Now it’s got that Battle Royale nonsense out of its system, FBT can return to COD.
At first, MW is so similar to the previous modern-era entries you’d not even know you were in a rebooted Modern Warfare game. But under that bloody, bullet-spewing surface is the best anti-war shooter since Spec Ops The Line.
At first, the story is almost laughably familiar; a ‘rogue’ Russian General invades Urzikstan and CIA Operator Alex is sent to confirm they’ve broken International Law by using chemical weapons (by dousing the Russian base in White Phosphorus first…) Of course, they have chemical weapons, but they’re stolen by an unknown force and soon after, an Extremist group, Al-not-qaeda, bombs London (what does COD have against London).
The CIA suspects a connection and pairs Alex with apparently the SAS’s only solider, Price who along with hot-headed rookie Gaz makes contact with Urzikstan rebels, and they all join forces to recover the gas and stop the extremist cell while unofficially aiding the rebels in forcing back the rogue Russians. So far, so COD. But what quickly sets MW apart from MW is one huge difference - Farah Karim, leader of the Rebels.
As we bounce between Alex and Gaz, we learn more about Farah and her rebellion, and it’s horrible. An early mission has us playing her as a 7-year-old watching her mother crushed by rubble during a raid then desperately trying to reach her father’s arms as Russians slaughter people around her. Then Farah’s playing hide and stab with a hulking Russian solider who’s invaded her home.
Hiding under the furniture and scuttling through vents like a retro-Newt, you’re holding your breath with her. You can dismiss it as cynical, or just a boss fight really, but it’s frightening trying to find weapons and pick a moment to stab the bastard; its character defining and worse, it's only the beginning of her suffering and hardening.
Other flashbacks have us trying to resist waterboarding for as long as possible, and leading child soldiers on an escape. It’s harrowing stuff, but it’s not No Russian sensationalism; this serves a purpose and frames everything that comes after, it shows us what occupation really is, and what makes it more affecting is MW pares down the usual bombastic OTT set-pieces.
It has its trademark COD-kinetic moments, including one with an annoying mini-boss, the Spetsnaz Juggernaut, but overall this is a surprisingly subtle COD. One mission has us infiltrating an estate while Price snipes from a distance, taking out lights if you go stealth, or soldiers if you go in heavy. The missions feel ripped from reality not hyper-reality; the London attack is overwhelming, and a stand-out is a night raid on a UK house looking for clues on the Extremists – split-second ‘extremist or civilian’ decisions fry your nerves. We attack a compound which parallels the Bin Laden raid, and protecting a US Consulate nods to the Benghazi attack. It’s realistic, claustrophobic and tense, a shooter from the point of view of a grunt who's truly embedded with those most affected, who are usually just the NPCs.
It is exceptionally well detailed, and there is an openness to it despite the ultimately linear experience – it feels organic, unscripted even if the levels have a familiar feel. It’s a harddrive-breaking 126gb too, which seems unreasonably high given the levels aren’t that epic or expansive; it’s nice but not that nice. It’s gotta be the cutscenes; you can see the emotion. It’s amazing to think a COD’s strongest element is its characters.
Without Farah this might have felt shallow but her experiences make us look at war, and shooters, differently. It's not a White Saviour narrative, and it muddies the water brilliantly; moments like choosing between allowing terrorists into a safe room or letting them shoot a child will inevitably generate controversy but those disgusted by it (by hearing about it, not playing it) will have missed the point.
Still, when the shooting starts all the politics go out the window. It is a solid COD shooter, you know what you’re getting - there's a couple of jumps into random air-support NPCs, and we get to pilot explosive drones; in one learn-by-fail level we direct a woman past Terrorists using CCTV (only because she has a ID card we need) which all feel a bit crowd-pleaser, but the fights are always satisfying, the weapons brutal and the levels exhilarating to get through, but it never fails to bring itself back to the underlying theme of what are we fighting for, and who’s actually winning here?
A subtle anti-war comment builds as you tear through the levels; in one scene I chose to indulge in quite horrific war crime behaviour, then my cut-scene guy asked where the line is - but Price just comments the line is wherever you need it to be, and that we get dirty so the world stays clean. A truth or an excuse? When the CIA ‘reclassifies’ Farah’s group as extremists to placate the Russians your blood boils as much as Price’s does and the CIA’s argument that the situation is bigger than the fate of Farah’s country would make sense in a lesser game, but we've just been fighting for it; we've seen it up close, but even that is questioned - are we in too deep, are we missing the bigger picture? It's provoking in a good way; this is more truthful than the News, ‘Fake’ or otherwise. It’s personal and it blurs the lines magnificently, this builds and weighs on you as you're forced to make choices based on some greater-good that's classified. COD MW is a great example of how games are mature and intelligent enough to explore scenarios usually reserved for Cinema or TV.
This is nearly perfect. The only bothersome element is it’s far too short – 8 hours tops, although, not sure how much more war-horror I could take, and often the levels feel a little COD safe when it’s just Gaz or Alex blasting solo. The biggest issue is everything in the game can be mantled or hidden behind – great, but the game keeps telling you that, ruining the moment and all the detail with text pop ups suggesting you mount everything. Maybe it can be turned off in the options, but navigating that menu is a boss battle in itself.
MW does lean heavily on what’s going on in the world right now; this could be news footage from the Syrian crisis, the Russian annexing of Ukraine, any of Trump’s tweets, but it’s still an effective shooter too. It’s not quite the mindfuck that Spec Ops The Line was, but MW is dripping in irony; not just because the original COD MW wrote the book on cinematic action shooters, but because while we may save the day, the moments that stay with you long after the game has ended are not the victories. This is an anti-war game. This is a quantum leap for COD, and shooters.