In the days before its multiplayer reveal for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the game drew a new line of criticism. The derision arose from the inclusion of a chemical weapon called white phosphorus in the game. During Infinity Ward’s press event in which we got hands-on with Modern Warfare’s multiplayer, we also saw white phosphorus in action from a place on the game’s battlefield.
White phosphorus is a weapon sometimes used by the US military, mostly to blanket an area in harsh white smoke to obscure visibility and make it hard for infantry on the ground to continue fighting. But the weapon is also horrific in its real-world uses. White phosphorus ignites when it comes into contact with oxygen and it burns incredibly hot; coming into contact with it can melt skin and burn through both muscle and bone.
The US has drawn criticism for using white phosphorus during the war in Iraq and while fighting the Islamic State. Human rights organizations point to the fact that, especially in urban areas, white phosphorus can be incredibly dangerous to civilians. The chemical is unpredictable and can reignite days or weeks after its use, potentially injuring noncombatants long after a battle is done. As NPR reports, white phosphorus is legal under the Chemical Weapons Convention so long as it’s used to camouflage movement, and not as a weapon.
In Modern Warfare, white phosphorus is a Killstreak reward, a special weapon you can access when you earn a long-enough streak beating opponents without dying. Here’s Modern Warfare’s description of the white phosphorus Killstreak:
“Cover the battlefield with white smoke flare canisters that will disorient the enemy, and burn any that wander too close.”
We encountered white phosphorus when an opponent used the Killstreak on our team during a Ground War match, featuring two teams of 20 players each. The attack renders affected players’ screens in black and white, as seen in the video above, and the gas deals a small amount of damage when you’re caught in it. You’re also slowed by the gas as your character continually coughs through it. In a practical sense, it’s a lot harder to pick out enemy players. Eventually, the gas clears and things go back to normal, but the effect lasts a pretty long time.
What we didn’t encounter during the white phosphorus were the canisters, which the description says can burn players.
Some of the criticism around the use of white phosphorus in Modern Warfare is the apparent disconnect between the idea of using a horrific real-world weapon for fun in competitive multiplayer and the more mature, authentic story Infinity Ward says it wants to tell in its single-player campaign.
Art director Joel Emslie said during the Infinity Ward press event that Infinity Ward is trying to make Modern Warfare a realistic game by employing real-world weapons, equipment, and technology. He also pointed out that the multiplayer trailer shown to journalists ended with something that has appeared in Call of Duty games as a Killstreak reward before: a detonating nuclear bomb. And while Infinity Ward is trying to unify the Call of Duty experience across its single-player, multiplayer, and cooperative modes, Emslie said, ultimately each is working toward different goals.
“In the narrative experience you’re using this landscape and this universe to make people care about these characters,” he said. “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 having two different actors in the same film,” he continued. “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.”
Check out our impressions of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s multiplayer, and read more about its open beta, how big teams can get, and how the game is changing radar and Killstreaks. You can also check out footage of the Modern Warfare’s new night vision goggles in action from our hands-on session.
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