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Activision Blizzard’s Infinity Ward studio took the wraps off Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II today, and I had a front-seat view of the presentation at a briefing in Los Angeles last week. The creators hope the campaign game’s story and characters will hold the attention of fans before they head off to multiplayer.
The game is a sequel to the reboot from 2019, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II. Infinity Ward is one of nine studios working on the game, and we got to talk with Infinity Ward leaders at the event. They showed multiple missions in the single-player campaign, briefed us on the characters, and answered a lot of questions. We’ll talk about multiplayer later, but we got some answers on that front. This game won’t have any Zombies, as an FYI.
The game will bring back a lot of Modern Warfare characters as well as introduce new ones. The starring roles include Captain John Price, Sergeant Kyle “Gaz” Garrick, Lieutenant Simon “Ghost” Riley, Sergeant John “Soap” MacTavish, CIA Station Chief Kate Laswell, Colonel Alejandro Vargas, and Corporal Phillip Graves.
The combat takes us into a variety of countries and one of the earliest ones features night vision combat, another involves a vehicle chase that is out of an action movie, and others will make you feel like a spy behind enemy lines.
I spoke with Jeff Negus, narrative director, and Brian Bloom, head writer on Modern Warfare II at Infinity Ward. Realism is still a goal, but it’s trumped by giving players an entertainment experience. Bloom noted that the team interviewed a tier 1 operator in Mexico for many hours to get a sense for what it means to be an operator in that country.
If anything will come through in the single-player campaign, it’s the theme about how important a team is in achieving the mission. The characters will interact with each other and develop and change because of the interactions that they have in the campaign, Bloom said.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What’s the difference between what you do when it comes to the writing part?
Jeff Negus: I’m not a writer. We’re both storytellers, but I chase the blinking cursor.
Brian Bloom: We collaborate on creating the characters, creating the story. Jeff is an incredibly talented guy, an amazing editor and a great director. We guide this narrative together. I work a little more on the script side. It’s very collaborative.
GamesBeat: What would you say is the high level story that you’re telling in the new game?
Negus: From a high level, what we tried to do is build on the last game, in terms of the world that was created, the nuances of the characters we created, what they believe in. They have an arc that they care about, things they interact with each other about. Just creating a very exciting, action-driven, thought-provoking piece of entertainment.
Bloom: It’s a chance to deliver on the promise of the premise. As we were rebooting and reimagining things, we started out with Modern Warfare, and in our reboot there really was no Task Force 141. You’d only really met Price, and he conscripted Kyle “Gaz” Garrick into the fold. But it was pretty awesome, at the end of the game, to realize that now we’re going to slide the timeline and say that this is the beginning of Price getting those personnel files and standing up this new team. Delivering on the promise of that premise and, again, not picking up directly where that left off in any way, but building on the time in between the two, where the team is established. They’re out there. They’re fireteams. They work together and they work separately.
There are so many things, at a high level, that we wanted to do. We wanted to take that theme of finding your line, as we mentioned in the presentation. You’ll see in the campaign that it applies to new things, new scenarios, a new enemy, a new kind of a threat here. Again, asking provocative questions that apply to the narrative, that aren’t gratuitous or just for questioning’s sake. This idea of, do you have to become the thing you’re trying to destroy? When enemies are willing to do things that our heroes won’t do, what do they do, then? How far are they willing to go? What are the implications or ramifications?
Again, just to put people–as you gear up or skin up in this game, we’re very inspired by all kinds of things. One of them is what our special operations technical advisors and soldiers, the contacts we have in that area–they talk to us a lot about imperfect men asked to do an imperfect job perfectly well. What’s that all about?
GamesBeat: What was the woman’s name again, the CIA station chief?
Negus: Kate Laswell.
GamesBeat: She seems almost like, you could say, in a stereotypical position–
Negus: How many of them have you met?
