The Reinvention of Modern Warfare

The next Call of Duty hits the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on Oct. 25, bringing with it full crossplay, a robust, sometimes-troubling, ripped-from-the-headlines single-player campaign, as well as a still to be detailed multiplayer experience and collection of strategic cooperative missions.

Simply named “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,” the game also is a reboot of sorts, bringing back fan favorites like Captain Price in an experience that essentially ignores the history of the Modern Warfare franchise.

The game, the PC version of which will release on Blizzard’s, will support cross-play with the team taking steps to unite the community. That includes PC and console gamers playing together. But it also means the team is eliminating the traditional season pass so they can deliver more free maps, content, and post-launch events to players.

In many ways, the next Call of Duty is the first Call of Duty. Or at least that how the team behind “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” want you to view it.

“It’s Modern Warfare, but it’s not Modern Warfare 4,” Dave Stohl, co-studio head at Infinity Ward, told a gathering of press at a recent event in the developer’s studio. “If I could ask anything, try to look at this with fresh eyes and fresh perspective. This is a very different version of not just Call of Duty, but Modern Warfare. I would ask you to as much as you can, to look at this with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective.”

Call of Duty Reinvented
Stohl says that the Modern Warfare franchise is an important one, not just for Activision, or even the bigger Call of Duty franchise, but for the industry as a whole.

It’s the sort of statement that is equal parts galling and true. Call of Duty’s 16-year, monumental impact on the game industry — thanks to its massive sales records and an important shift in narrative design years ago — is hard to overlook.

But the Call of Duty of recent years has been marred with missteps, missed opportunity, and at times, bad design.

A reboot, then, seems to make sense. It’s through this lens — not just a lens of fresh perspective — that “Modern Warfare” should be viewed. That becomes increasingly obvious through the presentation, which included deep dives into nearly all aspects of the core game by eight high-level developers at Infinity Ward.

Over the course of about an hour, we heard from co-studio heads, directors of gameplay, narrative, art, audio, and animation, and even the principal rendering engineer.

The weight of what the studio is doing, trying to once more capture the magic of that first major shift in Call of Duty — the one that delivered the unheralded success of the original Modern Warfare — became clear.

Taylor Kurosaki, the studio narrative director, notes that while he’s been working on this game for about two and a half years, in some ways its been much longer.

Before he was at Infinity Ward, he notes, he was at Naughty Dog working on Uncharted games. It was there that he felt the pressure of Call of Duty’s annual successes.

“These games, these Modern Warfare games have sort of chased us and shadowed us through the recent years of our careers,” he said. “They always pushed us to make our shit better. When we saw “Modern Warfare,” the first one, we were just fucking blown away. That pushed us to take “Uncharted 2” to the next level.”

The decision to reboot, to reinvent this most successful franchise within a successful franchise, was driven by a multitude of things, among them the knowledge that the eight-year gap since the last Modern Warfare has brought with it and an entirely new generation of gamers.

“This is not a sequel, this is a reimagining of the Modern Warfare franchise.”

“When we started making this game, we realized this couldn’t be for long-time fans like us, it’s been a few years since the last Modern Warfare came out,” he said. “We had to account for a whole new crop of players. So this is not a sequel, this is a reimagining of the Modern Warfare franchise.

“In those original games, but the time the franchise was over the nukes had gone off and Russia had invaded, there really were no stakes left. So we put that to bed and took all of the best things to make something new.”

Reinventing Modern Warfare
“Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” is more mature, more authentic, more relevant than its predecessors, or at least that’s the goal.

“It’s the characters you live in our world today,” Kurosaki said.

And the world today, at least in the eyes of “Modern Warfare’s” developers, is a much more complex one than it was more than a decade ago.

“Battle is not as easily defined, enemies don’t wear uniforms, it’s hard to identify who is who, civilians and collateral damage are a greater part of the equation than it has ever been before,” he said.

The game’s tone is more mature, leaning into the notion that the world today isn’t defined by black and white, but an unsettling grey.

