One week since its release, and after much reflection, it’s safe to say that 2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is the best single-player campaign experience in the history of the series. I’d go so far to say that it’s even more than that: with the possible exception of Titanfall 2, it’s hard to think of an FPS from the last five or ten years that could hold a candle to it.
I make this incredibly grandiose statement with the greatest of respects to both the Call of Duty games since the original Modern Warfare back in 2007, as well as the dozens of excellent first-person shooters released during that time. But I really don’t make this claim lightly.
After years of fans and onlookers complaining about Call of Duty’s stale campaign formula and, most recently, the actual lack of a single-player campaign (thanks, Black Ops 4), Infinity Ward–with the help of High Moon, Beenox, Raven and Sledgehammer–is back to prove a point.
What Modern Warfare delivers is not just the game that both the series and 2019 deserves, but it also provides the new benchmark for the genre.
If you’re yet to play it, don’t worry: this round-up will be spoiler free.
It’s not just beautiful–it’s consistently cinematic
Within seconds of playing Modern Warfare, you come to realize that every shot is worthy of the silver screen. From the more relaxed strolls right through to the most frenzied compound assaults, you’ll regularly find yourself watching in awe rather than playing, whether it’s gawping at a simple fire or getting distracted by the rising haze from a freshly fired bullet as you’re lining up your next target through the scope.
It’s beautiful to the point that in pre-mission build-ups, you’re surprised to see names hovering over other characters because no, it’s not an FMV: it’s the in-game graphics at work and the mechanics are live. There’s no quick crossfade to bring the quality down before you go weapons free; what you see is what you get.
This is further underlined by the HUD, which actively drops off the screen after a short time if you’re not actively using your weapon. It’s the best decision the developers made; it removes yet another barrier of fiction between you and the Modern Warfare experience.
It’s all done so well that it made me change something which, for me, is an audio-visual crutch. For years, I’ve played nearly every game with subtitles because I never want to miss a thing. Within the first ten minutes of Modern Warfare, I switched them off. While they’re obviously incredibly important from an inclusivity perspective, they nonetheless detract from the impact of the art direction. Nothing demonstrated this quite as much as “[CROWD SCREAMING]” when an incredibly framed suicide bomber steps out into Piccadilly Circus in the game’s opening scenes.
Now, that’s not to say the game always looks perfect; the uncanny valley is often in effect, specifically in intermissions and Captain Price, Modern Warfare’s link to the past. Other character models, like newcomer and all-round great addition SAS Sergeant Kyle Garrick, look true to life. Depending on the lighting and dialogue, characters can look a little odd–but it’s still the most realistic-looking FPS going.
Gameplay is frantic, realistic and wonderfully varied
The core mechanics of Modern Warfare are nigh-on perfect. Shooting feels weighted and impactful; running feels like a physical chore; levels never seem restrictive, linear or forced. New mechanics are introduced which, although often being part and parcel of rival games for years (such as wind and distance-affected bullet mechanics), are done well and never feel crowbarred in.
During battle, there really is a gravity to everything to see, do and feel. Trees splinter after being caught up in explosions; bodies falter and fall as you’d expect them to; watchtowers burn and collapse exactly how you’d predict.
Over the course of the game, you’re also treated to a variety of gameplay styles:
- That classic FPS action switching between gung-ho fighting and stealth elements;
- Out-of-body, remote-controlled experiences;
- Tactical point-and-click drone action;
- A very specific but surprisingly enjoyable camera-based stealth section; and
- Regular opportunities to adjust your combat style with prior planning.
On a side note, it’s also worth pointing out that you feel about two feet taller in Modern Warfare than any other FPS. Not falsely, though; it just seems like the proportions and distance from the ground are truer to life, and switching between standing, crouching and prone is more accurate than ever. No more eyes-resting-on-the-floor sniper antics here.
The fog of war is real
The first mission in the game is called Fog of War, which undoubtedly refers to the toxic gas that underpins the storyline. However, the incredible visuals, combined with the all-new gameplay, make for an actual fog of war experience to the extent you may find yourself running into a corner of a room or courtyard just to collect your thoughts. Indeed, the loading screen occasionally recommends you to leg it if things get too hot.
I’m a fan of enjoying the story on Regular or Hardened mode and then revisiting on Veteran, but never, in a Call of Duty game, have I struggled so much with an entry-level difficulty as during Modern Warfare. It’s all because of the way it captures the true-to-life chaos you’d expect from a real battle, as opposed to your standard videogame shootout.
Bullets fly from all directions. The dynamic lighting ensures that enemies in pitch-black areas really can’t be seen at all. Gunshots don’t make cartoonish trails, voices aren’t made to sound like they’re obviously coming from a specific place, and the AI feels like it’s living and breathing with its tactical movements.
This unpredictable adaptability of the AI is true to such a degree that if you fail, die and reload from a checkpoint, you might see the imminently inbound enemy that killed you taking a different path or strategy, or somehow getting killed by an ally before they reach you. It’s not random, either; it’s reactionary. As a result, you can’t predict the state of play half a second after you restart, even after many deaths.
While watching me fight through the streets of London, my partner asked: “Which ones do you shoot?” She hit the nail on the head, because it’s the first time in a Call of Duty game where it’s just not obvious. From a distance, people may be terrorists, SAS, armed police or even civilians. For the first time in the franchise’s history, the campaign mode portrays what feels like a living, breathing world. That can be a bad thing, too, but in the best possible way for the storyline.
