Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Has Nothing Interesting to Say

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is a greedy videogame. It casts its net wide, aiming to be both entertaining and didactic, both power fantasy and a scathing critique of the warriors we fantasize about. Moreover, it wants to be a victory lap, an homage to the best Call of Duty game, and a title that gleefully gestures toward the franchise's past successes with all the self-congratulatory pleasure of a Star Wars sequel. As one might imagine, trying to accomplish all of these things simultaneously is a fool's errand, and, as a result, Modern Warfare has a hard time being much of anything at all.
As any Call of Duty adherent knows, the games are typically divided into separate modes, which share motifs and interests but little else in terms of content. Multiplayer is a big draw for these titles, but is often what's least interesting about them. Call of Duty's narrative campaigns are warfighter psychodramas, whole seasons of 24 packed into six to eight hours of gameplay, all built around straight-from-the-headlines paranoia and exhaustive research into the minutiae of Western military culture and equipment. For a long time, I've insisted that these campaigns are an insightful look into American id—into what bogeymen people are afraid of, and what horrible things they might secretly want to do to them.

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In Shadowkeep, Destiny 2 Is Ready to Kill the PastModern Warfare, a reboot created by what remains of the game’s original developers at Infinity Ward, tests that theory. Little in it feels prescient, or of the moment. The story follows American and British special forces alongside freedom fighters from a fictional Middle Eastern country—Urzikstan—chasing down terrorists and a rogue Russian military faction, both of which are intent on controlling Urzikstan. You, supposedly, are just trying to free the country, and the story escalates from small counterterror operations into battles built to prevent atrocities and ensure world stability all across the planet. It is, in short, the Call of Duty of 2007, rebuilt with a handful of retouches for modern sensibilities. Russians are cool as villains again, which is convenient for Infinity Ward, and now, at least, one of the protagonists is brown.
But Modern Warfare can't decide what, if anything, it wants to communicate or even ask about any of these elements. Multiple times in the game you have to clear residential houses, looking for your enemies. These sequences play out like Zero Dark Thirty in microcosm, as you tensely move from room to room, forced to judge on the fly between someone trying to hurt you and someone terrified that you're there. In these moments, you don't feel heroic, or like a noble warrior. Instead, you feel cruel, like a hired gun breaking down doors and murdering people as you please. Real suffering is here, too, and extended sequences show how terrifying being a civilian in a war zone can be.

But the game fails to properly capitalize on those negative feelings to ask any real probing questions about your behavior. Anyone shooting at you, even a civilian picking up a gun out of sheer terror, is labeled as an enemy in Modern Warfare, and your decisions to kill those people are never commented on. People on your side do evil things, occasionally, but you are notably and importantly exculpated from those evil acts at every turn. They're bad orders from bad actors in an otherwise good system, or heroes who have gone too far into the dark and turned into villains during the course of an awful war.