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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s stark realism leaves a bombshell impression

Infinity Ward has lofty aspirations for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Though plenty of buzzwords were tossed around during an hour-long multiplayer reveal, one particular claim stood out to me. Co-studio head and creative director Patrick Kelly said that Infinity Ward hopes Modern Warfare “reestablishes the high watermark for shooters.” Then he went further. “No, not shooters, games.” After spending three hours playing a handful of multiplayer modes, I would certainly question the rephrased version of Kelly’s comments. But in terms of shooters, Modern Warfare could conceivably (re)take the crown.

It takes a team

Modern Warfare‘s multiplayer suite has three core map types: 2v2 Flash Maps, 6v6 Tactical Maps, and Battle maps, which accommodate large 10v10, 20v20, and even higher player count matches.

The 2v2 maps house what is possibly my favorite Call of Duty multiplayer game type ever: Gunfight. New to Modern Warfare, Gunfight is a snappy 2v2 variant that forces you to think quickly and adjust your strategy on the fly. You and your partner spawn on one side of a map, while your opponents spawn on the other. These maps are so small that you can see where they end while waiting for the round to start. It takes no longer than 10 seconds to cross from one end to the other.

Gunfight is straight to the point, but it can create some thrilling moments. With customized loadouts removed from the equation, Gunfight preaches mastery of all weapon types. It could also serve as a great tutorial of sorts for those just diving into Call of Duty multiplayer.

On the tactical maps, I played Domination, Team Deathmatch, and a new mode called Cyber Attack. In this Counter-Strike-esque variant, two teams of six work to secure a bomb and destroy the opposing team’s data center. While I enjoyed this mode, the vast majority of the rounds ended not with the bomb going off, but with deaths. If you eliminate the entire opposing squad, you win the round.

It’s arguably much easier to focus on kills rather than the bomb. Though you can revive teammates, the medium-sized city maps I played on made this a tall order, especially considering revive times are a tad ridiculous. Even when I successfully revived a teammate, we usually died a few seconds later as sitting ducks.

I played 10v10 Team Deathmatch and Domination on an elongated desert map that had a multi-floor hub in the center where much of the carnage took place. As you move towards the center of the map, things get dense, while the outskirts have makeshift barriers, trenches, and dilapidated structures to strategically move through to flank enemies. 10v10 is a great time, but I’m still most interested in the 2v2 and 6v6 variants. The smaller the player count, the more the satisfying mechanics have room to shine.

It’s not just that there’s a lot of variety in the multiplayer; everything gels together to create a cohesive experience. Whether you’re playing 2v2 or 10v10, Modern Warfare retains the same, fast-paced, intense identity. This is due to both the refined gunplay and map design, which have far more room for experimentation than recent Call of Duty games.

In many cases, you have to figure out how to get the upper hand by using the environment. A staircase or ladder might not be available to you, but maybe there’s a crate that will lead you to the second floor. Or perhaps there’s a tunnel you can sneak through to surprise an enemy on the other side. 

Modern Warfare blends old with new to conjure an FPS with a ton of depth. A number of new mechanics fundamentally alter the gameplay for the better.

My favorite new feature is gun mounting. You can mount your weapon on any vertical or horizontal structure — door frame, sandbags, ledge, etc. — to steady your aim and tactically look down the sight. After toying with the feature, I started using it almost every time I walked through a door, which allowed me to peek around the corner without exposing my whole body.

After a hiatus, killstreaks return in Modern Warfare. Each player has three that they can designate in their loadout, starting with basic perks like radar at three kills to airstrikes at five kills to tanks, the colossal Juggernauts, and more as you rack up more kills. It’s a welcome return, but one of the rewards is a dubious inclusion: White Phosphorous.

Deployed as a defensive tool that releases smoke which obscures vision, White Phosphorous has a secondary and far more insidious purpose in real life. The gas is so gruesome that it can melt skin and kill people exposed to its fumes. Including a chemical weapon like White Phosphorous as a reward, especially when you play in maps that are ostensibly civilian areas, comes off in poor taste.

Stark realism

Spec Ops: The Line depicted the devastating effects of White Phosphorous in one of the most powerful and heartbreaking scenes from the 2012 third-person shooter. It’s weird to think about that scene and then see the chemical treated like an exciting bonus in Modern Warfare. Whether or not Call of Duty is going too far is up for debate, though. After all, this is a series that has rewarded players with nuclear warheads for lengthy killstreaks in the past.

An argument can be made that Call of Duty has fetishized war for its entire existence. With photo-realistic visuals and a level of weapons detail that amounts to gun porn, Call of Duty has leaned into realism more and more over the years. Modern Warfare, Infinity Ward stressed, is the series’ most realistic endeavor.

That belief rings true, but multiplayer realism only translates to how the game looks or feels. It’s not interested in making you stop and think about the true horrors of war. There is no pause for reflection, no message telling you that aspects of the experience such as White Phosphorous are, in fact, bleak and utterly terrifying.

Throughout the presentation, Infinity Ward talked up how much research it did on war and weapons: Talking to current and former military members, shooting the guns found in the game, and applying what they learned to the design of the maps and gameplay. It appears all of that time spent rebuilding the weapons system and rethinking the approach to map design will pay off.

Weapons feel markedly different depending on your attachments. Each weapon can have five attachments equipped at once. Infinity Ward says you’ll unlock new attachments through play. Long guns have upwards of 60 attachments: Muzzles, lasers, optics, barrels, magazines, stock, rear grip, and underbarrels. You can switch attachments and create custom loadouts at the gunsmith bench in the multiplayer lobby, and you can also change attachments on the fly.

I mostly used the M4A1, preferring it with a long barrel attached to reduce recoil and increase bullet velocity. When I removed the barrel though, I really did notice the difference in how it handled and bullet patterns. Considering I only saw a fraction of the weapons and attachments, the reimagined weapons system figures to have far more meaningful variation than we’ve seen in a Call of Duty game. Couple the weapons system with the trio of perks you have with each loadout and explosives, and Modern Warfare has the makings of the most customizable game in the series to date.

Modern Warfare feels like it could be an important moment for the Call of Duty franchise — a turning point for the better. It’s not that Call of Duty doesn’t sell millions and millions of copies each holiday (it still does); it’s that Activision’s flagship series has tread carefully since, well, the dawn of the Modern Warfare sub-series. Much like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the 2019 iteration has a distinct identity, a freshness about it. Perhaps that’s why it’s titled like a reboot. You’ve played Modern Warfarebefore, but you haven’t played anything exactly like the reenergized Modern Warfare.

It’s all about the details. From the intricate subtleties of reload animations to the shake of your hands as your automatic rifle recoils, Modern Warfare simply looks more realistic. From the way a grenade blast reverberates differently depending on surroundings to the ding of a shell casing bouncing off of a metal door, Modern Warfare sounds the part, too. All of these little flourishes add up to make a major impact.

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