It is 2019. Urzikstan, a made-up country that’s more or less a metaphorical substitute for not-made-up countries like Armenia and Azerbaijan but with a different name for narrative purposes, has been occupied by Russia under the questionable command of Roman Barkov (bad guy). In response to this, a number of local dissidents join up with Al-Qatala, an organisation ostensibly established to reinstate Urzikstan’s independence from Russia and other foreign interference but actually mostly about international terrorism, under the equally questionable command of Omar “The Wolf” Sulaman (also a bad guy). And in response to that, other local dissidents have joined the Urzikstan Liberation Force, a militia dedicated to removing the Russians and Al-Qatala, under the much less questionable command of Farah Karim (good guy, but a woman so that’s probably also a controversial thing) with support from Team Democracy (US and UK, also good guys because those are the rules).
For now, anyway. Shit gets kind of complicated.
Like most other Call of Duty fans, the original Modern Warfare was a special game for me. Launched in 2007, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare featured an emotionally unprecedented campaign, with credible protagonists, a compelling exposition of the moral ambiguities of contemporary conflicts, and, you know, that Pripyat mission. The game redefined the military FPS, at the time stuck between clichéd reiterations of USA versus Nazis and tedious internet debates about M1 Garand audio authenticity, introducing a new level of maturity and subtlety to the genre. Although subsequent games – the first Black Ops, for example – got close, no other Call of Duty ever exceeded it.
And I dunno if the reboot does, but it’s definitely gotten much closer than the others.
Not that it isn’t without issues. In the decade-plus since the first Modern Warfare, (some) military FPS games have become more sophisticated. No Russian was a big deal in 2009, perhaps, but how can a game be that provocative in a generation of social, cultural, and political indifference? To its credit – and despite the developers’ disingenuous disclaimers – this game does include several, uh, introspective moments, but in the end, let’s not pretend that Call of Duty isn’t western recruitment and voter propaganda. Because it is. And if you want to ignore that, so what, you can ignore this too, but even the game’s concessions to okay-so-it’s-sort-of-the-same-but-also-it’s-totally-different-because-because agenda are important and subject to scrutiny. That’s, like, a whole other discussion, and I wrote that in August but it still applies.
In the new Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, there’s an entire sequence involving kids. That’s not a random coincidence. And not necessarily because Infinity Ward needed an excuse to top No Russian, but also because, ten years on, we have more egregious expectations than (or for) murdering civilians in an airport, and vindicating the paranoia and selective xenophobia of the status quo, as reported by Fox News.
So that, but unironic ultranationalism notwithstanding, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s campaign is a lot of fun. It’s one of those awkward things about being critical of games from that perspective, but also a gamer who acknowledges those criticisms and loves the stupid, go-go-capitalist-junk-food-imperialism-and-XP-or-whatever imperatives of the franchise – I despise, even resent, some of the implications, but if I dissed a game on those terms, I wouldn’t have much to play. And that’s also a whole other-other discussion, I guess, and one I can’t link to because who has time for that. From one mission to the next, however, this game is a breathless, non-stop series of no-time-to-consider-that emergencies and increasingly absurd objectives, and I loved every minute of it even if I realise in retrospect that shit is, like… complicated. Like reality.
Because, like the fiction that imitates it, reality is a fucking mess – bad guys and good guys, and who gets to decide which is which or what even exactly constitutes a war crime, that depends on you and your biases as much as the prevailing circumstances. And in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, it also depends on who has the biggest guns. “Are… we the bad guys?” I ask myself, loading up a new mag.
Infinity Ward's reboot is a bleak and uncompromising, if occasionally also somewhat dubious, depiction of modern warfare (zing). What it lacks in meaningful analysis of its events, the game makes up for with laser-targeted explosions. Maybe that's the point.
It's so much fun, even if it shouldn't be
Some legitimately introspective moments
Gross hypocrisy and some disingenuous revisionism, but how much does it matter?