In an era of gaming where big budget titles often don’t know what to be, the latest Call of Duty is a game that knows what it wants to be, and focuses all its attention on achieving that goal.

There’s no battle royale mode, no “season pass” coaxing you to spend more, and no loot system or treasure chests raining a literal endless supply of purple-colored gear at you. There’s just that gritty, realistic return to single-player storytelling, and a more muscular, lean multiplayer offering that dials back the high-speed theatrics of the last few years. The result is a Call of Duty that’s worth the price of admission out of the box, a game that reminds us why we don’t play with toy soldiers anymore.

It’s understandable to be skeptical and cynical about Infinity Ward’s earnest attempts to pay tribute to what war is “really like." Granted, the studio’s been saying this since the original trilogy. In a 2011 interview ahead of the ridiculous Modern Warfare 3 campaign that chronicled World War III, Sledgehammer creative director Brett Robbins said the game “can’t just be gratuitous, it can’t just be fantasy.” And yet this was a game that had you shooting out the back of a crashing airplane. The series eventually evolved into one involving Kevin Spacey’s robot army, evil AI and interplanetary space travel.

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This finally feels a little closer to that years-old promise. Spec Ops: The Line, a 2012 game developed by Yager Development, is often considered the game that best addressed the “horrors of war," a seemingly bog-standard shooter that revealed itself as psychological horror, a la “Apocalypse Now.”

Infinity Ward doesn’t hit those heights, but doesn’t seem to be aiming at them, and that’s fine. However, it remains curious why Infinity Ward insists on using a fictional Middle Eastern country (“Urzikstan”) while making Russians overtly villainous, all the while basing several levels off recent events, including:

While it’s tacky for any corporate entertainment product to try depicting these events — even if it’s an adaptation — it doesn’t mean Infinity Ward’s writers didn’t handle with care. The story’s highlight revolves a sibling pair of freedom fighters, Farah and Hadir. The two of them give more perspective on this otherwise Bruckheimer-flavored tale for military fetishists, particularly given some late-game plot points on how global powers can view those in similar situations as the siblings.

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Yes, there’s a mission that echoes the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, but it all comes after you witness a similar invasion play out through the eyes of a small child. In this context, the American heroes equipped with four-eyed night-vision goggles, the same you see at the end of “Zero Dark Thirty," look like alien invaders conducting a grim procession inside the darkness of these homes. And in these environments, you’re liable to shoot everyone, since often there is little or no distinction between bad guy and civilian. It’s Hogan’s Alley in horrifying fidelity.

Only Capt. Price and his gruff whimsy is there to mostly remind you that you’re still playing out a comic book fantasy. Yes, this Call of Duty game may be problematic. But they all are. This is the current climate in video game storytelling: politically charged tales with bards who insist they’re not being political.

The heft you feel moving in multiplayer is also in service of a more “realistic” Call of Duty. As I wrote in my first-impressions review, you move slower. You can “mount” your rifle to lean. More importantly, the game eschews the standard “three-lane” design of multiplayer map design, going for something bigger, intricately webbed with indoor areas, lots of open space and windows. Yes, this might encourage camping, or staying in place. But then again, what Call of Duty game hasn’t had this so-called problem?

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However, even after an entire weekend of playing, certain maps are simply too large for the smaller skirmishes with teams of six or 10. It’s almost as if the maps are encouraging players to move around to find the fights, and once found, you’re meant to have more prolonged skirmishes. Rushing, as in real life, is discouraged.

Ground War, this game’s 64-player battles, take some getting used to as well. The maps aren’t as large as EA’s Battlefield" series, but still large enough to fit tanks, fighter jets and helicopters, as well as tall, dozen-story buildings to fill with snipers and mines. With friends, this is the perfect mode to blow some steam.

And if you want faster gunplay, the two-on-two Gunfight mode condenses the most exciting moments of battle royale games into less than a few seconds. Given random weapons, you’re meant to defeat the other pair in a small space. The mode is the perfect way to adapt yourself to other types of weapons, all the while serving as great practice on how to quickly engage in larger multiplayer modes.

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It’s worth praising that Call of Duty’s progression system seems pretty good. In a year that’s given us multiplayer duds like Anthem and Ghost Recon Breakpoint, it’s a 2019 miracle that Activision’s latest Call of Duty game is generous with experience and rewards.

For now, players can upgrade 50 guns simply by earning enough experience by playing enough of the game. Each gun has its own perks to unlock, giving players lots of freedom to customize their warrior. Yes, you get distinct advantages with some of them, but for now, it’s only because you’ve put in the work.

Activision plans to implement a “battle pass” system to earn even more rewards, similar to Fortnite. If you’re balking at the suggestion to fork over more money, especially since Fortnite is free, it’s not really worth worrying about right now.

Coming from someone who’s been jaded about the franchise since 2011′s Modern Warfare 3, Infinity Ward’s reboot should be cause for celebration. It knows what it does best, and does it better, all the while offering a complete suite of modes and features.

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