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2019’s ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’ fails at moral ambiguity

2019’s ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’ fails at moral ambiguity

2019’s ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’ fails at moral ambiguity
November 15
15:48 2019

Warning: spoilers ahead.

The developers at Infinity Ward had one hell of a promise for this year’s much-hyped reboot of the beloved “Modern Warfare” trilogy: a campaign that would provide a thinly veiled simulation of present-day conflicts through a complex lens.  Whereas the original “Modern Warfare” from 2007 used a now-infamous nuclear blast to skewer “shock and awe” tactics used during the Iraq War, the new “Modern Warfare” explores proxy wars that skirt legal lines and how special forces operatives have to deal with increasingly blurry moral boundaries.

The game is pretty great, and the promise of examining moral ambiguity caught my attention. I’ve always wanted more mainstream games that explore morally complex and complicated topics.

Spec Ops: The Line” is a notable example, but one I unfortunately haven’t played. Another game entitled “This War of Mine” was a brutal and emotionally draining experience that pulled from the Yugoslavian War to great effect, and even “Call of Duty” itself dipped its toe into the murky pond with 2012’s excellent “Black Ops II,” the campaign of which remains the high bar for any “Call of Duty” campaign post-2007.

“Modern Warfare” is an admirable attempt to match that, and there are standout moments, but it still falls somewhat short.

The usual, heavily scripted “gaminess” sometimes lets down the strive for a shade of gray in how it handles certain moments. The heavily-discussed “Clean House” and “The Wolf’s Den” missions are well-made, tight missions, and the ambiguity is there, but just barely, though. Characters who aren’t going to turn into combatants and those who will are distinguished in the subtitles, which definitely kills some of the tension they worked so hard to create.

It also doesn’t help that there are times where the playable character shouldn’t have to kill a non-playable character, but it’s required by the game to progress, even though in-universe it could have easily been circumvented via a flashbang and tackle. In “Clean House,” there’s one especially egregious moment when playable character Kyle Garrick could have tackled an unarmed woman who was a good few yards away from a detonator or just shot her in the legs.

Then there’s the Piccadilly Circus sequence, inspired by the real-life terror attacks on Paris in 2015. It’s an uncompromising scene, with civilians being cut down by bombs and bullets, which come from the terrorist’s and your own. This brings into focus how the game handles civilian casualties, with it seemingly accepting that innocents are going to sometimes have their lives ended by you in the confusion. It also doesn’t help that when civilians run in your direction while you’re exchanging gunfire with hostiles, you’re more than likely going to be slapped with a ‘game over’ message.

The game’s attempt to have a realistic take on war also falls apart when it comes to the antagonists: the Wolf, the Butcher, and Barkov, a rogue Russian general. While the Wolf is briefly mentioned to have been a former freedom fighter, there’s not much depth to that. He’s otherwise a generic radical who belongs in most of those post-9/11 thrillers.

Contrast him with Menedez from “Black Ops 2,” where we witness nearly his entire backstory and motivation take shape. The Wolf may be more subdued, but he’s also barely a cardboard cutout. The Butcher is somewhat deeper in that he ends up being a massive hypocrite in what is possibly the most boundary-pushing sections of the game, but also one that was practically the main menu for the original “Black Ops.”

Meanwhile, Barkov claims he’s “protecting Russia” and all that jazz, but he’s otherwise a brute who shows up maybe three times and is only less of a cardboard cutout due to the fact we spend more time with him. He’s cartoonishly switching between barely restrained good-cop-bad-cop routine during a torture scene and otherwise just seems to be on an incredibly long leash from the Russian government, though that gets hand-waved in the climax.

In fact, the Russians, and all the villains, to be frank, are all borderline mustache-twirlers and the game indulges in shock value often to get that point across, regardless of how toned down these crimes are to those reported in Syria. These guys are thinner than Makarov and Shepherd from the original trilogy.

Ultimately, the campaign tries to pull the pin on complicated subjects and fumbles the grenade. I was really looking forward to “Modern Warfare” trying on a darker tone and while it doesn’t seem like it, I think the result is mostly fine. In further sequels, though, I’m hoping for a more daring take on par with the classic “Black Ops II.”

Featured Image: Courtesy Activision

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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