When CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE 2 launched in 2009, it did so with no shortage of controversy, primarily revolving around the single-player campaign’s fourth mission, entitled “No Russian.” In it, you assume the role of Joseph Allen, an undercover CIA agent attempting to infiltrate a cell of Russian ultranationalist radicals led by enigmatic bad guy Makarov. When gameplay starts, you, Makarov, and several other terrorists enter a crowded terminal in a Moscow airport. Your only objective flits by at the top of the screen: “Follow Makarov’s Lead.”
Your terrorist buddies proceed to gun down hundreds of unsuspecting travelers in the crowded terminal. You aren’t forced to join in, and can maintain your cover simply by passively watching as your teammates do their work (you’re even allowed to opt out of the mission altogether, skipping ahead to the next part of the story). That being said, the game does nothing to stop you from participating in the massacre, either.
You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a meme
If MODERN WARFARE 2 broke new ground in the depiction of violence in video games, MODERN WARFARE 2019 has discovered a new continent. Every mission in the reboot’s campaign feels like a “No Russian,” with your forces and the opposition constantly one-upping the other with the most shocking war crimes they can muster. Many of these scenarios are ripped from real-life headlines, albeit with slight recontextualization. They’re also some of the most entertaining, deftly-paced action set pieces I’ve played in a good while. Making both of these elements work together requires some mental gymnastics on the part of both the developer and the player, and some pieces consequently fall apart in the process.
MODERN WARFARE’s sixish-hour-long campaign puts you in control of three different characters, each with their own lines in the sand, and opinions on when or even whether they should be crossed. CIA agent Alex has done some bad things in the past, but is trying to do as much good as he can while working under the auspices of an ethically dubious organization. British counter-terror specialist Kyle feels restricted by the rules of engagement, and believes extrajudicial measures need to be taken in order to save lives. Freedom fighter Farrah has seen firsthand what the occupiers of her country do to those who resist their regime, but adamantly refuses to resorting to their tactics in order to drive them out (namely, the use of chemical weapons).
Impressively enough for a Call of Duty title, MODERN WARFARE has themes, and ones that go beyond “heroic self-sacrifice is the best” at that. While the game (wisely) stops just short of taking a definitive stance on MidEast conflicts, it does give the player pause to reflect on the morality of violence, justified or not. It’s a shame that this otherwise grounded and mature take on counter-terrorism operations also gamifies waterboarding (“move your head out of the way to stay conscious!”) and features a boss fight finale against a man in a bomb defusal suit who is lugging around a weapon typically mounted on aircraft. Decisions like this are made in the design process independently from the writers in order to ensure the game is fun, which unfortunately muddies the message that warfare is anything but.
Part of the issue is how hard it is to discern just what exactly MODERN WARFARE draws from newsreels and what it draws from other works of entertainment media inspired by real-world conflicts. One of the most upsetting segments of the game sees an angry mob whipped into a fervor by terrorists storming a US embassy and massacring not just the marines guarding it, but also unarmed office workers and even children. It’s a clear reference to the 2012 attacks in Benghazi that left a US ambassador and three other Americans dead, but structurally and visually it heavily channels Michael Bay’s 13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI.
Call of Duty is no stranger to emulating Hollywood; previous games have pulled set pieces from APOCALYPSE NOW, RED DAWN, BLACK HAWK DOWN, SICARIO, and many more military films. Bay’s work in particular has been a favorite of the Modern Warfare franchise, so much so that the aesthetics of both have become practically indistinguishable (multiplayer map Gulag Showers is throwback to memorable MW2 mission “The Gulag,” as well as a reference to that level’s own homage to 1996 Bay blockbuster THE ROCK).
Given all these shout-outs to big budget summer movies, one could write off MODERN WARFARE’s campaign as a love letter to action cinema, but given the subject matter, it’s just not that simple. A later mission sees the player characters teaming up to capture a terrorist leader in his compound. Inserting via helicopter during nighttime, it’s easy to draw connections to the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Yet because that was a covert mission involving classified material and a notoriously secretive special forces unit, there were understandably no cameras present during that operation. The next best thing the public has for reference is Kathryn Bigelow’s ZERO DARK THIRTY, which MODERN WARFARE readily dives into for inspiration.
MODERN WARFARE is tackling material that is often not shown on TV by merit of being too awful to show unprepared viewers. It does this in the name of selling the latest iteration in one of the most popular game series in history. While it’s unsurprising that compromises were made with such a valuable IP in order to avoid offending anyone too much (though this has already failed, as Russian gamers are already review-bombing the game for its incendiary depiction of that country’s military), it would be foolish to have ever assumed that this game would be in good taste.
Though not without stiff competition, MODERN WARFARE has the best campaign in Call of Duty history. Expert pacing, brilliant audio and visual composition, and completely revamped gunplay elevate it beyond anything its predecessors have attempted. It is also one of the most intellectually inflammatory titles in a series known for courting controversy. While it never tries anything quite as brazen as “No Russian,” the sheer volume of atrocities on screen and their proximity to ones happening now sets a new bar in AAA gaming. Both of these qualities exist in spite of each other, yet both serve to distract from the most ambitious narrative that’s been attempted from an otherwise one-note series. Is this to say that MODERN WARFARE’s story mode is without merit? Not at all—it is certainly a highlight among 2019’s lineup, and certainly demands playing at least once. Still, one can only imagine what could have been accomplished had the storytelling not needed to be weighed against the blockbuster demands of one of gaming’s biggest franchises.