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Call of Duty: the political message of Modern Warfare is buried under blockbuster bravado

This message contains light spoilers for the single player campaign of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019).

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Early Sunday morning in northwestern Syria, American troops invaded the compound of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, forcing the leader of one of the most cruel, well-organized and resourceful terrorist groups in recent history to retreat to a series of underground tunnels. There he exploded a suicide jacket and killed three of his children. The mission was considered a success and President Trump has since declared the attack a stunning victory for his administration and "a great evening for the United States and for the world."

Just a few hours later and thousands of miles away, I watched an almost identical virtual simulation of such a moment on my television screen, thanks to the latest Duty game. As newly recruited spec ops specialist SAS Sergeant Kyle Garrick, I participated in a joint US and UK attack on the compound of Omar "The Wolf" Sulam, the leader of the fictional terrorist group Al-Qatala, in the made-up country of Urzikstan.

Developer Infinity Ward was of course not aware of such a real-life operation; the entire mission is modeled on the real raid on Abbottabad that overturned Osama bin Laden, with some clear visual clues derived from Kathryn Bigelow's film Zero dark thirty. But the context of such missions nowadays always seems to be sufficiently comparable.

This is Modern warfare, and the game is announced as a creepy return to form for the aimless but hugely popular first-person shooter series. This iteration brings back the once characteristic single-player campaign from the franchise with the aim of achieving an unprecedented level of grim realism. And Infinity Ward largely succeeds: the new Modern warfare is by far the most graphically impressive, pulsating and immersive war game I have played since then Battlefield series of visceral recreation from WWI.

Just like its predecessors, Modern warfare also offers little in the way of thoughtful commentary on war or geopolitics, but I begin to feel it unfair to ever expect that shooter games will even be able to achieve such a performance. That said, it certainly tries, usually by enhancing the sights and sounds of fighting to an alarming degree of loyalty.

In the Wolf Raid mission you go through the three-story house of the complex and are asked to clear every room on every floor with methodical, extremely precise lethality. It is one of the few nocturnal raids in the game, modeled on high-profile murder operations that the US has conducted over the past decade. These missions almost uniquely define the new tone of the campaign for one player: slow, maddening, and interrupted by short and shocking outbursts of violence.

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You only get about two ammunition magazines, but you don't need more than two or three bullets for each of the house's armed residents, mostly middle-aged men and discreet Middle Eastern men found in rooms adjacent to women and children who squat. The game encourages you to mount your silent automatic rifle on the edges of door frames so that you can peak around corners with night vision activated and laser sights only visible to you and your team. You see a pair of eyes and as soon as a gun is raised, press the trigger three times. The sound design – the way in which the silenced bullets feel as if they are being transferred by a steel straw and the heavy thump of bodies falling to the ground – ensures that you keep it standing. Shoot an unarmed woman and it's over and you start at the bottom. Those are the rules of involvement.

Eventually you discover that the Wolf is not in the house, but in a series of tunnels under the building. You chase him there, and the game switches from a tense military thriller to a full action movie. Everything that moves that is not your partner, Urzikstan freedom fighter and American ally Farah, is a fair game. You avoid flaming debris from the explosions that collapse the tunnel behind you and flash away the sight lines of turrets manning bad guys. You can see De Wolf hiding in a bunker and sending his message to his followers as you get closer. One shot on the head and it's over. Yet you have to cut a series of threads on his suicide jacket to prevent it from exploding and taking you away. Mission accomplished.


Image: Activision / Infinity Ward

Modern warfareThe most important force is that it does not shy away from acknowledging that conflicts nowadays operate on a different moral level than the historically remediated world wars of popular shooters from the past. In this game you move painfully slowly, often under cover of the night, and aided by the technological advantage of the US at Goliath level. Your fights are claustrophobic, fought in tight rooms and often prone to collateral damage. Despite your best efforts, citizens are in the crossfire and the primary thematic tendency of the game is struggling with the idea that the & # 39; good guys & # 39; perhaps resort to bad tactics to achieve the morally just result.

"If you take the gloves off, you risk getting blood on your hands," Captain Price, who has been a favorite for many years, tells his new protector Garrick, who becomes an acolyte of Price & # 39; s state-sanctioned highly armed after He has barely survived a terrorist attack. at Piccadilly Circus in London that left scores dead and the perpetrators free. So you, as a player, take over as Garrick, and occasionally the more steely CIA-verteran Alex, to take the real fight to the terrorists, with the gloves off.

