When Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare was released in November of 2016, the sales figures fell short of publisher Activision’s expectations. The critical scores, while leaning positive, were ultimately mixed. By this point in history, various developers handled the Call of Duty franchise in a three-year development cycle. Infinity Ward, the developer credited with having created in the series in the first place, was behind Infinite Warfare, putting them in a bad way. One year later, Sledgehammer Games found success in bringing the series back to its World War II roots in the form of Call of Duty: WWII. Infinity Ward wound up following suit.
Taking inspiration from contemporary acclaimed works such as Homeland, American Sniper, and Sicario, campaign gameplay director Jacob Minkoff wanted the medium to explore taboo subjects. These sentiments were echoed by studio art director Joel Emslie, who promised his game’s narrative would be “much more grown-up [and] mature”. While Infinite Warfare cast the series into the future and WWII set its sights to the past, this new game would take place in the modern day. As a callback to the game that established the series as one of the most profitable in the history of the medium, it was named Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Although it didn’t quite achieve the overwhelming praise as the original Modern Warfare, the 2019 reboot was released to fairly high acclaim. Does this game truly advance the medium as Mr. Minkoff or Mr. Emslie intended?
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: The following review will contain spoilers for this game and the original Modern Warfare trilogy.
The year is 2019. CIA SAC/SOG Officer Alex is a member of a task force sent on a covert operation to recover shipments of a dangerous chemical en route to the country of Urzikstan. The mission takes a turn for the worse when an unknown faction seizes control of the chemicals. Twenty-four hours pass, and a group of suicide bombers of the terrorist organization Al-Qatala attack Piccadilly Circus in London. SAS Sergeant Kyle Garrick is sent to quell the situation along with a highly skilled captain, one John Price.
Throughout the 2010s, the Call of Duty franchise constantly tried to reinvent itself. Installments such as Ghosts and Advanced Warfare could be said to have pushed to envelope by introducing science-fiction elements to the proceedings, but Infinite Warfare went the extra mile in this regard. Taking cues from popular franchises such as Mass Effect and Halo, Infinite Warfare ditched the series-defining gritty realism in favor of being a work of fantasy with unambiguous good guys fighting unambiguous bad guys. Although it arguably gave the series some much-needed innovation, many fans deemed Infinite Warfare a cheap knockoff of the franchises it took inspiration from and felt the series had lost its way. WWII was an attempt to dial things back and recapture the goodwill of the series’ first three installments. The 2019 edition of Modern Warfare does the same for the series’ celebrated fourth installment.
As such, anyone who has played a given Call of Duty installment knows what to expect out of this game. It is a first-person shooter that, true to its name, features a modern-military motif. Regardless of which soldier you’re playing as, they can only hold up to two weapons at a time. Switching to the sidearm is faster than reloading. A well-timed melee attack is even faster. These are both important to know because the fewer times you reload in combat, the fewer opportunities enemies have to gun down your character in turn. Your character is also given a selection of grenades and other explosive weapons to combat enemies. Generally speaking, these come in handy whenever you are pinned down by multiple threats at once and popping out to shoot back is too risky.
WWII broke the mold slightly by introducing a health meter, but the 2019 Modern Warfare scales things back by bringing back the familiar cover mechanics. When you inevitably find yourself in a shootout, you may your character taking a hit or two. If your character is struck with bullets, a red, visceral border encroaches on the screen. A red arc with an arrow pointing out of it indicates to you from where the volleys emanate. This is your cue to run for cover. Once you have either removed the immediate threats or stayed out of the gunfire for a long enough time, the screen will return to normal. If you brazenly ignore these visual hints, your character will perish, sending you back to the last checkpoint.
Going into 2019, Infinity Ward had fallen out of favor with enthusiasts. The developer was responsible for the series existing in the first place, and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is frequently considered one of the best games ever made. Its sequel, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, was released two years later to a similarly warm reception, yet it is retrospectively considered to have marked Infinity Ward’s downward spiral. The moment commonly agreed to have caused the decline was when co-founders Jason West and Vince Zampella were fired by Activision’s CEO, Bobby Kotick, for alleged insubordination. It is widely believed that Mr. Kotick had done so to avoid paying them their bonuses when Modern Warfare 2 proved to be a success. Because Call of Duty had become a very profitable franchise, Activision would then go on to commission various developers to create annual entries. It is from these events that Call of Duty became the embodiment of corporate cynicism, foreshadowing the American AAA industry’s notoriously risk-adverse, auteur-unfriendly nature in the 2010s.