“Look at the films that came out since the last Modern Warfare: ‘American Sniper,’ ‘Lone Sniper,’ ‘Hurt Locker,’ ‘Sicario.’ Where does the soldier draw their line? The answer is how you determine a freedom fighter from a terrorist.”

To make the game feel authentic and increase its sense of ambiguous morality, the team have broadened the sorts of characters people will play as in the game.

“We have added a completely new perspective,” Jacob Minkoff, campaign gameplay director said. “Not only do you play as Tier 1 operators, but you also play alongside rebel freedom fighters. You get to delve into the lives of characters never seen before. The gameplay perspective is extremely interesting.

“Tier 1 has all of the best tech toys. But alongside rebel freedom fighters you are an underdog, going up against enemies with superior tech.”

That means as a freedom fighter you’ll use things like makeshift weapons — think Molotov cocktails and IEDs — guerilla tactics, and superior numbers to win.

“It adds a new dynamic to combat,” he said.

A chart he shows on a screen, shows how mixing in rebel allies and terrorists alongside Tier 1 enemies and soldiers creates a slew of different types of battles, “delivering more complex combat than the game has ever had before.”

A key component of the single-player campaign, it seems is to both make use of those different sorts of battles and push players into provocative, morally grey missions and decisions.

“This is the most authentic and realistic game we have made,” Minkoff said. “All we want to do is make players feel something, to deliver emotional connection through the uncomfortable realities of war.”

They believe they achieve that through exhaustive research, building complex characters, creating “provocative ripped from the headlines subject matter,” and pushing the boundaries of the medium.

And, Minkoff said, players have told them that’s exactly what they want: the sort of content that only Modern Warfare “would have the guts to show.”

Press A to Become a Child Soldier
During the presentation, the speakers grew silent twice, allowing the game to speak for itself.

Both mission playthroughs were unsettling and upsetting in different ways. While what we watched were missions we would one day play, it wasn’t clear how these two examples would fit into the rest of the game’s campaign. Lacking context, they felt more deliberately provocative then thoughtful. More importantly, they raised questions of what would happen if the player didn’t do the right thing when confronted with scenarios that could allow for essentially war crimes.

The first mission — which takes place on Oct. 20, 2019, opened in London on the packed Picadilly, where a mix of police and SAS are searching for a known terrorist. Before they can stop him, he sets off a bomb and the scene erupts in gunfire.

Later, the SAS track the terrorist group to a townhouse in London.

The player is warned that there may be civilians in the townhouse, so to be careful. The player sets up a ladder and clambers through a second-floor window, grabbing a woman in the midst of making tea.

As he continues to make his way through the home, other members of the team come in from different windows and doors. They kill two men and a woman on the second floor as shouts breakout from above, warning that “they’re here.”

On the next floor, the player is confronted with a man holding a gun to a woman’s head. He shoots and kills him, but then the woman — who it turns out is also a terrorist — grabs a gun. He kills her too.

As the player makes his way through the townhouse shooting down armed, suspected terrorists, they fall to the ground, some gurgling loudly on their blood. Blood sprays the walls in gunfights.

In one scene, the player hears a baby crying and turns into a room with a woman grabbing her child. He moves on, but it’s unclear what would happen if another player accidentally, or deliberately opened fire on the woman.

Finally, on the top floor, in an attic, the player confronts an unarmed woman who begs them not to shoot her. When she makes a sudden move to a nearby table, the woman is gunned down. Moments later one of the computer-controlled SAS spot the detonator she was going for and remarks that the player just saved their lives. Below the baby continues to cry.

Minkoff later said that the mission was the team challenging themselves to make the most intense, cinematic, authentic Tier 1 close-combat sequence they’ve ever made.

The next mission we’re shown is an all-together different sort of realism. It’s meant to give players some insight into the lives of average civilians who take up arms and fight for their homes.

“Throughout ‘Modern Warfare’ you play alongside a rebel commander and her brother,” Minkoff said. “Their rebel storyline brings them to fight alongside Captain Price. But this is a flashback, which shows what led to them becoming warriors.”

