The Modern Warfare series has always been about the messiness of modern war--the fundamentally different rules of engagement that come with a battle that has no set battlefield. When the fight could be anywhere at any time, where do you draw the line between doing what's right and doing what has to be done?
Throughout Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's campaign, that line is chemical weapons. It's a safe line to draw; people are largely in agreement that chemical weapons are beyond horrific. But there are other horrors of war, some of which Modern Warfare depicts, starkly, in strong but uncomfortable missions. Just when it could really make a point about any other aspect of modern war, it pulls back. Modern Warfare makes old observations and presents them with new flourishes. Those new flourishes do make for a good campaign and solid multiplayer. But it's when Modern Warfare asks you to think harder that it falls short.
In one of the game's most distressing levels, you play Farah, a young girl in a fictional war-torn Middle Eastern country as she hides from both a Russian terrorist and the deadly gas his cohorts have unleashed on her town. To escape, you have to kill a man twice your size with his own gun. It's a deeply uncomfortable experience. But the flashback serves to illustrate why Farah, now the leader of a group of freedom fighters, refuses to use chemical weapons or associate with anyone who does. It is a hard line she won't cross, even though she's had to face a lot of ugliness in the course of defending her country.
In many ways, Farah is Modern Warfare's moral compass. There are a few key players in Modern Warfare's proxy war, and everyone you play as--Sgt. Kyle Garrick from the UK, rogue American soldier Alex "Echo 3-1," and sometimes Farah herself--abides by her one rule. Outside of that, though, the rules are much murkier. In getting pulled into a war between the Russian terrorists, a separatist group from Farah's country, and the freedom fighters, US and UK military personnel disagree on how best to proceed with the situation--matters of disobeying orders, sacrificing some lives to save others, taking civilian hostages, and even torture. And on these matters, the moral compass is Captain Price.
A returning face from the original Modern Warfare and undeniably a problematic fave, Captain Price is the seasoned badass who takes the lead in most Garrick missions. Early levels with Price are among the best. As a rash and impatient Garrick, you follow Price's directions in order to save as many people as possible from terrorists--though more than once that means watching as innocent people die while you wait to make the best possible move.
These missions range from large-scale, high-octane firefights to a carefully planned raid on a terrorist hideout with less than a dozen enemies total. You direct a woman through an embassy under siege using security cameras to make sure her path is clear. You quietly search a compound for an enemy using night vision goggles as Price watches overhead, shooting out lights to keep you hidden. Price guides you through the different approaches you need for each mission, and his mentorship--both in the mechanical skills you need to be successful and the hard choices you have to make along the way--makes these missions memorable.
While Alex's missions don't stick out quite as much in a gameplay sense, he gets a sniping level reminiscent of the original Modern Warfare's "All Ghillied Up"--though with more enemies--and otherwise a few cool gadgets. His dynamic with Farah is strong, though. He follows Farah's lead on her turf and on her terms because he believes in the cause, and they share mutual respect.
It's disappointing, though, that Farah doesn't play more of a role. While she is a key part of Alex's missions and the driving force behind much of the story, you only play as her a few times. On top of the childhood flashback, there is an even more disturbing flashback later on in which you see the full extent of Farah's resolve. Experiencing her suffering this way borders on unnecessary, as it's already established in Alex's missions that she's a respected leader and a strong-willed person in general. While I liked Alex, I would have rather just played as Farah in those missions than get to know her character largely through her trauma.
I already liked and respected Farah without that context, and despite some questionable decisions, I liked each of the main characters and their small but crucial differences in working toward the same goals. Farah and Alex are principled, whereas Garrick and Price are results-driven. Alex goes so far as to disobey orders in favor of doing what's right, and when he's told that would be illegal, he responds, "I'm pretty sure everything we do is illegal." To Alex, it's a criticism; to Price and Garrick, it's an excuse.
That tension builds up over the course of the campaign, and because the characters are likable, it's easy to at least consider each one's view of what's right. But in the end, all you get is a vague "we all did what we had to do" sentiment rather than anything more substantial or interesting. Quite a bit of what you had to do--as Garrick, as Alex, and as Farah--was unpleasant or distressing, but the questions raised by your actions aren't interrogated further, especially the questionable side of Price's approach. Modern Warfare's ending isn't bad, but it is a safe one, leaving you to think on the harder questions yourself.
If anything, Modern Warfare lets Farah down with the bizarre and much-discussed inclusion of white phosphorus as a killstreak in multiplayer. Given how strong the campaign's emphasis is on chemical weapons being a reprehensible war crime, it's tone-deaf to include one in multiplayer, even though one could argue--much like Alex does--that pretty much all of it is illegal at the end of the day.
Outside of any thematic contradictions, Modern Warfare's multiplayer is up to par, with a variety of game types for different kinds of players. Across all the modes, maps move away from the obvious three-lane structure in favor of nooks, crannies, and tons of cover; there's generally a balance of close-quarters and long-range approaches. The standard, highly customizable toolkit for your chosen loadouts returns, with a good selection of perks to suit different game types and playstyles. Modern Warfare largely stays within the strong foundations of Call of Duty multiplayer without pushing them much, with the exception of the excellent Realism mode.
