Call of Duty is always a tentpole launch in the gaming industry with each annual release being one of the best-selling games of the year. Because of its top place in the industry, the franchise is consistently a magnet for criticism and controversy such as causing controversy in the past for its content in missions like 'No Russian' and the Nuke mission.
But this year's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare may be the most controversial game in the franchise to date, thanks to a combination of the game's content, the current social climate, and the mainstream news cycle of 2019.
Here, we take a look back—and forward—at the controversial story-in-progress of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.
The "Realism" of Modern Warfare
Modern Warfare has been embroiled in controversy since day one. The day of the game's official reveal, developer Infinity Ward gave details about some of the game's missions, including one where players will play as a child soldier as well as a mission that takes place in London where, as a Tier 1 operator, players will storm a terrorist safe house that contains women and children.
Just days later at E3, the developer showed off the game in a behind-closed-doors demo that featured these missions, with some journalists at the trade show reacting negatively to how graphic these missions were. In addition, at an E3 panel, developers spoke to how they are trying to tell a realistic story of modern warfare in today's world that is not as black-and-white as conflicts of the past.
In response to the panel at E3, a former U.S. Marine tweeted a series of tweets that went viral, calling into question the very nature of games such as Modern Warfare that try to depict the realism of war. His point was that no game can communicate the horrible realities of war, even one that goes to such controversial lengths as it appears that Modern Warfare will.
White Phosphorous Kill Streak
After garnering that negative attention to its story campaign, Modern Warfare drew controversy (once again) for its multiplayer mode's inclusion of white phosphorous as a killstreak. White phosphorous is a devastating incendiary gas that has been used against combatants and civilians in the past in actual combat.
The weapon notably appeared in the 2012 game Spec Ops: The Line, where players unknowingly use it against civilians in one of the game's biggest turning points, used to portray the horror of warfare and the unspeakable damage the player is causing. In contrast, many are considering the inclusion of white phosphorous in Modern Warfare's multiplayer as a type of reward in the form of a killstreak to be tone-deaf to the realities of the weapon and how it has been used in the real world.
Plenty have countered that the game's multiplayer also includes the Nuke killstreak, which is more devastating and has also had horrible real-world uses, defending its inclusion in the game as part of the suspension of disbelief and element of entertainment that comes with the competitive multiplayer side of gaming.
Infinity Ward's own multiplayer design director Geoff Smith commented on the issue saying that the multiplayer should be considered a "playground" separate from the realistic tone that the game's story campaign is trying to set.
In the midst of already drawing debate for its realistic, graphic, and disturbing violence, Modern Warfare is releasing amid renewed controversy about violent video games after the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. In what investigators believe to be the El Paso shooter's manifesto, posted online just before the shooting, he specifically references Call of Duty.
Many political leaders, including President Trump, blamed violent video games such as Call of Duty for the recent mass shootings in the US. With those on both sides of the political spectrum in the United States offering their own take on where the blame for this real-life violence lies, there is no denying that Modern Warfare will release in October into a social and political climate that is already looking for someone or something to blame, with violent video games being at the top of the some people's list.
How will Modern Warfare respond?
For now, it appears that Infinity Ward and Activision are committed to moving forward with their vision for Modern Warfare. The studio's narrative director Taylor Kurosaki recently responded to rumors that the developer was in the process of toning down the violence and graphic nature of Modern Warfare for fears of the game being given an Adults Only rating by the ESRB, a rating that would make it very hard to achieve commercial success. According to Kurosaki, the game is expected to keep its Mature rating and says that the developer has not censored or changed any of the controversial content in the game.
Yes. We haven’t censored anything.— Taylor Kurosaki (@taylorkurosaki) August 10, 2019
Despite having its fair share of controversy in the past, it seems that Modern Warfare may be the most controversial Call of Duty yet considering its subject matter and the debate it has already sparked not only in the gaming industry but in mainstream discourse as well. Many who have seen or played Modern Warfare have commented on the grim and disturbing elements of the game, which look to depict some of the realistic and horrible situations of modern warfare.
It is clear that Call of Duty is taking a risk with its campaign this year, trying to achieve something with its story, a feature of the franchise which is often treated like a summer action blockbuster rather than a meaningful examination of the current landscape of war. Kurosaki, who previously worked on many of the Uncharted games at Naughty Dog, looks to be trying to achieve something much more with the story of this year's Call of Duty, perhaps drawing on some of that storytelling prowess of Naughty Dog. Whether Infinity Ward can pull off the risky story they are trying to tell and skillfully use the graphic nature of the game's violence to tell a meaningful story is a judgment that will have to wait for release and will be left up to players to ultimately decide.
What is for certain is that this developing story of Modern Warfare and how the industry mega-franchise Call of Duty will continue to influence the gaming landscape and news cycle in the months to come in 2019 is definitely one to pay attention to.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare launches on October 25 for PC, PS4, and Xbox One.