Infinity Ward released a heap of new details about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s multiplayer mode this week, both on a livestream and to journalists at a hands-on press event in Los Angeles. Those details included some of the game’s new Killstreak rewards, which struck up controversy in the days before the announcement when Infinity Ward revealed that white phosphorus is one of the weapons players will have access to in multiplayer.
In the real world, white phosphorus is a chemical weapon that has horrific power. The chemical ignites when it interacts with oxygen, creating a thick white smokescreen that can obscure troop movements and disorient soldiers on the battlefield. But white phosphorus also burns extremely hot, making the chemical very dangerous. It can melt skin and burn through muscle and even bone; it also is capable of reigniting days or weeks after its use.
Infinity Ward saw criticism for choosing to allow players to use white phosphorus against each other in the game. The inclusion of the weapon also seems at odds with Infinity Ward’s stated goals for its single-player campaign. The studio has said it means for Modern Warfare’s narrative to be gritty and realistic, exploring morality and gray areas soldiers have to navigate when balancing completing their missions and doing the right thing.
Call of Duty games of the past have included weapons in multiplayer that are horrific in the real world, including flame throwers, napalm, and even nuclear weapons. Art director Joel Emslie pointed out during an interview with GameSpot that Modern Warfare’s multiplayer trailer ended with a nuclear detonation. Nuclear bombs have been Killstreak rewards in past Call of Duty games.
“Ultimately, I think it’s a realistic game,” Emslie said. “It’s mature-rated and, you know, you saw a nuclear bomb go off at the end of the trailer.”
As far as the disconnect between what the narrative is trying to say about war and the way multiplayer portrays it, Emslie said the two modes are trying to accomplish different things.
“I think that, in the end, the narrative is telling a story, a serious story, and it does things in a way, to make things–it’s trying to get a dramatic reaction out of the player, and making you feel things,” Emslie said.
“We want people to be thoughtful about what they’re playing,” audio director Stephen Miller added.
“In the narrative experience, you’re using this landscape and this universe to make people care about these characters,” Emslie continued. “And then when you’re in the multiplayer space, you’re trying to get them, using the same things in the same universe, to care more about the fun that they’re having. It’s almost like a mental chess game, where you’re solving puzzles with mechanics and doing these things. And the characters that are in there, it’s more about representing you in this play-space.
“…It’s almost like having two different actors in the same film,” he said. “You might have a really dramatic, deep, disturbed character with a horrible past and all this trauma. And then over here, you’ve got another character that’s devil may care, whatever. But I look at it that way. I almost look at the game as, it’s three very different characters and actors in the same film, in the same play.”
As NPR reports, the US military has used white phosphorus in Iraq during the war there and in fighting the Islamic State. The substance isn’t banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention, as long as it’s used to create smokescreens and not as a weapon itself. Human rights organizations have pushed the US and others to stop using the chemical weapon, however, because of the risk to civilians, especially in urban settings.
We saw white phosphorus in use in Modern Warfare during our hands-on session. It blankets the battlefield in white smoke, which does a small amount of damage to enemy players, renders their screens in black-and-white, and disorients them as they go cough through it. We didn’t encounter any canisters, which apparently will “burn any that wander too close,” according to Infinity Ward’s description of the Killstreak reward. You can see white phosphorus used in our gameplay capture of a 20-vs.-20 Modern Warfare match.