This article contains spoilers for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. If you haven’t completed the campaign and don’t want the ending spoiled for you, here’s your chance to turn back. Do come back and read later, though!
I jumped into Infinity Ward’s 2019 return to the Modern Warfare world not really knowing what to expect; I tend to trip over games like this on purpose. Mostly, I want the brief campaigns to wash over me without the burden of expectations or hype. This entry in Activision’s golden cow franchise carries its own burden, as a return to what arguably established Call of Duty as it exists today.
Part of that legacy is surprising narrative depth for a blockbuster shooter, fueled by its structure as a canonical trilogy. Modern Warfare established a version of the world with its own political/military canon and characters that fans got to know along the way. The new Modern Warfare doesn’t reveal all its cards until the end, at which point it firmly establishes itself as a remake or a re-imagining.
Once that clicked (I would have known going in had I browsed pre-release coverage, but that’s exactly why I didn’t), the gears started turning. I enjoyed the experience enough to feel invested, though I had several big problems with this campaign. While I just allowed the original Modern Warfare trilogy to “happen” to me, this time I found myself exerting more critical brain energy than expected.
Presumably, this new version of Modern Warfare will see a sequel once Infinity Ward’s next turn rolls around. It’s totally possible for this to stay a one-off, but I doubt it. So “knowing” a new Modern Warfare 2 is probably on the way, I thought about what I’d like to see. I don’t have grand, fanfictiony designs for our hypothetical Modern Warfare 2, but I do have a small narrative wish list.
I dismissed Call of Duty for a long time. I can mess with a shooter, but the genre is not my first choice. And when I do go for trigger-smashing excess, I especially avoid military stuff. Call of Duty always came off as too jingoistic to justify featuring storytelling, and the original Modern Warfare teetered on the edge of proving me right. But the sequel took a hard, almost opposite turn.
It took a stance on war, violence, and America I wasn’t expecting. There were no good guys here, only victims and manipulators. The first game’s corny tone and horrifying Donald Rumsfeld-quoting load screens somehow led to a sequel that wouldn’t have been afraid to call him a monster. That context helped the trilogy stand as a whole work.
I nearly did a spit-take when a 2019 Modern Warfare load screen proudly displayed a context-free quote from Richard freakin’ Nixon. It was like realizing Freddy Kruger hadn’t truly been defeated in a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel. This thoughtless use of history as window dressing was a bad omen that came true. In the pursuit of edge, of shocking the audience a la Game of Thrones, this story not only strives to avoid criticizing the home team, it literally revises actual history to do so. Justifying war crimes in the name of America-branded justice is the entire narrative through-line, regardless of what the intent may have been.
I would love to see Modern Warfare 2 adjust course in ways similar to its counterpart. The ending did tease characters from the original, pivotal characters for those classic themes of self-reflection that made Modern Warfare special. But the damage is already done in ways that will be hard to rectify. Still, I’d love to see an attempt from the next game’s writers to spin some self-awareness into this weave.
This next point is itself a sequel to the first one. The new Modern Warfare’s primary narrative theme is wartime ethics. “How much is too much?” asks Infinity Ward. What actions are justifiable in the name of military-flavored justice? How much depravity is okay if the goal is ostensibly righteous? Modern Warfare wants you to think about whether or not war crimes are still bad if the good guys are committing them, without a shred of irony or nuance. What the plot condemns or justifies is totally arbitrary, often masked by a central cast of well-acted character performances.
Captain Price, the fan-favorite mustachioed superhero, is the biggest problem here. He wears several hats in the story, from veteran hero and warmhearted do-gooder, to violent maniac and vigilante. A torture sequence involving civilians (including a child) is this game’s “No Russian,” and the script barely bothers to acknowledge Price’s actions as an issue. In the end, Price argues breaking rules is necessary for peacekeeping and the famous 141 is born.
Price hardly faces pushback for what he does, regardless of the player’s choice to participate or not. Actual consequences with narrative weight? Forget about it. Price’s Marvel movie-style smirking at the camera when brandishing folders featuring recognizable character names is the true goal. It isn’t too late though, and Modern Warfare 2 would be able to really flesh out Price as a character if his choices in the first game lead to consequences that challenge his hero status.
I was nearly all the way in on Modern Warfare’s campaign. Its visual fidelity, voice acting, and gameplay twists hooked me. I especially loved the moment that takes the crosshairs away as the player leads a civilian to safety. While we can count on Infinity Ward to deliver engaging new mechanics and play structures, I have storytelling concerns. What made the original trilogy so great was its narrative chops. The blockbuster genre was used to paint a critical picture of military power structures and using violence to solve problems.
The new Modern Warfare carelessly uses shock tactics and pretends there’s a deeper point. It even goes as far as to whitewash an actual, documented (unpunished) American war crime. In the sequel I hope steps are taken, not to “correct” my problems as if writing flaws are bugs, but to build onto them with more nuance and introspection than they were introduced with. There’s precedent, so I’m looking forward to what’s next.