Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PS4
From an opening centred on a terrorist attack on London's Piccadilly Circus to raids on terrorist bases and even aerial helicopter missions, 2019's Modern Warfare is a thrilling entry in Activision's series. It's also one of the most unsettling – and not necessarily for the reasons it tries to be.
When the latest Call of Duty is busy skilfully guiding you through various aspects of contemporary military and spec ops engagements, its bona fides are unassailable. The rapid pace of the campaign – centred on the fictional country of Urzikstan but bleeding into international conflict – allows the game to briefly flirt with shooter sub-genres as it flits between missions, taking in stealth, run-and-gun, tactical, and more as it proves itself one of the tightest and most precise FPS franchises on the market.
It's between those moments that the discomfiting sensation starts to set in, when the story tries to make a deeper point. The writers, trying to present morally complex shades of grey, have instead created something that borders on propaganda. Urzikstan stands in for any of America's wars of recent decades – it could be Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria; the idea of murky, ethically dubious conflict happening "over there" blurring the setting into a desert-shaded haze of vague cultural cues, one where your actions have no weight. There's a throughline of attempted absolution for the US, UK, and their assorted partners, with off-handed comments decrying the actions of a splinter faction of the Russian military in Urzikstan as war crimes, despite having you commit some seriously questionable actions yourself without compunction. There's the already-notorious "Highway of Death" issue, where the game's take on Russia had attacked and killed fleeing civilians – whereas, in reality, western forces committed that exact atrocity in 1991's Gulf War. It's one thing to recognise cultural bias in passive media; it's another to be complicit in it in an interactive one.
If you're comfortable with the increasingly realistic violence – and the uneasy propaganda – 2019's Modern Warfare is an excellent shooter.
Yet away from those uncomfortable moments, Modern Warfare (2019) is undeniably thrilling. A raid on a terrorist safe house in London may go down as one of the series' best levels to date, while the general flow of gameplay throws surprises and twists at you frequently enough that even scenes veteran players may think they've seen a dozen times before – shootouts in city streets, train yards, jungle encounters – keep you sufficiently on your toes.
Technologically, this is also undeniably the best Call of Duty yet. The visuals are extraordinary, bordering on photorealistic in cut-scenes, which also benefit from some of the industry's best voice acting. Developer Infinity Ward makes fine use of the sheer fidelity to deliver clever visual tricks such as enemy positions being discernible thanks to their shadows, rather than having to rely on shooter tropes such as having them announce themselves with generic shouts. The audio matches the eye candy, with incredible attention to auditory detail. Put on your gas mask and everything becomes authentically, almost satisfyingly muffled, voices over comms crackle appropriately, background sounds and squad mates' cries become barely a vague echo in the middle of a firefight or in the aftermath of an explosion.
It's all fantastically immersive – for better or worse. With increased detail, the sheer violence of the game becomes less avoidable. Cartoonish, over-the-top gore-fests in something like *Borderlands *may be more bluntly graphic, but the way Call of Duty’s enemies flop lifelessly after a muted bullet sprays an authentic amount of their viscera over the walls starts to feel increasingly disturbing the more realistic the games get.
If you're comfortable with the increasingly realistic violence – and the uneasy propaganda – 2019's Modern Warfare is an excellent shooter, but as the series veers ever more away from escapism, it becomes ever more uncomfortable to become an active participant.