Image from Heavy.com
The sixteenth main entry in the Call of Duty series is a frustrating accomplishment. I want to give it praise for returning to a darker, more appropriately skeptical outlook on war. I want to and shall applaud it for its new and improved movement and cover system. I want to give it props for having an enjoyable if necessarily at times soul-smothering story mode. I want to pat it on the back for making me largely care about its multiplayer mode’s offerings, now and in the future.
I can’t fully do so for a number of reasons.
Let’s start with the single-player story mode which makes its welcome return following an absence with last year’s Black Ops 4 and for being a proper tone setter. The game is a re-imagining style reboot when it comes to the world’s cast of characters. Many of them are of the same name, appearance and personality as the characters in the original Modern Warfare Trilogy.
Captain Price and his amazing muttonchops make a triumphant return alongside others that you might recognize from the past like Nikolai, Gaz, Kamarov and a few others which are name-dropped specifically to hype the veteran players for the follow-up game. It’s like a reincarnation which places this cast into a contemporary state of affairs that is, stated plainly,F***ed.
Call of Duty has dealt with the cold harshness of warfare before. The original Modern Warfare from 2007 had a similar uncertainty about the way conflict was being fought in its time, a far cry from the still brutal but comparatively straightforward period of WW2, in which the original CODs were set. In the original, you disabled a building’s power making the soldiers inside more or less helpless from you with your night vision goggles.
You controlled a variety of heavy duty armaments from an AC-130 gunship that would obliterate utterly doomed soldiers from miles above in the air. Seeing them all in a thermal vision view screen made it back then, the closest a video game had come to recreating something in real life to utter realism. The dejected, even bored sounding crew of the gunship as they commented and confirmed your aerial slaughter was just as unnerving.
The uncomfortable stuff that comes with war as it now is wasn’t limited to your enemies. The standout moment for most regarding Modern Warfare 1 was when the American soldier you were playing, along with every other American soldier during a battle in an unspecified Middle Eastern city, gets nuked.
The controllable soldier, Sgt. Jackson, emerged from the wrecked helicopter he was in after the blast hit and spends his final moments looking around an utterly ruined city crumbling into dust. At least when it comes to Call of Duty’s Modern Warfare subseries, they have handled the cold indifference war can bring to friend and foe in current times well before.
Modern Warfare 2019 is more committed to making the waging of war as hellish, chaotic and morally dubious than ever before. In terms of eliciting sadness and discomfort, it is the most successful it has ever been. You will fight terrorists on the crowded streets of London, dodging civilians and killing suicide bombers before it is too late.
You will see fellow soldiers that seem to have more personality than an average grunt die suddenly and without fanfare, save for the dance their bodies make getting pelted with bullets. The night-vision building breaches have been overhauled to be even more disturbing than anything the original MWs could do at the time.
The animations of human bodies and lighting systems that come with the new, impressive graphics engine make the floor-by-floor sweeps of hostiles, some in urban environments, both nerve-wracking and ethically concerning. The graphics, which still look distinct enough from real life, look almost photorealistic with night-vision.
If you’ve seen Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which culminates with the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s Pakistani compound, then you can picture what the experience is like.
The silenced guns have a piercing, whistling quality that emphasizes the weight of what you are doing. Yes, you are penalized for shooting innocents but the enemies look exactly like civilians. Some are female, and one second you’re holding your fire because why wouldn’t you? The next, that female grabs a gun and then it’s a matter of reflex.
I have largely praised the weight that Modern Warfare 2019 reintroduces into the subject matter so far. The execution is not always as professional as the soldiers you control. There has been a lot of criticism, not so much in the horrible things presented in Modern Warfare as that is to be expected with a game honestly showcasing what conflict is like in the 21st century.
Bombings on civilian targets, gas attacks. torture through waterboarding, executing civilians, it would be criticized justly for omitting those harsh facets. The framing of these awful acts is where I begin to say to the game, “Now, wait a minute there, bucko.”
The main antagonists consist of the Russian army and Al-Qatala, which is a fictional terrorist group based out of a fictional middle-eastern country called Urzikstan. It is also an offshoot of a more morally agreeable guerrilla movement led by freedom fighter Farah and her brother Hadir.
The Russians presented in the game are not uniformly antagonistic as some of them are unambiguously allies of the British and Americans like Nikolai and General Kamarov.