With a new installment guaranteed to be released annually, the quality of the franchise dropped significantly. Once considered a sacred cow, the franchise became the butt of many dedicated enthusiasts’ jokes regarding the dumbing down of AAA productions, obnoxious fans, or both. The series had little trouble getting accolades from the press, but you would be hard-pressed to find any of these games on a year-end “Best of” list. The effect of this massive personnel change could be felt in Modern Warfare 3, which started off well only for the latter half to recycle setpieces from its two predecessors. The remnants of Infinity Ward proceeded to work on Ghosts and Infinite Warfare, which are frequently considered the absolute lowest points in the franchise’s history. They had effectively become the Ship of Theseus; it was a company called Infinity Ward, but the staff change deprived them of the talent that created Call of Duty 4.
However, with the release of their Modern Warfare reboot, Infinity Ward appeared to turn that around. Suddenly, the company that had spent nearly the entirety of the 2010s in a state of irrelevance found themselves receiving praise from both critics and fans. Making use of a refined game engine and overall improved gunplay, the 2019 Modern Warfare would indeed appear to be the shot in the arm not only Infinity Ward, but the entire Call of Duty franchise needed in order to stay relevant. I myself am not entirely sure how it managed to win over skeptics when, in practice, the 2019 Modern Warfare is as basic of a reboot as it gets.
Infinite Warfare was criticized for copying the science-fiction motifs of contemporary first-person shooters such as Halo or Titanfall. Although the ideas in that game had indeed been implemented better by other developers, I still ended up giving Infinity Ward credit for at least trying to revitalize the series and take it in a new direction. One could reasonably argue the ideas didn’t work, but they were far more memorable than anything offered in the 2019 edition of Modern Warfare.
To its credit, and unlike Ghosts, the game does not provide monotone experience. Certain missions involve seizing a small building at night, starting from the bottommost floor, and working your way up with your team. There is also the fact that shooting your way out isn’t always the best option. This is exemplified in a relatively late stage where, in a rare moment of non-linearity, you must guide Kyle Garrick through an area besieged by an enemy faction. In this stage, you must keep out of sight, as Kyle has no friendly support. Being discovered by the enemies will likely result in an unwinnable battle. In this regard, it’s nice that the developers didn’t want to create a mindless action game.
Ultimately, however, I find that most of the praise the 2019 Modern Warfare received was overblown. This could best be exemplified by Time Magazine journalist Alex Fitzpatrick’s take, who claimed that the series’ 2019 entry marked the moment when “gaming’s most successful franchise [grew] up”. Having played the game for myself, I’m not sure what, exactly, he meant. From a gameplay perspective, the 2019 Modern Warfare takes too much refuge in the fact that it doesn’t reinvent the wheel. While a reboot offering gameplay similar to the original can work, Call of Duty hadn’t earned the right to rest its laurels. By 2019, Activision had stretched the goodwill generated by the original Modern Warfare well beyond the point of reason. Going back to Modern Warfare was the developers throwing up their hands and admitting they were well and truly out of ideas.
More likely given the context, Mr. Fitzpatrick was referring to the scenario itself when he praised this game. The original Modern Warfare crafted a scenario that seemed to deconstruct the very subgenre it codified. While one could argue that it isn’t as impactful now as it was back in 2007, arming oneself with the proper context can allow even newcomers to appreciate its nuances. While Call of Duty gained, and eventually lived up to, a reputation of being a jingoistic series that treated the concept of war with all the tact of early-twentieth century European invasion literature, one wouldn’t get such an impression from playing the original Modern Warfare. In the span of one epic adventure, you breathed the last breaths of a solider caught in a nuclear weapon’s blast radius and watched all of your companions die one by one. While the game prided itself in its action sequences, it did not paint war in a flattering light at all. Those visiting the series now may be shocked to see how profound it can be.
In the context of the original Modern Warfare trilogy, the original game’s iconic moments were both a blessing and a curse. While it left an indelible impact on gamers, it also created an obligation for the developers to one-up themselves. The results were, to say the least, mixed. The infamous “No Russian” level from Modern Warfare 2 stands to this day as an excellent case study of how not to craft a story beat in an interactive medium. After its debut, a disproportionate number of gaming narratives would railroad players into making bad decisions and place all of the blame onto them. It’s difficult to say if Modern Warfare 2 is actually patient zero for that trend, but I can believe its success ensured it caught on. When it finally came time to wrap up the trilogy, the third entry’s own shocking moment barely registered as a blip on most people’s radar. Most players were dismayed that the trilogy’s mainstay, John “Soap” MacTavish, did not survive, but it was less unique than dying from radiation burns or being forced to participate in an airport massacre.
