"Have fun" says the tiny text on the opening menu of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare – the latest instalment of the world's best-selling shooter series. On the surface, it's a well-meaning message. After all, video games are supposed to be enjoyable, right? But the source material that developer Infinity Ward has chosen to depict in this reimagining of the 2007 classic is anything but pleasant.
It's hard, for example, to raise a smile while crawling through a fictional town strewn with the still warm corpses of women and children. Or, say, being charged at by someone wearing a bomb vest in a crowded Piccadilly Circus in London. "Have fun" is a poor choice of words then. But the gritty campaign is Call of Duty's most compelling yet.
The atmosphere throughout the single player mode is incredibly claustrophobic. You may be dropped across the world in the pursuit of stolen chemical weapons, but each mission locale plunges you into a tight set piece of action that rarely gives you room to breathe. So far, so Call of Duty. But there’s a difference.
This Call of Duty is the most emotional yet
Not only does Modern Warfare look stunning, especially in 4K, but the unerring approach to realism forms an emotional attachment to the on-screen action like never before. Your actions carry consequences, and there's an emphasis on decision making that forces you to make gut-wrenching choices on the battlefield.
If this sounds too heavy for you, don’t worry. These are punctuation points to what’s essentially a roller-coaster ride from start to finish – an FPS (First Person Shooter) masterclass that plays out in under six hours. You’ll love the punchy new feel of the weapons, something the developers have paid particular attention to this year. From the FAL rifle’s weighty thuds to the barely contained chaos of the classic AK-47, each gun has its own personality.
Speaking of personality, the return of Capt Price – owner of the second most recognisable moustache in videogames (second only to Mario) – is great, but overshadowed by newcomer Farah Karim. The freedom fighter is from the fictional Middle Eastern country of Urzikstan and is the subject of the game's main story arch.
Finally, a positive female lead for the game
Karim is an uncompromising leader and – almost unbelievably – represents the first positive female lead in the series’ history. Her backstory mission also just happens to be more interesting than 99 per cent of the ones you’ve played in a Call of Duty game to date.
Having such a compelling campaign mode in Modern Warfare is even more remarkable, considering Activision ditched a solo mode entirely for 2018's Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. It marks a return to past glories and features the type of solo experience that has increasingly been pushed behind multiplayer over the years. However, although Modern Warfare is great, it's not without controversy.
The “Highway of Death” mission has kicked up a storm for Activision. It’s based on a historical event that took place in 1991 in Kuwait, where the US and its allies applied excessive force on what turned out to be fleeing civilians.
Modern Warfare's use of this event is not subtle. Not only has the US developer recreated the scene of burnt out cars and ambush points, but it rewrites history by painting Russia as the aggressor and a CIA operative as the saviour.
Infinity Ward defended its decision by playing the "creative licence" card. But then why use the same title for the mission?
The multiplayer option, however, is initially jarring
So, with a return to form for the single player, the multiplayer must be great too, right? Not exactly.
Modern Warfare takes a bold step away from its winning formula. Gone are the three-lane map structures that funnel players into choke points of violence and in come sprawling landscapes.
Ground War, a new mode where you capture and hold points on a map, can accommodate 64 players, which gives you an idea of their size.
It’s initially a jarring experience to those familiar with Call of Duty’s multiplayer and unforgiving for newcomers. One or two bullets is all it takes for you to be looking up at the digital sky. And with so many corners, buildings and windows to keep an eye on now, it can be extremely disorientating.
But it does improve. You’ll soon gravitate towards areas of the map that you know and feel comfortable in, as your score increases with each round.
All in all, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare pulls the franchise back up where it belongs. An emotional campaign coupled with dazzling graphics and a multiplayer that has serious potential make it a great package. It might not be "fun", per se, but it's certainly unmissable.