"How do you review a Call of Duty game in 2019?" opens USGamer's Caty McCarthy in, incidentally, her review of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. It's a pointed observation of a question threaded through critical responses to Infinity Ward's latest installment, as reviews reckon with the clash of themes between what the disparate components of the game seem to be trying to do.
"Some outlets, like IGN, split it up into different parts, treating each individual slice as a whole," she continues. "Some write about components of it individually before slapping a score over the big trifecta. This is all because, essentially, Call of Duty often feels like three games stitched into one."
Just looking at the numbers, the disconnect isn't obvious. The game is reviewing well enough (it's in the low 80s on Metacritic at the time this was written) and selling even better, thanks to Call of Duty doing well exactly what Call of Duty does well on a regular basis: good shooting, good maps, good multiplayer. On that, critics are largely in-step.
"Modern Warfare's action is exceptional," wrote Morgan Park over at PC Gamer. "Weapons explode with concussive energy and rattle with recoil until the magazine is spent. Reload animations bask in the moment with motion-captured flare that celebrates a kill and snaps back into place for the next fight.
"Facing the lethal end of Modern Warfare's weapons is often petrifying. Taking a hit doesn't just flinch your camera and spray blood jelly on-screen. Bullet impacts are loud, disorienting thuds -- it feels like my chest is caved in.
"...I can smell the piles of Activision money burned to make Modern Warfare look, sound, and animate this good. And it was worth it, because arcadey shooting has never felt more forceful."
"I can smell the piles of Activision money burned to make Modern Warfare look, sound, and animate this good"
Many of the live reviews of Modern Warfare punted until post-launch on the question of multiplayer, given the need for busy, live servers to really gauge what's going on in online play. Those that have dived in so far came back with broad approval of the game's Gunfight, Ground War, Realism, and Classic modes, though several reviewers had some exasperated feelings about killstreaks and just about everyone thought Live Ops was challenging to the point of unfun and unfair.
"Technically, multiplayer is as polished as it has always been," Chris Moyse summarizes for Destructoid. "The lobby fills out with players and loads at speed, offering up smooth digital warfare. I can't help but always find CoD multiplayer endlessly addictive, mostly thanks to its quick pace, ease of control, and ability to hop from one match to the next with the minimum of fuss. Hours upon hours of salty and satisfying matches await you and your clan."
Joseph Knoop's praise for Gunfight in his review for Daily Dot offers a more specific example:
"Multiplayer, go figure, is where Modern Warfare's changes to the basic gameplay really shine, as it also slows things down to a far more manageable pace that makes this FPS fan giddy," he wrote.
"Take Gunfight, the newest mode among all the core deathmatch options...The tension in these sessions is physically palpable, like the final moments of an entire battle royale condensed into 50 seconds. That your loadout changes every two rounds keeps things interesting, but it's that purity of chance and skill that yanks those cries of victory out of your mouth when you cinch a kill with a pistol from afar."
And though there's an enormous asterisk on this point that will be addressed in a moment, the character writing and basic plot of the single-player campaign was also broadly well-received, as Game Informer's Andrew Reiner sums up:
"While the campaign isn't as big in scope or as thrilling to play as most Call of Duty games, it does tell a hell of a story -- perhaps the best in this series since, well, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare," he said. "The character performances are fantastic -- especially for Captain Price, Farah, and Hadir -- who get plenty of screen time and are legitimately interesting, especially how they are woven into the conflict at hand. The story is nicely paced, establishes villains you can't help but hate, and is engaging from start to finish."
"Multiplayer, go figure, is where Modern Warfare's changes to the basic gameplay really shine, as it also slows things down to a far more manageable pace"
So where's the disconnect? If you've followed the news surrounding the lead-up to Modern Warfare, you know where this is going. Just about every review of the game describes in detail feelings ranging from discomfort to outright disgust at the way Modern Warfare has depicted some of the more horrific elements of, well, modern warfare.
Giant Bomb's Jeff Gerstmann, for example, wasn't dramatically affected by them, but did feel they struck a discordant tone with the game's otherwise solid focus on being purely entertaining.
"The game doesn't necessarily play things up for shock value, but at the same time it doesn't really linger on any of its heavier moments to give them much weight," he wrote. "As such, I found it hard to get too worked up one way or the other. It's a fun video game, but its hook of 'how bad will the good guys have to become in order to catch the actual bad guys' doesn't especially hold up to critical scrutiny."
Park pointed out that the game's "attempt at authenticity" didn't jive effectively with the game's mechanics:
"Generally, killing an innocent will send you back to a checkpoint, but Infinity Ward says an invisible system tries to determine if it was an accident, and will let you proceed if so," he said. "For how clearly the story takes a stance against chemical weapons, I'm surprised that civilian casualties only comes up as a clinical, algorithmic gameplay system. Modern Warfare is unwilling to seriously scrutinize its heroes.
"That is typical of Call of Duty games, which have depicted torture and civilian deaths in the past not so much to make a particular statement, but to be gritty and controversial. Modern Warfare shows more maturity than Modern Warfare 2's 'No Russian' while still stumbling into frustrating dissonance. To go from a flashback sequence where children drop dead in front of me from breathing poison gas to being awarded a White Phosphorus airstrike in multiplayer is jarring. Enjoying military games requires acceptance of some incongruity, but there's a dizzying lack of awareness in this instance."
"While the intent behind these horrific moments is reality-based, Modern Warfare has little to nothing to say about these tragedies that hasn't been said elsewhere"
And Moyse offered one of the most detailed examples of what, precisely, made him uneasy in the spaces between the game's otherwise entertaining gunfights:.
"A first-person waterboarding sequence, for example, is certainly a nightmarish concept, but big text prompts to 'Dodge the Water' and 'Press R3 to take a breath' detract from the chin-stroking condemnation to repeatedly remind you this is a video game to be played and 'won.' This example holds true to most of the campaign's shock sequences. While the intent behind these horrific moments is reality-based, Modern Warfare has little to nothing to say about these tragedies that hasn't been said elsewhere, and better.
"The trademark mix of stark violence and Michael Bay action doesn't gel, and the latter goes some way to suffocate any supposed 'message' of the former. Modern Warfare is, primarily, a video game, and I'm not suggesting that it is obliged to 'educate' on the horrors of conflict or the realities of real war atrocities. But the difference is that Call of Duty clearly courts such recognition, and thus it should be noted when it doesn't succeed in doing so."
Visible, graphic, and unanimous as this criticism was, the point was widely made that this is not predominantly what Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is about, and in fact is just one (admittedly unsettling) element of a six to eight hour campaign that will ultimately fade as players move into the multiplayer modes for the long haul. And as McCarthy observes, Modern Warfare at launch is a far cry from whatever the game will ultimately become in the months ahead:
"We still don't know the details of its microtransaction model, only that it will utilize a battle pass-like system and abstain from any late-implemented loot boxes like its predecessor, Black Ops 4," she concluded. "With a year of seasonal updates and free maps planned, it will instead serve as an experiment of what's to come. If the gameplay keeps feeling this good and the modes it introduces continue being stellar, I reckon Modern Warfare won't leave my online gaming rotation anytime soon, even with its intense lows.
"As Paul Hollywood might say on The Great British Baking Show to anyone that adds spice to anything, the presentation is messy, but the flavors buried within that soggy sponge are sharp."