Modern Warfare II Highlights the Weird State of the Call of Duty Campaign

Modern Warfare II Highlights the Weird State of the Call of Duty Campaign

10
Josh Wise

Recently, I tried to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II. It proved challenging. Not the campaign, which, while pocked with occasional patches of frustration, was hardly difficult; Call of Duty campaigns are, as it were, calibrated to reduce recoil. No, the challenge lay in starting the thing. The logo on the dashboard bore the name of “Warzone 2.0,” so, thinking I had the wrong package downloaded, I went rooting around for the real thing. It turned out that, in the eyes of many, Warzone 2.0 is the real thing. More fool me. To access the menus, I needed an account. Activision required my e-mail. It may also be an idea, I am told, to think about two-factor authentication. Then comes the mournful message that informs me that, with my current settings, I won’t be able to connect and upload to social media. Well. No point in playing then, I suppose.

Finally, I was in. But where was the campaign? I scrolled past a barrage of options, game modes, multiplayer menus, past the Neymar, Pogba, and Messi bundles, right down to the bottom. And there it was: Campaign, Solo. How has it come to this? How has a series renowned for its campaigns – rich with vertical slices and moments that brand themselves on the brain – dwindled into an activity that resembles logging onto a work PC?

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For some time now, the decision to play Call of Duty has more closely resembled a lifestyle choice. For a start, there is the storage-busting bulk of the game itself, swelling annually, like an engorged defence budget, well over the hundred-gigabyte mark. Then, over the course of the ensuing months, in stream the updates, the seasons of content, the footballers apparently. News of which springs up when you check in, alerting you to the newest riches. Booting the game up, on a weekly basis, is akin to bending down, picking up a wedge of mail, and sieving out the junk. Long have I wished that we could prise the single-player mode from its setting, that the publisher Activision would take, say, £20 off me and let me download only the campaign – and thus be free of the bloat and frippery. I would stagger away happy, eagerly awaiting next year’s instalment.

When it comes to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, however, I may not stagger so happily. Reaching the end of its bizarre and uneven story, I couldn’t help but think that it probably deserves its place at the very bottom of the menu. The story – something about Iran, a South-American drug cartel, and a stash of stolen missiles – is attended by the usual suspects. We have John “Soap” MacTavish, formerly of the S.A.S., and a proud Scotsman to boot. Kyle “Gaz” Garrick, whom we last saw shooting his way through traffic in Piccadilly Circus. My favourite has to be Captain Price, whose cheeks are governed by a pair of muttonchops of such well-gardened bushiness that his enemies must think they had been slain by a Victorian. New to the group is Simon “Ghost” Riley, a man so scarily classified that he has seen fit to stitch a plastic skull onto his balaclava. Imagine him at home, donning a stainless-steel thimble and getting down to work.

Indeed, there is an air of extreme silliness about Modern Warfare II. It isn’t as if silliness and this series were not already intimately acquainted; my prevailing memory of the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, from 2009, is of averting global catastrophe by hurling a combat knife, in slow motion, into the head of Lance Henrisken. But there is something uniquely bizarre in the tone of both new Modern Warfare games. The characters behave as if part of their mission briefing entailed playing the earlier games, and getting high on their own heroics. Most of their lines are delivered like cliffhangers, as though anything they say can and will be clipped for the sake of a trailer.

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Now that we live in a post-Marvel universe, we are trained to treat our entertainment products as part of a larger lore, and we are rewarded for our repeat visits with a raft of references, in recognition of our narrative stamina. The problem with these Call of Duty reboots is that the characters used to be renowned for their unremarkability; they pulled off unimaginable feats in the midst of enemy fire, and they fobbed off their own gallantry with a dusting of dark humour. “What the hell kind of name is Soap?” asked Captain Price, in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. It was a good little gag, speaking at once to the slippery nature of their work, and to the impossibility of coming away with clean hands. In Modern Warfare II, we get the same inquiry again, upgraded to “What the fuck kind of name is Soap?,” and spoken in Spanish. It’s a nice nod, but it weighs us down with the past, and we would be better off without it; who needs a COD mythology?

All of which wouldn’t be much of a problem if the missions themselves weren’t afflicted with such a severe case of post-triumphal stress disorder – a condition that locks its sufferers into the burned-out repetition of old glories. Hence the mission in which we rain down hellfire from an AC-130 gunship, at cruising altitude; or another where we crawl through the foliage, clad in grassy fatigues, toting a suppressed rifle: both of which are old favourites from Call of Duty 4.

When a new breed of set piece does turn up, as it does in one of the mid-game levels, entitled “Violence And Timing,” the result is surreal to behold. A military convoy, barrelling along a desert highway, and your job is to jump from truck to truck, highjacking as you go, until you reach the front. The irritation I felt at the slightly slack leaping mechanic was offset by the touching notion that the developers at Infinity Ward would look to, of all things, Pursuit Force – the PlayStation Portable game from 2005 – for inspiration. It was around that point in the campaign that I felt it seize up. It seemed a pretty good illustration of the landscape of shooter design: a parched stretch of road, cracking under the weight of old juggernauts, and a studio hotfooting it between rusty vehicles in the hope of gaining ground.