Undeniably the highlight of Modern Warfare's multiplayer, Realism mode is somewhere between the familiar Core and Hardcore modes, bridging the gulf between them. Oddly enough, in a mode called "Realism," you can take more damage than in Hardcore, and your health regenerates like it does in Core. But Realism removes the HUD entirely, going beyond Hardcore to strip out the kill feed on top of everything else. In order to confirm a kill, you have to listen for the sound effect that plays upon death, and you also have to listen for NPCs over the comms alerting you to available killstreaks and enemy intel. It's a fantastic balance for those who want more of a chance to survive a scrap, rather than dying in one or two shots like in Hardcore, but with the rest of the challenge intact. It's a smart, satisfying evolution, and as a stubborn Hardcore-only player, it's one I could see myself playing exclusively going forward.
While none of the new game types are earth-shattering, some are better additions than others. TDM 20, a 10v10 version of the classic 6v6 Team Deathmatch mode, is the least inventive or warranted of them, instead functioning as a more bloated version of regular TDM with bigger maps that can make getting back into the action an overly long process. One of the two maps I've tried, Euphrates Bridge, also suffers from balance problems on top of that; of the two spawns, one is much closer to the bridge dividing the map, and the closer side was almost guaranteed victory in every match I played. My team once managed to flip the spawn mid-match after struggling against snipers on the bridge for a while, and from there we were able to gain the lead relatively easily.
Gunfight is the antithesis of TDM 20. It's a one-life, 2v2 mode in which your loadout rotates each round, and the goal is to kill your two opponents with the means available to you before they get you first. Gunfight features small maps with two main routes on each, and quick coordination with your partner--a "you go left, I'll go right" at the beginning, plus callouts over voice chat if things go haywire--can make or break the fight. With a relatively level playing field, battles are often exhilaratingly close, and it's hard to get discouraged by a loss since rounds go by so quickly. There's also a version where you start without any weapons and have to find a gun in the map, which is a fun scramble before the frenzy of Gunfight itself. Either way, the more arcadey bent to Gunfight keeps things light and makes both versions a great addition to the multiplayer suite, if not a huge draw.
Ground War is somewhere in the middle. Maps are sprawling, with five control points to capture and one safe zone for each team on either end. Unlike in TDM 20, you can pretty easily get back to the fight after dying by respawning at any capture point your team owns, or on vehicles or your teammates (provided they're not actively in a fight). Having objective points is also helpful for keeping such a large game type--it supports 64 players currently--more structured than the free-for-all of TDM. That said, matches can drag on a bit too long, as there isn't anything to break up the constant tug-of-war for capture points.
There's also a night vision mode, NVG, for a different take on the same maps, and by its nature it makes things a bit more tense. It pretty much plays the same as the other game types, but you don't aim down sights in night vision--you have a laser, and that laser is easy to spot. You have to be extra cautious when lining up your shots, paying close attention to sightlines and who might see where your beam is coming from. Like in the campaign, the threatening glow of these beams cutting through the darkness looks excellent, and the slight change of pace NVG affords is enough to keep it interesting and distinct from the daytime modes.
On paper, Spec Ops is a co-op mode where you and a team complete a set of objectives and are rewarded with some story. You can choose one of several roles at the onset, each with its own ultimate ability--there's a medic, for instance, that can revive fallen teammates--and as a group, you have to work together to overcome enemies while gaining intel, heading to specific objective points, and so on.
In practice, my team of four could barely complete a handful of the objectives on both of the missions we attempted during the review event, and it only got marginally better as I continued to play for the review. This is largely due to frustrating enemy spawning--enemies seem to generate endlessly from all directions, and it's all too easy to get overwhelmed by them. To add insult to injury, there are also no clear waves. It's just enemies, from everywhere, at all times. After struggling to fight them off, reviving each other was we each inevitably died, we would end up running out of ammo and dying for good.
Experimentation in Spec Ops isn't rewarded, either. Trying different strategies--stealth, dividing and conquering, new loadouts--doesn't really change how many enemies swarm you, so brute force ends up being the best way to actually complete a mission. Even when you do succeed, you don't feel like you got better--you feel like you got lucky. Cooperating with teammates largely comes down to asking for revives or reviving someone else in turn, rather than actually coordinating to improve your chances of victory.
The PS4-exclusive Survival mode fares better. It plays more like Zombies, with kills converted into dollars that you can use to buy upgrades, and it has traditional waves rather than a barrage of enemies. There's a 30-second reprieve between each wave, during which you can upgrade your weapons, refill ammo, or otherwise just steel yourself for the next wave. Mini-boss-like enemies appear during specific waves, too, so if you die at wave 5 in one game, you can go into the next more prepared for wave 5, armed with knowledge and a more powerful gun.
The pitfalls of Spec Ops don't detract from what Modern Warfare does well, though. Realism mode is an excellent addition to the slate, and although not all the new multiplayer modes are great, Gunfight and the Night Vision playlist are refreshing standouts. And while the campaign ends up playing it safe in the end, it's still a memorable one, and it lays a strong foundation for where the Modern Warfare series could go from here.