The 2019 Modern Warfare takes the trend to its logical extreme in that its own shocking moment is notably nonexistent. On some level, I can respect that because constantly having to outdo such moments inevitably results in your audience experiencing shock fatigue. The problem is that if you make a ritual out of such a habit, nothing’s shocking. To be fair, there are moments capable of catching you off-guard – if this is your first M-rated title, that is. Conversely, many people who had played a fair share of M-rated titles were still impressed after witnessing the signature scene of the Modern Warfare back in 2007.
Indeed, while the original Modern Warfare had a surprising amount of depth to its narrative, its 2019 reboot, to its detriment, is far more cut-and-dried. Terrorists are doing their thing, and it’s up to a scrappy team of soldiers to take them down. To be fair, the straightforward story isn’t for a lack of trying. The Russian Armed Forces led by General Roman Barkov have stationed their troops in Urzikstan. This causes both the SAS and CIA to team up with a local militia – the Uzrikstani Liberation Force (ULF) – led by Farah Karim and her brother, Hadir.
It is refreshing to see Middle Eastern characters cast in a positive light. The original Modern Warfare, a classic though it may be, was a product of its time in that the aftereffects of the World Trade Center attacks and the subsequent war campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq had a clear influence on it. While the original is the superior effort, this version addresses that issue, which I can respect. Even when it is later revealed that Hadir is a member of Al-Qatala, the narrative paints him in a fairly sympathetic light. He wants nothing more than to drive out the Russian forces, and the subsequent flashbacks to his childhood demonstrate just how brutal the soldiers were to the people of Urzikstan. Not even children were safe from their wrath.
The problem is that the moment Hadir’s treachery is revealed is a classic example of video game writers failing to understand the medium’s unique properties. The moment in question involves Hadir using the chemicals his cell had stolen against the Russian troops. His justification for doing so is that there are far more soldiers than he, Farah, or Alex could handle. While these actions would be justifiable in a realistic film, it doesn’t make any sense in a Call of Duty game. Anyone familiar with the series can name several worse predicaments the player is allowed to shoot their way out of. All the resistance force needed to do was to fortify their position, and they would’ve been fine.
The case could be argued that, in contrast to the more futuristic, science-fiction settings of Advanced Warfare and Infinite Warfare, the 2019 Modern Warfare tries to inject realism into the proceedings. After all, if that many soldiers are charging at you all at once, you’re probably not going to survive – no matter how good of a shot you are. However, even using realism as a defense doesn’t really work when you consider that, this installment also involves your characters facing nigh-impossible odds. In fact, certain sequences leading up to this reveal place your characters in far worse situations, making Hadir’s decision to use the chemicals foolhardy and shortsighted. All it does is create animosity between him and his sister, which could have been avoided – or, at the very least, delayed – had he resisted the urge to tip his hand. This isn’t even getting into the fact that his plan likely resulted in several ULF members dying for no good reason. It gets to the point where factoring in his childhood fails to provide an adequate explanation for his actions.
It is also worth noting that the flashbacks to his childhood are not well-thought-out either. If the writers intended to lend the series a sense of maturity it had lost sometime after the original Modern Warfare, one particular scene completely undermines their goals. One of Farah’s flashbacks involves her evading a ruthless soldier who barges in on her family’s house as his comrades besiege the city. To advance the plot, you must guide an eight-year-old Farah to stab the soldier in the groin using household objects. This feels like an attempt to emulate a similar sequence in The Last of Us wherein a very young character is forced to commit a horrific act of violence. It’s a basic juxtaposition of a person of purity losing their innocence in the worst way imaginable.
Naughty Dog’s take on this idea had its own share of problems. Chief among them was a distinct air of chauvinism that got in the way of the writer’s otherwise progressive-minded ethos. Regardless, I have to say theirs was the more competent implementation for one simple reason: I never once questioned the enormity of what happened after its denouncement. The 2019 Modern Warfare, on the other hand, takes the concept and makes it utterly laughable. You’re basically playing a deadly game of hide-and-seek, which ends with two children taking down a large, ostensibly well-trained soldier. Sure, it ties into the stealth mechanics that feature throughout the game, but summing it up on paper robs it of any kind of lasting impact.
In the 2010s, the Call of Duty series gained a reputation for being highly jingoistic. The series didn’t start out that way. Even if the original Modern Warfare was clearly inspired by current events, it still had plenty of nuance, subtly condemning American interventionism in the campaign among other things. Once Activision ordered developers to come out with a yearly installment, the games’ writing quality began dipping significantly, and that nuance was lost. This problem came to a head in 2013 with Ghosts, which featured an overwhelmingly white cast waging a war against a united South America. This plot point was particularly lamented by culture critics, as it made the medium feel very behind the times in terms of race relations and politics.
