Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2019 - why is it so controversial?

Rebooted shooter launches amid criticism over its portrayal of Russians

CoD Modern Warfare 2019
(Image credit: Activision)

A rebooted version of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare arrived in the shops on Friday, and it’s already proving to be one of the most controversial entries in the series to date.

Modern Warfare is the 16th instalment in the first-person shooter franchise and swaps the European battlefields of the previous entry – Call of Duty: WWII – for one filled with military technology from the present day.

The game’s developer, Infinity Ward, has opted to reimagine the widely popular Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare game from 2007 in a bid to reignite fans’ interest after a spate of lacklustre titles.

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Despite launching to critical acclaim, the new title is already shrouded in controversy.

Backlash in Russia

Call of Duty fans in Russia have taken to the internet to express their “anger” at the portrayal of Russian soldiers in the video game, Polygon reports.

A number of players have kick-started a “review bombing” campaign, where people agree to give products low review scores as a means of protest, which is currently taking place on the review aggregation site Metacritic, the website says.

Metacritic splits reviews into two sections: from critics and from users. As of 2.30pm UK time today, the average review score from the critics was 83 out of 100, while the user figure is just four out of ten.

According to the BBC, the controversy stems from a mission called “Highway of Death”, in which players take on Russian forces as a solider from the fictional country Urkistan. Russian fans and critics, however, say the mission bears similarities to a road connecting Iraq and Kuwait.

Highway 80 was dubbed the “Highway of Death” at the end of the Gulf War in the 1990s after “US-led troops attacked Iraqi soldiers” in February 1991, “leaving hundreds dead”, the broadcaster adds.

In the game, however, the road gets its name after a fictional attack on pro-US soldiers led by Russian forces.

Eurogamer claims there were some “serious questions” raised over the legality of the real-world attack.

“The main complaint is that Infinity Ward has rewritten history to present US forces as the good guys, and in doing so, has effectively covered up a US ‘war crime’,” the gaming site says.

The game’s publisher, Activision Blizzard, has stressed that the game is “fictional” and does not represent real-world events.

That said, PlayStation maker Sony decided to pull the game from its online store in Russia ahead of Modern Warfare’s release last Friday.

The Blizzard boycott

Activision Blizzard also came in for criticism earlier this month after reprimanding an e-sports competitor who spoke out in support of Hong Kong’s independence from China, Business Insider’s Markets Insider reports.

On 8 October, Chinese e-sports gamer Ng Wai Chung staged a protest during the Hearthstone Grandmasters tournament, the BBC says, an event run by Activision Blizzard based on its Hearthstone virtual card game.

Chung, known as Blitzchung, donned a gas mask during a livestream interview and shouted “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age”, the broadcaster adds.

The Verge notes that Activision Blizzard banned the player from competing in further Hearthstone tournaments for 12 months and he will lose all prize money earned during the second season of Grandmasters 2, which concluded on 13 October.

The publisher claimed that Chung had violated competition rules, which prevents players from making comments that “brings [them] into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages [Blizzard’s] image”, the tech site reports.

The ban sent shockwaves through the gaming community, according to The Daily Telegraph. Players “began boycotting the game” and launched a campaign that called on Activision Blizzard to remove Mei, a Chinese character in the company’s multiplayer game Overwatch, as a “symbol of resistance”.

Some employees at the California-based publisher even staged a walkout, the newspaper notes. The backlash resulted in Activision Blizzard partially revising its decision, halving the duration of the ban and allowing Chung to receive his prize money.

While an Activision Blizzard boycott could have a serious impact on sales, industry analysts are still expecting Modern Warfare to be one of the year’s top releases.

Speaking to the BBC, Piers Harding-Rolls, head of games research at information provider IHS Markit, said: “Call of Duty remains Activision’s biggest AAA [large budget] game franchise and is key to the company’s annual performance and overall commercial targets.”

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