Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Doesn’t Know What To Do With Its Realistic Graphics

I’m playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, my first CoD campaign since, erm, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. This is a sequel to a reboot (it’s complicated) and while my school-aged mind saw the original and went, “Woah, cool shooty guns!” I'm hoping that 13 years has granted me some maturity and nuance.

I’ve played plenty of Call of Duty multiplayer since 2009, don’t get me wrong. But there’s less politics involved with besting another human behind their own controller in the Gulag than there is pointing your rifle at civilians in order to placate them. I’ll talk more about that later, but for what it’s worth I think the Call of Duty series has decent gunplay and consistently engaging multiplayer options. I’m an Apex Legends guy, as you probably know, but Warzone with the bois is a staple in the Sledge household.

Starting up a CoD campaign for the first time in over a decade, I was struck by how good it looked. Games are often accused of trying to mimic cinema too much, but Modern Warfare II’s cutscenes could be straight out of Hollywood. There’s no interesting direction or filmic mimicry, it just looks so fucking realistic. Yes, games like Red Dead Redemption 2 have beautifully realised worlds, but nothing I’ve played comes close to the hyper realistic faces in Modern Warfare II. You can make out every wrinkle and pore on the war criminals’ faces, and every expression perfectly represents the emotions (mostly anger) that the characters are feeling.

That level of detail extends to the levels, too. You’ve probably seen footage of the game’s recreation of an Amsterdam canalside street, which frankly looks incredible. Hell, look at the labels on this keyboard that a street performer is playing – who needs this much realism? The developers have gone above and beyond to make faces and facades as realistic as possible, but this level, and many others, show that they just doesn’t know what to do with its beautifully realistic locales.

What goes down in Amsterdam? You walk along the canal, stun a Cartel member, grab your target, and shoot a couple of other dudes before getting in a car. That’s it. You can explore a little off-path, but it’s not long before you get the red message of doom: you are leaving the mission area, do a u-turn as soon as possible, you get the picture. As beautiful as Amsterdam was, it was horribly underutilised. For all of Activision’s realism, it doesn’t know what to do with it.

Think of what Hitman would do with that level. Every NPC would be a potential victim and a potential costume change. Every passageway would be a potential route to your goal. Every hyper realistic synthesiser would be a potential instrument of death. Instead, Call of Duty gives you a narrow path and a pistol.

The same goes for most of the levels I’ve played so far. After spending 20 minutes in Amsterdam (half of which is during a water-based stealth section – why?), you move onto the Mexico/US border. Before then, we spent a level in Al-Mazrah, a fictional Middle Eastern state. While you spend more time in Mexico than the other global locales, the levels feel the same. Walk through some lovely scenery, before storming a house and killing everyone inside. Sometimes you might have to get from Point A to Point B and others you’ll bunker down to survive waves of enemies approaching your position, but they all feel the same. To make it very clear here, I’m not opposed to the shooting in the world’s biggest shooting game, I’m opposed to the fact the shooting is really fucking boring and I feel like any level could have a different backdrop swapped in and play exactly the same. What’s the point of sending us to Mexico if the level plays identically to Amsterdam?

For all the lifelike locations and painstakingly-animated faces, it’s clear this is all a facade, a fancy backdrop for the guns to shoot at. Part of why it looks so good is because you can’t interact with it, I’ll wager, but that brings me to a wider problem in the game: it wants to look realistic, but it doesn’t want to be realistic. While it apes real-life assassinations from the very first level, Modern Warfare II doesn’t want to show you the realities of warfare or even the reality of shooting a gun.

A realistic first-person shooter would replicate the feeling of a shotgun kicking backwards into your shoulder as you fire into a Cartel member’s face. Reloading a less-than-empty magazine wouldn’t magically pour the remaining rounds into your ammo bag. It wouldn’t let you carry a 16lb sniper rifle on your back just in case it’ll come in handy. A realistic shooter might even show the repercussions that soldiers face when they return home from the front lines, not least PTSD or struggling to find their place in society. It certainly wouldn’t allow you to shoot an LMG underwater. But at least the assault rifles look exactly like the ones that the actual army uses!

The story doesn’t fare much better. There’s an Iranian military officer, the Mexican Cartel, and the Russians are even involved somehow. It’s a checklist of popular villains from US-centric war stories, but the story it tells is practically incoherent. You just follow Major Hassan to whatever locations the developers thought would look cool, and fight against whatever baddies the developers thought would be cool to kill, blow up, or otherwise mutilate. Despite failing a level if you kill a civilian, I lost count of the number of war crimes I committed. If the enemy has a gun, it’s a-okay. I was going to go out on a limb and suggest that destroying civilian petrol stations and houses would be unheralded territory for the real army, but when the schools and hospitals are regularly hit in the pursuit of justice, this might actually be a brief moment of realism among the gun glorification.

Modern Warfare II looks amazing, I want to reiterate that it might be the most realistic looking game I’ve ever played, especially when it comes to faces and cutscenes. But the realism ends with the aesthetics, and if the Call of Duty series really wants to innovate going forward, it needs to focus less on the graphics and more on the game. There’s only so many levels I can play where I enter perfectly recreated buildings and pour bullets into AI enemies.

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