A More Modern Modern Warfare: How Infinity Ward is Redefining Call of Duty in 2019

At this point, the yearly Call of Duty release cycle has led to a bit of franchise fatigue from the name alone. That’s not to say that the games don’t continue to be best sellers. Just look at the top 10 best selling PS4 games of all time. Five of them are Call of Duty games, so obviously there’s something there. Knowing that 2019 was their turn again, Infinity Ward wanted to do something to break the yearly cycle. They looked at a beloved 2007 game and asked themselves, “What if we made Call of Duty: Modern Warfare in 2019?”

To answer this question, we were invited to Infinity Ward’s studio to sit down with the creative minds responsible for re-exploring what made Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare such a great game, and how it could be redefined over a decade later. As the team that not only brought the original Modern Warfare into the world, but developed the very first Call of Duty back in 2003, it’s certainly up to the task. They rounded up the old gang, bringing back famed developers who had worked on Modern Warfare 1 and 2. They gathered talent from Naughty Dog, developers with narrative and campaign experience to help bring their vision to life.

Call of duty modern warfare

The first piece of the puzzle was rethinking the story for 2019. “Modern” warfare has changed a lot in the last 12 years. With the rapid advancement of technology, sociopolitical struggles, and how wars are fought, the foundation of the Modern Warfare franchise wasn’t so modern anymore. That’s not to mention that the stakes had all dried up. What people were worried about as a threat in the original Modern Warfare trilogy had already happened, so a fourth game would have simply diverged into an alternate world where what was at stake no longer hit close to home. No, they had to take it all the way back to the beginning; to strip it of all its parts and trappings and expectations to build a game that felt authentic in 2019.

Modern Warfare Reimagined

Captain Price is back, but is he really “back?” I was told by Campaign Gameplay Director Jacob Minkoff to think of this as the difference between Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s Batman, or the Pierce Brosnan James Bond versus Daniel Craig’s 007. It’s especially popular in comics to establish multiple canons for the same character, so why not video games? While the general idea of Captain Price is the same character players have come to love (and we may see other popular characters from the series return), this is a completely separate canon from the original trilogy. It’s not the first time that Infinity Ward has done this with Price, either. Captain Price originally appeared in Call of Duty 1 and 2, where he was killed in action on a German battleship. The Modern Warfare trilogy was a second, modern incarnation of Price, and this new Modern Warfare can be thought of as a third iteration of the character.

One of the most memorable things about the Modern Warfare series was the uncomfortable yet authentic situations it put you into. You aren’t some super hero, and often you played the role of someone that gets killed or has to do terrible things. The “No Russian” mission comes immediately to mind, where an undercover CIA agent has to participate in a mass shooting in order to gain the trust of Russian terrorists. He’s found out and killed at the end of the mission anyway, placing a heavy burden on the player who not only let the massacre play out, but potentially participated, and all for nothing. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare takes place in a complex world that mirrors our own, and many of the game’s scenarios will feel ripped straight from the headlines. It will be gritty and dark and play around in the moral grey areas that are inevitable within modern war.

Call of duty modern warfare

Don’t expect it to be gratuitous though. While yes, this is definitely going to be an M-rated game, the philosophy at the studio is to embrace a mature intensity, not gratuitous gore and a body count just for the sake of it. The scenarios will not be tasteless or sensational. They aren’t going rip apart a guy just for the sake of it. That may work for a game like Mortal Kombat, but in Modern Warfare, where everything needs to feel real and authentic, moments of gore and violence will lend themselves to the narrative that Infinity Ward is trying to deliver. It’s all designed for emotional impact.

Resetting the Modern Warfare world brings with it new stakes and a whole new set of circumstances that reflects the world we live in today. This is a far more complex and less defined battlefield. The lines between enemy and ally are blurred. One man’s freedom fighter might be another man’s terrorist, and Modern Warfare intends to show this narrative from multiple perspectives. It’s not just about the good guys versus the bad guys, but about the deeper motivations that drive every single actor on the stage of war. It’s about finding that line in the moral grey and defining boundaries, but good and bad are all a matter of perspective. Collateral damage is inevitable, as are the emotional consequences of those actions.

Rethinking Combat

Too often, Call of Duty has been all about putting a gun in your hands and letting you go ham on the bad guys. It’s a first-person shooter after all. Infinity Ward wants to change that up a little bit by placing players in the shoes of different combatants. To illustrate this, we were shown three different parts of the campaign. One was in the middle of Piccadilly in London as an enormous bomb goes enough. Another was following a special ops team of Tier 1 Operators in a townhouse in London, taking down the terrorist cell responsible for the bombing. The third put us in the role of a little girl and her kid brother, 20 years prior to the main events of the game. It shows the events that led to them eventually taking up arms.

