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And now, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is back as a reboot. A new game for a new era but the same wars. Its developers say it's not political, but that it deals with concepts like " colonialism, occupation, and independence and freedom. Modern Warfare is not a game that covers a war and packages it as a chapter in history. It is a concession that the wars it's depicting are a permanent feature of reality that will never go away. Recent events are recreated in Modern Warfare as we remember them from CNN and movies like Zero Dark Thirty and Hurt Locker , but with a thin veneer of fiction that uses different names and places.
Aesthetically, Call of Duty games never really had their own voice so much as the audacity to imitate the most bombastic action scenes from Hollywood movies.
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Previously, that meant heavily lifting from Michael Bay's school of constructing tummy-ache inducing chocolate sundaes of CGI explosions. In Modern Warfare , it means lifting from Kathryn Bigelow's lucid, no bullshit cinematography, which is also contrived but for now reads more like leaked war tapes than Hollywood blockbuster.
Over the years, Call of Duty's guns began to feel like laser pointers. You point and shoot, and it's satisfying because they do what you expect, but they're inconsequential. In Modern Warfare , every shot explodes out of an assault rifle and shakes the screen. Every gun is still a reliable tool with predictable behaviors that can be mastered, but it also bucks like a horse that is barely tamed. When these guns are paired with some ripped-from-the-headlines levels, Modern Warfare successfully shocked and enthralled me the way the original did in The level that is clearly based on the attack on the American facilities in Benghazi stands out as the most shocking, and the best designed Call of Duty level in years.
It's a straightforward mission through a contained space: I land on the roof of the embassy, escort a high value target out of the building, and lead them to a nearby location where they can be extracted. I touch ground right as worst fears become reality. The outside security wall has been breached, and the only thing that's standing between the mundanity of a modern office and dozens of armed men intent on killing anyone in their path is bulletproof glass and a few locked doors. Those barriers break, and Modern Warfare relishes in the horror.
A woman, already wounded, crawls away from an attacker, only to be turned over and executed. At one point, Modern Warfare directs your attention to child who is shot in the head at point blank range. Before there is time to process any one horrific image, Modern Warfare hustles me along to the next one, and as this circle of horror tightens around me I start to panic.
Just when I think I've found a safe rooftop to hold my ground, more pickup trucks crammed with fighters show up.
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Mortar shells land around me, and with each wave of attack they get closer. I'm running out of ammo, and they don't stop coming. Maybe it's one of those Call of Duty levels where I'm supposed to die, I think, and the fact that I don't know for sure speaks to how conivingly harrowing the experience is.
To what end does Modern Warfare mine these horrific images, inspired by real world events? It takes place in the fictional country of Urzikstan, which is so blatantly based on Syria that it is cowardly to call it anything else. Urzikstan is decades into a civil war, and one of the factions fighting there has stolen a chemical weapon from Russia. The player—sometimes taking the role of elite soldiers from Western countries and sometimes in the role of a rebel leader modeled after the women, mostly Kurdish, fighting in Syria —needs to hunt down the chemical weapon before it's used.
Modern Warfare implies a sense of urgency since it might be used in a Western country. Modern Warfare 's position is that some of the people fighting in this civil war, like a sadistic Russian general or the people who stole his chemical weapons, are bad. Some of the people, like American soldiers or the rebel fighters they're allied with, are good.
I used to try though, until I realized it's healthier to accept that there's only so much I can play.
Video games have splintered into even more of a hobbyist field in just the past five years; every writer, every streamer, every YouTuber has their specialty, whether it's in a genre or just in one single game. That's because, frankly, one single game oftentimes has enough to fuel content for eons. They're what some have dubbed "forever" games. It's why games like Warframe or niche developers like Paradox Interactive can host their own successful conventions. It's why Ninja catapulted to superstardom on the back of just one battle royale.
The past couple weeks have seen a lot for these "forever games. Digital Extremes hosted its third consecutive fan convention Tennocon, where a new open-world expansion, Empyrean, was revealed for Warframe. It's getting its own Nemesis-like system too. Final Fantasy 14 launched its latest big expansion, Shadowbringers. It's been a busy time for ongoing games.
Anecdotally, I've seen a lot of new players popping into Apex Legends in my week returning to the game. The reality, though, is a tad more nebulous. While fans like me are enthusiastic by the refresh, it doesn't seem to be doing much to bring large swathes of new players in. On Twitch, Apex Legends has been floating within the top 10 for the past week, but it's nowhere near as big when compared to its landmark debut month. Apex Legends may have hit its stride again, but has it been enough to bring in new players?
The answer, really, is that it has endless competition. It's overwhelming out there. Not just for people who work to cover all these games with equal expertise, but for consumers too. Every game wants to basically be your forever game. When I interviewed some of the lead developers on Apex Legends at E3 , I was told that there will frankly never be a sequel to Apex Legends. Bungie's Destiny 2, from the sounds of it, very much might be in for the long haul; it could be a long while before we even see a Destiny 3 now that it's not at the beck-and-call of Activision.
Final Fantasy 14, with each expansion better and more vast than the last, will be going on for awhile too. I recently started reading Jenny Odell's How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy after confiding with a friend that maybe the reason I suffer from severe stress is the need to constantly be on , whether that's in the relative-privacy of a work Slack channel or on the viral-happy platform of Twitter.
Odell writes that we often shed things like happiness in favor of so-called productivity, a downright unhealthy-and all too real-trait for adults living in the modern era. It's a self-help book, sure, but it's never preachy. It's the attention economy, plain and simple; best defined as the scarcity of a person's attention span. In today's attention economy, everything wants a slice of it, whether it's a social media app on your phone or video game publishers with a thirst for microtransactions, such as adding monetary systems to Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 months after release , trying to make money off the players who have stuck with the shooter, baffling the very same fanbase in the process.
It's Respawn Entertainment having to come out in a blog post to say that contrary to most live service games, it's trying to give its developers a healthy work-life balance and are favoring occasional substantial updates rather than lots of small little ones. Respawn, though running an ongoing free-to-play game, is lightly pushing back against the attention economy, in its own way. But no one wins, really.
The fans either want less or they want more.
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The developers and publishers are trapped in the same cycle. It's unfortunate. While we have seen some dialing back the ongoing services; what with EA publishing a single-player Star Wars game and all, it's still an exhausting trend that I don't see going away anytime soon. As for me, my resolution this year was to not force myself to play every new game that comes my way that I'm not required to play for work. And so far, I've been mostly successful. I've been enjoying sinking back into Destiny 2 and Apex Legends as of late, both de facto chore games.