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.

 

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Why Battlefield 1’s “You Are Not Expected To Survive”…Doesn’t Work

I recently upgraded my console to the newest gen (PS4) after a good near decade of time with my Xbox 360. I bought a few games for the new console; Assassin’s Creed Unity (so I could pretend I was in an Alexandre Dumas novel), Mafia 3 (so I could drive around New Orleans), and finally Battlefield 1.

I’d never played a Battlefield game before apart from a few matches on a friend’s console of Bad Company 2. I always thought of Battlefield as a multiplayer-focused title so my interest was immediately turned off (local co-op is more my thing). Add to the fact that it was a continuation of a gritty, modern war aspect; nothing about the series got me hooked enough to play.

But with the announcement of Battlefield 1 being set in the First World War my interest was piqued. So I picked up the game and its probably the best thing I’ve played so far on my new system.

I was in love with time period (although annoyingly the game was focused on the latter part of the war to add as many machine guns as possible) and happy that the developers looked beyond the trenches of Western Europe. I was especially excited to see Gallipoli and Arabia make an appearance with a female Bedouin playable character in the latter section.

From a narrative perspective the change from sprawling epics to individual vignettes of War Stories is a stroke of genius, allowing the developers to move from battle to battle without having to tie it into each other. While the smaller stories mean you lose larger narrative structure making the ending feel flat, the end coda is a nice wrap up.

I just wish they had added more in connection with the DLCs, with battles on the Russian Front, or even better some from the Central Powers point of view (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottomans, and Bulgaria). This isn’t the Second World War with a clear bad guy on one side (so we are not playing as Nazis). If we want to talk about crappy stuff on the Allies side in WWI, Gallipoli and Arabia have you covered. Even the game acknowledges this with the final coda in the Arabian section (13:17).

But today I wanted to write about the opening of the game and how even though I like the start of Battlefield 1, the game bungles its hand and for me loses some impact. I am of course talking about, “You Are Not Expected To Survive.”

Battlefield 1 & Death As Inevitability

Many people hold up Battlefield 1’s opening as one of the most engaging bits of interactive media of the generation. As the game starts you are dropped into the boots of a member of the Harlem Hellfighters.

After a few lines telling us how many people fought and how world changing the “War To End All Wars” another line flashes up;

“What follows is frontline combat. You are not expected to survive.”

It’s an effective opening and conveys the game’s darker theme than other shooters as well as portraying the brutality and futility of some battles. BF1 carries this tone throughout the rest of the game with No Man’s Land during “Fall From Grace” being littered with soldiers (and rats), or the final push on “Cape Helles” showing the amount of deaths it took to take the hill.

However, I feel that telling the player that death is inevitable makes the prologue lose its shocking quality. Most players were probably the same as me, trying to fight for as long as they could, but eventually falling to a hail of bullets before quickly moving onto the next character.

The expectation of death (for me anyway) made me feel a little defeatist. What was the point of playing if I was just going to die anyway?

So, What Would Be Better?

I did some research into WWI deaths for this article, but nobody can really give a definitive answer to deaths in WWI due to the huge amounts of missing and unnamed soldiers.

History On The Net ranks it collectively as 2/3 soliders died. The official statistics are 6 million for the Entente Powers, and 4 million for the Central Powers.

But let’s take 2/3 as our number just for conveniences sake.

“What follows is frontline combat. Two out of every three soldiers in WWI died.”

Now, what that does is give a glimmer of hope to a player. As players we are conditioned to not dying in-game. That third, that 1/3, we think it will be us. So when we die and your character’s name flashes on screen it would hit much harder. This is a concept known as defamiliarization (breaking away from traditional forms to allow us to view things differently, such as being killed again and again in what should be a fun shooting game), and interestingly here is an academic dissection of the scene by Stuart Marshall Baker which discusses the idea in relation to the prologue. If we even wanted to go further the game could pit us in a battle where entire squads were wiped out such as The Somme or Passchendaele.

“What follows is frontline combat. Entire squads were wiped out in a single day.”

