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Modern Warfare changes the game, for better and for worse

On paper at least, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, a quasi-reboot/quasi-prequel/quasi-sequel, has a lot in common with its 2007 namesake. Killstreak rewards return to competitive multiplayer, a philosophical about-face on the last few years of levelling the playing field; the zany traversal gimmicks of late are nowhere to be seen; and you once again spend time following moustachioed British SAS hard-man Captain Price to the next checkpoint, to the next, “You take the one on the left, I’ll take the one on the right” infiltration.

But this is a more sombre, subdued affair. The CoD rollercoaster has had the brakes applied, and for the first time Activision’s dubious “realism” marketing claims have some merit. The six-hour story mode is extremely uncomfortable. A tale of Middle East proxy wars, a power struggle between Russia and the USA and the insurgents and terrorists in the middle, it showcases the human cost and the horror of war like never before.

Modern Warfare's campaign strikes a different tone compared to prior games in the series.

Modern Warfare’s campaign strikes a different tone compared to prior games in the series.

Innocent civilians — mostly women and children — fall prey to suicide bombers, occupying armies, and chemical weapons. During one interactive sequence your character is waterboarded; in another, you need to crawl through a gassed village, right past a dead child. This war isn’t glorified or heroic; it’s barbaric, but necessary. And although that results in a less rollicking, arguably less enjoyable gameplay experience, it does feel appropriate given the subject matter.

Any nuance or newfound maturity, however, is undermined by a two-dimensional depiction of the Russians as unambiguously evil. They’re comic book supervillains in one scene, horror movie creatures in the next, and their barbarous actions are repeatedly and directly contrasted with the nobler actions of the “good guys”. Even the Cold War saw subtler portrayals.

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