Once upon a time, Call of Duty’s campaign mode was the focal point of the franchise. Before Black Ops 4 — the series’ 15th main installment — removed the mode entirely, Call of Duty was all about realistic military combat and down-to-earth, believable stories. In fact, such was the fervor for the mode that Call of Duty 3 removed multiplayer entirely and will likely remain the only game in series history to do so.
Yet, even as Call of Duty jumped from the frontlines of the Second World War to the fictitious skirmish between the United States and Russia in the modern era featured in Modern Warfare and its sequel, the emphasis was still on the campaign. Multiplayer maps were mostly re-purposed campaign maps, and the online mode even suggested that players actually finish the campaign before engaging in PvP gunfights.
A major reason why CoD’s story mode remained relevant for so long was its outlandish, often controversial set-pieces. From capturing and executing terrorists to outing government conspiracies, the series featured some pretty wild situations. None, however, were more discussed or derided than Modern Warfare 2’s infamous airport massacre scene. Placed in the shoes of a CIA agent caught in the midst of a Russian terrorist cell’s plot to insight a third World War, the mission gave gamers the opportunity to gun down droves of travelers in what, out of context, seemed to be an utterly senseless slaughter.
While it was nothing short of shocking back in 2009, it was Call of Duty’s big show-stopper. The series was the most popular it had ever been, and there wasn’t much else CoD’s storylines could do to incite interest or discussion. Ten years on, it remains the single most talked-about event in any Call of Duty campaign, and, even though Infinity Ward’s upcoming Modern Warfare pseudo-reboot is making some pretty lofty promises, that isn’t likely to change.
An introduction into the protagonists and antagonists of #CallofDuty #ModernWarfare. Part 4: "The Butcher" and "The Wolf".— Activision (@Activision) October 4, 2019
Biographies here: https://t.co/XPy0QgylkZ
Campaign intel here: https://t.co/EenQ0W3Gty pic.twitter.com/snivqY1sp6
Call of Duty just can’t shock us anymore — at least, not in terms of its narrative. It may well shock the majority of its fanbase with obligatory microtransactions and battle passes, but that’s another matter. Though some journalists seem displeased regarding the upcoming title’s realistic approach, that’s nothing compared to the stir Modern Warfare 2 caused a decade ago. What’s more, the “realism” complaint doesn’t exactly hold much water given the relative lack of controversy surrounding similar titles.
There were also a few complaints regarding Modern Warfare’s white phosphorous killstreak — a heinous chemical weapon that has been banned from combat in most of the world. Yet, 2K Games’ 2012 release Spec Ops: The Line stole that thunder eight years ago and put the concept of war crimes to much more provocative use.
At the end of the day, while Modern Warfare’s campaign may well reinvigorate the series and catch the attention of players new and old, it’s unlikely to match the intrigue of past games. The trailers may look pretty and probably helped to sell more than a few Nvidia 2080s, but we can’t imagine 2019’s Call of Duty having enough guts to pose any serious philosophical questions or call the player’s in-game actions into question. Much like every campaign since Ghosts dropped back in 2013, we’re likely to be stuck with another paint-by-numbers, shoot-first-ask-questions-never affair. While we would love to be proven wrong, it’s hard to imagine a Call of Duty game making any serious waves in the world of video game narrative ever again.