Although the 2019 Modern Warfare doesn’t stoop to the level of Ghosts, it is guilty of continuing this trend. This is especially apparent in the Highway of Death. Named after an American-led coalition against retreating Iraqi soldiers in the Gulf War, the Highway of Death in the 2019 Modern Warfare is an event wherein the Russian Army bombs a strip of land full of civilians. This was likely done in order to protest the real-life Russian Federation’s foreign policy at the time. Admirable though that sentiment may have been, it comes across as the narrative shifting the criticism of a controversial event committed by the developer’s own country to another entity – while making the actions much worse. This was unfortunately consistent with how many contemporary filmmakers treated their craft in the late 2010s, emphasizing morals over stories all while failing to think through their implications. One may argue the original Modern Warfare could only have been made in the 2000s, but thanks to its poor writing, the 2019 reboot can be traced back to the exact year it dropped.
Exacerbating matters is that Roman Barkov is not an especially great villain. He isn’t the egregious Mary Sue Gabriel Rorke was, but what he lacks in divine favor, he makes up for in blandness. He’s a villain through and through, which means he must spend every waking moment a puppy-kicking child torturer. This did somewhat work for Salen Kotch of Infinite Warfare because the whole point was that you were fighting fantastical space Nazis. This development doesn’t work in a more grounded setting such as the 2019 Modern Warfare. It just makes Barkov feel like a wasted character. Although one could take his extreme hatred of Uzrikstani people as prudishness given how many supposed civilians turn out to be aligned with Al-Qatala, there really isn’t much to him outside of vague inferences players might make. Rarely is a sign of good storytelling when the audience has to do the writers’ job for them.
Ultimately, though, what I find to be the fatal flaw of the 2019 Modern Warfare is that, despite its attempts at being mature, it is an utterly toothless experience. The original Modern Warfare was absolutely brutal to play back in 2007, and it can still be appreciated if you apply the proper context. Its 2019 reboot doesn’t even come close to hitting those emotional highs. You wouldn’t have known that if you took what the writers said at face value shortly before the game was released. They notably touted that the game’s morality would operate in shades of grey, forcing the protagonists to carry out dubious actions for the greater good.
On the face of things, it would appear the 2019 Modern Warfare is guilty of blaming players for being railroaded – just like several other 2010s AAA productions. Ironically enough though, the problem is the exact opposite; the narrative goes out of its way to absolve the player character of any sins committed by side characters. Price in particular shows a degree of ruthless pragmatism that, while arguably heartless, does result in a net gain for the forces of good. This is shown early on when, he and Kyle discover a man forced into a suicide vest. They have no time to disarm the bomb, so Price knocks the man off the railing to his death. This saves himself, Kyle, and the nearby civilians.
Later on, an embassy is raided by Jamal “the Butcher” Rahar – the right-hand man of Al-Qatala’s leader, Omar Sulaman. Admittedly, this is the best section in the game because it involves you having to escort an embassy worker out of her office to deliver a keycard the protagonists need to them. It’s a very creative level that involves guiding her through a patrol of soldiers without directly controlling her. Instead, you direct her via an intercom and advise her on her next course of action. Considering Call of Duty gained a reputation for being mindless action affairs, including a well-designed puzzle section was a breath of fresh air. The section also involves a situation in which Kyle is forced to choose opening a secure door for the Butcher or letting him execute a young boy.
What is arguably the game’s most stand-out scene occurs nearing the end of the experience when the SAS have captured the Butcher. Being the loyal enforcer that he is, he naturally refuses to talk when interrogated. This forces Price to use his ace in the hole. He has Kyle bring in the Butcher’s wife and child. Only when Kyle threatens to shoot his family does the enforcer relent.
These story beats are fine; in fact, I would say they’re preferable to the irritatingly common alternative. The problem is that if the writers recognized railroad-shaming the player as bad storytelling, they overcorrected. It is Price who shoves the man wearing the suicide vest to his death – you, as Kyle, have no say in the matter. If the embassy scene was meant to make the player feel guilty for letting the boy die, it falls flat when you realize letting the Butcher go causes him to kill Kyle. Your choice is between letting the boy die and reloading the last checkpoint – or continuing the game and not continuing the game respectively.
