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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare isn’t “pulling its punches – we’ve had playtesters cry”

We speak to two lead devs on the coming Modern Warfare reboot to find out what’s in store for the single-player campaign

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

Call of Duty has gone about as far into the realm of blockbuster bombast as it can conceivably go. Since the original Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare released back in 2007, the series has returned to World War Two (twice), changed the course of history during the Cold War, strapped us into exo-suits, pitted us against aliens and zombies, and blasted us off into space. This time, however, things are very different.

Infinity Ward is setting out to make Call of Duty: Modern Warfare the most realistic first-person shooter ever made, not in terms of the fidelity of its bullet ballistics, but in its depiction of conflict around the world today. Of the two main missions we’ve seen, both draw heavily from contemporary events, from terror attacks in London to the ongoing civil war in Syria. At a time when some triple-A developers have carefully abstracted the more sensitive aspects of their settings, Infinity Ward seems comfortable with such uncomfortable subject matter.

We spoke with studio art director Joel Emslie and campaign gameplay director Jacob Minkoff about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare to learn more about the game’s bold new direction.

PCGamesN: There seems to be more emphasis on authenticity and realism. Is this a reaction to the increased popularity of military shooters like Rainbow Six Siege and Battlefield over the past few years?

Joel Emslie: I think it’s a natural place for us to take Call of Duty. If you have someone like Michal Drobot [principal rendering engineer] in your team, you want to take advantage of that. The tone and mood of the game’s narrative is much more grown-up, much more mature, so you want to render that in an environment that feels appropriate. Naturally, we went for the most realistic visuals we could put together.

This also applies to the mechanics. We worked really hard to boil the game down to how it feels, looks, and sounds. It just seemed like the natural thing to do when you’re trying to re-imagine something, and step visually and narratively away from something that was fantastic as a three-part series, and do it in a totally new way.

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Jacob Minkoff: Call of Duty has taken the bombastic set pieces as far as they can go: you can’t just keep turning the dial past eleven. At some point, if you’re going to have the emotional impact on people that you had back in 2007 then you need to bring things back down, make it more intimate, more mature, more gritty, and cinematic. This is the trajectory of – I think – a lot of good franchises. This is actually the second time I’ve been at a studio where everything had just been going more and more crazy with each new game, so we’ve done that, let’s just make everything grounded and real, like each thing really matters.

That Townhouse mission was laid out about three months into development. Previously in a lot of our fights, we’ve given the player an AR and told them to shoot at 50 people off in the distance. So we asked ourselves, ‘Can we make the interior of a single building with ten enemies feel like it matters?’ Captain Price is always saying, ‘check those corners, check your corners,’ and you never really had to check your corners, but what if you did actually have to think about them? All of this came naturally from us trying to figure out how we take ourselves further.

JE: My experience of [the first] Modern Warfare is hours of sitting with it in development and then even after launch as a fan of the game. The more realistic you can make a game look, the easier it is for your eyes to take the environment and the visuals for granted, and it’s not a struggle to sit with it for many hours. So it’s actually a lot better for gameplay when it looks more realistic, because your eye muscles aren’t working so hard as it already feels like the real world. That’s the goal.

We saw some events that are pretty close to the bone, for example the terrorist attack in London. What made you guys want to step closer to real-world events?

JM: It’s Modern Warfare. I think we as a medium, and developers in general, are afraid of touching certain topics. We are as afraid now as we were in the ‘No Russian’ days. I’ve only been here for five years, so I’ve had experience with other developers, and I think there is a tendency to feel like we can’t do things that Homeland or American Sniper does. TV and movies get to tell these relatable, realistic, relevant, and provocative stories that really touch people.

JE: Which is odd because we’re working so hard to be cinematic and reach the same level.

JM: And I think it’s so important for people to have entertainment products that feel like catharsis, so they get to see a hero overcome odds in a world they recognise as their own, to take power, to take action that makes the world that we all live in and fear a little better. For me, saying ‘screw that, screw these rules about what videogames can or can’t do, we’re going to do something new and not shy away from that, and we’re going to give players that catharsis’ – that is why I’m on this project.

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With some of these traumatic moments like the nerve gas strike and the London bombing – how will you ensure they’re not shown insensitively or without context?

JM: There’s a huge amount of context built around these events. We’ve worked with people from all around the world, consultants from different cultures and nations to ensure that we are accurately and respectfully representing these types of events. We’ve got two Middle Eastern consultants on staff who we run all of our scripts through, all of our Arabic, and we’ve got dialogue coaches on set when we do motion capture.

We’re not arrogant enough to think that we’re going to understand all of the nuances of how these types of events and subjects could affect people all around the world. We’re not shying away from provocative subject matter, we’re not pulling our punches, but we’re making sure that we engage as many people as possible to make sure we do things right.

We saw a little destruction in the Townhouse mission when the player shoots through the door, is this the only instance or can we expect to see more of this throughout the campaign?

JM: There are certain types of materials you will be able to break through. You can break through a crappy cardboard or wooden veneer door, but you won’t be able to break brick and wood apart. However, you will be able to penetrate those materials. Every gun in the game has penetration values, and every type of round will penetrate more or less based on that, so when you see the guy who gets shot through the wall in Townhouse, that kind of thing is everywhere in the entire game.

