Recently, I managed to finish the single-player campaign for the latest Call of Duty reboot, Modern Warfare (after I was finally able to download the necessary data packs that I had already downloaded when I originally installed the disc—nice one Activision). As the credits rolled, I had plenty of time to reflect on where the last six hours of my life had gone.
Call of Duty’s campaigns have gotten pretty formulaic over the years. For all of developer Infinity Ward’s claims they were aiming to create a modern retelling of the landscape of war, I had my Call of Duty bingo card full within the first hour.
The main villains of this game are evil Russians and Middle Eastern terrorists. The heroes are Brits and Americans. There are chemical weapons being stolen and innocents threatened, just like there always is. So yeah, they’re not so much leaning on series conventions as lying down next to them, blowing raspberries.
The plot puts you into the shoes of two different playable characters throughout the campaign: SAS sergeant Kyle Garrick (Gaz from the original Modern Warfare) and CIA agent Alex. They’re accompanied by Captain John Price and rebel leader Farah Karim who are there to lead the player along by their nose through the typical linear missions, which is good because half the time the environment was so muddled that I had no idea where to go. But let's set the gameplay aside for a bit and talk about the characters and the campaign's plot.
The playable characters you pilot in the game are so one-dimensional that they still have packing peanuts stuck in their hair from the cardboard cutout factory. Kyle has a few less peanuts in his hair, but only because we inherit his body early on when most of the audience is still paying attention to the story. This is before the mindless successive set-pieces dull their interest until the story’s little more than the static you get when your TV aerial (antenna for all my US friends) starts acting up.
And "mindless" really is the word for these "snore pieces." The game hits the same reliable beats as a blindfolded drummer. Here’s the bit where you snipe, here’s the bit walking through the forest picking off oblivious enemies, here’s the bit where you bomb enemies with a drone using itty bitty god vision.
It really represents nothing more than the holding pattern that the series has been in for years now. The moment-to-moment gameplay may have been retooled to feel weightier and more grounded, a move I actually like. But when the core gameplay loop is essentially shooting the nasty man and the nasty man falls down, it’s like organizing your filing system only to launch it into the sea.
The plot kicks off—well, lurches to a start—with our white-bread CIA operative Alex infiltrating a base to steal shipments of dangerous chemical gas before they are shipped to today’s thinly veiled representation of the Middle East, Urzikstan. However, before they can complete their objective, terrorists appear, gun down Alex’s team and steal the gas right out from under his nose. With no further provocation, possibly because the enemies called ‘no backsies,’ Alex heads straight into Urzikstan and joins up with the local resistance, led by Farah Karim.
Captain Price is sent in to recover the gas and deescalate the situation with Russia because, yeah, Russian forces are also in Urzikstan. Price finds Farah and Alex quickly enough, and they all agree to recover the gas, get the Russians out of Urzikstan and end all terrorism in the world forever and ever. Don’t be fooled, this game's story isn’t the complex literary accomplishment that the press interviews purported it to be. I ignored the story for the final two thirds, slogged my way through the rest of the campaign and then read the Wikipedia article to see what I had missed out on (somewhere between stuff and all). The team saves the world, and Alex sacrifices himself for some cliché reason that the game can barely summon the effort to rationalize.
Now let's talk about the gameplay. The game doesn’t provide you with choices, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Well, I tell a lie, there is a choice. You can choose to keep playing the game or close the game and go do something more fulfilling, like organizing your sock drawer.
The gameplay itself might keep you trudging through just to see what military hardware the game will let you use, but the gameplay isn't what comes back to you in quiet moments.
Yaeger, the developers behind one of my favorite games Spec Ops: The Line understood this. The gameplay is the standard third-person cover shooter stop and pop gameplay loop, so far so generic but, it isn’t the gameplay that Spec Ops is remembered for, it’s the story. Throughout the game, the player character, Captain Martin Walker has a clearly defined arc that develops as he and his team of Delta operators descend into the hellscape of a ruined Dubai.
As the story progresses, the mental states of the entire team begin to unravel as they are confronted by morally challenging situations, like one moment late in the game where you have to choose between scaring off civilians by firing into the air or gunning them down.
That simple choice highlights the difference between the two games. Modern Warfare gives you the illusion of choice and gives you a game over if you choose the "wrong" option. Spec Ops gives you the choices, lets you pick whatever choice you decide, and moves on. It just lets you and the characters deal with the consequences of your actions. It doesn’t whack you across the knuckles for making a choice they didn’t like; it just lets the choices develop the characters and story organically, keeping the player invested.
I think the fact that I had to read the Wikipedia summary of Modern Warfare's plot shows just how painfully generic and stale the plot feels. Thirteen years ago, the original Modern Warfare killed off the player character with an apocalyptic nuclear blast in a highly effective moment that still sticks with me all these years later. Infinity Ward had the confidence in their story to pull off this move while the rebooted Modern Warfare is toothless by comparison.
A good story is engaging, makes you think, and exposes you to differing worldviews that you may have never considered before. It covers themes and emotions, and it can help start discussions about important issues like mental health and climate change. Good gameplay keeps you engaged in the moment, but it's ultimately empty without the vibrant engine that is the story.
So, while the gameplay for both Spec Ops and the Modern Warfare reboot is generic and safe, Modern Warfare's reboot story has nothing behind it to keep people engaged: no choices, no character arcs, no development of characters, or discussion of anything other than whether it's better to use the M4A1 or the MP5.
In contrast, the Spec Ops story forces you to make decisions in the heat of the moment and makes you live with those decisions. It gives the characters clear arcs so we can sympathize with them, even up until we are committing horrific acts right beside them, making us question whether Walker and, by extension, the player themselves are in control of their actions. It fosters discussions about the horrors of war that games like Modern Warfare always seem to dance around in favor of gunning down more angry foreigners for the freedom of America.
That's the beauty of a game's story. It can take a game with basic gameplay and give it a depth and moral complexity that can lead to wider discussions about many topics that need to be discussed.
When’s the last time you played a game with your mates and didn’t walk away with some crazy story about a clutch victory or crushing defeat?
Sometimes that story isn’t strictly dictated to us and, instead, comes organically from us just playing the game. It’s just a shame that the Modern Warfare reboot can’t even summon the effort to try.
What did you think of the Modern Warfare reboot? Are you tired of seeing the same old Call of Duty formula, or are you excited to see what they bring out next? Let me know down below.