My very first glimpse of the upcoming Call of Duty: Modern Warfare sends an anxious shiver through me. The hands-off preview of Modern Warfare 2019’s single-player campaign begins near Piccadilly Circus in London, where you arrive to intercept a van full of suspected terrorists and arrest them. As you leave the police car you’re hit by a deafening cacophony of barked orders, civilian bustle, and screaming sirens – it’s not clear what’s going on, but the suspect vehicle is stationary just a few metres ahead of you in the middle of a busy street. The back of the van swings open as officers close in, there’s a brief volley of shouts, and then the van’s engine growls into life followed by an explosion that lights up the entire street and sends you hurtling backwards.
There have been well over 600 fatalities from terrorist attacks in Western Europe since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare released back in 2007. News coverage and social media feeds have embedded these attacks deep in our imagination, but Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s London bombing scene realises that fear with unsettling palpability. Ostensibly, it’s a classic Call of Duty first-person cutscene, but while Modern Warfare has been provocative in the past with missions like ‘No Russian’, it’s never been so close to the bone.
The subsequent mission is called Townhouse, and sees a group of special forces soldiers closing in on a semi-detached house in a London suburb where the terrorist cell responsible for the bombing are holed up. You enter the building through the kitchen, there are pots of boiling water on the stove and you can hear casual chatter murmuring throughout the house – it’s immediately apparent that families are living here. Someone in your team cuts the power and you switch to night-vision goggles, prompting a change in the sounds echoing throughout the home: panicked door slams, hushed voices, couples calming each other, and the heavy thud of weapons being laid out on tables.
What ensues is a cold, calculated, room-by-room sweep of the house. In the first room you kill two people sitting at a dining table, in another you shoot a man hiding beneath a bed clutching an assault rifle. A woman runs across the room and reaches into a container with both arms. Mercifully, you hesitate for a second, which is just enough time to discover she’s picking up her baby, not a gun. Another room, this time you blast a wooden veneer door with your shotgun before one of your teammates peers through the resultant hole and quickly eliminates whoever is inside – the noise of the shotgun wakes the baby downstairs and for the rest of the mission you can hear its cries.
For the past decade Call of Duty games have pitted players against sprawling battlefields with dozens of enemies to pick off from afar. The Townhouse mission – which takes place in a single building containing roughly ten enemies – is a drastic step change. Where most first-person games exaggerate the scale of their hallways and doors in order to make navigation easier, the whole of this mission is made in 1:1 scale – every room, doorway, and staircase is claustrophobic, especially when one enemy panics and starts firing through the bathroom wall with a Kalashnikov, instantly killing a teammate and reminding you that bullet penetration goes both ways.
The Townhouse mission is a masterclass in building tension, with each room adding a grizzly new layer to the soundscape, and the constant need to assess every threat creating an agonising delay between seeing an enemy and pulling the trigger.
A few new gameplay mechanics are also on show, such as leaning around doorways by pinning your weapon to the side of the doorframe and slowly peering. You can also reload without leaving your aim-down-sights view and perform tactical reloads similar to those in hardcore mil-sims, but neither of the missions we saw were particularly combat-intensive, so we can’t yet say how different the gunplay will be.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is built on a new engine, rather than the heavily modified IW engine that’s been powering the series since 2005. The change has allowed the team to implement lots of new tech ranging from photogrammetry to global volumetric lighting, and the results are plain to see the Townhouse mission.
The use of photogrammetry, for example, allows for more authentic, varied, and nuanced textures. Weapons are no longer made of one or two textures, they have grease slicks, polished metal components, patches of rubber, different plastics, and all manner of coatings and finishes. But the biggest impact of this new tech can be seen in the environment, where every asset from rusted car doors to rubble – and even corpses – possess a surreal level of detail.
Infinity Ward has taken volumetric lighting up several notches from the ‘god rays’ we’re so used to seeing, applying it throughout the world to tell you a little more about the environments you’re entering. Walk past rooms in Townhouse that have already been cleared by your squad and you’ll notice heavy clouds of smoke in the air, a telltale sign of the close-quarters gun fights that took place there just before you arrived.
In another mission, called Homegrown, the same effect is used throughout to give the scene a chaotic, oppressive closeness, collapsing buildings and raging fires filling the air with thick plumes of dust and black smoke. Later on in the mission you escape from the city into a nearby poppy field, and the atmosphere is completely different: the air looks fresh and clear, providing a little respite before the action continues. Homegrown is set in a fictional Middle Eastern country, but nods to the ongoing civil war in Syria are everywhere, especially in its opening scene in which you – playing as a child – are rescued from rubble following a recent airstrike.
Infinity Ward says the mission is inspired by documentaries such as White Helmets and Last Men In Aleppo, both of which focus on a group of ordinary citizens who attempt to rescue people from collapsed buildings following missile strikes. Later in the level you seek refuge from a gas attack, crawling past convulsing bodies while holding a gask mask over your face. Eventually, you and your wounded father reach safety, but you’re quickly forced to part ways. His parting words echo the motto of the White Helmets (interpreted from the Qur’an): “To save a life is to save all of humanity”.
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It’s tough to get a sense of how all of these scenes fit into the wider narrative, and care will need to be taken to ensure they’re handled with respect and given proper context. It’s certainly a brave step for Infinity Ward to be taking, and one in a direction most triple-A developers have been shying away from in recent years. But if the rest of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s campaign is as intense and evocative as the brief snippets I’ve seen then it will be something truly special.