Helplessness is a constant, heavy undercurrent
It might be something to do with the graphics, or a wider symptom of modern world we find ourselves in, but Modern Warfare hammers you with a genuine feeling of vulnerability that cuts through you like a knife, something compounded by that fog of war effect. Once again, Piccadilly Circus provides the first real example of this.
While we’ve had No Russian in Modern Warfare 2, or the London dirty bomb of Modern Warfare 3, these feel tame and simplistic compared to the horrific themes and experiences of 2019 Modern Warfare, which lays it on thick in the most realistic manner from minute one. Standing in an open square while active shooters, exploding cars and suicide bombers come from all directions makes you feel like a victim, not a soldier.
Prior to this, Modern Warfare introduces foreboding, slow-building dread immediately, with a Scandi-noir-style intro that cuts from true, terroristic horror in the heart of London to a silent title card, before dumping you thousands of miles away at a previous time. It immediately sets the tone for what is, quite frankly, the grown-up experience the franchise has been crying out for.
Before you know it, you’re back in London, helplessly watching a clearly terrorist-filled Ford Transit rock up to one of the most heavily populated areas of the city, knowing exactly what’s going to happen. From here most of the time you find yourself overwhelmed, feeling ultimately human: a cog in a war machine.
Throughout Modern Warfare, you’re reminded that you can’t save everyone. You might find yourself reloading a checkpoint to rescue that woman, or simply having another bash at killing more terrorists after dying, but you’ll see innocents slaughtered regularly for no good reason, just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And it always feels horrible, digging into both time-honored fears of death and modern worries about terrorism.
But it never feels over the top or sensationalist, like No Russian does in retrospective comparison. Occasionally, Modern Warfare does come across as a bit lazy with its portrayal of some enemies, specifically the Russians–the first enemy in level Hometown is a good example of this, without giving too much away–but everything has an ultimate purpose to further the game’s gripping narrative.
The story, and its players, are genuinely brilliant
While speaking too much about it will give the game away if you’re yet to play it, you won’t ever feel let down by Modern Warfare’s storyline. While it’s reached a new, mature level to match the franchise’s latest direction, it still manages draw from the formula that made it so enjoyable in the first place. You’ll still get plenty of those narrative twists, moral gray areas and several examples of WTFery which keep the suspense high and your predictions inaccurate.
At the same time, the cartoonish enemies–and performances–that often typified Call of Duty games are gone. The original Modern Warfare’s Imran Zakhaev–the one-armed bandit who bizarrely looked and acted like an even hammier version of Bitores Mendez from Resident Evil 4–is replaced with the seemingly selfless Omar Sulaman, who never feels like a “proper” bad guy.
Then there’s Price, looking like a refined Thoros of Myr from Game of Thrones, who shuns the bulletproof, burly Brit schtick for a much more rounded, measured and balanced personality. Farah, Hadir, Alex and Kyle never act stereotypically or predictably; each one feels real, maintaining proper relationships that aren’t sensationalized for a stupid undercurrent plot, like a two-day battlefield romance.
Even the foreboding Nikolai, apparently portrayed in this game by a more dapper-looking Eugene from AMC’s The Walking Dead (though it’s actually Stefan Kapičić, Colossus from Deadpool), is a question mark factory of a man. Presuming–hoping–there’s a sequel, we’ll only see him flourish into something different entirely.
Night vision is where it’s at
While this could have been mentioned during the earlier fawning over the graphics, the night-vision mode is worthy of its own salute. Perhaps this is borne out of luck. Given that genuine night vision is restricted by technology, real-life footage we see of it on TV or online is in lower definition. As such, Modern Warfare seems to benefit from a “meeting in the middle” situation: where the game falls slightly short in graphical fidelity, it more than surpasses expectations of what we’re used to seeing in monochromatic green.
The fact the night-vision-heavy missions (specifically Clean House and Going Dark) are an utter delight to play only makes the experience all the better, but you’ll never see a game more true to life than the moment in Modern Warfare where you’re silently climbing the stairs of a London townhouse. It’s the first time in years that I’ve literally rubbed my eyes in amazement at how realistic a game looks.
It’s very clear Modern Warfare is geared to campaign
While I’ve never been a big fan of Call of Duty multiplayer modes (save for local co-op on Zombies or MW2’s phenomenal Spec Ops mode), it’s often felt like the MP element has somewhat shifted dev attention away from the campaign . Modern Warfare, from the very beginning, is clearly story first.
Little changes make sure you enjoy it, too. Gone is the interminable intel collectables model, which only seemed to exist to make you run around the whole map instead of making you simply appreciate your surroundings. Meanwhile, the achievements list–at least on Xbox One–is entirely campaign related, with great in-level challenges that give you alternative and often challenging ways to approach each stage.
But for all its progression, Modern Warfare’s campaign doesn’t dismiss its roots, or try to rewrite history. The remastered version of the series’ former genre-defining release is only two years old, but this is a separate entity entirely. Even if Captain Price’s familiar face ties the two experiences together, 2019 Modern Warfare is a totally different beast and as such, the two can (and should) be enjoyed in isolation.
Luckily, though, it’s 2019 Modern Warfare that will shape the future of the franchise. After playing it, you’ll be desperate to see what comes next.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a review copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare in exchange for a fair and honest review.
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