“We’re painfully aware of the tropes,” Infinity Ward co-studio head and creative director Pat Kelly said to a group of journalists all huddled together in a small, darkened theater. The title “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” was projected on the screen behind him.
Perched on a stool off to the side of the room, Kelly looked more like an independent filmmaker presenting an art piece at a local festival than the head of one of the most celebrated first-person shooter studios on the planet. The mood was borderline funereal. Whether or not the tone for this press event was geniusly manufactured by Kelly and his PR team, it certainly set the precedent for what we were about to see.
An SUV makes its way through the busy streets of Piccadilly Circus in London. The player is inside. There’s chatter about an attack, but the civilians walking outside are happy and unaware of the turmoil in the truck. The SUV pulls up behind a car, and the player piles out alongside the rest of his squad. Guns are pointed, people are yelling—and then an explosion rips through the square in a fury of noise and fire.
Cut to a television screen showing security cam footage of the explosion. There’s a clear discrepancy between experiencing the attack and seeing it on TV, but the game doesn’t give you much time to consider that. Instead, the player is whisked away to a mission with Tier One operators, led by series regular and mustachioed mentor Captain Price. The team has located the terrorist cell behind the attack in a London townhouse, and the plan is to quietly raid the hideout, detain its leader, and stop another attack from happening.
The Infinity Ward team mentioned the website LiveLeak—which is known for posting violent and often disturbing videos, sometimes with sociopolitical significance—several times throughout the Modern Warfare presentation, and the “Townhouse” mission shows its influence. The player slowly approach the house with a half-dozen other Tier One operatives. Entering through a window, the player watches as Price detains a woman inside. As the operatives move through the house, the player, notably, isn’t leading the charge. They’re in the middle of the pack, following orders and moving with purpose. Hostiles are engaged in intense close-quarters combat. I swear at one point I can see an enemy’s eyes roll back into his head as he’s shot. Bullets whiz through doors and walls. It’s one of the most intimate and intense shootouts I’ve ever seen in a game, and I wasn’t even playing it.
“Jaws, not Saw” was a mantra repeated a handful of times as to the design philosophy behind what is a “reimagined” (not “rebooted”) Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. In other words, more intense and mature situations over those with high body counts. During the “Townhouse” mission, less than a dozen terrorists are killed, but those kills are as realistic and as disturbing as any I’ve seen in a video game.
Ripped from the headlines
There’s a good reason that 2019’s Call of Duty isn’t called Modern Warfare 4. And that’s because it isn’t a sequel.
In order to create a compelling narrative about modern warfare, the creative team behind the game—comprised of both original Modern Warfare developers and transfers from Naughty Dog—wanted to focus on provocative “ripped from the headlines” subject matter. Continuing from Modern Warfare 3’s narrative, in which New York City is nuked, would make it impossible to truly ground any direct continuation.
“If it was called Modern Warfare 4, it would be like, ‘O.K. What happens in the world after the nukes went off and after the Russians invaded America? Then what?” narrative director Taylor Kurosaki said. “There was really nowhere else to go [after Modern Warfare 3]. There were no relatable, human-scale stakes left in that world, so the best thing to do was take that storyline, put it to bed.”
It’s easy to forget, after a decade of zombie modes and over-the-top action setpieces, that Call of Duty was once better known for its hard-hitting, controversial narratives as it was for evolving multiplayer in first-person shooters. For some players, the story moments in 2007’s Modern Warfare are what really stand out. There’s the slow, dreadful execution of “The Coup.” There’s the shockingly impersonal AC-130 gunship run in “Death from Above.” And, of course, there’s the front row seat to a nuclear blast and its fallout in “Shock and Awe” and “Aftermath.”
As if the first two missions Infinity Ward demoed for us weren’t enough evidence that the focus was back on creating a compelling single-player experience, the third mission we watched, “Hometown,” drove that point, well, home. Servicing as a flashback for one of the game’s main characters, the demo of “Hometown” showed a young Middle Eastern girl witnessing a chemical attack on her village at the hands of Russian operatives. She and her brother are the only survivors, and together they attempt to make their way out of the city.
It’s the kind of mission that gives you pause, more because of its subject matter than anything else. To a certain extent, using real-life wartime experiences in video games has become destigmatized, but it’s still shocking to see a multibillion-dollar franchise use the reports of chemical attacks on civilians coming out of, say, Syria as story fodder.