As for the interrogation scene, while the ability to opt out suggests Kyle will perform a seriously heinous action if he chooses to stay, that is not quite the case. The weapon used to threaten the Butcher’s family members isn’t loaded at first. If, for some reason, you decide to shoot either of them after the weapon is loaded, you are sent back to the last checkpoint, as shooting civilians results in a game over. You can, however, shoot the Butcher after he finishes divulging the important information.
Obviously, it would have been extremely tasteless to allow the player to shoot one of the Butcher’s family members, but it and earlier scenes demonstrate that the writers were attempting to have their cake and eat it. The team boasted that the player would have to engage in morally grey actions in the single-player campaign, yet, with the exception of gunning down several enemy soldiers, they practicably never get their hands dirty. The player character, regardless of how gritty things get, is always in the clear. Even if lines of dialogue change slightly based on the player character’s actions, the overall plot develops independently from them. These moments may as well occur in cutscenes if the writers aren’t going to give players an opportunity to influence the plot.
Otherwise, the narrative’s true lack of conviction is the most apparent when you’ve reached the end of the game. By the end of the original Modern Warfare, one major player character was dead while the other’s fate had been left ambiguous. The 2019 Modern Warfare appears to have Alex sacrifice himself in the final mission only for it to be revealed after the fact that he survived. All three games in the original trilogy have the potential to hit audiences hard given that even player characters aren’t guaranteed to survive. I would argue the writers of those games eventually went too far with the idea, but there is something to be said for daringness. The 2019 Modern Warfare goes back to the classic standby of giving the main characters enough plot armor for them to survive an atomic explosion or two. Considering that games set on the front lines live and die based off their suspense, having none robs the narrative of any kind of power.
Drawing a Conclusion
From a distance, the 2019 Modern Warfare seems very out-of-place in the year in which it saw its release. Spec Ops: The Line thoroughly deconstructed the modern-military shooter when it debuted in 2012, so it stands to reason that Infinity Ward creating one in 2019 and successfully getting critical acclaim would be like a hair metal band, without changing their image, successfully proving their relevance after the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991. However, you have to look a little bit closer at Spec Ops: The Line to realize why its deconstruction didn’t translate to a long-term effect on the AAA industry. While Spec Ops: The Line was highly praised in 2012, the consensus didn’t last to the end of the decade. By 2019, it became an increasingly common sentiment that its signature, hard-hitting scene did not stand the test of time. There were various reasons why this ended up being the case from other works implementing Richard Pearsey and Walt Williams’s ideas far more competently to the realization that, at the end of the day, Spec Ops: The Line was a poorly designed game. Considering the game intended to call out the modern-military shooter for its many, many unfortunate implications didn’t stand the test of time, it’s not terribly surprising that the genre would see a resurgence – even without Activision’s signature extensive marketing campaigns.
Critics may have praised the 2019 edition of Modern Warfare for allowing the series to grow up, but I will never see it as anything other than an open admission of defeat. By the end of the 2010s, it became painstakingly obvious that the original Modern Warfare was the last truly good thing to happen to the franchise, so its 2019 reboot is an equally transparent attempt to capture lightning in a bottle. The series’ steep decline directly resulted from its inability – and unwillingness – to push the envelope, and with the release of this game, the second verse now echoes the first.
The 2019 Modern Warfare may not be a bad game, but it does demonstrate just how far the series had fallen since the 2007 original. That iteration of Infinity Ward tried to give gamers their money’s worth for the $60 investment. As the decade came to a close, single-player campaigns often became an afterthought. While the 2007 Modern Warfare was about the standard length of an action game with a definite three-act structure, players can easily blow by its 2019 reboot in a day. A game that takes up more than 100 gigabytes in hard drive space somehow has less to offer than an independently produced effort 100 megabytes in size. This is what happens when an entertainment giant is defined by its bloat rather than its content.
Now, this isn’t to say that the 2019 Modern Warfare is a complete failure – or even a failure at all. It does offer the occasional interesting story beat, and the actual gameplay is equal parts solid and intuitive. Multiplayer matches became especially appealing after the Playerunknown Battlegrounds-inspired Warzone add-on was released the following March. I would even go as far as saying that it offers a more worthwhile experience than either of the two sequels to the original Modern Warfare, as its missteps are far less severe. However, my stance when it comes to recommending it is largely the same as with any given installment released between 2009 and 2019. Those strongly opposed to the genre will not be won over by this game whereas complete newcomers are going to get much more from playing the original. The American AAA gaming industry did not survive the 2010s with its artistic credibility intact, and while it might be considered a little unfair to hold up the 2019 Modern Warfare as a symbol of the decline, I can safely say using it in such a manner wouldn’t be your worst choice.
Final Score: 4.5/10