As though the sea reboots in cinema wasn’t enough, it has now seeped into gaming. The 2019 Modern Warfare is a remake of the fourth Call of Duty game of the same name, which released over a decade prior. It features all the same characters filling all the same roles, but has a vastly different plot line.
Typically there is little to be said about Call of Duty campaigns. At best they are action blockbusters that give you a power fantasy of guiltlessly mowing down waves of fascist Russians, Nazis and Jihadi terrorists. Not a lot to say beyond “yeah, it’s quite good”. And at worst they are a tacked on, shallow afterthought. Good or bad, words are normally few for what they have to offer.
The Modern Warfare series has always been outstanding in this regard, due to its contemporary setting and depictions of, well, modern warfare. The original game was half about the US straight invading the middle east to capture one man. The second featured a mission where a CIA operative aids in a terrorist attack against unarmed civilians just to keep his cover with the terrorists he has infiltrated, only to die anyway. The third wasn’t shy about killing a mother and child in a car bomb attack.
And the 2019 reboot of the Modern Warfare branch is no different. In many ways it dials things up. Unlike it’s predecessors, however, it’s lead developers spoke out prior to it’s release to declare that it wasn’t a political game. Frankly, not only do I not believe this, but I do not believe that even they believe this. These words come from one place and one place only, to my mind; fear of it’s unapologetic politics driving away sales.
The main focus of the game is asking “how far is too far“, with the methods used by the SAS, middle-eastern freedom fighters and extremists all being compared and contrasted; all push the limits in what is morally an okay thing to do in the name of what they perceive to be the best thing to do, and the game wants you to think about whether the stuff you end up doing is any different from what a terror-
Yes, what you’re doing is completely different from what a terrorist does. Frankly, because for as edgy as Modern Warfare is, it is just that. There is no commentary to it, and what is left is the illusion of a deep running theme when what you’re actually looking at is some pretty surface level bias for the west made by an American game because, well, what else could it be?
In this post 9/11 world where decades have been spent in the middle east fighting a war on terror, the proest pro-war game of all time, Call of Duty, was never going to seriously question the methods of western organisations. In an interrogation scene, you can hold a gun to the innocent members of a terrorists family, but if you pull the trigger the gun isn’t loaded and your Captain mocks you for giving away the trick. In a room-by-room house clearing mission there is a baby which can be killed by on purpose and by accident, but if the baby dies the level resets and shuns you for killing it, thus nurturing the impact of the baby dying at all and the player’s inability to make the same snap decisions like a real life soldier would. There is a lot of civilian death – and even an instance of child death – in the game and it all amounts to spectacle with little commentary on the civilian impacts of war beyond the fact that it’s bad for innocent people to die.
Modern Warfare (2019) is, in spite of all it’s pretentious writing, just as shallow as any other game in the franchise. The difference being that most other games in the franchise know they’re shallow and don’t aspire to do anything more than to be a decent action-blockbuster game in the time they have.
This is a game that will try to blur the line between what a freedom fighter and terrorist is, and yet the game’s definition for the two couldn’t be clearer; Freedom fighters work with the CIA, terrorists don’t. Freedom fighters will help the SAS, terrorists won’t. Freedom fighters goals align with the western world, but those of terrorists don’t. Freedom fighters use sniper rifles, and terrorists wear bomb vests. A lot of dialogue will try to convince you otherwise, and that the lines are blurring, but that’s never really true. The freedom fighters in this game are just people with western ideals dressed up in stereotypical middle-eastern garbs.
Meanwhile the Russians, who are the actual baddies of the game, are hardly even worth mentioning in this regard because there’s no discussion on the merit of what they do beyond it IS evil. Chemical weapons? Russians use ’em. Slave labour? Russians use it. Civilian casualties? Russians cause it. Child murder? Russians want it. There is no end to which this game about blurring the lines won’t go to show every single Russian literally ever born ever is evil. I mean it.
The game goes as far as attributing a real life war crime committed by the British and US in the 90’s – called the highway of death – to the Russians. It literally rewrites history so the white saviours can come save the poor freedom fighters from the big bad Russians. Now, I’m no writer, but in a game about blurring the lines, bringing up the highway of death might be a good way to show the west isn’t actually, y’know, that angelical. But instead, it’s used to show the west is angelical because they attribute it to the game’s antagonists instead.
Narratively speaking, Modern Warfare 2019 feels like its politics and themes were written by somebody with something to say but implemented into the game by people who had no interest in it – it clearly is passionate about it’s ideas, but is so hypocritical and contradicting of itself, with lead developers and publishers scared its ideas will drive away the sales of Call of Duty’s typical broad audience, that nothing ever comes together and no through-line is truly felt on a thematic or political level.
Ironically, the first Call of Duty game in years with something to say might have been better if it’d been one of the many others with little to say.
But did anyone ever buy Modern Warfare 2019 for it’s stunning political commentary?
Which only makes this whole thing so much more bizarre. Especially because in terms of gameplay, level design, grit and satisfaction the game plays and feels like a dream. It builds tension better than any other Call of Duty game and offers satisfying pay-offs that are something other than getting to see a big explosion.
The set pieces are memorable – like when you have to fire flares in the air to spot enemies advancing at you in the pitch-black in a long-grassy field. The assault on a hospital where the enemies disguise themselves as patients in beds, only pulling their gun on you when you get too close. Room-to-room house searches where you’ll have to make snap decisions between who and who isn’t a threat? Who is a civilian and who is a guy about to shoot you? Advancing down tunnels where life and death is decided by how carefully you check your corners. It’s the first Call of Duty in a long time where I could probably tell you which level was which, rather than thinking of the thing as a long blurry timeline of guys getting shot.
And the truth is that I would recommend Modern Warfare 2019 on the basis that it’s fun. Because, let’s be honest, it’s not like anyone expected it’s themes or politics to be particularly good and it’s not as though anyone is actually interested in the story of these things beyond who you are and who the baddie is. But more than that, this watered down version of a game that might have once meant something is interesting. It’s a videogame case study of an old, tired franchise trying to do something new but backing out at the last second, resulting in being the most unintentionally pretentious – and sometimes funny because of that – thing you’ll watch unfold… While also letting you feel the genuine the power-fantasy and tension you’d expect from a Call of Duty game. The fact anyone even tried to deny the political nature of this game, which is inherantly political because of it’s setting, chosen themes and chosen antagonists, is bizarre. You can’t depict contemporary conflict, which intentionally draws on real life events, that has caused real suffering and say your game lacks a message.
So if you’re an apolitical gamer looking for a prowar power fantasy about being a white saviour in the east, mowing down jihadi terrorists and facist Russians, to help the poor and suffering feeedom fighters, then you’ll love Modern Warfare 2019.
I can’t remember what director it was who said they couldn’t make an anti-war movie because film by its very nature made the action exciting. I suppose that’s about 10x more the case with videogames. On some level the politics gets absorbed by the lizard brain of having fun killing people. Probably not a good thing, but maybe not as bad as it seems either.
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I’d agree for the most part. But every now and again you get a piece of media like this that wants – or at least thinks – it is something more than a device to tap into the lizard brain, and it’s just bizzare.