The main threat comes from General Barkov, who is responsible for crimes against humanity on the Urzik people that led to the creation of the radical, isolationist terror group that Al-Qatala is. This is best represented by flashback chapters where you play as Farah, first as a young girl 20 years ago and as a younger woman ten years ago.
It is in these moments that the brutal nature of this fictional take on the Russian army is best portrayed. 1999 Farah gets stuck in rubble following a bombing by the invading Russian army. Why is the post-Soviet Russian army invading? To stamp out the supposed terrorist threat from Urzikstan, which may well have been started by Russia encroaching or meddling in the country’s sovereign affairs.
This part can be inferred but never is stated clearly enough. Young Farah sees her dead mother in the rubble until she calls for help and is rescued by a first response team and her father. Right afterwards, the Russians bomb again in a “double-tap” maneuver and ground infantry rides in, gunning Urzik citizens with impunity.
If that wasn’t heartless enough, they then start throwing poison gas which starts Farah’s lifelong hatred of chemical weapons and becomes a major plot point to boot. That same day and mission, she loses her father, kills a man for the first time, sees dead children and animals among the victims from the gas and has her first confrontation with the man responsible for all the suffering, Barkov himself.
The other flashback Farah level involves her in prison, being starved of food and water, waterboarded and being psychologically toyed with one of her fellow female freedom fighters life hanging in the balance.
So, what is the problem then of seeing the butchery of the Russians in this game? That is because a considerable number of the Russian army’s war crimes can be directly connected to American war crimes. That is one good way to understand how Russian players of the game have been down-voting the game’s critical rating on sites like Metacritic.
Where to begin? America has certainly waterboarded at Guantanamo Bay. We have committed outright murder of civilian life in the wars we fight in the Middle East. One of the more infamous examples was when an American drone crew fired on a group of innocent civilians, some that included children. One of the operators called the targets “fun-sized terrorists”.
Then, when a first responder medical team showed up at the site, the operators proceeded to strike them too, in what is called a “double-tap.” I believe it was an incident like this that was part of what Chelsea Manning whistleblowed to the public. There is also the “highway of death” mission set in present day.
In this chapter, CIA agent Alex heads to a overlook point with Farah and Hadir at the highway to set up an ambush. The ambush is located on a highway riddled with thousands of destroyed vehicles which contained years ago Urzik soldiers and civilians, all slain by Russian bombing. Again, what is the problem?
During the first Persian Gulf War, back in the early 90s, Americans bombed an Iraqi highway full of retreating soldiers. Many of those fleeing were also civilian. The highway of death can be considered a pre-War on Terror example of an American war crime.
So Infinity Ward, the American developers of Modern Warfare 2019, crafted a narrative experience where many criminal military actions that can be pinned on American forces in the real world are then presented being done by Russian forces. I am not about to say that Russia’s armed forces have not themselves committed war crimes in the past, Soviet Union or not. They have.
But a narrative that focuses on skeptical critique of contemporary conflict doesn’t have the courage to throw that critique back at a country that is part of that horrid, ongoing cycle. Now you can see where the latest Call of Duty fails, at least in this side of the game’s many offerings. Perhaps it is the shared worldview of the California based game studio who are unaware or uninformed on America’s record on modern warfare.
It’s not as if these facts are hidden or can’t be easily researched by those willing to try. Modern Warfare 2019 would’ve been more of a powerful and meaningful experience in its examinations if one of the villains of the story had come from the West. Perhaps having the American playable character Alex be more acknowledging of both his country and his goddamn agency’s (CIA) complicity could’ve gone a long way in the impact this game will leave.
Instead, we get some light token acknowledgement that what he does is “illegal.” What a shame. True, some of the actions of the side you fight on are directly addressed as questionable, even wrong, but not on the same macro level that I feel could have gone a long way.
At least the writing, voice acting, pacing, variety of levels, stuff to do, scenarios and music is all top level, so I’ll throw the campaign a bone there at least.
When it comes to multiplayer, it is for my relatively “not in the know” tastes quite good, that is handicapped by some problems that can and should be fixed down the road. You have a wide range of established multiplayer modes that have been the series’ bread and butter since at least the 2007 Modern Warfare if not earlier. New additions are hit or miss with the definite hit being “gunfight.”
Gunfight has two players of two teams on opposing sides given randomized weapons and equipment on opposite sides of small maps. Then you have to take the other team out in a short time span. If the clock runs out, then a marker will show up in the middle of the map and the players who get there first and with the most remaining health win the round. There are six rounds.
