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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare arrives amid China controversy

Call of Duty Modern Warfare Image copyright Activision Blizzard

The latest Call Of Duty (CoD) game has been released, amid calls to boycott its publisher's products.

Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare is the sixteenth major title in the series, which is one of the best-selling games franchises of all time.

Activision Blizzard has faced criticism for punishing an e-sports competitor who voiced support for the Hong Kong protests at another game's event.

Some fans said they had cancelled their pre-orders of CoD as a consequence.

But industry watchers still expect the title to be one of the year's biggest earners.

"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," said Piers Harding-Rolls, an analyst at the IHS Markit consultancy.

Anti-government protest

On 8 October, Chinese professional gamer Ng Wai Chung staged his protest during the Hearthstone Grandmasters tournament, which is run by the firm's Blizzard division.

The gamer, known as Blitzchung, put on a gas mask during a livestreamed interview and shouted: "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age."

The company said he would be banned for 12 months for breaking tournament rules, which say players must not offend people or damage its image.

The gamer was also told he would not receive his prize money.

After experiencing a backlash from other gamers, the company partially reversed the decision, allowing Blitzchung to get the money and halving the duration of the ban.

But a bi-partisan group of US politicians subsequently wrote to Activision Blizzard's chief executive to express their "deep concern".

"Because your company is such a pillar of the gaming industry, your disappointing decision could have a chilling effect on gamers who seek to use their platform to promote human rights and basic freedoms," they wrote.

First look at Modern Warfare

by Marc Cieslak, BBC Click

Image copyright Activision Blizzard
Image caption Call of Duty games typically make more than $1bn in their first weeks on sale

Warning: minor spoilers ahead!

In an effort to rediscover the Call Of Duty mojo, publisher Activision is rebooting - or in this case reimagining - one of the series' high points: Modern Warfare.

The game begins with a pre-title sequence worthy of movies like Sicario. It depicts the opening stages of a terrorist attack complete with a title card styled to look and feel like a serious thriller, rather than a slice of light entertainment.

While the outfits have changed over the years to reflect the military fashion sense of each game's setting, the essentials of the first-person shooter gameplay have remained the same.

In campaign mode, the player makes use of variety of weapons to eliminate enemies, and assumes the roles of soldiers from a host of different countries. In that respect, this is vintage Call of Duty.

The story revolves around recovering chemical weapons stolen from a fictional country: Urzikistan.

But early on, the action shifts to London in a mission that is surprising in its brutality.

Image copyright Activision Blizzard
Image caption Players can switch between a variety of weapons

The sight of terrorists in suicide vests in Piccadilly Circus will no doubt prove to be controversial in the UK.

Overall the tone is dark, using events inspired by reporting from the real world. A mass execution forming background action in one early mission reinforces that feeling.

That, combined with using objects such a breeze block as a weapon, makes for a campaign that sometimes feels like this title might be trying a little too hard to be edgy.

At this stage it is almost pointless talking about how well this game plays. Any developer producing AAA titles should be able to churn out a creditable first-person shooter.

Fan favourite features in the campaign mode are all present and correct: there's a cinematic feel to proceedings and the player almost has the sense of participating in an interactive movie, where the action will only progress once they have achieved certain objectives or overcome enemies.

The weapons feel precise, the action forces you to make each shot count and use cover cleverly and often, but this is what any veteran first-person shooter (FPS) player expects.

It's the polish and the sky-high production values that separate Call Of Duty from the pack.

Image copyright Activision Blizzard
Image caption The new game does not shy away from violent, graphic scenes

On this front Modern Warfare delivers. It feels like a return to and extension of the universe created in the original trilogy rather a rehash or remake.

But wherever Call Of Duty goes, controversy is often not far behind. The allusion to real-world events - terrorist atrocities at major landmarks, wars in Middle Eastern countries - doesn't always sit well with the series' action-movie aesthetic.

The game's developers have told me they want the player to think about some of the issues the title raises.

This notion is perhaps one that few people would question, were this a movie rather than a video game.

I just wonder how effective a tool of reflection and education on contemporary conflict this experience can be, in a game where the primary activity is shooting stuff.

Following criticism over the use of loot boxes in Call Of Duty: Black Ops 4, the new Modern Warfare game will instead use a Battle Pass system, similar to the hit game Fortnite.

However, PlayStation-maker Sony has decided not to release Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare on its online store in Russia.

According to news site Eurogamer, one level depicts a young girl called Farah who gets caught up in a Russian bombing campaign.

In a statement, Activision said: "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is a fictional game that has been thoughtfully created to entertain fans and tell a compelling narrative.

"Sony Interactive Entertainment has decided not to sell Modern Warfare on the PlayStation Store in Russia at this time. We look forward to launching Modern Warfare digitally in Russia on 25 October on PC and on console via Xbox."

Mobile hit

Image copyright Activision Blizzard
Image caption Call of Duty Mobile was developed by China's Tencent

There had been some "consumer fatigue [in CoD] over the last few years", said Mr Harding-Rolls.

"However, Activision is busy diversifying the franchise onto other platforms, especially mobile where Call of Duty Mobile has had one of the strongest openings of a game app ever.

"As such, the franchise is being exposed to a much broader audience and that may help support sales of the AAA version."

The mobile version of Call Of Duty, released on 1 October, and was downloaded more than 100 million times in a week, breaking records.

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