JE: There are doors that you can’t shoot apart too, so we had to go and design a visual language for the doors that you can and can’t destroy. I would say one of the best parts of the experience is the bullet penetration, just looking at soft cover and knowing that if you can shoot through it, so can your enemy – it’s a nice part of gameplay.

Sticking with the Townhouse mission, there are lots of situations where presumably you can create civilian casualties. Are there consequences for these?

JM: Yeah, there are. Call of Duty has always had ‘friendly fire will not be tolerated’ warnings when you kill too many civilians. Obviously, we’re trying to make things much more realistic, much more visceral this time, so that if you kill a single civilian you feel bad, because you might see a woman go for a gun but instead she’s going to grab her baby. We want you to feel bad, and the characters around you will respond and react to what you did, too.

On top of this, we also have a collateral damage score that we give you after each mission, a rank A through to F score. We talk about ‘unknowns’ – an NPC is an unknown until they prove whether they’re a threat or not. If you kill no innocents and you evaluate all unknowns correctly then you’ll end up with a rank A, and if you kill more than three you will get a rank F. There are rewards associated with being as accurate with your threat assessment as possible.

We also see some tactical decisions, such as choosing whether to shoot the lights out and go in using night-vision. Are these decisions common?

JM: I would say that there are moral decisions. It’s rare that you’ll ever get a dialog wheel, so most of your choices are tactical-based moral decisions where you’re doing threat assessment on the fly.

We do have strategic decisions, but for certain missions like Townhouse you’re with a group, everybody knows their job, each person is taking a room, clearing it, and moving on. That’s completely accurate breach-and-clear tactics, we mo-capped Navy Seals for that. Then there’s a mission later on where you’ve got Captain Price on overwatch with a sniper rifle and you’re in a very large environment – it’s non-linear, there are multiple objectives, and you can achieve them in any way you want.

It varies by mission, because Call of Duty isn’t about having one kind of experience that you continually ramp up, it’s about having many different types of experiences where each mission feels different. We have about three very intimate missions, three very wide-open, strategically rich missions, and maybe half the game has morally complex choices in it. There’s a variety across the whole game.

You’ve been referring to the game as a ‘re-imagining’ of Modern Warfare. What does that mean for the world?

JM: The world is – more or less – our world in 2019. As of the time the game comes out, it’s going to be that world, with some slight modifications insofar as we have a fictional Middle Eastern country called Urzekstan. We don’t want to be representing any existing conflicts in the world, we just want to be representing the spirit of modern conflict.

And how about main characters like Captain Price?

JE: This is the second time that Captain Price has been imagined. He was in the first Call of Duty and died on Pegasus Bridge, Call of Duty 2 took place earlier in the war so it was fine to have Captain Price in that, and then I had the assignment to modernise Captain Price. He actually started out as a Force Recon sniper from the US Marine Corps and then we realised that he’s got to be SAS.

For this version – I like telling this story because it’s so real to me – Barry Sloane is the actor who’s playing Captain Price in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and he’s a really great guy. I was at a photo shoot and we put together a costume and everything so we could make him look like Captain Price, and then he steps out into the room and I looked at him and he asks, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I went, ‘I’ve been working with your character for over a decade and this is the first time I’ve seen Captain Price in the flesh, so just give me a second to figure this out.’ Barry takes the role really seriously, he did his homework on Price, played all of the games, and there’s no doubt he’s the character when I see him or hear him doing voice recordings or mo-capping.

He stays true to the character, but also brings something new to it, which is the theme for the whole game: re-imagine it, but don’t destroy what people loved about it in the first place.

The Modern Warfare series has some missions like ‘All Ghillied Up’ that are so iconic that people know them by name. Does that feel like an albatross around your neck?

JM: Speaking for myself, I played those moments as a fan. Suffice it to say that the sequences in Modern Warfare were extremely influential to our work on Uncharted. Between the Modern Warfare series and the Uncharted series, videogame set pieces have been taken to the nth degree, as freaking far as they can go – there was a while where we were just going back and forth one-upping each other.

JE: We had an avalanche chasing the snowmobiles originally on Cliffhanger and we took it out because it was getting too crazy.

JM: And you guys had the cargo ship in Crew Expendable and I made the cruise ship level in Uncharted 3, so we just kept going back and forth. But I think we reached the limit of that, so now we’re working together we can say we pushed each other up that hill as far as we can go, so how do we bring that back and make a new grounded and intimate version. I feel like the Townhouse and Homegrown missions you saw, that’s our answer to that. You don’t blow up the world because that’s the only place you can go at that point, instead you find the closer and more emotionally evocative moments and that’s how you push past the hill you’ve been climbing.

JE: I think what made some of those missions so iconic was the context. If you were to think of the original Modern Warfare series as tongue-in-cheek action fare, this is a lot more serious, like Sicario and American Sniper. The context and the stakes are so much higher with this, so when we do a moment like Townhouse it just resonates much more, and I believe they can become their own thing. We’re making new hallmark moments, most definitely.

It’s because of the weight and gravity we have now, I’ve never seen narrative in a Modern Warfare game like this narrative. The stories [of the original trilogy] were great for that time period, but I think the gaming community expects more now, it has to be more sophisticated, and from what I’ve seen it’s incredible, there’s a really great story driving this thing.

JM: We’ve had multiple playtesters cry.

JE: I thought it was a joke when they told me, and then I watched a video of it. It was a real human moment, and now I’m like, ‘I worked on a game that made someone cry.’

JM: To be making people feel emotions that deeply – we’re doing it.

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