GamesBeat: Well, I haven’t met any. But they’re necessary to get resources to the team, intelligence to the team, but they have to fight off something that’s above them that’s more political, or–what I wonder is, as a character she sounds like she gets a bigger role here. Does she go through these things that change as well? Is she a character that develops in some way? I feel like she’s in a stereotypical position of, “I’m going to get you resources,” or, “Get this done, I don’t care how you do it.”
Bloom: Well, she definitely cares how they do it. But I don’t know if I’d agree with that. It’s certainly a fair point. At the end of the last game, Laswell began to have a change before our eyes. I don’t know if you recall or remember that. She was being pushed by the system and by that place that intelligence is, in between DoD and infantry and soldiers and enforcement, the operational side and the tactical side. Intelligence sits in the middle of those things. Once she saw that following that path had put Price and Gaz, and even Farah, in a very difficult position, she said to Price in that field, “Hey, if there’s something you’re doing, something you need, let me help you.”
That was the beginning of a change. I don’t know if you’re seeing or recalling that or not. But it’s certainly one that we intended there, perhaps to whatever effect. But I think a lot of people saw that as Laswell saying, “Okay, the CIA does a lot of creative things to help prosecute targets, but I’ve been staying in my lane to some extent, and I’m about to not do that.” Then she aided in the attack on Barkov’s lab, giving them the drone strike, helping Alex, helping forge that plan. That’s where that extra trust between her and Price–that’s what our intention was.
GamesBeat: It sounds like you have a character and storytelling opportunity with her, then.
Bloom: Absolutely. 100 percent. There’s something that makes her different than a lot of station chiefs in the CIA, which is that generally they stick to CIA work. The people they engage with are–they’ll branch outside of that periodically, but her whole thing here is that to get the job done, to get these sorts of jobs done, it takes a military force, a specialized, tier one sort of force. She has a different set of tools at her disposal that I think make her–players have learned that when they hear Laswell now, they can trust her to help them, and as they maybe cross or bend the line, bend the rules to the point of breaking them in order to get the job done, within reason, I think they know they can trust her, that they have that support. Certainly Price does, and Gaz does, and Ghost and Soap too.
But the arc for her is getting Laswell out from behind the desk, just being that intelligence person, just helping from afar, and now getting closer to the target. She’s not only on the desk. She’s near what they call Y, in some kind of overwatch, supervising position. And then eventually, even though you didn’t see it today, she gets physical and becomes a bit of a door-kicker herself.
Negus: What’s exciting about this is getting into some backstory, which is a thing we don’t normally get to do, especially with characters like hers. She’s not one that we find in the levels that much. But we will in this game. We get the sense of a different person that she was. There’s some really exciting things, I think, in the Laswell arc.
Bloom: We get to say–at some point one of our characters says, “So, you’re getting back in the field.” Indicating that–there are questions there. And again, our platform only allows for so much exploration of all of this. But I think even a line like that says–is that questioning her age? Her capability? How long she’s been away from it? And then also, how much whatever that target is, whatever that objective is–what does that mean? What would motivate her to say, “I have to roll my sleeves up and do this myself”? All those things are happening, and we do see that as an arc, a character change, building on where we were before and taking it further.
GamesBeat: In some ways you’re bound by Modern Warfare 2019, but did you want to do any homage to the original Modern Warfare 2 as well? Is it an equivalent story in some way?
Negus: What we were able to do with 2019 is look back into the older games and take the pieces that we found relevant to what was modern now, what things we were excited for in terms of telling a new story with some old characters and some new characters. We get to build on that. Rather than feeling beholden to the last game, I feel like we’re enriched by what we got to set up last time. We’re able to build on it in a meaningful way. Now we have these characters that you spent a whole game with. A lot of them are returning. We have a bunch of other new characters. You just got a peek at a couple of them today. But all people that represent different places. We’re all over the world. They’re augmenting Task Force 141 in various ways.
There’s a lot to build on, which I find exciting. We get to use what we did last time, but it’s fun to be able to pick and choose which things we bring back, and which things we maybe use to subvert some expectations.
