Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019): An Analysis

I was rather excited when I picked up Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019) on opening day. It has been nearly a decade since Modern Warfare 3 came out, and I was interested to see what this supposed reboot would bring to the table.

After Modern Warfare 3, Call of Duty kept pushing and pushing further into science fiction, with 2017’s WWII as the outlier by being set during, well…World War 2.

Then the series jumped forward again the following year and ditched single player in Black Ops 4. So with a return to both single player and the setting that made Call of Duty the household name it is, I was looking forward to it.

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Modern Warfare (2019) takes the characters from the original game from 2007 and updates them for the present day. (Source: callofduty.fandom.com)

I wasn’t the only one. At the time of writing the reveal trailer for Modern Warfare sits at over thirty-three million views, with a 99.7% positive like-bar. That is phenomenal. The game has received generally favourable reviews, despite some controversy over rewriting history about locations and atrocities mentioned in-game.

I’ll be going on a whistle-stop tour of everything I felt during the campaign, so there will be some spoilers. It is less of a review and more of an impression. Enjoy!

“Let’s Do Dis!” – A Look At The New Modern Warfare

Modern Warfare was a sensation back in 2007. While games set in a modern conflict had existed before then, nothing had really grabbed hold of the zeitgeist aside from the sci-fi romp Halo 3 two months earlier.

It was clearly a market that wanted something before it knew what ‘it’ was. MW1 was both a crazy power fantasy willed into existence to satiate public opinion on two Middle East conflicts that had outlived their welcome, but also a brutal critique on the nature of said conflicts and the forces that conducted them. The new Modern Warfare continues the former thread, but never follows through on the latter.

While MW1 had major set pieces take place on highways, dusty streets, and palaces (all iconic imagery of both invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan), the new Modern Warfare tries to echo more recent events with levels set in urban areas as a first responder, suburban anti-terror operations, and protecting an embassy from waves of enemies.

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A night-time raid on a house in Camden Town is tense and thrilling, with tight corners and hidden enemies. (Source: escapistmagazine.com)

It feels odd to play some of these missions as the game is obviously making references to certain real-world events (anyone who says that “The Embassy” mission is not a reference to Benghazi is just wrong, plain and simple) because when someone says “terrorist”, these are the first things that come to mind; atrocities and rabid hordes.

But this isn’t new. The Modern Warfare series has always used real life events to influence its campaign. After Somali pirates infamously took control of the Maersk Alabama freighter ship in mid 2009, the next modern CoD game, Modern Warfare 3, had a level set in a shipyard in Somalia.

MW1 had its Middle Eastern sections set in a nameless region, but by the time MW2 and MW3 rolled around they were much more upfront with their locations, with Afghanistan getting prominent billing as the first location of MW2. The new Modern Warfare creates a fictitious country to set part of its conflict in, Urzikstan (cos if its got a ‘Stan at the end it must be full of terrorists, right?) with the characters speaking Arabic, just to fill in another stereotype (and not say any of the other languages spoken in the bordering countries of Georgia, Russia, or Turkey).

We sadly don’t get much information on Urzikstan during the campaign. It is the background to a three-way war between Russia, freedom fighters (backed by the USA) and a terrorist group, Al-Qatala. It would have been interesting to see what the battle in Urzikstan was about, and what each group was fighting over.

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Despite being set on the Black Sea, Urzkistan is portrayed using the same desert-blasted cities synonymous with the War on Terror. (Source: forbes.com)

The whole game is like this, no narrative fluff to give flavour or even context, it is just a succession of scenes ripped from the headlines. An action game like this can get away with exposition in the form of mission briefings, but here “show don’t tell” has been skewed so much that we aren’t shown why we are fighting, just that we are.

I only learnt that the Russians invaded Urzikstan to stop terrorists heading into Russia from a loading screen. It would have been good to know that before the game dropped me into a firefight and told me to shoot all the Russians on sight.

The invasion plot gets even more ridiculous when it turns out the Russian leader, General Barkov, has apparently got so much influence over the Russian Government that they simultaneously endorse his actions and believe he has gone rogue. It’s another reductionist quality brought over from the original game, “These are ultra-nationalists, not like regular Russians. These are only the bad ones.”

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The player takes over a child fighting for her life during the initial Russian invasion, using a pair of scissors to defend herself. (Source: gamerant.com).

At least the game deals with its Arabic characters better (relatively speaking). There is a split between the freedom fighters and the terrorist organisation Al-Qatala. It’s better that having all enemies as the monolithic Arab ‘other’, dressed in identikit robes and turbans that MW1 ignited. But again, we have no reason other than a short freeform poem read by bad guy “The Wolf” at the beginning of the game telling us what Al-Qatala’s aims are. It is mentioned during “The Embassy” that Al-Qatala was once supported by the West, but it is never addressed again in-game.

On the freedom fighters side, having their leader be a kickass woman was a charming turn. Come to think of it, a lot of the characters are rather refreshing. The main British character, Kyle Garrick (who is revealed to be fan favourite character Gaz at the end of the game) is Black British, which adds a nice bit of diversity to the series and the industry (I can think of only one other Black British character in gaming, that being Dudley in Street Fighter IV).

The main American character, CIA operative “Alex”, (his name is always in quotations, which is cute) has some good chemistry with rebel leader Farah, giving them a few more shades that just “Gruff Military Type #147” and “Silent Female Warrior #12” Captain Price has a nice display of softer tones when coaching Garrick, with Barry Sloane doing a fantastic job of replicating the iconic Billy Murray voice from the original game but putting his own spin on the character.

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From L to R: “Alex”, Cpt. Price, Kyle “Gaz” Garrick, and Farah, the main characters of Modern Warfare (2019). I would love to see these characters again in the next game. (Source: metro.co.uk)

But apart from these isolated scenes, most of the rest of the game veers from scene to scene trying to outdo itself on shock value. The opening warning labels of CoD have almost become a staple of the series in of itself. Ever since MW2 let you shoot up an airport, the series has been trying to make a level that is guaranteed to send tabloids into apoplectic rage.

In the new Modern Warfare we have terror attacks in Piccadilly Circus, chemical warfare, child soldiers, a waterboarding mini-game, and play Russian Roulette as part of an interrogation. Another part that ticked me off were the American Marines cheering and oo-rahing like a bunch of drunken fratboys as they gun down and blow up bad guys, without a hint of self-awareness.

MW1 had some, shall we say, morally questionable scenes. One that sticks with me has secondary villain, Khaled Al-Asad, tied to a chair as Captain Price beats him to a pulp. However, one dramatic scene that is remembered from the original game is a nuclear weapon going off and killing the playable character. It was shocking, but didn’t feel as uncomfortable as threatening a man’s unarmed wife and son with a loaded pistol, something which I did during the campaign of the new title. You are able to skip the torture in one scene, but all it does is fade to black and skips to the next part.

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The player threatens the wife and son of a terrorist in a bid to trade intelligence for their safety. (Source: gamerant.com)

And yet the game seems to just brush it off without lingering. In the original Modern Warfare the SAS toughs are seen as violent thugs, ready to throw allies off cliff edges and repeatedly stab enemies in an act of mutilation. In the new story, they still have that ruthless streak but it is moralised in dialogue by them saying that the world needs people morally questionable people to act. It feels even weirder when I realised that we weren’t playing as a squad of SAS or US Marines, but just a ragtag collection of shooters. Captain Price is seemingly known throughout the military world and can be called by a CIA handler to help kill some terrorists on his off days.

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The great moustachioed one returns, seemingly because he had nothing better to do than shoot some foreign types on his holiday. (Source: gamespot.com).

Part of the reason Call of Duty gained prominence when it first came out was that the player was part of a squad and wasn’t a one-man-army. In the new Modern Warfare quite a few of the missions feel like we are fighting entire battalions by ourselves.

