More than a decade after the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, developer Infinity Ward is returning to the game that made its franchise into an industry-dominating juggernaut. This year’s Call of Duty is, again, Modern Warfare–but it’s not a remake of the game that kicked off the trilogy in 2007. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2019 is a reimagining of the first game and brings with it some stark changes, like the addition of cross-play and moving away from the standard multiplayer season pass.
Infinity Ward revealed details about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s single-player campaign to journalists last week at its studio in California. During a lengthy presentation, developers explained that this isn’t a continuation of the Modern Warfare trilogy, because, in that world, there wasn’t much room to raise the stakes; Russia invaded the U.S., nuclear weapons exploded, and the series’ major characters had fought through it all (with some even dying along the way). Instead, Infinity Ward wanted to revisit some of Modern Warfare’s concepts without being beholden to the world the original trilogy created.
There are some returning elements, though. Captain Price is again a principal character in this new story, for instance. It seems as though this game will also concern Russian interactions with the Middle East, while enemies will include an ultranationalist group helping to execute terrorist attacks in major cities such as London. Apart from broad strokes, though, we don’t know much more about the story.
Studio narrative director Taylor Kurosaki and single player director Jacob Minkoff, who both came to Infinity Ward from the narrative-focused developer Naughty Dog, said they mean for this Modern Warfare to be more “gritty” and “mature,” with more relevance to today’s world.
“The world we live in right now is more complex than the world was in 2007, or 2009, or even 2011,” Kurosaki said during the presentation. “Even now the world that we live in, the battlefield is less defined than it’s ever been, and because it’s less defined and because enemies no longer really wear uniforms a lot of the time, that means that civilian collateral damage is a greater part of the equation more so now than it’s ever been. So what does that mean? It means we’re creating circumstances where, as storytellers, we are taking these characters, and we are putting them into complex situations with a lot of pressure on them, and how they respond to that pressure reveals their true nature.”
The morally gray areas of fighting a war are what Infinity Ward is looking to explore with Modern Warfare, Kurosaki said, as well as how soldiers respond to them and where they draw the lines separating what they are and aren’t willing to do. The team is pulling influences from Hollywood films that tell similar war stories, like The Hurt Locker, Lone Survivor, and American Sniper, and documentaries such as Last Men in Aleppo, Minkoff said.
The world we live in right now is more complex than the world was in 2007, or 2009, or even 2011.”
The game will deal with scenarios that are “ripped from the headlines” to make the game more relevant in our current world. That doesn’t mean that Modern Warfare will recreate real events, Kurosaki clarified, but Infinity Ward’s research for the game has included ongoing conflicts such as the Syrian civil war and the continuing U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As Minkoff noted, “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist,” and Modern Warfare will also put you alongside “regular people taking up arms to fight for their homes.”
To that end, Modern Warfare will explore different kinds of conflict in its gameplay. There’ll be the more traditional Call of Duty approach, in which players embody Tier 1 Operator-type soldiers, such as U.S. Delta Force troops and those in Bravo 6, Captain Price’s British SAS team. But you’ll also fight alongside rebels, apparently in the fictional Middle Eastern country Urzikstan. Rebels won’t have the same quality of gear at their disposal as Tier 1 Operators, but they’ll have greater numbers, improvised weapons, a better knowledge of their warzones, and guerrilla tactics. The two different types of warfare will create a variety of gameplay situations, depending on whether you’re playing as a Tier 1 soldier or a rebel in a given scenario, and whether you’re facing off against Tier 1 soldiers or rebels.
Telling A Modern War Story
Modern Warfare won’t have a branching narrative, Kurosaki said, but it will allow for player choices that will have an impact on the world of the game. Those choices include how you approach combat situations, like whether you go loud or quiet, or kick down a door versus pushing through it carefully. But your effect on the game world will also be deeper depending on how things play out on missions.
“It means that you can reach mission success and make a big difference, like you’ve saved a bunch of people,” Kurosaki explained in an interview with GameSpot. “Or you can reach mission success, and unfortunately, there have been heavier losses than there otherwise could have been. So again, hopefully, if we’re doing our jobs right, you’re going to feel that sense of urgency to sort of make as much of a difference as you possibly can without crossing your line.”
During the presentation, Infinity Ward showed two brief portions of missions from the game. The first started with police in London responding to the threat of a terrorist attack. Before the police could stop it, the terrorists detonated a bomb and then began attacking people on the street. The mission cut away to a later moment when Captain Price and Bravo 6 had used intelligence the police discovered to track down the terrorist cell responsible for the attack, locating them in a nearby London townhouse. As a member of the squad, the player’s job was to sweep through the house and take down the terrorists. Price and his team carefully knocked out lights, then moved through, room by room, using night vision goggles to ambush the surprised enemies. It was a tense mission as terrorists opened fire blindly in the darkness, amplified by the possibility of civilians in the house; a baby crying on an upper floor reminded players to check their targets carefully.
It’s also a level that showcases Infinity Ward’s push for greater authenticity in the game, for better or worse. Several times, enemies were ripped with bullets, writhing in pain on the ground or choking on blood, before soldiers finished them with headshots. More than one room included people who initially seemed like noncombatants before they went for weapons and the player killed them. The strength of the character models and animations could make those moments intense and disturbing, Infinity Ward said its approach in that regard is “‘Jaws,’ not ‘Saw,'” emphasizing a push toward realism that would impact players without being gross-out gory.
