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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II preview — it’s entertainment, not gritty realism

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When Infinity Ward talked about the campaign for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare in 2019, it said the story was so gritty and realistic that it felt like it was “ripped from the headlines.” But this time, as studio head Patrick Kelly unveiled the sequel Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II before a press group last week in Los Angeles, he said it was about an “entertainment adventure.”

This was an interesting way to see our preview of the game from Activision Blizzard’s army of Call of Duty developers who are toiling to deliver the game on October 28.

Indeed, Modern Warfare touched on some very uncomfortable subjects, like shooting civilians who looked like terrorists, child warriors, chemical warfare, and torture. But while this game will still put players into the shoes of soldiers with difficult missions, it will dwell on military combat, Kelly said.

“We want the game to be an entertainment adventure,” he said. “I am proud of what we did in 2019. But there was a lot of stuff that was at times provocative or uncomfortable. We’re trying to focus a bit more on entertainment and having fun.”

Kelly didn’t step into the debate about gun violence in the U.S. Nor did he address the difficult time the company had as Activision Blizzard was hit with a major sexual harassment lawsuit last year. But he did respond when I asked him about the contrast between the civilian deaths in the 2019 game and the emphasis on military-versus-military action in this game. I wondered if that is what he meant about the difference between entertainment and “uncomfortable” content.

He said that was correct. And he noted that the studio has a very big office in Krakow, Poland, a very short distance from the border where Ukrainians are fighting for their lives against the Russian invasion.

“It is fiction, but it’s inspired by real-world events that shape the world we live in,” Kelly said. “We have a team in Krakow, Poland, who are easy driving distance from Ukraine. We have people who worked on this game who are in war-torn parts of Ukraine. It has been particularly sensitive for us as a team. You would never want to see a person on the team uncomfortable with something you’re doing — especially if it is something we are living through. We endeavor to treat sensitive material the best way we can. But we are also trying to make a game that is reflective of the world we live in.”

With that in mind, the team wanted to make a game where the player is heroic and also human. The player can get a sense of being a hero capable of doing great things. But the soldiers in Modern Warfare are not superheroes, Kelly said.

What’s different versus Modern Warfare

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Captain Price leads the way in the “Townhouse” scene.

That tells you that the game is different in terms of its subject matter and how painful it is to play for gamers and how mature the audience has to be. I think it means Infinity Ward is aware that if they make their audience feel too uncomfortable, they will lose their status as a franchise for the mainstream gamers. And that could be quite costly.

But both Kelly and head writer Brian Bloom both said that doesn’t mean the story is all pleasantries. It will show soldiers who face ethical dilemmas and question themselves about how far they have to go to defeat the enemy.

Based on Infinity Ward’s core pillars for the title, a Call of Duty game should not require any instructions and it should be fun for everybody, not just the hardest core players (amen to that).

The team didn’t try to make the game more complex, or to change things that weren’t broken, said Kelly and senior animation director Mark Grigsby. But it did tackle challenges in making the game better.

“Is the game cool? Is it realistic? Hopefully, yes. But not over-the-top overly sensationalized,” Kelly said. “We’ve really endeavored to find the balance.”

Kelly mentioned this game uses a universal engine across all of Call of Duty now, rather than separate engines for each major studio. That makes it easier for nine different studios to work on the game (compared to five for the 2019 game). And that was important because the team had to make the game from their homes during the pandemic. The developers are now spread out from Mexico City to Los Angeles to Poland. The studio also started operations in Austin, Texas.

“We’re out to make the best shit we’ve ever made,” said Jeff Negus, narrative director at Infinity Ward.

The story so far

Farah Ahmed Karim is the leader of rebel forces in Urzikstan in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.
Farah Ahmed Karim was the leader of rebel forces in Urzikstan in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare in 2019.

The first game ends with a defeat of both the rogue Russian general and the terrorist organization Al-Qatala (a possible proxy for Al-Qaeda). CIA Station Chief Kate Laswell and SAS Captain John Price began to assemble Task Force 141, an anti-terrorist strike team.

Since the end of the first game, Task Force 141 has been operating around the world with intelligence from Laswell and Price in the lead role along with Sergeant Kyle “Gaz” Garrick, John “Soap” McTavish and Simon “Ghost” Riley . While Ghost is a loner veteran, Soap is a young but hard-charging rookie.

Laswell was just an intelligence officer in a mission control role, but this time she will get more involved in actual missions, Bloom said. A new character is Colonel Alejandro Vargas of the Mexican Special Forces, who is based on real soldiers in Mexico who were interviewed by the team’s technical advisers. Another new character is commander Phillip Graves, the operator of a private military contractor firm. His firm can go into places that Task Force 141 or the official military can’t deploy.

One of the things that carried over from the previous game was a conversation between Gaz and Price, where Gaz asked where they would draw the line on what they would do. Price said, “You draw the line wherever you need it. We get dirty and the world stays clean.”

Negus said they’re running with that and asking if they need to become the thing you’re trying to defeat in order to destroy it. You may have to make unholy alliances. And Bloom said the key is making sure that you have the right team.

The game will cover territories in Europe, the Middle East, and Mexico. Bloom told me that Mexico’s experience with the drug war is relevant, but the missions that take place there aren’t solely about eradicating drug lords. Rather, there is a large purpose in unraveling an international threat.