The game pulls me in two different directions. It looks beautiful, sounds great, is responsive, and the acting is phenomenal, but nearly everything that is wrapped around the game puts me off. And while it seems to want to be taken seriously, it starts throwing out memes and references to the original such as reusing the iconic lines, “check your corners,” and “your fruit-killing skills are remarkable”. The references weren’t even in the lighter scenes, thrown in the middle of a terrorist event and stealth mission as a nudge and a wink.

Even still, I am excited by the return to the modern day. I enjoyed the original Modern Warfare Trilogy and enjoyed the Medal of Honor reboot that was set during the 2001 Afghanistan invasion.

I want to see where the series goes after this, but this time it just wasn’t my type.

 

Banner Photo Source: game4u.co.za

How Hitman Challenged My Attitude About Violence

I’ve recently been replaying Hitman: Blood Money in an effort to gear up for my eventual play through of Hitman 2016. I hadn’t played a Hitman game in some time, so I took a little while to get a feel for the controls again.

I spent around half an hour learning the recoil and range of the trademark Silverballer pistols, perfecting a few of the timing “hacks” to speed up killing/sneaking animations and just generally remembering placements of guards and patrol routes that I could exploit. Once I had re-calibrated my console controls I jumped into the game proper and went merrily on my way, sticking clowns in wood chippers and feeding circus performers to their pet sharks.

As well as replaying the game for a recap of the series, I had wanted to talk about violence for a third and final time in games. I had already looked at Assassin’s Creed and L.A. Noire, for their displays at violence and I thought Hitman might be a good game to finish the mini-series on. And the idea to write about Hitman hit me on this playthrough.

On this playthrough I had decided to ramp up the difficulty to the highest setting, Professional. I had yet to complete the achievement “5 Professional Silent Assassins” awarded for completing five levels with the “Silent Assassin” rating on the Professional difficulty (kind of self-explantory) and so I aimed to complete the achievement this time around. “Silent Assassin” is the best rating in the game. To fulfill it you have a set of guidelines including things like; not having your cover blown, no witnesses, only killing your targets, and many, many more rules.

I had completed a few levels on Rookie and Normal difficulties and getting the “Silent Assassin” rating, so I decided to use similar strategies on the higher difficulty setting. I jumped into the mission “A New Life” since I knew the perfect way to achieve “Silent Assassin” and played through the level. And this is the level that inspired this post.

Hitman: Blood Money And The Death Of Innocents

The mission “A New Life” has player character Agent 47 heading to sunny California to kill a former Cuban mob boss, Vinny “Slugger” Sinistra, who has “turned” and entered the witness protection program. The hit takes place in Sinistra’s gated community while his house is being monitored and patrolled by at least twenty FBI agents. It is a piece of cake.

Alongside killing Vinnie, 47 must retrieve a piece of microfilm hidden in Mrs. Sinistra’s necklace. However, Mrs. Sinistra counts as an innocent, so if we are to harm her it must be accidental therefore leaving no connection between the crime and us.

The most straightforward and infamous way to do this is to obtain some lighter fluid from the Sinistra’s garden shed and douse the barbeque set and sit back and watch Mrs. Sinistra prepare lunch. After she is burnt to a crisp we can simply walk up to her corpse and retrieve the film.

So I dutifully did my job; blew Vinnie’s brains out and set his spouse on fire. I finished the mission only to realise that I had not achieved “Silent Assassin” instead getting “Professional”, the rank below. So I went back in and took a more methodical, slower approach.

On the second approach I decided to play dress up. One of the more humorous aspects of the Hitman series is that although 47 is a towering bald assassin with a barcode tattoo on the back of his head, he can pretty much throw on any disguise and get away with it. So, as I got back into the Sinistra’s home I stealthily “acquired” the Pool Boy’s uniform and equipped it. The Pool Boy is having an affair with Mrs. Sinistra and after I had donned the outfit the wife told me to follow her upstairs. Since Mrs Sinistra had been day-drinking, she promptly threw up in her bathroom and then fell asleep and leaving me to take the microfilm necklace as she peacefully rested.