Bloom: Even something as simple as–again, it’s not an equivalent story by any means. There’s no direct, one to one between them, other than that there is now a Task Force 141. Of course, there it was present throughout. They never really dealt with the origin story, the stand-up of the unit, or how anybody found anybody, any of those things. We’ve already taken liberty with those things, even with what we did at the end of 2019, by imagining that there were personnel files in a moment and Price saying, “I’ve shown you that I can do some stuff off the books. Now I want to put a team together to help you and me do things that are off the books in the name of a greater good.”
But even taking something as simple as Ghost, who was more of a static character, something a little more–something awesome that was iconic, that people loved and that what we loved, what we’re fans of. Taking some of that more two-dimensional graphic-novel approach to that character and his mask and his physicality and his tone, and adding other dimensions to that. Giving him a real arc. If he doesn’t say much and he likes to work alone, let’s not just leave it at that. What effect does that have on the team? What effect does that have on him? What effect does that have on the enemy? What effect does that have on getting the job done? How does that affect Soap? How does that affect Laswell? Waking those things up and giving them some room to exist in a new way, instead of just being in a bio somewhere.
Negus: We were excited to lean into certain things about those characters that are beloved, that the fans are going to want to see, and then pushing it further and exploring how those personalities might interact with each other, maybe on a more mature level.
Bloom: If you looked at, let’s say, Modern Warfare one, two, and three, Soap’s awesome. He starts out as the muppet, the noob, and it grew from there. But again, taking those simple pillars of–well, what if you’re the newest member? What if you’re the youngest member? What if your mentality was that you were looking for a win, that you were a hard charger? What does that do to the team? What effect does it have on that dynamic? What might that do to an arc? How is it a bug? How is it a feature of who you are? How is it a character strength to be a hard charger, and how is it a character flaw?
GamesBeat: When you bring in something like Mexico, you seemingly go off into the drug wars and localized storytelling. Or it could be one more stop in a more global operation? What direction do you want to go with that? Farah’s story, for example, was very local to her country. The Afghanistan setting, the country itself, was almost another character.
Bloom: I would say that, again, without spoiling too much, and not just because we’re being cagey and trying to dance around something–we just want to make sure that things are revealed fairly to everyone at the right time. But I would say it’s more like that than it’s not. It’s not a place we just pass through, that we just ride hard and put away wet, not by any means. Some of our main characters and new heroes we’re introducing are from there. They’re integral to this story.
Negus: As important as 141, and in many ways–the way we were talking earlier about 141 being able to augment the experts in the area, the people who know how things work in different places–it’s important to us, like it was in the last game, that we work with the right people, and are representing people in the best light. This is a grounded story, just like the other story was. That’s something we believe in getting right when it comes to how people are shown. We feel really happy to be able to work with so many awesome professionals, experts in different areas, to get this as right as we can. Lots of research, painstaking research went into making sure people are shown well.
GamesBeat: You made very good use of that tier one individual in Mexico, then.
Bloom: Very much so. But it wasn’t just limited to him. We have lots of contacts there. Colonel Alejandro Vargas–we’re excited to build a hero for Mexico that is as dependable and durable and incorruptible and capable as Task Force 141. Someone where we thought, “Hey, who do they call when they need help? Who can they count on?” That seemed like a new dimension to all of this.
I also wanted to say that–there is no real–it’s certainly interpretable, and I don’t want to give away too much. But I want to say that the game is not about fighting the drug “war.” The game’s not real life. And of course there are places with the cartel where there would be overlap with elements of a story like that. But I wouldn’t want to leave you with that impression. It’s more about how the cartel might fit into this story, what they’re capable of doing, what their goals are, what their areas of influence are, and what they can bring to bear.
We talked about how the story has to do with “unholy alliances.” If different enemies were to get together to achieve certain goals, how might their different areas of influence affect our heroes and our players and create an interesting narrative arc there? We have all kinds of surprises in store. This is the best game that we’ve ever made, and I certainly hope our fans in the audience agree. All these new mechanics and features are helping us on our side of the house tell the best story we’ve ever told.