Let’s start with the bombing at Piccadilly and the subsequent takedown of the terrorist cell. Modern Warfare games have always been about context; effect and consequence, and this one’s no different. Instead of just telling you about the bombing and then tasking the player with taking down the terrorists, it lets them live out the horror of  the attack. We were quickly whisked off to the townhouse after the explosion, but assured that there was a lot more to this stage of the game.

Call of duty modern warfare

The townhouse was an impressive display of a few different pieces of this new Modern Warfare. First is a new engine, a complete overhaul that makes me surprised that this game is releasing on the current generation of consoles. Infinity Ward is going to be squeezing out every ounce of possible power before PS4’s life is over, and it will be well prepared to start the next generation when it rolls around. The team at Infinity Ward dove into the specifics and details of the new tech, including lighting, sound, and photorealistic visuals, but that deserves an entire article of its own, which you can read at the link below. There’s really a lot at play.

In the pursuit of realism, Infinity Ward tightened up the environments. Typical game design logic says that environments need a 30% increase in size in order to accomodate things like player hitboxes, AI, and to just generally feel comfortable for players to move around in. Infinity Ward didn’t want Modern Warfare to feel like your typical game though. “What if we made the environments one to one?” they asked. Doorways, hallways, rooms, objects. What would it feel like to be a member of a highly trained team of special forces moving through the cramped halls and stairwells of a townhouse in London? The intensity of this scenario—particularly after seeing the context for it—left my heart racing.

Fellow soldiers moved from room to room, eliminating the terrorists with a cool precision. Their behavior was modeled after real-life Navy Seals, which consulted on the game to provide accurate representations of how these top-tier operators would handle the situation. New mechanics, like the ability to steady the barrel of your gun on a vertical surface while rounding a corner, provided tactical advantages. Of course, there were also civilians present, and there wasn’t always a clearly defined boundary. Near the end of the mission, one girl claims to be held hostage and begs them not to kill her. The player shot her as she lunged for something, which turned out to be a detonator.

Call of duty modern warfare

The final scenario we were shown took us back 20 years, to a little girl buried in rubble after a bombing somewhere in the Middle East. She’s gasping for air and looking into her mother’s lifeless eyes. This again is how Infinity Ward provides context. It wants you to know why you are a particular character and what motivations they have for their fight. Rescued by her father, they return to their family home while Russian soldiers invade the city. At home, they meet up with her little brother and make preparations to leave, but the Russians have other plans.

Watching her father murdered in front of her eyes, she must play a game of stealth, sneaking around the house to repeatedly ambush and stab the Russian soldier that is searching for her. It’s intense in a way that is almost the polar opposite of the trained soldiers. This is a little girl and her brother forced into a fight that they don’t want to be a part of. In a matter of moments they lose their family and are forced to kill in order to survive, and the game never lets you forget that these decisions are not made lightly. Later in the mission, after sneaking through the city, the girl finds a gun and raises it to kill a soldier, but her hands are trembling. Modern Warfare isn’t about to make it easy to play as a kid fighting soldiers. It wants to portray the grim realities of war and exhibit the emotional weight of every moment through those gameplay nuances.

Infinity Ward promises a really good balance of these intimate, high intensity, and emotional sequences, with the more traditional war scenarios you might be familiar with in a Call of Duty title. That’s part of the responsibility that former Naughty Dog developers Jacob Minkoff and Taylor Kurosaki have as the Campaign Gameplay Director and Studio Narrative Director, respectively. Coming from a studio known for the quality of its narratives and the great pacing of the game, weaving between quieter moments and sequences that get the heart pumping, there’s a lot of talent going into getting that balance just right.

But What About Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s Multiplayer?

While Infinity Ward isn’t talking about or showing off the multiplayer or “all-new cooperative play” just yet, they did offer tantalizing hints about how it will feel like one cohesive game. “Continuity and consistency” was repeatedly mentioned, saying that everything exists across the totality of the game. They don’t want players to feel like they are losing out on progress just because they decide to play different modes which can feel like multiple separate games. It’s a stark contrast to how other Call of Duty studios have done things, namely one like Treyarch which has sectioned out its games into very distinct and separate experiences. Instead, everything will feel consistent, from the play of the weapons themselves, and even into narrative reasoning for the multiplayer, there will be a persistent immersion into the dark, gritty fantasy that is Modern Warfare. Minkoff even hinted to me that the events of the single-player campaign will lead quite directly into the cooperative game mode, and multiplayer was also alluded to within that context. “One game played many ways.”

Call of duty modern warfare

What I found at Infinity Ward was a team not content with the status quo. They know the baggage that the Call of Duty name can carry, and they sought to tear the established norms down to its barest foundations, rebuilding it on essential pillars and groundbreaking new tech. As the studio that started it all more than 15 years ago, Infinity Ward is perfectly equipped to knock down Call of Duty as we know it and come back with a renewed vision that can reinvigorate the franchise at its very core.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare releases October 25, 2019 for PS4, Xbox One, and PC.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare preview was held at Infinity Ward’s studios. Travel and accommodations for the event were provided by Activision.