Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s Campaign is a Half-Step Toward Greatness

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“All Ghillied Up” is the best Call of Duty: Modern Warfare has ever been. “No Russian,” the worst. Modern Warfare 3… well, we don’t talk about that one. Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare reimagining for 2019 promises to usher the decade-plus old subseries into bold new directions. In the campaign, it at least takes a half-step toward that.

Spoiler Warning: This article contains some spoilers for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s campaign.

The campaign’s first order of business is not-so-much villainizing the Middle East, as it so often has, but victimizing it. We quickly meet Farah, a strong resistance leader who will do almost anything to protect her people. We never see her home when it’s not torn apart by war, unlike the peaceful moments before a terrorist attack destroys the tourist-center of London. When her team marches into battle, they yell “For Urzikstan!” proudly—the fictional Middle Eastern country they all hail from. (An eye roll-inducing name too; London can be in Modern Warfare, but not a real country? Really?) Alongside them in battle is always Alex, a white man who looks like a barista in San Francisco, but who fights alongside the resistance group with no questions asked. After all, they have a common enemy: the Russians.

In traditional Modern Warfare fashion, the villain of 2019’s Modern Warfare is a one-dimensional Russian with nothing but evil thoughts and aims. The series’ past villain, Makarov, was also evil in a similar way. Here, Modern Warfare’s Russia wants revenge on all of Urzikstan for allegedly stealing its own chemical gas—no matter how many innocents get caught in the crossfire. In their eyes, it’s all the same. There is no good, or bad, or in between in the Middle East. Oh, and there’s the Wolf, a terrorist thrown in the mix too.

It obviously brings to mind America’s own interventionism in Syria, in Iraq, in wherever America feels it needs to maintain “stability”—or, oil. And yet, Modern Warfare doesn’t really reflect on such matters. It frames America and Britain as the good guys helping the underdog. It’s like one of those trying-to-be heartwarming army recruit commercials you see before a movie these days: we’re helping them out. They need us.

But as we see with Farah, they’re very self-sufficient. They don’t need us; we need them. Her crew is organized and loyal. In an early mission, Farah laments that one of her followers’ door is opened. “Where’d he go?” Alex asks, and Farah responds matter-of-factly that he’s probably dead. “He would never leave his post.”

Farah’s the most compelling character in Modern Warfare, and maybe in the whole series, even if the script gives her character very little to work with. The only time we play as her is as she’s a child: we witness the first men she’s ever killed in her pursuit for survival. She gets lines about how she leads soldiers, not killers. There’s a pause, as if we’re to wonder if there’s really a difference.

And is there?

Modern Warfare touches upon these questions, but never ruminates on them. In an early mission that borders on tasteless, you witness and engage against a terrorist attack in Piccadilly Circus. In one part of it, Captain Price makes a snap decision to push a civilian with a bomb strapped to their chest away from other hostages rather than taking the time to dismantle the bomb. The hostages, Price, and you, all survive; the other person doesn’t. Y’all did what you had to. In another mission, you stalk through a terrorist cell’s base—a townhome—and slaughter almost everyone inside. (Later in the campaign, you do the same thing… elsewhere.) At the end of the mission in the building’s attic, a woman pleads for her life while backing toward a desk. If you don’t shoot her, Price does. You see that she was reaching for a detonator of some sort.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare does utilize limited lighting in effective ways though. | Infinity Ward/Activision Blizzard

It’s this that is the Modern Warfare campaign’s biggest problem: it shows us horrific scenarios, but still pats us on the back for it. We’re always doing “the right” thing in the end. We’re never forced to question if what we did was wrong or not, like Spec Ops: The Line did in 2012 in an impactful way. We’re told it was just a necessity to get there. The afterthought that dovetails every troubling scenario feels at odds with all the compelling character moments and actions you take. It’s not exploitative like “No Russian” was a decade ago, but instead, it tries to have it both ways and suffers as a result.

Still, Modern Warfare is trying, which counts for something. I’m a chapter or two away from the end of the breezy campaign, I suspect. There are the usual gimmicky missions too; some work well (like a sniping mission where you have to account for wind and distance in smart ways), others don’t. Like most Call of Duty campaigns, I imagine people will walk away remembering a mission or two, and not much else, even if the storytelling is at least more coherent this time around. (Heck, I actually care about Farah. I care… about a character in a Call of Duty game! That’s a feat in itself!)

As always, this year’s Call of Duty feels like a lot of different games Frankensteined into one. The multiplayer still feels so separated from the seriousness of the campaign—from the White Phosphorus killstreak that runs counter to the heavy anti-chemical warfare sentiment in the campaign, to the classic heavy guitar thrashes that cue kills in Deathmatch—but it’s unavoidable at this state of the series. Multiplayer is engineered to always have a bent on “fun” first and foremost, while the campaign can be for the more mature.

I don’t know if the two will ever feel compatible, but I don’t know if it matters anymore. And it’s made me realize that maybe I’m part of the problem to handwave the incompatibility, being the soda-guzzling, late night CoD player that I am in the autumn season. All I know is that the multiplayer is bound to steal away every minute of my free time for the next few months. As for the campaign, it will likely fade away save for a mission or two, like everything else.

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