The place isn’t named, but it appears to be the middle east. It’s 1999. The scene opens on a young girl — Farrah — buried in rubble and then the player is the girl.

The player spots a tile in the rubble, near the corpse of her mother. She uses it to start digging, making noise.

Nearby a group of men wearing white helmets (The White Helmets — officially called the Syria Civil Defence — didn’t start operating until 2014, so it’s unlikely them.) became cutting away the rubble and pulling up rocks, finally freeing the very young girl and her dead mother.

Farrah’s father comes running up calling for his son. Blasts start to tear apart the nearby buildings and everyone runs. The man scoops up his daughter and runs through the dust, past soldiers, civilians, and volunteers.

Soldiers — they appear to be Russian soldiers — begin to open fire on civilians, gunning them down. The father tells Farrah to stay behind him and runs past the soldiers as they begin to pull on gas masks and deploy poisonous gas.

The two make it to their house, where they discover his son: Hadir.

The children scramble past a dying dog and dead goats, past soldiers shooting those on the ground convulsing …

The father takes both of his children into the kitchen, where he tells them the soldiers are killing everyone because they think the village helped the rebels. He hands the children a phone each, in case they get separated. The little girl’s arms are dusty, bruised and bloody. The young boy is scared, says he doesn’t want to go.

As the man begins to lead the children to the door, a massive, bald Russian brakes in and begins to fight with the father. The dad stabs the soldier, but the soldier seems unaffected, shooting and killing the man.

This gives way to another moment when the player takes control of Farrah as she plays a game of cat and mouse, scrambling through crawlspaces and hiding under or behind furniture until she can get close enough to stab the soldier with a screen driver. She does this three or four times before she is grabbed. Hadir than stabs the soldier, Farrah stabs him multiple times and then finally gets his rifle and shoots him as he tries to choke the little boy to death.

The two loot the man’s body, and then make their way to their still-dying father who tells them to “Survive, whatever it takes. Never back down.”

The father dies and the two sneak their way out until the gas-filled village, slipping past soldiers and through a body-laden playground. They scramble past a dying dog and dead goats, past soldiers shooting those on the ground convulsing and finally into a field of poppies where they take off their gas masks.

In the outskirts of their now decimated town, the two children come upon Russian soldiers lining up civilians and executing them. The see a woman dragged off screaming and placed in a truck that drives away. Finally, the two use their cell phones to trick a soldier away from a gun.

Farrah uses the pistol to kill one of the soldiers and the screen goes black.

The presentation ends to deafening silence.  After a moment, someone on the Infinity Ward team suggests we all take a break.

The Gun is a Character
“We are following the mantra that the weapons are the star and the player must feel like a badass as they wield them,” said Mark Grigsby, the game’s animation director.

While the break following the unsettling child soldier mission was meant to serve as a sort of palette cleanser, the real tonal shift came when the studio started to dig into the weaponry that powers the franchises.

It felt almost like a guilty admission — following presentations that used words like authenticity, morality, and humanity — that at its heart Call of Duty is a game of guns.

Grigsby noted that he worked on the first two Modern Warfare games and that he knows that the devil is in the detail when it comes to creating the weapons of war.

“They need to be realistic and powerful,” he said. “We want them to feel and look powerful as if a Tier 1 operator is manning these machines.”

To recreate that feel of firearm realism, Grigsby and team seemed to tear everything down and start anew.

That included the sway of a gun in a soldier’s hands as they walk or stand still. In those earlier games, he said, the gun had a slow sway, as if you were on a ship.

“We wanted to bring more realism to that,” he said. So the team added little fidgets, tiny impulsive movements people tend to make when they’re holding something for long periods of time.

The reloading in this game is far more aggressive and visceral, it’s also more realistic. So now, if you reload halfway through a clip, you’ll see your character holding onto the old clip as he pops in the new one.

They reworked the recoil system, relying on a mix of animation and procedural content to give each weapon a different feel. And then they added a bit of motion blur and animation that shows casings ejecting. Now you’ll see flames spew from muzzles, gas wavering out of the ejector port and an overall increase in fidelity.