That seems to be the muddy message of the game. That this is what the most skilled soldiers in the world have to resort to if they want to maintain peace and, more importantly, the international hegemony of the US. That it's not all good versus bad guys, but more mushy gray that serves the interests of amorphous concepts such as liberal democracy and, unspoken in the game, the military industrial complex that keeps the US at the top and keeps everyone according to its rules. That is until someone breaks the rules or tries to change the game, and you have the task to eliminate them.

Lots of conversation around Modern warfare so far it has focused on its idiosyncratic representations of war crimes, which were apparently intended to arouse controversy for controversy. There is indeed an interactive scene for water boarding (you are on the receiving end of the torture), and a series of child soldiers (it is more like a cinematic escape mission where you play a very young version of protagonist Farah, who has to kill enemy soldiers to Survive the Russian massacre). Yes, you can use white phosphorus, an armed chemical that is banned for use by civilians under the rules of the Geneva Convention, as a killstreak reward item in the game's competitive multiplayer.

I certainly sympathize with the worries. The interactive sequence of water boards was coarse and unnecessary, even though it felt shocking and effective at the time. And the scene of the child soldiers was free, even if the opening of the mission meant that Farah & # 39; s father led her through a Russian massacre in her small village in one of the most disturbing video game films I have ever seen.

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These moments must be earned. It's hard to say that Modern warfare does enough of the legwork in his painfully short cut-scenes and minimal environmental stories in the approximately six-hour campaign to use subjects such as torture and genocide as narrative instruments, instead of blunt instruments of shock and awe. It's just "No Russian" anymore infamous mission of Modern Warfare 2 who has allowed you, the player, to participate as you see fit or not to participate in a terrorist attack at the airport. It is nothing new for video games, even though it looks really alarming nowadays.

But I like those elements of the Modern warfare campaign overshadows what works well: creating an unparalleled and convincing atmospheric war experience that feels right at the time and does not go overboard with the reorganization of Western foreign policy. (I understand that the last bit is under discussion.) It is what the game sells and it delivers in full, and anyone looking for a shooting campaign with fantastic writing, fantastic acting and a mix of tense battles with breathtaking set pieces would do much could do worse than that Modern warfare.

This is how a modern shooter should look, feel and play. And unless you find the entire genre morally impaired, which is a perfectly reasonable position to hold, you will find Modern warfareHis campaign both exciting and alarming in equal measure. You can clearly see that in the design of Infinity Ward.


Image: Activision / Infinity Ward

If there is a concrete political philosophy with some depth in the game, it comes from a Price rule that first emerged when it was just a bit of a voice-over in an early trailer: "We're getting dirty and the world stays clean; that is the mission. ”It is used to reassure Garrick after a particularly arresting interrogation round in which the game openly invites you not to participate, which of course makes that much more complicated when you find yourself in the room with a tied Al "Qatala leader and a gun pointed to his wife's head." Where do we draw the line? "Garrick asks Price afterwards." Wherever you want, "he says.

A braver, less blockbuster-focused game would have made Price the true villain – a UK-born monster largely made up of America and its Western allies and going to the ends of the earth to do what he thinks is right , international law damned. But that is not what this game wants to do and it is certainly not what it means. There are to continue, and last but not least.

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Instead, Duty, just like the wars that it tries to tell stories about, he marches on to the next villain. There is always another head for Price to claim as long as the US writes the checks, and a different game can always be made as long as the consumer keeps buying and playing them. Throw in the towel and stop fighting hell can break free, we keep being told. The writers of Modern warfare couldn't think of a cleaner metaphor for Western foreign policy if they tried.

But I would lie if, when I put down the controller while the credits were rolling and CIA handler Kate Laswell identifies the new head of Al-Qatala, I said I didn't feel anything had crashed deeply over me. The US had killed al-Baghdadi, and just today, Trump says we killed his No. 2. ISIS may disappear, but something else is likely to take its place. And Modern warfare, months before this all went down, largely based on Hollywood portrayals of armed conflict, it has done better to articulate that vicious circle than anything else I have experienced in the recent memory. Maybe it is entirely by accident, but it is a message that is still worth hearing.