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REVIEW: The new Call of Duty mixes drama and action

The “Call of Duty” series has not missed a year since 2005, leapfrogging between historical, contemporary and outright fantastical fields of war. This year̵...
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REVIEW: The new Call of Duty mixes drama and action
  • reviewed on PlayStation 4 / rated M / $59.99 / released October 2019
  • OFFICIAL SITE: callofduty.com
  • FINAL: You WANT this game. 4 out of 5 stars

The “Call of Duty” series has not missed a year since 2005, leapfrogging between historical, contemporary and outright fantastical fields of war. This year’s “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” is a return to “ripped from today’s headlines” battlefields, complete with all of the collar-pulling cringing that happens when video games try to say something about the realities of war. The narrative may be clumsy, but the real draw is the game’s best-in-class online multiplayer battles.

The story unfolds in an intense series of missions, as counter-terrorism agents circle the globe on the trail of The Wolf and The Butcher. The evil pair plans to use deadly gas bombs to… do something? Prove something? Kill people? It’s honestly not very memorable. The story involves a lot of immaculately bearded tough guys yelling at a lot of other immaculately bearded tough guys, without any deep thought on the topic. Between missions, one tough guy will say, in a dramatic tone, something like “We get dirty so the world can stay clean.” It’s a plot told through the kind of t-shirts you see for sale at truck stops.

However, the operations themselves are impressive. Instead of just being a string of firefights, the “Modern Warfare” campaign offers variety in both locale and style. One mission has you guiding a civilian through an enemy-occupied office building via security cameras, for example. Several ops take place while wearing night-vision goggles, and the flattening effect of seeing everything in green and gray feels even more realistic than the regular missions.

REVIEW: The new Call of Duty mixes drama and action

To drive home the point that counter-terrorism efforts can take place anywhere, there are many missions set in busy cities and houses. This allows the game to test your video game trigger finger and see if you’re willing to shoot before assessing who’s an enemy and who’s not. You’ll come across families and random occupants, some of which may actually pull a gun on you anyway after pleading for their lives. “Modern Warfare” tries to stress that War Is Bad, attempting “gotchas” where you’re supposed to feel bad for the woman you shot down after kicking in her apartment door. But given how many virtual people you just killed in the prior five minutes, it’s tough for a crucial moment like that to have much effect.

The campaign is like watching only the explosive parts of any action movie. There’s not enough story between the smoke clouds to justify the drama of what you’re being asked to accomplish. It relies entirely on you making it work by being able to fill in the blanks with what you already know about cookie-cutter less-than-Tom Clancy movies.

So why does an online multiplayer shoot ’em up (and believe me, the online mode is not at all concerned with jump scare moral choices) even need a story campaign option? It’s largely a lengthy, low-pressure intro to the game’s controls and mechanics… and sometimes you just want to play a game without having to go online and run a gauntlet of other human beings. The story mode is definitely important to include, but the dissonance between the campaign’s message, the slapdash narrative and the very concept of “Call of Duty: A Video Game” is striking.

REVIEW: The new Call of Duty mixes drama and action

Over in the online mode, “Modern Warfare” drops the pretense. The glamour of video game combat rules the day, with no concessions to the ethical questions of conflict. Drive a tank, send in an air strike, pilot a spy drone, customize your rifle, even (um, yikes?) deploy a white phosphorus attack. Everything is dumbed down to a game of kill or be killed (and then come right back.) And it works. It’s fast and tense, and offers plenty of variety in maps and modes. You can even play across different platforms, so you can meet up with friends across PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.

In a welcome change, “Modern Warfare” has adopted the “battle pass” style of in-game rewards, rather than continuing to rely on randomized loot boxes. Loot boxes – where players receive an unpredictable assortment of rewards, often after paying actual money for them – have become a controversial component of many video games. Despite the mature content, plenty of children play games like “Call of Duty,” and loot boxes are effectively a form of gambling since you never know what exactly your money will get you. The battle pass model means paying players know what they’re getting upfront and just have to keep playing to unlock each reward.

Although, in a realistic game like “Modern Warfare,” the $10 battle pass’s initial offerings all end up feeling less than impressive. The “Season One” pass – which just kicked off at the very end of 2019 – includes new player characters, weapon designs and other rewards… but they mostly look like the same stuff you already have without buying the battle pass. Serious fans will enjoy earning these virtual treats, to trick out their load-out with decorated weapons and gear, but it isn’t a requirement to enjoy the online battlefront. In fact, you can earn rewards even without paying for the battle pass, which is a nice carrot-on-a-stick.

REVIEW: The new Call of Duty mixes drama and action

And that’s where “Modern Warfare” shines: hectic fights in amazingly detailed locales. The rotating assortment of modes and the ever-present promise of unlocking something new provide the kind of life that a modern online game needs. The online shooter video game has evolved, and it never wants you to leave. Or question it.

“Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” is available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. This review is based on product supplied by the publisher. Images courtesy Activision.