The preview levels

Get ready for a big night battle in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II.
Get ready for a big night battle in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II.

We saw the first level of the game played by Infinity Ward developers. In the Night War level, Laswell has intelligence on a captive being held by the Al-Qatala terrorists. They are a trained fighting force and better armed, thanks to a bad guy named Major Hassan. The Task Force lands at night to take three buildings where Hassan may be.

Soap goes in with special operations marine soldiers in helicopters at night. They flip on their night vision goggles. But one helicopter gets shot out of the sky with rockets and the soldiers have to storm the buildings. You take on the well-armed terrorists and fight room to room, door to door. You take out the rocket launcher and find that a huge enemy force is starting to converge on the houses. The demo stopped there.

John O’Hara, game director, said that the mission was inspired by footage from the first Gulf War that showed what night fighting was like with Apache helicopters. So the idea was the create a big battle with the night vision equipment.

The second mission we saw is still under embargo, but we’ll just say it was knives instead of guns. Another mission we briefly saw took place in downtown Chicago, with Task Force 141 looking for Hassan. In this mission, the operators repel down a glass skyscraper to find the target. You can descend toe-down or toe-up. You can walk down the tower, with your face toward the ground, or descend with your back toward the ground. It can be disorienting, but you have to choose which way to go down, who to engage first, and then find the target. It’s kind of like a sandbox mission in that way, O’Hara said.

The setting offers real variety. The idea was to take some of the special missions from the last game, like sniping at a very long range, and turning that into something else. This time, the sniping takes place in a grassy area. There’s a mission with Ghost, who has to move in stealth while evading lots of of enemies. That’s reminiscent of the mission with the embassy worker Stacy trying to escape the Al-Qatala forces in an American embassy in the previous game.

There is also a car chase mission where you have to jump from vehicle to vehicle and sometimes pull drivers out and throw them to the ground while the cars are moving fast. This is something that could carry over to helicopters and gameplay in Warzone 2.

One of the other innovations in the gameplay was moving cover in the form of freight containers aboard a big ship. The ship is on rocky seas, and the containers roll across the surface of a big ship and an oil rig in the ocean. You have to try to move and shoot and outmaneuver enemies all while the iron containers are trying to crush you.

The animation of the water itself in a physically accurate way is a challenge that Infinity Ward took time with and you will see that in the game, O’Hara said. You’ll see the water reflecting light and various effects like the blurring of images either above or under the water. This tech will prove useful in other games such as Warzone 2 coming later.

Grigsby, the animation leader, said that you’ll see AI non-player characters behave more intelligently. They will round corners in a careful way and check every corner as they try to hunt down the human players on a map.

Multiplayer design

The Night War level of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II.
The Night War level of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II.

O’Hara said you’ll see large maps with large numbers of AI characters in both multiplayer and Warzone 2. Oh, and you’ll see the return of the Gunfight one-on-one or two-on-two mode in multiplayer.

Geoffrey Smith, head of multiplayer design, said that one of the ideas was embracing emergent play, which was one of the lessons of 2019’s Warzone, where players would do things like chop each other up with helicopter blades. Smith said he was surprised when players who played run-and-gun close combat would use sniper rifles, mastering the art of “quick scoping” to shoot players at close range. The lesson was to embrace new playstyles, and these playstyles informed the multiplayer design.

O’Hara said you’ll be able to customize your guns in a bunch more detailed ways with the Gunsmith tool in multiplayer gaming. As you play with a gun, you’ll unlock new attachments and pursue different playstyles with your arsenal. You’ll see meaningful progression, he said.

“For the players, it’s a game within a game,” O’Hara said.

One of the cool ideas is an inflatable decoy that you can deploy. It looks like a real soldier but doesn’t move. If you shoot it, it deflates. That gives your position away. There are other tricks, like hacking equipment and making use of the enemy’s cameras. Some of the maps include a bright Grand Prix map in Asia and a modern museum in Spain.

Warzone 2.0

Call of Duty: Warzone.
Call of Duty: Warzone is one of Activision Blizzard’s big games.

Soon after Modern Warfare II launches on October 28, a wholly new Warzone will launch as an extension of the Modern Warfare II universe. With it comes new technology, new features, and new gameplay that work seamlessly together.

Activision said that it has taken a wide range of community feedback to heart. In order to fully deliver this state-of-the-art experience, Warzone 2.0 will feature new Modern Warfare II content and systems with brand new progression and inventories.

But Warzone 1.0 will continue on as a separate experience that will include a continuation of player progression and inventories within that Warzone experience. The company will share details on that soon

Conclusion

The team is everything in
The team is everything in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II.

I played some multiplayer but my impressions of that will be coming later. I think that the single-player campaign looks good, and I appreciate that Infinity Ward has been able to stay true to the Call of Duty canon without going too sensational or too over-the-top with violence — at least from what I can stay so far.

These various things I have described about Modern Warfare II might seem like small changes and tweaks. But as they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We’ll see if these incremental changes will give players exactly what they want, which is perhaps a more modern version of one of their favorite games of all time. I’m looking forward to playing it more and I have an open mind now. I do like the approach of staying away from the controversial edge while embracing the moral dilemmas of modern warfare.

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