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Confronting, Jarring, Realistic - How the Modern World Helped Reshape Call of Duty Forever
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 04:48pm 03/06/19 | Comments
We were invited out to an intimate hands-off demo and behind the scenes developer deep-dive on the reimagining of a longstanding series that may have now found its true voice...

There’s no question Infinity Ward will be placed under a high level of scrutiny for abandoning Infinite Warfare and Ghosts. Both relatively poorly received on a critical level, and both showing a seeming lack of any of the DNA that made the series so tall after Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. It’s important here that I’ve returned to the original entry as the fourth Call of Duty from IW. This is a studio coming back to its successful roots with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

Confused? Yeah I was at first, too.

This new entry isn’t a sequel to any of the previous releases in the series, rather it’s a reimagining of IW’s breakout original. And while the aforementioned “scrutiny” will initially come in thick and fast with this project being construed as just resetting and ‘cashing in’ on the studio’s previous success, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Narrative Director and ex-Naughty Dog developer, Taylor Kurosaki, likens this approach to the James Bond franchise. Casino Royale and Daniel Craig’s 007, while delivering in numerous areas such as tentpole moments and the many quirks of James Bond as a character, they’re not really comparable to any of the previous Pierce Brosnan interpretations of the character, or any other Bonds for that matter.

What resonated with me during our lengthy demo, which showed two splices of disparate gameplay amidst an incredible deep-dive on the new tech driving this reimagining, was the overall purpose to dig up an old grave. And that centred early on around our ever-changing world, which was a reason for the original entry in the first place, but here it feels even more poignant. While Zampella and West’s Modern Warfare did take us to dark and sometimes confronting places, this post-Zampella and West Modern Warfare aims to reflect the ‘battlefield’ with a greyer eye for what’s right, wrong and overall necessary. “One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter”, and what are the events that have led any person or persons taking to the field, in which ever guise they do, to do so in the first place.

"It all might sound a bit buzz-wordy, but what we actually saw in real-time reflected these principles..."

“Relatable stakes” was a term utilised that also resonated, and the core principle here is that this is going to be confronting. However, the team has worked to reduce the shock value of any said confrontation that challenges your sensibilities with another term: “Jaws not Saw”. It all might sound a bit buzz-wordy, but what we actually saw in real-time reflected these principles. Essentially you’ll play the game in a near 50-50 split as Tier One Operators or Middle Eastern freedom fighters, though there was a hint we’d be taken out of both guises in other forms as well.

Our first gameplay slice was the Tier One Operators carrying out a raid on a terrorist cell headquarters, situated in an innocuous London townhouse, which occurs after a successful terrorist attack at Piccadilly Circus. I’d like to help highlight the brash realism the team has gone to here, as I overheard a number of UK games journos after the presentation speaking about being physically shook at the scene -- this is a visual, audio and directorial triumph in IW’s goal to ground the series in a way we haven’t thought about before. It’s confronting, jarring and honest -- a rarity for a game or this nature, let alone anything under the Call of Duty banner.

But I digress.

The Tier One team go dark and ascend upwards, into the aforementioned townhouse. And, if I’m being honest, it’s really difficult to convey the realism stacked in this sequence, however, the reason for that came by way of information that the whole sequence was mo-capped by actual Navy Seals. A moment where a terrorist shot through a closed door with a shotgun, but missed the Operative was highlighted for a specific reason I didn’t even initially pick up on. He casually sidled right of the door. No panic. Just cool as you like with the smallest amount of evasion. He then shot confidently through the wall at the correct angle, taking out the shooter. IW reiterated that this is what these guys do for real, and that their transcendence from consultancy to actually physically acting out the scene was one of the reasons the emphasis on realism in [new] Modern Warfare took the shape that it did.

The other highlight in this first part of the demo is that Infinity Ward has had a makeover. A technical makeover, and the engine running Modern Warfare -- built from the ground up by the tech wizards at Infinity Ward Poland -- is truly next-level. Like, compete with Frostbite next-level. And they’ve upped their audio and animation game tenfold to take advantage of this reboot, which at this point equally transcends the reimagining of a series, or entry in that series; ushering in reboot of a studio as well. One that has struggled to find its form, or voice, over the last number of years. The confidence presented in this sneak peek speaks volumes to this also.

An interesting outcome of the new engine and how the art team has used it was a 1:1 sensation of the townhouse raid. Using the latest photogrammetry technology and being able to seamlessly plug in advanced effects like ray-tracing and ambient occlusion alongside volumetric lighting, which means even dust, smoke and other particles will now dynamically light environments in unscripted ways, has allowed for the realism spin on Modern Warfare to shine through. They even baked into the engine spectral rendering which utilises NVG (night vision goggles), as well as thermal, based on real-world application. There’s no ‘filters’, the engine produces the correct lighting based on this unique light system which also supports dynamic infrared and deeper infrared. Nothing is canned in this engine, as it’s all physics-based, and as a result, fills every space with a realism not really explored to this extent before in a Call of Duty.

For instance, when flying a drone in the game and taking stock of a battle scene with thermal imaging on, the game will even dynamically produce imaging artefacts associated with heat from, say, an explosion or something on fire. The attention to detail in lighting alone is just breathtaking.

