The military forces of first-world nations, with their technological superiority and years of relentless training, are unstoppable on an even playing field. Which is why their enemies abroad spend so much time making sure the playing field is not even.
Or at least that’s the central message of the campaign of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Your side has night-vision goggles, an array of suppressed weapons aimed with infrared laser sights that are invisible to the enemy, air support, and rock-solid discipline. Your enemies know that they’re going to lose the battle as you clear out a house, room by room, after the lights have been killed and you have every advantage.
But you still have to decide, in a split second, if that woman is diving for a child or a detonator. A terrorist hiding under the bed, gun trained on the door, may be able to take you down before you have a chance to react. The most stressful moments of Modern Warfare take place before the bullets start flying, when you’re trying to track your target in environments filled with civilians, not knowing when it’s safe, or necessary, to begin firing. Modern warfare is complicated, and the challenge isn’t making sure your bullets find the enemy; the difficulty comes from trying to figure out who the enemy even is.
Modern Warfare was built on a new engine, and playing it on a PlayStation 4 Pro connected to a 4K television — which how I reviewed this game, although I’d love to see how it looks on a high-end gaming PC — is a stunning way to spend an evening. The series has always struggled with the tension between portraying how warfare can turn anyone into a monster, while also presenting human monstrosities with the verve and style that makes you feel like struggling with your conscious after killing a bunch of people is really fucking wicked, man, and the new engine’s ability to make everything look, sound, and feel even more “real” only highlights that tension.
The game leans heavily into the idea of trying to portray the inhumanity of proxy wars, and how impossible decisions are forced upon soldiers. How do you follow the basic rules of engagement against an enemy that doesn’t care about any form of decency? Every war these days, the story seems to argue, is asymmetrical. I spent a significant amount of time playing the game, moving slowly through crowded environments, wondering when it would be safe to take out my target. Killing a civilian in most situations ends the game instantly. Killing a civilian when the bullets are flying, however, usually impacts exactly nothing. Shit happens, the rules seem to suggest. In the fog of war, everything looks like a threat. It’s not your fault if your bullets sometimes find the wrong body to tear apart.
The story concerns a terrorist force called Al-Qatala, the freedom fighters of a fictional nation called Urzikstan (ugh), American and British soldiers, and a load of chemical weapons. To exist in this world, you need to compromise what you believe in, and you’re not going to like what you see. There are civilians being executed, suicide bombers, and a scene in which you play a little girl who has to stare into the face of her dead mother before getting the attention of rescuers. You’ll watch humans die slowly in the midst of a chemical weapons attack, which is bad, and you’ll also see animals gasping for air, their limbs pumping in silent agony, which is somehow worse.
The game tends to rub your face in a wide variety of horrors, which can make it exhausting to play in multi-hour chunks. There is one exception near the end, at least, a scene in which the “good guys” bring in a captured soldier’s wife and child in order to ostensibly torture him, but I’m not sure what actually happened in that situation. The game gives you the option of leaving the room, of not taking part.
Whatever happens still happens, but I don’t have a hand in it. I do take part in acting on the gained intel, however, and everyone seems to commit war crimes left and right. Does it matter that I choose to keep my hands clean in one moment when they are already filthy, and about to get dirtier? I don’t know, but I have to review this game, and after six hours of playing I didn’t need to see whatever was about to happen to that kid.
“They sent us in half-assed, so no one knows we’re at war,” a soldier says bitterly at one point, angry that he couldn’t be more aggressive in the face of an enemy using chaos and surprise as their weapons. Modern Warfare leans into the same ideas as films like Sicario, which present a world in which the good guys have to go bad in order to fight evil forces that are willing to do anything, and kill anyone, in order to tilt the odds in their favor.
Someone has to make sure the bad guys are still scared of the dark, a familiar face explains at some point. We get it, if you fight monsters, you run the risk of becoming a monster yourself. It’s a shift from the naked approval of might making right that was pushed in so many past Call of Duty games, but it’s not exactly a new idea.
And a shameful part of me doesn’t care when the developer makes turning into a monster look and feel this good, and that’s when the game becomes truly uncomfortable. Modern Warfare is competency porn; there are many moments in which I was able to appreciate skilled people doing very complicated things, ostensibly in the defense of the world’s peaceful order. These are bad people doing bad things, the text states, while the presentation removes any doubt about the real point: These bad people are also bad ass.
The unexplored question is whether everything really is this way, or if these assumptions just make for a gritty, edgy video game. There is very little judgment cast on how things got this bad, or how they can be improved. Modern Warfare has a very particular kind of tunnel vision, in which it only cares about the people forced to work around the politics while also killing their way into changing the shape of the world.
It may be messed up, this version of the world says, but hey, what are the people with the guns going to do? They didn’t create this, they’re just dealing with it. Which is is an effective way to remove responsibility from the folks we see here, actually pulling the trigger. There is always the idea, left floating above the whole mess, that if the “good guys” ever stepped pushing back against the rules, or maybe put their guns down, the bad guys would win by default.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare features one of the best campaigns the series has ever given us, filled with complicated politics, quiet setups, and brutal moments of violence. It’s a gray world in which it may be impossible to stay on the side of the angels if you’re to stay effective. I felt fear and regret. My heart thumped in my chest, and my pupils dilated. It’s a thrill ride that wants to impart a message, but the message carries little insight, and no answers. This is a fucked up way to do things, the game states, but there may not be another choice. So why not do what you do best, which is creep through the dark, bathed in infrared light, ready to erase any and all hostile forces from the face of the planet, knowing that your actions are likely to create even more unrest and violence?
It’s a cycle that’s horrific, dehumanizing, and unavoidable, and holy shit does the game make it seem like a really good time while telling you how immoral you’re being. It’s no surprise when the game ends with the setup for a sequel; your only triumph is a momentary pause before more killing needs to be done.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is out now for PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a physical copy provided by Activision. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.
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