Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is an aggressively familiar reboot

Reboots and remakes took center stage at E3 2019. Call of Duty was no different. This year’s entry in the long-running shooter franchise is titled Call of Duty: Modern Warfare in reverence for 2007’s massively popular Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The new game isn’t a remake, but it does hope to recapture what made its predecessor a classic.

That means the campaign, noticeably absent from last year’s Black Ops 4, is back. Not just back. It’s the star of the show. In a complete 180, the new Modern Warfare fancies itself a narrative game. “We want to put you in the shoes of a soldier facing the morally complex realities of modern war,” said Taylor Kurosaki, studio narrative director at Infinity Ward. In fact, the game will put you in shoes of several characters, as the narrative will be told from a variety of perspectives.

I was shown an early mission that started with a terrorist attack on London, then transitioned to a counterattack on the terrorist’s hideout in a quiet apartment complex. The promised realism soon arrived as unfiltered violence. The apartment is the terrorist’s base of operations, but it’s also where they live with their families. A shootout in a hallway full of family photos is intense, bloody, and uncomfortable to watch.

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Activision

Modern Warfare’s raw feel is only enhanced by its upgraded graphics, which look fantastic. Animations, physics, and lighting have all leveled up. Dead foes slump over with disturbing weight the moment you land a headshot, and walls prove no obstacle to rifle rounds — as several terrorists found out.

Black and white

The promised ambiguity isn’t obvious, despite Infinity Ward’s intentions. A mission pre-brief informs the player to “check your shots,” but, with one exception, no one in the home hesitates to pick up a gun and shoot at you.

Death is the only verdict the player can hand out.

Even characters who seem like civilians have it out for you. One hostage immediately goes for a gun after you shoot her captor, and a woman pleading for her life at the top of the flat is just stalling as she tries to detonate a bomb.

It’s not subtle, and there’s no obvious reason why the player should hold back. On the contrary, death seems to be the only verdict the player can hand out. Unlike games that try to authentically tackle military operations in a civilian environment, such as early Rainbow Six titles, Modern Warfare doesn’t offer a non-violent option. The headshot is your most effective tool, so you’ll use it. A lot.

None of this is surprising. Call of Duty has followed this formula many times before. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare made its own mark with missions like “Death from Above,” where players rained down death from an AC-130 gunship. Its vivid, realistic portrayal of brutality efficient modern weaponry was breathtaking and, if you stopped to think of it, unsettling. But it wasn’t subtle. The enemies were obvious, the reasons to eliminate them obvious. The same is true of the new Modern Warfare.

Call of Duty goes home

Modern Warfare’s campaign is a return to the comfort of earlier titles, and I doubt it’ll prove as effective as the developers seem to hope. The gameplay also reigns in the excess of recent Call of Duty games like Black Ops and Advanced Warfare.

That could work better than the unoriginal story. Aside from 2017’s Call of Duty: World War II, the franchise has ditched all pretense of realism in recent titles. That’s allowed for clever game modes and new features, but it also stands out less from Call of Duty’s modern competition. Even the Battlefield series has dipped deep into exaggeration to turn up the hype.

Modern Warfare moves the dial back toward precise, controlled, highly lethal combat.

Modern Warfare moves the dial back toward precise, controlled, highly lethal combat, which is supported by a new bullet physics system. Bullets can pierce objects like furniture and destroy parts of the environment. It’s a visual treat that creates a tense, suspenseful atmosphere.

Gamers will love this approach. While the bombast of Black Ops 4 clearly has an audience, there’s an equally massive audience for games like Counter-Strike and Rainbow Six Siege, and that audience is desperate for more attention. Modern Warfare promises much-needed change that will keep the franchise fresh.

Will that promise be kept? I don’t know. Activision hasn’t provided hands-on time with Modern Warfare despite the fast-approaching release date.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare arrives on October 25 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.

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