When Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare launched in 2007, it told a contemporary story about two sides fighting a more traditional war. However, in 2019, warfare is different. In the world of insurgents, terrorists, and freedom fighters, sides aren’t as clearly defined as they’re depicted in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. With that in mind, the campaign team at Infinity Ward, led by a group of Naughty Dog alumni, set out to create something unique, intense, and unprecedented in the first-person shooter space.
The studio says that the definition of “modern warfare” has changed, and with that, the team’s approach to creating a Modern Warfare game also has to change. “Thematically, in this world, enemies don’t necessarily wear uniforms,” campaign gameplay director Jacob Minkoff says. “The world is not as clear. War is much more messy these days. We’re representing that mechanically.”
During the campaign, you must identify threats as you move through the mission. In one of the two missions we saw, a squad is methodically working through a townhouse serving as a terrorist safehouse. The player is in control of Sergeant Kyle Garrick, who believes the rules of war need to adapt in order to fight an enemy that doesn’t play fair. Garrick wants to cross the line in his fight against the enemy, and he seeks out Captain John Price in hopes he’ll see things his way. In the Townhouse mission, Infinity Ward shows what that means.
The team of soldiers breach the townhouse at different points – the front door, a second-story window, the basement – and immediately begin securing or neutralizing every inhabitant. Kyle enters the kitchen as his squadmate subdues a woman who obliviously wandered in. A quick walk down the hallway reveals a meeting room with a few members talking loudly. Kyle equips night-vision goggles and shoots out the light, and the team picks them off one by one. You can approach scenarios like this one differently; if you don’t shoot out the lights before engaging, the enemies have a better chance of seeing you coming. The squad continues up the stairs, encountering different scenarios along the way. One room has a woman who runs to grab a crying baby, while another has a man take a woman as a human shield. Kyle neutralizes the hostage-taker, only for the woman to grab a gun and come at the squad.
“If you shoot the guy as we did in that demo, she goes and grabs a gun,” Minkoff says. “We train the player early on that you really need to be identifying threats. And this all came from us talking to our military consultants. They don’t talk about civilians and non-combatants; there are unknowns and threats.”
Situations like that require players to identify hostile actions and hostile intents. Warfare isn’t always black and white, and likewise, threats can also be more ambiguous in games. “Hostile action is a really simple thing,” studio narrative director Taylor Kurosaki says. “It’s like, ‘Someone’s shooting at me.’ Hostile intent is a whole other ballgame. Those are the metrics they have to deal with and navigate.”
As the team continues up the stairs, some more obvious threats present themselves: one room has a man grab a gun and hide under the bed to ambush you – nothing a few shots through the mattress can’t handle. As the team approaches the attic, a shotgun blast erupts through the door, downing one of your squadmates. Every single surface features appropriate penetrative properties, meaning that drywall and wooden doors are easier to shoot through than metal doors and concrete. Similarly, a 9mm pistol will have trouble shooting through plate armor.
The squad finally reaches the attic. Price remarks that the primary target is in there and that Kyle should try and take her alive if possible. Kyle peeks in to spot a woman standing in the shadowy loft. Kyle downs her with a shot to the lower body, but she lunges for something on the table. Kyle takes one shot to her head, killing her. So much for taking her alive. However, as Price and Kyle approach the table, they see what she was reaching for: a detonator. Minkoff and Kurosaki tell me that if she grabbed the detonator in time, it would blow up the townhouse, killing the squad and giving the player a game-over screen. Price tells Kyle he made the right call.
Players need to make tough calls like that on the fly, and while dying obviously leads to a critical mission failure, it’s not the only way. “The game sort of has its own version of, ‘You just got court marshaled and arrested,’” Kurosaki says.
“If you cause too much collateral damage, which is the official term for killing people who should not have been killed, the game will fail you,” Minkoff adds. “We have pretty complex heuristics where we’re basically trying to determine, are you, the player, acting like a proper soldier? Or are you kind of being a psychopath and not playing by the rules?”
Despite this emphasis of wanting players to identify threats, Modern Warfare’s campaign will not rely on random elements to keep you guessing or branching narratives based on your choices for the sake of replayability. “We want you to have the highest quality cinematic experience we can possibly create; that’s what we did at Naughty Dog, that’s what we do here,” Minkoff says. “By necessity, branching and randomization diminish narrative quality. And there’s a place for that in video games; I’m a huge fan of big, open-world games that have lots of randomization. But no one has ever said that those games have great stories. We’re in the business of making the best possible cinematic story experience. That’s why it’s linear.”