That still delivers a grim mood, but isn’t an absolute. You could still make it through and be one of the lucky ones.

I believe that giving us that inch of hope only to snatch it away would make for an effective and memorable opening. Obviously some of the gameplay would need to be changed. It would lose some effectiveness if players were allowed to pause and restart immediately after dying thinking that they could win the fight. Something similar happened with the “corrupted” section of Batman: Arkham Asylum when you meet Scarecrow (00:05-00:14). Anecdotal evidence aside, I know friends who went to go get their discs fixed because they thought it was a bug.

At the moment this seems like a bit of a pipedream, more theory without a real-world example. So let me show you a similar game (from the EA stable) that conveys a similar theme and makes it work.

Lets talk Medal Of Honor (2010).

Comparison: Medal Of Honor & The Looming Horror Of Death

I really liked the two Medal of Honor reboots, Warfighter and all. Part of it was the “Based On True Events” aspect; I found that to be an interesting and unique selling point.

Medal Of Honor in 2010 was set all during the first few days of the Invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, with the player switching between a behind-enemy-lines secret operative and a Ranger who was part of the larger invasion force.

In our first mission as the latter character, “Belly of The Beast”, our transport helicopter drops us into a firefight and we must make our way to another drop zone and set up a perimeter for a medical transport. We move through the hills and encounter enemies and old relics of the Russian invasion.

Another reason why I love this game is also highlighted in this mission; you are not always the pointman. Your character carries a massive machine gun, better for suppressive fire than leading the charge. It was a little change from the one-man-army approach of Call Of Duty and I really liked it. But I digress…

We get to end of the level where the drop zone is to be located; a large, flat plain. You are ambushed from the hills and you cower with your comrades in the only cover there is, a small hut in the middle of the plain. Your radio messenger tries to call in support as you try and keep enemies at bay.

This is the end of the level. If you haven’t been stocking up on ammo (by requesting ammo from your teammates, which destroys some of the tension) then you will be running dangerously low just like the rest of your team. As you pick up stray rifles from dead enemies and are forced to use your pistol you realise that there are too many enemies and that reinforcements won’t get there in time.

Your commander tells the radioman to call off reinforcements and you start to contemplate the end, fighting until every last bullet is gone.

Around ten seconds later rockets fly across the sky as a pair of Apache helicopters come to help you out by scaring away the enemies. You end up surviving by the skin of your teeth and go on to fight another day.

This scene works because instead of subverting our ideas of death at the start like Battlefield 1, it waits until the end to make that shock and reflection closer together.

We were not thinking that we were going to die (inside the story rather than dying as a “game over”) and having that few moments to allow that idea to sink in was a chilling and horrifying feeling, something that Battlefield 1’s opening line extinguished by making us aware of the inevitability of the situation.

Conclusion

Protagonist deaths have started to become a wider theme in gaming nowadays although many of them won’t have it during gameplay. One of the memorable ones is Call Of Duty, with Modern Warfare 2’s Roach being killed at the end of a level. But Roach’s death is during a cutscene with control taken away from the player, lessening the impact. The same happens with playable character Pvt. Allen during the infamous “No Russian” level, where he dies at the end during a cutscene.

Red Dead Redemption had a similar scene with player character John Marston being shot down during a last stand during the finale. However, there isn’t much lead into the scene, with the death/shooting being moved to a cutscene rather than during gameplay.

The closest scene that I can think of is Halo: Reach’s ending. Again, you know that death is unavoidable, all the ships have taken off without you and you are left to fight an endless wave of Covenant troops. But just before you die you take off your helmet and it fades to cutscene again just like all the other games I’ve mentioned.

Battlefield 1 is an improvement over these scenes by having death come at you during gameplay. But by telling us that it is coming I feel that it loses some of that punch it could have had.

I still love Battlefield 1 and I still think its probably my favourite game on my new system, but that opening, while still impactful may have reached greater heights by toying with us a little more.

 

Banner Photo Source: http://www.dice.se

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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