With its Call of Duty: Modern Warfare reboot, Infinity Ward is pursuing realism. That’s not to say the studio hasn’t experimented with realistic battles in the past. It’s just that the studio is pushing the limits of what’s acceptable with this latest installment. Many still remember “No Russian” — the mission from Modern Warfare 2 where you briefly control an undercover agent as the group you’re with assaults an airport, massacring civilians. After my hands-off preview of the new Modern Warfare, though, I think it’s safe to say we’ll see similar discussions in the games industry this fall.
With Modern Warfare, Infinity Ward wants to convey the cost of “civilian collateral damage.” That means some truly horrific things are possible. The game will likely still fail your mission if you start shooting civilians, but it will forgive you for what it deems “mistakes.” That means when you raid a house full of suspected terrorists, and you stumble upon a mother rushing to pick up her child, and you shoot and kill both of them, the game might just accept it. It seems like Infinity Ward really wants players to feel the weight of those “accidents.”
It’s a choice that doesn’t sit particularly well with me. Games have been criticized for glorifying war before. The horrors of war don’t just go away when our soldiers return home. You might feel a pang of regret having accidentally killed a mother — or even the child itself. But as soon as you log out of the game, you’re likely done with that. It adds more realism, sure, but is that realism really necessary?
The first part of our gameplay preview showed some of London’s police forces stuck in traffic, again pursuing suspected terrorists. Suddenly a cab door opened up in front of us. Everyone in the vehicles suddenly got out; guns appeared out of nowhere. The back doors of a van, a few cars ahead, opened and a few more foes poured out. They didn’t appear armed, but our player aimed at them, yelling for them to get down. There’s some tension here, sure. Civilians all around were stunned — failing to process what happened and likely scared for their lives. This tension was cut by the van starting to take off. It made it roughly 10 feet before exploding. The screen faded to black…
This is something along the lines of the realism I expected to see: nothing is clear cut and clean. Civilian lives were lost. The lives of our protectors were lost. That’s the cost of war.
Our feed cut to a mission later in the game. The SUV pulls up to a dark alley and our squad quickly pours out. We’re raiding the aforementioned house. There are aspects of realism here that I can appreciate. We cut a bolt lock to get into the alley. One soldier reaches over the gate to unlock it from the other side before pushing it open. A subway train rumbles by overhead, providing some much-needed background noise. Our entry is slow and methodical.
We enter via a kitchen window. It’s incredibly clean. Voices trickle in from other rooms. That’s when a woman walks by, but is quickly grabbed and silenced by a hand over her mouth. Troops move through the door she just entered through. There are three people discussing their plans: seemingly some kind of attack. The order comes through to eliminate them…
The player character shoots out a light and pops one person in the side, then the other in his shoulder. Someone else shoots the third person, a woman in the gun, in the head. She dies. The other two are just sitting there. One man on the ground holds his side and puts his hand up in a plea for mercy. Our perspective character just shoots him in the head, too. We do the same to the other. It’s rough.
We aren’t back in 2007. People are more widely, vocally, and specifically against police brutality and war crimes. These men appeared unarmed, but were simply executed. Perhaps they already carried out some kind of attack? I don’t know. But the response feels cruel and deliberate. Is that necessarily what I want out of my shooters these days?
I did find this grounded approach more appealing than sci-fi Call of Duty games. This world feels more alive — like something people might actually experience. As we progressed through the house, clearing it floor by floor, I saw things that made the world feel lived-in. Beds in rooms with covers strewn aside; children’s toys on shelves as we climbed a staircase. There’s just a lot of detail that makes these people feel human. And that’s great! That is until our soldier pulled the trigger to kill each and every one of them. Some will argue they deserved it, and sparking that kind of moral quandary is likely the point. But it’s still one Infinity Ward ultimately decides how to frame — always reminding you these specific people are villains, or close to them.
As we approached our target, we happen upon the baby’s room. The mother rushed to the crib, picking the child up and asking for mercy. No one fires this time, though they could have. Then a man, presumably the father, ducked behind a wall that curved away. As we approached, we found him hiding under the bed. He had a weapon, of course, and was quickly killed. Again, Modern Warfare provides an alibi for the execution. Although I pause to consider the baby will likely grow up without a father.
The mission is eventually a success. We enter the attic where a woman has her hands up. She slowly backs away, despite repeated shouts to get on the floor… And so she gets shot in the side. She stumbles back and falls onto the floor. Everyone pauses to see what she’ll do, next and she persists, reaching for the nearby table. One shot to the head ends it.
“She was reaching for a detonator,” our character says. Captain Price turns and says something about us making the right decision this time.
But I wonder if that’s true, just the same. None of what I saw felt “good.” Nothing felt like we were doing the right thing. Maybe that’s what Infinity Ward wants to get across, but people have rightly criticized the studio for its portrayal. War is a gray area, sure. Not everything is black and white. But I think we can all likely agree that shooting babies is bad. Making you feel bad about these accidents — these atrocities — is an okay idea if handled correctly. But many don’t trust the publisher that pumps out these shooters year after year.
By asking players to consider the horrors of war, they’re indirectly asking us to do the same for the hundreds we’ll mow down during the course of the campaign. Modern Warfare could have just been another shooter. We could still bomb villages from an AC-130, assault house after house, village after village, not giving anything a second thought. But by finally asking players to think, Infinity Ward opens itself up to new possibilities. The game could be respectful, it very well might be. It could be a great example of what the world is like today. Or it could make light of the biggest sacrifices our soldiers make for us. Some don’t trust them to do so, I don’t blame them, but today’s demo made one thing clear. This game will be on or across the line of what we’ve come to expect.