WARNING: This is going to get political…
Still with me?
Good. But, you’ve been warned.
Call of Duty is propaganda.
An uncomfortable thought, I know, but it's true. Like almost all western media about war, Call of Duty campaigns have steadfastly portrayed western forces as the righteous defenders of the free world.
When playing a game about WWII, this is a more comfortable stance. But, when looking at modern warfare, in particular, it is a much harder pill to swallow.
This reboot of the Modern Warfare series is not immune to this propagandization of current global conflicts, but it does toe the line much more effectively than this series (or franchise) has in the past. Although it still contains a fair share of 'Hoorah! Let's shoot some people', it also makes efforts to both subtly and directly call players to the attention of the ethics and complexities of warfare in general, and of the real world conflicts the game's story acts as an analogy of.
The result is an often affronting and thought-provoking story that highlights how many fronts modern conflict takes place across, and its many different forms - from terrorism, to technological warfare, and all-out gunfights.
The narrative is based around the conflict of fictional Middle Eastern country Urzikstan and how a radicalised faction, the Al-Qatala, and foreign powers are grappling for control of it against a western-backed liberation force. It is not one for one, but the story is a blatant analogy for the conflict in Syria, with the Al-Qatala standing in for ISIS and Russia representing - well, Russia mostly, and Turkey in some respects.
It was particularly eerie playing through this campaign as news was breaking that the US government had assassinated the then leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. It was a stark reminder that modern warfare is not just something we read thriller books about, watch in films, or games like this. These are real conflicts that are happening right now - where people are dying and suffering in the same conflicts that we are currently simulating with a controller in our hands.
Thankfully, this reboot is far more sensitive to that reality than past games, and puts significant effort into emphasising this - mostly through the perspective of Farrah, the leader of the Urzikstan Liberation Force (ULF). Without spoiling how it does this, the game commits sections of the narrative to explore the perspective and experiences of the locals in war-torn regions like Syria.
I applaud the intent of these sections that really tried to draw attention to the horror at the heart of war - along with the pain, heartache, and loss that comes as a consequence of the trigger pull we can do so casually in FPS's. The execution of this is not exactly high brow, and there are definitely issues to contend with in even gamifying some of the experiences that the game portrays - including getting waterboarded, which immediately trumped 'Press X to pay your respects' for me, in levels of fucked-up. Yet, I would far rather these games attempt to tease out the ethical and emotional consequences of war at all, rather than simply lean into the chest-thumping, machismo of war as some military fiction can do.
Despite its good intentions though, the game does struggle to walk that line - slipping moment to moment from one side to the other of it. One section of dialogue highlighted this for me, with a character solemnly challenging his commander, saying "What you're doing is illegal", to which she replied, "I'm pretty sure everything we do is illegal". Just as I began to consider this complex statement, a character picked up his gun and gruffly chimed in with, "Only the good stuff". Think about that for a second… a person was raising the complex ethics of illegally invading a country to kill people, to which they thought a good response would be to have a character quip about how these illegal actions are "the good stuff".
Needless to say, the writing is not necessarily where the games most impactful storytelling comes from. That power primarily comes from the gameplay. The campaign is incredibly varied in the gameplay approach and tone, and many sections are designed around putting the player in the shoes of modern infiltration forces and highlighting how complex their work is. The first ethical wrinkle it presents is how difficult it is to identify your enemies in a war without uniforms or enlistment.
The mission that most effectively broaches this is the infiltration of a terrorist cell's household in central London. As you clear this building from the first floor up, you are not just busting down the door of terrorists, but their families, wives and children. As you open a doorway, you might be encountering a man brandishing an assault rifle standing in front of his family. Even if you can shoot him without hitting his wife or child, there is no guarantee that when he falls, his wife won't then pick up that rifle and shoot you.
Looking down the sights at a terrified wife and child and wondering if they are a threat is perhaps the most ethically challenging situation a game has ever placed me in. I was shaken by the experience of it, and what it revealed to me about the complexity of being a modern soldier. Again, think about the coverage of the assassination of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who was hiding with his wives and children - many of who died in that raid. The context of my playthrough again made me painfully aware that these are not theoretical situations.
Yet, something I found difficult to rectify, was how in delivering this poignant journey, much of the game manages to remain incredibly engaging and - dare I say it - fun. Certainly not that moment I just described - which made me feel a little ill - but following on from that mission, in the next I was helping the liberation forces overthrow the Russians, and was having a ball driving drones strapped with C4 into enemy helicopters.
Honestly, I don't know how to deal with the mental dissonance caused by being horrified by the atrocities of war one moment, and enjoying them the next.
The same goes for multiplayer. It feels really wrong to go from playing a campaign that makes efforts to highlight to you that the enemies in any war are people as well, to then go into multiplayer which once again treats people as fodder for bullets and killstreaks.
That said, like the campaign, this dissonance and guilt is once again created by how fun multiplayer is. Without bogging down into the minute nuances and differences of MP's customisation systems and modes, I really enjoyed the fluidity and pace of this iteration of COD's multiplayer. In particular, the 60v60 'Ground War' mode is great if you are looking for something more in line with Battlefield. On the flip side of that, is 'Gun Fight', a 2v2 mode that is more tense and exhilarating than any COD mode I have played before.
The Spec Ops mode is not as well done. Though engaging in how it ties in aspects of the campaign and uses your connection to the story and characters to make the cooperative missions it present feel more pressing, it does have the level of polish or tight design to make it something I wanted to put too many hours into.
+ Varied and impactful gameplay.
+ Polished and diverse multiplayer.
- Ethically inconsistent.
- Spec Ops under-served