This is an excellent new addition for many reasons. One, the randomization of what you will receive means that your skill or comfort with one class of weapon will not always be a factor in your success. You may well have to adapt on the fly to using a sniper rifle when you are more talented with a pistol or assault rifle. The small nature of the maps means the enemies will easily find you and vice versa so no time at all will be wasted.
The grabbag nature of your loadouts per round can also give you practice for all the weapons in the armory, including weapons you are far away from unlocking as you level up through playing other multiplayer modes. Even better, using those weapons will also count to leveling up the weapons up themselves.
Gunsmith is a feature involving the gradual upgrading and maintaining of your unlocked weapons. It is very robust in MW 2019 for there is a surprising level cap to most of your guns, some getting as high I’ve heard as a sixtieth level. There is a wide range of attachments that improve your accuracy, movement, range and so forth that help create a welcome sense of personalization to your armaments and equipment.
Combine that with unlocking “operators” through completing ingame challenges which further create a sense of molding a set character to control in the multiplayer arena. These operators add nothing but cosmetic variety in terms of their dialogue in the matches, special animations when you perform an “execution” on another player and really, that ‘s it.
My favorite operator so far is a French-Korean woman soldier, which I guess is a thing. If there was a French-Asian soldier to play as, I imagine she would be French-Vietnamese, but what do I know, really?
The game’s biggest new addition to multiplayer is the “ground war” mode which is basically a somewhat scaled down version of Battlefield’s style of multiplayer. In Ground War, vehicles such as tanks and APCs are more common, the maps are bigger and the main focus is capturing and holding up to five spread out control points. That is basically Battlefield’s style.
I don’t really mind, as seeing Call of Duty’s faster paced formula play in this larger playground is quite novel, if hampered by how the series faster rate of killing an opponent and vice versa, called “time to kill” is faster than Battlefield’s.
That means in the larger, open areas, you can be more easily picked off by snipers or general fire without ever being able to know who’s hitting you until it is too late. Being able to hit back against targets that are up on five story buildings is also a problem too.
The third slice of content is Spec Ops, which has a light not all that important sprinkling of story that continues the narrative after the campaign’s conclusion. It is a set of “operations”, with set objectives spread out over a large map that takes several individual multiplayer maps and fuses them into one.
With three other players and I strongly recommend playing with friends and not strangers, you fight your way across endless hordes of AI enemies to complete the objectives and win the day. It provides a grueling challenge that is not any real fun by yourself.
While unlockables, such as multiplayer operators, do create some incentive to dig into spec ops, it is not as rewarding as the other two modes can be. Either find some friends, have a headset or don’t bother.
The issues that I feel Infinity Ward can remedy in due time are as follows. Fix and stabilize the network connections, as drop in framerate and the game temporarily freezing has happened far more often than I care for, if I would care for it all.
The most egregious problem is that there seems to be some bug in the system involving “active missions”. These relate to a series of challenges that can be activated one at a time and then accomplished doing a certain set of actions such as” kill 20 enemies with this class of weapon or with this type of attachment.”
You unlock experience, special items for personalization, and even special variations of weapons with preset color scheme, stats and attachments. Only problem is that for some unexplained reason, the system is bugged where whenever I select a mission to attempt, it unactivates it as soon as I complete a round of multiplayer, making any progress toward that mission be erased.
Until that problem is fixed, then I will have to ignore active missions as there is no point. A shame, as it gives extra incentive to practice in certain ways of approaching multiplayer.
I wish a bright, better future for this year’s Call of Duty, a feeling I haven’t really had since perhaps Black Ops II all the way back in 2012. I want this to be a successful return to form for the series, and at least I can say for one of the three game studios that make entries in the franchise, they are in the right direction. But they are not there yet.
I can only hope they build on what they started with the returning, re-imagined characters and their story in the next Modern Warfare entry. That is not something Infinity Ward can fix now, if they can or will fix at all. They can improve and respond to problems the multiplayer and maybe Spec Ops has. Honestly, having a Call of Duty’s multiplayer lifespan of dominance extend beyond a year before next year’s game overshadows it would be appreciated too.
But under a shady and money-hungry publisher like Activision, I don’t know if IW has an opportunity to refine their game beyond a year. And that my friends, may be the worst shame of all.