The bullets have been reworked too. Now you’ll see sparks on some impacts, and different effects when it hits a target.

The game’s audio director, Stephen Miller, also noted that guns are a character in this game.

To bring life to these characters, the audio team recorded every bit of a gun operating with an array of 20 different microphones. So they captured the sound of a gun firing, the action of the bolt, the casings ejecting and landing on the ground around you.

“We really trying to drive home that visceral feeling, that thump in your chest,” he said. “Then we tried to connect your weapon and soldier into the environment.”

He demonstrated this by firing off different weapons in the game in empty settings. A reverb engine, he said, works with ray tracing to scan the environment and then play three distinct sounds at the point of impact. The result is a gun that delivers not just a round, but an echoing roar down an empty city street, a grenade that sounds like rolling thunder when it explodes far away.

The Art of Call of Duty
“Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” isn’t just a narrative reboot and an attempt to inject a sense of maturing into the franchise, it’s not just a doubling down on the notion of gun as character, it’s also a beautiful thing to behold in action or still.

That’s in large part due to the way in which the game’s art team redesigned their approach to capturing and recreating assets — the pieces of a building, swathes of cloth, cobblestone on the road — for the game.

“We were trying to figure out how to make a new game and figure out how to make it look like something else,” said Joel Emslie, the studio art director.

Emslie had worked on the first two Modern Warfare games, and then returned for this reboot and he wanted to do something entirely different for it.

It was around that time that he noticed an artist “screwing around with photogrammetry.” Photogrammetry has been used in video games before — including “Sensua’s Sacrifice” where it masterfully recreated the motion capture of the main actor’s face — but Emslie wanted to use it to create a much larger swath of the game.

He started with set dressing. Typically, an artist would hand-place rocks in an outdoor setting. But the team decided to use photogrammetry instead.

“We started small, working on rubble,” he said. “Start thinking about building an environment as a veneer.”

Then they started seeking more objects. They went out and found people whose cars were destroyed by California’s raging wildfires and paid them to scan the cars.

“We got these incredible details,” he said. “‘Modern Warfare’ is a very intimate game. Players and the environment get nose-to-nose a lot.”

Next, they did an internal casting call to see who in the studio wanted to be a dead body in the game. They had the people who were up for it lie down and pose and then captured them.

“There was something really natural and organic about it,” he said. “You get these nice setups that make the environment feel realistic.”

Then they started using drones to shoot landscape photogrammetry, taking those sweeping landscapes and integrating them into the environment. They even were able to get complete scans of tanks. The result is a game that is far more realistic feeling that previous titles, a game far less brown, and one with — of all things — realistically sized doors.

“In most video games,” Emslie said, “ doors are larger to fit the AI.”

The townhouse shown in the demo, for instance, was built one-to-one, he said, so the team had to redesign the AI to make it work.

The game uses a new engine purpose-built for “Modern Warfare” that runs at 60 frames per a second, said Michal Drobot, principal rendering engineer. The team also used laser scanners to gather data on lighting models. And it the PC version supports 4K HDR and DirectX raytracing.

“You could take this image and put it on the cover of Gun World.”

There are even different types of lens distortion and effects based on the different types of night vision you’re using, Drobot said.

When it’s all finally pieced together, the result is something that hums like it’s alive, a “living breathing environment.”

“You get these amazing moments I’m really not used to seeing involved with these games in the past,” Emslie said.

And that holds even more true for what Emslie calls the stars of the game: the guns.

“You could take this image,” he said, showing an up-close in-game shot of a weapon,” and put it on the cover of Gun World.

“At least, I think we’re starting to get there.”

“It’s important that we treat this content respectfully,” Stohl said. “And I hope you’ll see that this is a more mature Call of Duty from a thematic point of view.”

The game, he said, is very realistic, more a military simulator than even something like the Call of Duty Black Ops franchise.

“The weapons have more kick, this is an authentic, gritty military sim game,” he said. “It’s not Black Ops in that way.

“That’s what we’re excited to show you.”

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