Then I proceeded to blow Vinnie’s brains out and complete the mission, earning “Silent Assassin”.

On all my playthroughs of “A New Life”, I had never taken the Pool Boy approach. I had never thought to open up my creative mind and critical thinking and think about how to acquire the necklace differently. I had always gone for the more “fun” barbeque approach. And it started to horrify me at how nonchalantly I had killed someone because it was “fun” and “easy”.

Another mission later on, “You Better Watch Out…”, had a similar sobering affect. One of the targets is in a pool with a glass bottom overhanging a mountain outcrop. If you mange to get below the pool and shoot the floor then the target falls through…along with the five or so party revellers with him. Again, it had been “fun” and “easy”, but after passing by the innocent victims that had fallen through the pool, my brain started to question it.

So let’s think about it…

As mentioned previously, it wasn’t the brutality or the bloodshed that affected me (like it did in L.A. Noire). It was that it look little to no effort on my part…and without much coercion. The game gave me the tools and sat back as I played a violent fantasy.

A similar event happened in Spec Ops: The Line with the infamous white phosphorus scene. In his analysis of the game, Lucas Raycevick states a similar feeling,

“What unnerved to the core me was how casually I did it [used white phosphorous (an outlawed weapon)]. How routine it was to fart a laptop screen and play polka dots with missiles, exterminating white blips that may as well have been zombies.” (17:20).

Another comparable gameplay event, the AC130 gunship level “Death From Above” in Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was critiqued for this similar ease of dispatching of life. Journalist Quintin Smith, talking about the mission on Charlie Brooker’s How Videogames Changed The World, says this,

“It is tremendously disturbing because you can’t make out what these figures are. It could almost be a statement, but it is not. It is just there so you can have fun and that’s very dark.” (1:26:10).

But with the white phosphorous and the AC130 gunship, there isn’t any choice. The lack of alternative gameplay can undermine any statement that might be trying to be addressed, they were forced into that situation with no way out, other than turning off the console (which is an interesting thought but counter-intuitive because…you made the game, so why would you want people to turn it off?). But with Hitman: Blood Money I could have taken many different non-violent routes, but valued the easiest route rather than the less violent.

Conclusion

Thinking of the game as a whole, Hitman: Blood Money has a continual theme of unnecessary violence against innocents. Throughout the game a rival firm is mentioned in the end mission newspapers (the newspapers are how you find your score/how good of an assassin you were). In these margin stories it seems the rival assassins have no care for innocent life and will murder anyone who gets in their way.

Even the first assassination of the game is meant to spark the realisation that murder and assassination is not meant to be nice and “fun”. The first hit, Mr. “Swing King”, is not fully guilty for the crime that he has been targeted for and begs for his life after you confront him.

Warning: the following dialogue could be very disturbing with themes of murder. Reader discretion is advised.

“Please, haven’t I suffered enough? Don’t you think I know how much suffering I’m responsible for? I can’t sleep. I haven’t slept in…the guilt I feel. I’m so sorry, I know I can never…I’ll pay you. Twice what your client is paying, triple, please, I’m a [inaudible, I think he says broke or good] man. All I want is a second chance. Everything I ever did I did for love…please…I see it in your eyes. You’re not a bald man, uh, a bad man. You can’t just kill me…please…ah, no, don’t…please, please, I beg you, I haven’t done anything. Please, I don’t wanna die.”

Note: I recorded that scene on my phone and play it back a few times to get the full quote and I’m not going to lie, the dialogue and delivery messed me up. I had to take half an hour after writing the quote just to compose myself.

Yet we kill him anyway because it is what we do. We continually bringing destruction and death to subroutines and AIs until the job is done. Like 47 we are “born” into the game world to kill; we have no morality system to shape us, only a number with seven zeros after it and two words signalling if we have done a “good job”.

So while I love the Hitman series I have to admit that it has broken me. And all it took was the absence of violence. The lack of a kill made me realise how much it is pushed within the games I enjoy and how much I’ve been conditioned to go for it.

And that is very dark indeed.

 

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