knight’ did for Batman”. The team are bringing in authentic military based scenarios where the turmoil of war is not painted pretty – it’s gritty, merciless and morally grey.

“This is an all-new Modern Warfare reimagined in every way,” said Dave Stohl, co-Studio Head, Infinity Ward. “We are creating an emotionally charged experience that’s inspired by the headlines in the world today, where the rules are grey and battle lines are blurred. Players will join a varied cast of international special forces and freedom fighters in gripping and heart-pounding missions through iconic European cities and volatile expanses of the Middle East.  It’s intense, it’s exciting, and we can’t wait for our fans to play this October.”

Not black or white, it’s grey.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare will be more controversial than ever before, especially when removed from its context. Why? Well it’s not caring about your feelings or trying to portray you as the hero of war. It’s rather going to thrust you into the perils of conflict and leave you with some very difficult decisions to make, some of which just feel wrong but ultimately might be the correct decision in the long run. As the studio narrative director, Taylor Kurosai, formerly of Naughty Dog, described:

Good and bad are a matter of perspective.

Town House

Our first example of gameplay footage was from the perspective of a tier one soldier in a mission named ‘Town House’. The mission took place in North London, where the soldiers had received intel on the location of a terrorist group which recently bombed a nearby site.

It was up to the team to infiltrate the multi-storey building and neutralise the threat. In the building, there are several hostiles and potential civilians. The player gets immediately thrown into the deep end as the terrorists are not always defined. The mission tests your prejudice as the definition over who is a threat and who isn’t is not always clear.

Before I go further, I have to mention that the visuals and audio have been ramped up considerably thanks to the new purpose-built engine for Modern Warfare. The game is jaw-droppingly gorgeous and the attention to detail is simply breath-taking. After they showcased some of the graphics to us, they told us that everything we had just seen was directly from the PlayStation 4. Unconsciously, I blurted out, “WHAT!?” in disbelief.

Features such as Ray Tracing, volumetric lighting, photogrammetry and spectral rendering are some of the features that we will go into detail about in a follow-up article. For this piece, however, I need to mention that the newly overhauled graphics and audio add a dash of realism to the game that is unparalleled in any Call of Duty title we’ve seen previously.

The way that graphic and violent content is portrayed in Modern Warfare as a result is disturbingly close to actuality. Shooting a player won’t cause them to collapse in a pile and no longer be a threat. Once shot, the AI moves around, pleading for help, crawling to safety, hiding under beds and suffering from their wounds. Eliminating enemies, even in stealth, is not always clean. Hearing their cries for mercy doesn’t leave you feeling successful at the end of a mission, rather the combination of humanity and suffering with the obligation of duty leaves you with mixed emotions.

One of the most difficult decisions came at the end of a mission, once the house appeared cleared. The team made their way into the attic of the town house and a woman got up unarmed. She expressed her joy at the soldiers coming in to save her from the terrorists that she stated had locked her up. As the soldiers advanced towards her, she backed up slowly, and in the point-of-view (POV) of the soldier we were watching he aimed his weapon then fired, killing her.

Shocked, I couldn’t help but feel like it was the wrong thing to do. This lady, that didn’t look anything like a terrorist, had no weapon in-hand and had just stated that she was a captive, not an aggressor.

It turns out that I had it wrong. As the soldiers moved closer you could see that she was actually purposefully backing her way in the direction of a C4 detonator that was located nearby. The soldier made the correct decision and I had it wrong.

Hometown

The second, and final scenario that Infinity Ward showed us, was set in a fictional Middle Eastern country called, Irzikistan. The country was lightly occupied by Russian forces, but after regular terrorist attacks on Russia by militant extremists from Irzikistan, the leadership made the drastic decision to kill all the citizens of the town, militant or not.

The unrelenting forces of the Russian army poured into the streets killing anyone in sight. The violent content was palpable as the citizens were shot, dragged, bombed, stabbed and gassed. The most disturbing moment for me was realizing what character you would play amidst this chaos. It was that of a nine-year-old girl who was scurrying to safety with her father guiding the way. You ran past bodies that would claw for help and children who lay suffocating on the floor. It was difficult to face these realities of war so head on, and even more so that you were doing it from the perspective of this innocent child.

Guided by your father you make your way into your home, where your older brother, 11, is hiding. The moment of relief is short lived as a soldier breaks in, brandishing a gun. Your father tries to fight but is left shot and bleeding while you and your brother scurry to safety. It is now up to you, a nine-year-old girl, to do what you can. We watched as the gameplay showed the girl picking up a screwdriver and repeatedly stabbing the soldier until they finally killed him. Returning to their father the kids watch as he dies in front of them, with his final words simply being “survive”.

It’s a terrible reality to say the least, as the kids put on gas masks and attempt to sneak their way past the soldiers out of the town, passing by friends and relatives’ dead bodies on the way out.

A story that couldn’t be told but that had to be shown

I sat in the chair, wondering – what will the world think of this? How would all this violence be perceived? Infinity Ward is not going down the safe path with this story. Rather, they are pushing a narrative which I wasn’t sure I wanted to see.

The more I reflect on it, however, the more I understand why it’s so important to show. When playing a campaign, you’re usually the hero who completes the mission and gains a reward at the end. It’s the safe route. In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the story is not going to head in that direction. Rather, it’s going to show you how messed up warfare can be and why those that come back from it alive can be so deeply scarred.

After the hometown mission was showcased, the lights came on and the Infinity Ward team took to the floor. They gave us a second, almost to let what we had just witnessed sink in. The silence was broken when they went on to explain why they had decided to tell this story and take this overall direction with Modern Warfare. The team believes that gaming is one of the only mediums that will be able to offer the public a real perspective of the atrocities of war. They feel passionately that they are able to provide more perspective to what we might only see in the news, view on a live leak or see on our timeline where we’re sheltered from the chaos. The team believes that they have a responsibility to lift part of the curtained-veil up and give us a peak at what lies behind it.

The old adage is that ignorance is bliss. There is however, an important reminder to us knowing how morally conflicting warfare can be. I’m rather pleased to see that the Infinity Ward team are taking this direction with their story; it’s real, violent and unforgiving.

How they portray violence, however, will be a key factor in determining how the narrative is perceived. Jacob Minkoff, the campaign gameplay director, said that they are using the the ‘Jaws not Saw’ comparison when drawing the line of violence that is displayed. The team want to give you an emotional jolt rather than a prolonged visual disturbance. It’s a tightrope that they admitted is tough to walk on at times, especially when they must tell the story in a persistent world of chaos.

We were escorted out of the Infinity Ward Studios and back to our vehicles. On the way back, I turned to the foreign representatives behind me and we discussed the game at length before arriving back at our accommodation and returning to our vows of embargoed silence.

One thing that we all had in common on the way in, was that we were going to visit a studio that played a big part of lives growing up. We met a studio that had become more mature and hellbent on showing us exactly how so with every facet of their new game.

It’s quite understandable why this Call of Duty couldn’t be a sequel or prequel to the franchise that helped define. It’s a brand-new title that looks, feels and sounds different to anything that came before, creating a game that truly does live up to the title of Modern Warfare.

Last Updated: May 30, 2019

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