So the 1:1 recreation of the townhouse also meant that spatial awareness, while in a first-person game, gave the area a truly claustrophobic feel. It was a byproduct of the art being implemented in the way it was, and normally in games like this there’s an exaggeration of room in tight spaces to help with the player’s vision and to facilitate smoother movement. But the team realised that amplifying the claustrophobia, and realistically creating a small space had the required effect for the sequence goal; as if tapping into the danger the Tier One guys found themselves in, in the real world. Like living within the small window of a sniper's scope, without the comfort of distance.

"Floor to floor, the Operatives took out hiding terrorists, and once enough gunfire had lit up the house from an audio perspective, a baby could be heard crying on one of the floors above..."

And while all of the design, art and lighting sold the situation with aplomb, the true realism came in the human side of the situation. Floor to floor, the Operatives took out hiding terrorists, and once enough gunfire had lit up the house from an audio perspective, a baby could be heard crying on one of the floors above. At one point a shooter was shot in the neck and as the Operative pushed through, you could hear him gagging on his own blood behind you; bleeding out ever-so-slowly as the Operative ignored any sense of mercy and kept his stoic position on the mission at hand.

This is not Call of Duty as you expect it to be.

Fast-forward to arguably one of the most confronting videogame sequences I’ve ever seen in over 20 years doing this caper. I had to take a breath afterwards, it was that jarring.

Remember, we’re in first-person.

A little girl can be heard coughing as she’s looking at bright sunlight break through the handful of cracks in her line of vision. She looks to her right and we quickly realise she’s lying under piles of rubble, with her dead mother next to her, crushed under it. Her coughs are followed by desperate cries for her mum and we can hear people above the rubble realise she’s alive. Quickly they begin to pull the rubble away and even have to get an angle grinder to cut through rebar to free her. It’s a frighteningly desperate moment, but she (we) get free, and now the game takes on the form a Middle Eastern child, engulfed in an attack on her home by Russian soldiers. This attack (and gameplay sequence) takes place 20 years before the London events written about above.

Her father is close by and, reunited, they each shed a hurried tear before realising her brother is still at home. There’s no time to mourn as the Russians are still attacking. Bodies are strewn about the village and anyone alive is being callously executed. You have no weapons and your father is not a fighter. Through a bit of stealth, however, you both make it to your home and reunite with your slightly older brother and a moving moment takes place that I won’t spoil. That moment, however, is spoiled by a hulkish Russian who breaks into the home to loot its spoils. Fearing for his family, the father lunges at the enemy and a struggle takes place. Hiding, you watch everything play out, including your father being shot and your brother being flung across the room violently. As this is happening, her (your) panting and fear permeate the audio.

With the brute stalking about the place, rummaging to spot a screwdriver and, emboldened by fight or flight, you lunge at him from behind and attack. What ensues is the most gripping game of cat and mouse ever perceived. Ducking in and out of rooms through floor vents, your goal is to keep out of sight while waiting for opportunities to stab him. I need to remind you, you’re a little girl, no more than perhaps four or five years-old, brandishing a screwdriver, in first-person. Each attack and stabbing is up close, personal and bloody. Eventually, with the help of your brother who cames to your aid, he’s killed. And this sequence is just one part of a larger one. Escape is the only option. Your mother and father are dead, soldiers continue to slaughter everyone around you. Animals are either dead or dying on the street, dust volumetrically fills the air, alongside a nerve agent. Gas masks are your only option, and you and your brother attempt to quietly leave the area.

"Bright red poppies lace a section and the juxtaposition between the before and now couldn’t be more stark. It’s also a reminder that our western concepts of the Middle East are highly at odds with what the area actually is..."

The tones here are a starchy yellow and brown. The air is thick with death, but when our little ones manage to scale a wall, we’re free of the chaos and suddenly a green, lush hillside fills the periphery. Bright red poppies lace a section and the juxtaposition between the before and now couldn’t be more stark. It’s also a reminder that our western concepts of the Middle East are highly at odds with what the area actually is -- it’s home. And it’s home to people trying to live their lives.

Gas masks removed, our little ones still need to escape. We’re still seeing Russian soldiers commit atrocities and while the sequence itself ends on a cliffhanger I’ll equally avoid spoiling, it’s in the idea of this gruesome, grueling and confronting sequence that “ideology” comes into play. It’s clear these children, or at least the little girl, will take this experience; this horrifying event, and use it to fight for her right and the lives, and livelihood of innocents without the protection we so readily take for granted. The lines in the sand will be drawn, but it’s clear the directive will be blurred between characters, situations and realities. “Provocative situations ripped from the headlines” was a dot point in our presentation, and there’s a sense of respect here from Infinity Ward in what that actually means.

The world has changed, and the stakes are higher than ever. And Modern Warfare looks set to pay tribute to our alarmingly conflicted civilisation, with a view to remove the pro ‘Murica lens and include us all; to humanise the grey reality of myriad situations, and to showcase there’s maybe no right, and maybe no wrong. There’s just harsh reality, no matter which ‘side’ you’re on.

At least that’s what I hope.

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