If you don't want politics in your games, then look away now. Call of Duty Modern Warfare knows war isn't black and white. A complex problem isn't solved overnight with the pull of a trigger. Developer Infinity Ward is hoping to reflect a morally grey world, where you play both as a trained professional soldier and a rebel freedom fighter going up against the type of tier one troops you usually play as. Infinity Ward says it's influenced by the very real struggle of today's conflicts, where everyday people fight for what they believe in and for what they think is right. It wants you to feel uncomfortable with some of the decisions you'll be forced to make, and question what you consider right and wrong.
It's an interesting pitch and a more mature direction for Activision's yearly first-person shooter. To give a flavour of what it's trying to achieve, we sat down with Infinity Ward as it played through two missions that hope to show different sides of an overarching story that provokes subtler emotional responses not usually found in a bombastic series or war games. The first mission we see is set soon after a terrorist attack on London. You're placed in the boots of a counter-terrorist professional sneaking into a townhouse with a crew of agents, fully equipped and executing a meticulous plan. It's scripted to the point of hand-holding, but that creates the thrill and tension, and it feels heart-in-your-mouth as enemies are double-tapped in the skull with clinical execution.
Infinity Ward wants you to feel uncomfortable about some of the decisions you have to make and the situations you find yourself in, using parents and children in the house to temper your gung-ho instincts. It's a brutal mission, with a horrible juxtaposition of domesticity and cold-blooded violence. Enemies are left on the floor gurgling through bleeding neck wounds, people are shot through studded walls in a house that could be your own. What you think is a hostage situation turns into cruel bloodbath, and you'll have to hold off the trigger as a mother picks her baby up from a cot. This point it doesn't feel cheap or cynical, instead giving the scene an air of realism rarely found in blockbuster first-person shooters.
The most recent Modern Warfare games drifted off into arcade territory and became ridiculous, but this kind of mission hopes to bring the series back to reality and that cliche of gameplay ripped from the headlines. Infinity Ward can't recreate that feeling you had when you first played No Russian, or the AC10 mission where you killed with impunity, but it's having a damn good go at creating equally memorable moments.
The second mission we see flips the player's role from a well-trained soldier and places you in the shoes of a small child. Your village is being overrun by Russian troops who are executing and gassing citizens, so you need to sneak your way past heavily armed soldiers and remain in cover. It's designed to give backstory to the freedom fighter you play as, showing motivation, why you're fighting and what you believe in. It's quite a bold move and might come as a surprise for anyone expecting to spend the whole game in the uniform of a macho oorah marine. Again, this mission is pushing to raise empathy in the player and revulsion at the horror of war, with bodies convulsing under the cloud of toxic gas and citizens being executed in the streets. It works in that sense, although I'm not sold on the actual gameplay here.
After getting trapped in your home, you witness your father being gutted by a killer, who then stalks you around the house. It's essentially a mini boss fight where you have to remain hidden and hit the bad guy with a screwdriver three times. You sneak up on him, stab his leg, then run off and do it all again. It's a bit too blatantly video game-y to work with the subject matter. But the writing snaps it back to credibility as you say goodbye to your bloody, dying father through crying eyes. Is it cynical to use children to pull at your heart strings? Possibly, but this is where we'll have to judge the writing when we get to play the game ourselves. It's refreshing to see a studio like Infinity Ward take this on, and interesting to see a giant blockbuster franchise like Call of Duty focus on the blurred lines and genuine horror of war, rather than wall-running and jump packs.
While both of these missions felt very scripted and controlled, Infinity Ward reckons you're still free to make smaller tactical decisions within them. Outside of these, it says there's going to be more variety with some missions where you engage in all-out running battles across much wider maps, and a handful won't have set objectives that have to be completed in a specific order. But the emphasis throughout Modern Warfare is going to be on a more intimate fight. While the original Modern Warfare trilogy was about soldiers doing a job, this retelling hopes you'll understand what makes real people fight for the things they believe in. It's about the specifics of conflict - physical and political - and trying to detail the reality of an active shooting environment. That might raise eyebrows, but it's very common for TV and movies to take on these subject matters. Infinity Ward believes that games should be maturing as a medium rather than regurgitating and repeating, and it intends for Call of Duty - the real top tier of blockbuster video game entertainment franchises - to spearhead the evolution of the medium.
We'll have more on Call of Duty Modern Warfare this week and next.