“We didn’t approach this project lightly,” Kurosaki said. “We didn’t come to this with anything other than our eyes wide open. As a creator, I want to put something into the world that says something. These games can raise awareness about the world that we live in. You seem to know about airstrikes that have civilian casualties in places like Syria, but maybe some of our fans don’t. That’s a real power of this medium. Unlike a film, that can talk about heady subjects [like torture] in the text, in our game, you can be in the shoes of these characters.”
2019’s Modern Warfare promises to offer the kind of narrative diversity that made 2007’s Modern Warfare such a thrilling and unsettling experience. According to Kurosaki, there’s a mission involving a drone strike similar to “Death from Above,” and another mission where players will roll out with Bradley tanks. There will still be missions featuring all-out warfare, but it’s these intimate, personal missions that promise to make Modern Warfare the franchise’s most controversial title since Modern Warfare 2 and its “No Russian” mission.
What really helped drive home the realism and horror of the demos we watched was the overall visual and audio detail that’s going into bringing Modern Warfare to life. Most of that can be attributed to Infinity Ward’s focus on photogrammetry.
While photogrammetry isn’t a new technique, it’s come a long way since it was first introduced to gaming around six years ago. The basic idea is taking thousands of still images of a specific object and using that information to create a photorealistic render in the game.
To accomplish this, Infinity Ward not only set up an entire research team to pioneer a new version of the photogrammetry technique for inanimate objects but also built a photogrammetric studio in their basement to capture the likenesses of the game’s actors. The rig even captured Infinity Ward employees pretending to be dead bodies that will grimly fill out the game world.
None of this would even work, however, if it wasn’t for the game’s engine, which has been practically rebuilt to handle the strenuous task of rendering all this photographic detail as well as providing some revolutionary lighting techniques to bring details to life.
Volumetric lighting isn’t just a cool marketing term and high-end feature that Infinity Ward is throwing around in Modern Warfare; it’s a key component to the engine and gameplay, and even base models of current-gen consoles will be rendering it in real-time. The most impressive thing about the lighting, however, is the fact that thermal vision and night vision aren’t just filters. Actual infrared lighting models were created so that what you’re seeing with your goggles is realistically modeled based on the light’s wavelengths in a given scenario.
That might sound like overkill when putting a green filter over everything would be so much easier, but it speaks to Infinity Ward’s dedication to providing another evolutionary experience in the name of Call of Duty. If the game is going to touch on some heavy subject matter that actually reflects the tragedy and trauma in today’s news headlines, the least Infinity Ward can do is put some effort into portraying these events with as much accuracy as possible.
The uncomfortable realities of war
The most “modern” thing about 2019’s Modern Warfare might be its message that war isn’t clean and that nothing is as black and white as it seems, at least not anymore. One person’s revolutionary hero might be another person’s terrorist. Sure, that sentiment might not be so philosophically groundbreaking anymore, but it’s been a long time since a Call of Duty game has made such a bold statement.
“Who’s a terrorist is who the American government says are terrorists,” Kurosaki said, “and that line is a constantly moving line. There are rebel freedom fighters who maybe haven’t changed too much about their position in the world, who one day are labeled allies and the next day are added to the Foreign Terror Organization list. That’s a real thing that happens. Are you asking if you’re going to play as ISIS? Probably not anything like that, or even the fictional terrorist group that we’ve created. But if you’re a Tier One operator and you maybe overstep your bounds, you could be labeled a war criminal.”
In fact, the decisions you make on the field will factor into the gameplay, Kurosaki said.
“You could be responsible for a front page article written about your decisions. You’re going to have to make split-second decisions where the ramifications are keeping yourself safe, keeping your squadmates safe and being able to complete a mission. In a real military sense, those things are all on the line, and you’re going to have to discern between friend or foe in a split second.”
What we haven’t seen, however, is how the game’s multiplayer will respect this narrative. A lot has changed since 2009, when Modern Warfare 2 played up the horror of a mass shooting at an airport while also making a tactical nuke the ultimate show of dominance online. In the last decade, the world has become much more sensitive to how tragedy is portrayed in the media. There’s something weird about playing a game that both speaks to the ugliness of war and actively encourages you to kill as many players as possible in team deathmatch. That a Call of Duty game can once again be so complicated—both as a subject of criticism and as a critical piece itself—might even give it a stronger connection to the original Modern Warfare series than any sequel featuring Soap or Gaz ever could.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare launches on October 25th for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.