The mission ended with Price and the player character finding an unarmed woman in an attic room, attempting to take her alive, but shooting her before she could reach a detonator for an unseen bomb. Price also discovered intel about the location of someone called The Wolf, who seems to be one of the major villains of Modern Warfare, although we learned nothing else about him.
The second mission in the presentation took place 20 years before the rest of the events of the game and concerned two children, Farah and Hadir, and emphasized the intensity of what Infinity Ward is trying to convey with the game. Players took on the role of Farah, but the mission started with her awakening under a pile of rubble after being trapped during a bombing, her mother lying dead beside her. The player managed to bang on a piece of metal using a chunk of brick, alerting rescuers of her presence. A second later, they’d cut her free and returned her to her father.
As Farah’s father started to look for her brother, Hadir, another bomb ripped through the city center, sending a shockwave through the crowd and scattering people. Trucks began to roll up on nearby streets, filled with Russian soldiers who started firing indiscriminately into crowds of fleeing civilians. Farah and her father managed to slip past the soldiers and return to their home, where they found Hadir, just as more Russian bombs started blanketing the city in deadly gas.
…If we’re doing our jobs right, you’re going to feel that sense of urgency to sort of make as much of a difference as you possibly can without crossing your line.”
Before the family could leave with a gas mask that would protect them, one of the Russian soldiers invading the city burst through their front door and killed Farah and Hadir’s father. Most of the rest of the level found the two kids hiding from the soldier as he searched the house for them. The player, as Farah, had to sneak through the house to find a screwdriver to use as a weapon against the soldier. After a harrowing fight in which Farah stabbed the soldier repeatedly with the screwdriver, the kids managed to kill him with his rifle.
With both their parents dead, Farah and Hadir took the soldier’s gas mask, then headed back outside, sneaking past the Russian soldiers and stepping over the gasping bodies of people, goats, and the occasional dog in an attempt to escape.
Farah and Hadir finally reached some small farms on the outskirts of town where more soldiers were executing people and taking children away–seemingly to force them to become child soldiers. The mission ended with Farah and Hadir coordinating to distract two Russian soldiers so Farah could reach a gun and use it to kill them.
Kurosaki and Minkoff said Farah and Hadir are rebel leaders players would fight alongside in the game’s present, so the mission about their childhood served as backstory showing what led them to their cause. It scene also suggested that some brand of Russian troops were among the enemies in Modern Warfare, as they were in the original game.
A Technological Upgrade
Bringing Modern Warfare into the modern era is more than an update for the game’s story. The game features two major changes on the multiplayer side from previous games–first and foremost, it’ll sport cross-play between PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC players. That means when you log into a multiplayer game, you’ll face opponents (and team with friends) regardless of the platform on which they purchased the game.
Modern Warfare also does away with the traditional Call of Duty season pass. Usually, players purchase the season pass and receive periodic map packs that expand the scope of multiplayer. Infinity Ward is working to keep the Call of Duty player base together by doing away with the barrier that crops up between people who buy into the new maps and people who don’t. Instead, all additional multiplayer maps will be free to all players.
Infinity Ward has done a lot for the game on the technical side, as well. Modern Warfare uses a new, purpose-built engine specifically made for the game, which is significantly increasing its production values.
One of the most interesting changes Infinity Ward is making is in how the game deals with elements like night vision and infrared goggles. In the original Modern Warfare, as developers noted, night vision goggles were little more than a green tint added to the game’s existing visuals. In the rebooted Modern Warfare, developers added additional light spectra to the engine that work much in the same way as real-world lighting. That means when you pull on your night vision goggles, you see things as illuminated by infrared light sources in the game world, giving the view mode a much more realistic look and feel.
Sound has also gotten an overhaul. Modern Warfare uses ray tracing to create realistic echoes for all sounds, whether they be shots from various guns ripping down a city street, or a grenade’s explosion reverberating in a tight subway staircase. You’ll also notice more realistic sounds created by interactions between objects, like shell casings popping out of your gun and bouncing off objects.
One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.”
In addition to an upgraded presentation, Modern Warfare is also giving an overhaul to the formula for how Call of Duty games play. Infinity Ward said current games in the franchise have started to become more like three separate, siloed game experiences in a single package; multiplayer modes have a different feel and progression from the single player mode or the popular Zombies mode. With Modern Warfare, Infinity Ward said it’s going for “continuity and consistency” across all modes. Weapons will feel and handle the same whether you’re in single or multiplayer. Progressing your character, unlocking killstreaks, and increasing your levels with different guns will track across all modes, so you won’t feel penalized for preferring single player over multiplayer or vice versa.
Though Infinity Ward didn’t give journalists a chance to actually play the single-player mode of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, it made clear the developer is trying to push itself–and in some ways, to return it to the groundbreaking place it found itself in back in 2007. The studio said it wants to “push the envelope” of what the medium of video games is capable of delivering, and include things into the game “only Modern Warfare would have the guts to show.”
We’ve only seen the edges of what exactly that entails. From the way Infinity Ward is talking about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, though, the studio seems intent on redefining the franchise. We’ll have to wait until October 25 when the game releases to see just how successful that redefinition might be.
Read our interview with narrative director Taylor Kurosaki about the story of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, its inspiration from real-life events, and the ways it looks to push players.