After the slightly off-the-wall Black Ops 4 — which featured a time travel-themed zombie mode and Fortnite-style battle royale — Call of Duty is making the jump back to reality for its next release. Today, developer Infinity Ward officially announced Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, a reboot of the long-running sub series with an intense focus on gritty realism.
Unlike BO4, the new Modern Warfare will indeed have a single-player campaign, and it’s the main focus for the reveal today. As you might guess from the name, it’s not a direct sequel to 2011’s Modern Warfare 3, but instead a soft reboot that kicks off a new storyline with a few familiar, returning characters. The campaign will be split into two halves: in one you’ll play as a Tier 1 operator, a special forces soldier, and in the second part you’ll take on the role of a rebel fighter in the Middle East.
One of the goals of the game, and its dual-perspective storyline in particular, is to show various viewpoints of a conflict. “We are telling a story about modern war in the real world,” says Jacob Minkoff, the single-player design director on Modern Warfare. “If we whitewash it, if we backpedal from it, if we show a world where the heroes fight the terrorists and win, you never see the impact on the average person, the collateral damage, or the morally gray situations that soldiers themselves have to face.”
The shift seems aimed at regaining some of the grit and, at times, controversial appeal of the original Modern Warfare franchise, which mixed action movie theatrics with more politically aware plotlines. Starting with 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the series set itself apart as one willing to take risks, like the disturbing “No Russian” terrorism scene in Modern Warfare 2 that urged players to take part in an airport civilian massacre, or the various instances in which players were put in the shoes of victims of nuclear attacks unfolding in real time.
“This Modern Warfare has a much broader variety of emotions.”
Call of Duty lost its ability to both shock and impress with its single-player campaigns as years went on and the series jumped further into the future and borrowed more science fiction elements. The scattershot approach ultimately dulled its narrative mode until, with Black Ops 4, Activision and developer Treyarch decided to remove it altogether. But the Modern Warfare reboot is an attempt to reestablish Call of Duty as a vehicle for strong storytelling.
Part of the shift to a more contemporary story means a larger focus on realism in virtually every aspect of the game. Modern Warfare was built using a new, purpose-built engine, and features a frankly absurd level of detail. The game makes extensive use of photogrammetry in particular, a technology that allows artists to scan real-world objects to create virtual approximations. In Modern Warfare, this means that almost everything you see in the game looks lifelike, from guns to brick walls — the team at Infinity Ward even scanned an entire tank into the game.
This combination of contemporary storytelling and incredible realism can make for some truly tense and uncomfortable experiences. Last week at Infinity Ward, I was able to experience two scenes from the game in a hands-off demo, and both were harrowing. In the first, after a terrorist attack at Piccadilly Circus, a group of soldiers track down the attackers to a small, cramped townhouse in central London. What followed was a methodical killing of everyone in the building. Well-armed soldiers moved through every room and floor, shooting normal-looking folks in bedrooms and kitchens. At the end of the scene, the soldiers are searching for evidence on an upper floor, and you can hear a baby inside of the house screaming in the background.
The second scenario was a flashback, showing the early life of one of the rebel characters. Set 20 years ago, it takes place in a seemingly small Middle Eastern village in the midst of a military attack, while the character controls a young girl following her older brother in search of safety. You mostly hide, sneaking past soldiers through small hidden spaces, but you can’t help but see and hear the carnage around you. At one point, the siblings work together to kill a determined soldier and it’s an absolutely brutal experience, as they use makeshift weapons, including a screwdriver, to take down their attacker. It’s prolonged and exhausting; I felt the tension and I wasn’t even playing.
Of course, the whole game won’t be like this — the developers at Infinity Ward say there will be plenty of more traditional shooter scenarios, in addition to the typical array of multiplayer modes. But according to Minkoff, these kinds of darker, more unsettling moments are necessary for accurately portraying modern conflict. “I do think that the point of art is to hold up a lens to life, and give people a new perspective on it,” he says, adding that “this Modern Warfare has a much broader variety of emotions that it makes you feel.”
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