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It used to be that other shooters had to strain and strike a pose in order to stand apart from Call of Duty. Battlefield: Bad Company, for example, opted for crooked comedy. Its plot was drained of heroics and its characters’ motivations resounded with the clink of gold bullion; it had you driving a tank over the bunkers and baize of a golf course, in a conflict cooked up for the sake of satire. Medal of Honor tried to root its action in reality, following a squad of soldiers through Afghanistan. I am fond of both of those games – and I am convinced that Bad Company stands alongside only Cannon Fodder, when it comes to the black pastiche of war – but neither attempts to match Call of Duty on its own ground.

I was reminded of just what that ground is, and the thrills that we used to find there, in only one mission of Modern Warfare II. “Dark Water,” in which you storm a rainswept oil rig by stealth, moving quietly along drizzling gantries, is the series at its best. Your comrades whisper the positions of foes into your ear, and fell them with passionless precision. It’s a blessed reminder that Infinity Ward can still turn out spectacle like no other developer can; and that, behind the endless noise of its yearly approach, some of its greatest moments were made of little more than violence and timing.

Comments
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  • 100% agree mate. CoD as we knew and loved it is completely dead. Its all about the extra dollar now. The all things online. All the things it never was as it cemented itself in gaming folklore.

    Now it's all about online farce that most A list games are. The days of me vs game are so over. I had a 100% completion & Plat stat for years but the more this new age crap came out, the further I strayed from gaming in general to a place now where my kids play everything new at least once and I don't care to play at all. Call it change or call it pandering. I just call it a shame.

    So to get back on topic... RIP CoD as we knew and loved it. Based on gut feeling and everything you've said above I don't think I'll ever plug in MW II to play myself. Sad days!
  • Good read. I stopped playing CoD years ago and it sounds like the franchise has only gone downhill.
  • At least they still do campaigns. I didn't bother getting Battlefield 2042 because it didn't have one.
  • @RRDude_PBB, Well to be fair COD also tried to ditch the campaign with Black Ops 4, but they only did that once so far. Hope Battlefield will also have a campaign again in the next entries.
  • Good article, I always enjoy a cod campaign as a way to unplug in between more meaningful games but daym I bought mw2019 (that's how behind I am) and it took me a while to sift through the bollocks of menus, updates add on packs to get the campaign going.

    We all need to admit that gaming has evolved some what but it's nice to know amongst the streamers, YouTubers and warped kids that there's still some folk who like to experience a piece of art solo.

    Nothing wrong with multiplayer games, but everything has become either overly competitive or more about stuff and having the carrot dangled to death to get more stuff or pay for more stuff. It doesn't feel special or as much fun anymore.

    All that being said, we are all proper spoiled as gamers, each platform has so much variety to offer you just need to wade through mass saturation to find the gems for yourself, just like music and film.

    I hope what's happened to the big dogs, especially shooters, paves the way for something new.
  • Good points here.

    I also agree that the campaign aspects of the series started to go off the rails 2009's MW2. What attracted me to the COD from day 1 was that it felt like a playable "Band of Brothers." 2007's MW effectively translated that to a gritty, modern setting.

    I have to say though my favorite, and the toughest and most rewarding campaign for a COD game (that I have played), was 2008's World at War. One of my proudest platinums.

    The last "new" entry to COD I played was 2010's Black Ops, which I enjoyed a lot as well. But Zombies (and Zombies trophies) killed it for me, as well as just getting sick of online MP. I really appreciated the offline MP mode with bots, with progression. I also bought the MW remaster for PS4 so that I could platinum it (the PS3 version was released before trophies existed!). That was great fun too, and brought back all the old feels. The offline MP was on point as well, but sadly lacked the sense of progression (you start with everything unlocked).

    I migrated to the Battlefield series. I thought it might be a chance to experience something akin to COD with the Conquest mode of the Pandemic Star Wars Battlefront games. I did enjoy Battlefield 4, but that series is altogether a different animals.

    Anyway, great article -- and thanks!
  • Josh: great article. I enjoy reading your work here. Much appreciated.

    I played all the COD campaigns in the last 2 years, did 100% in all games.

    They are enjoyable and definitely fun, but the campaigns are definitely on a downhill. The best ones are the earlier, like the original Modern Warfare trilogy, Black Ops 1 and World at War, though all the others have some peaks too.

    What I don't like in the latest ones is that sense that some of them lack action, they are too focused on narrative and character-building (which is not a bad thing per se, truthfully), but the action pieces are getting more and more scarcier.

    Having longer campaigns would be cool too, as well. The Modern Warfare reboot (2019) has a 5 hour campaign, that's inexcusable.

    Cheers.
  • I thought it was funny how much praise Cold War’s campaign got. I think it mostly was due to the one level in the Kremlin, and the ending level choice. I thought that game’s campaign was ok, but man was it way shorter than older Treyarch CoD campaigns. I still think BO2 had the best campaign for both gameplay diversity, customization, story paths, and story quality all wrapped into one (still haven’t gotten around to Infinite Warfare, so maybe that one could have a better, more robust campaign)
  • Finished MWR, Vanguard and WW2 campaigns at the end of last year and WW2's was great.
  • reminds me of how Cold War's campaign is considered an "optional content" and has to be downloaded separately from digital store. which is baffling, to say the least.
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