How Call of Duty: Modern Warfare takes the series to a new, darker place

(Image credit: Activision)

Securing lasting influence on contemporary first-person shooters, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) sits among the few genuinely commendable for "genre-defining" status. Heart-pounding blockbuster action and interwoven narratives presented an unmatched package far advanced for the era. With rippling effects on the genre for the following decade, the series remains a staple of modern gaming. Call of Duty still tops global bestsellers on the regular, however with a shifting identity – and a shell of its greater past for many.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is Infinity Ward's answer to player concerns, spearheaded by a tonal shift for the military shooter. Axing historical battles and cybernetic enhancements, this year's latest installment tethers itself with modern-day tactical realism. After one hour behind closed doors with pre-alpha footage, Modern Warfare looks to deliver, at long last, a new direction for Call of Duty. However, many questions simultaneously overshadow these ambitions, with the execution key to a compelling narrative.

Getting down and dirty in Modern Warfare

Call of Duty Modern Warfare Gunfight

Call of Duty Modern Warfare Gunfight (Image credit: Activision)

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's revival takes shape as a full reboot slated for 2019, building on familiar foundations, yet distanced from the former trilogy. The original Modern Warfare sits among legends of the past decade and unmatched by rivals of the time. Its third and final installment wrapped with high-stakes conflict; though a position developer Infinity Ward sees as far detached from today's world.

Modern Warfare 2019 embraces a "grounded" tone in the studio's philosophies, equally demonstrated by early campaign snippets. In-house Design Director, Jacob Minkoff and Art Director, Joel Emslie, pitch a narrative "ripped from the headlines," exploring modern threats while breaking gameplay away from arcade roots. Influences from Sicario, American Sniper, and Zero Dark Thirty steered the studio toward its dark underpinnings, though via a "Hollywood-style" portrayal, explains Minkoff.

The desired result is a less binary approach to a shooter campaign, branching into morally gray scenarios and scaling back player guidance. While still largely linear and curated, Infinity Ward looks to skew moment-to-moment encounters and make players think before pulling the trigger. Combat now ventures deeper than sweeping room after room, muddying the bearing on good versus evil, with branching dialogue based on decisions.

Modern Warfare 2019 explores hard-hitting topics via a "Hollywood" lens

Countless questions hang over Modern Warfare's promises, venturing into territory rightfully prime for scrutiny. Hard-hitting topics pair with equally weighted consequences, making its approach to concepts crucial to success. Even with good intentions, topics will straddle a fine line for many.

Our demo provided only a brief glimpse of such ideas, however, with vocal criticism already surfacing post-reveal, it's unclear where the final product will fall. With similar themes set to hit multiplayer and cooperative Spec Ops, expect more in the months leading up to launch.

Locked and loaded, but do you fire?

Call of Duty Modern Warfare Screenshot

Call of Duty Modern Warfare Screenshot (Image credit: Activision)

One slice of our demo tails British SAS forces, approaching encroaching a London apartment following a terrorist in the heart of the city. Breaching a four-story complex and clearing the safehouse, it's a tight setting for brutal and visceral close-quarters combat, spotlighting the expanded depth.

Apartment inhabitants showed unfiltered emotion, scrambling for cover and defending family throughout combat. Gunmen sit positioned to kill, while one floor higher, a woman rushes to her baby for safety. In theory, players could wipe the building in seconds, though added complexity provides incentives for caution and forethought. It helps deliver amplified intensity over past Call of Duty entries, elevated into a high-stakes experience over mindless action.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare wants players to think before pulling the trigger.

An accompanying level explores new narrative devices, breaking away from run-and-gun combat. Forming the origin story to drive future rebel freedom fighters, Middle Eastern siblings find themselves caught among an attack on their hometown. Fleeing gas and utilizing the surrounding environment, it provides a glance of "guerrilla tactics" splicing the advanced military operations.

Infinity Ward's revamped engine bolsters Modern Warfare's ambition; five years in the making at the studio. It brings further depth over past iterations, streamlining development processes, and the final presentation. Caliber-determined bullet penetration sees emphasis, putting additional weight behind every shot, especially in closed environments. Lighting has also been improved title-wide, even rendering light beyond the visible spectrum for next-level night vision. The game currently hits 4K resolution at 60 frames per second (FPS) on PlayStation 4 Pro too, likely extending similarly to Xbox One X.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare brings the long-awaited opportunity to revitalize Activision's FPS titan, looking to overcome a sense of stagnation over recent entries. Our brief time highlights ongoing efforts to revive the series' most popular trilogy through a fresh lens. Poised to be both gritty and harrowing title-wide, it's gameplay and the overarching world bring added weight to conflict.

Tackling such heavy topics require additional care, putting more pressure than ever to deliver a strong narrative for 2019. Leaning into mature and provoking experiences, paired with seemingly respectable intentions from the studio, eyes lay on the game in coming months. The final product solely rides on executing its concepts in an impactful and tasteful fashion. Here's hoping Activision drops its first public gameplay in the coming weeks, following its E3 2019 showing.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is set for an October 25, 2019 release, spanning Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Windows PCs.

Matt Brown

Matt Brown was formerly a Windows Central's Senior Editor, Xbox & PC, at Future. Following over seven years of professional consumer technology and gaming coverage, he’s focused on the world of Microsoft's gaming efforts. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjbrown.