Infinity Ward has come under fire this week for including a white phosphorus killstreak in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer.
Here's how it works in the game: white phosphorus is a 10-kill killstreak for use in competitive multiplayer. You bring up a touchpad that shows an outline of the map and enemies on it. You can then direct the path the white phosphorus will hit the map.
After it hits, the white phosphorus envelops the map in a choking gas (enemy soldiers start to cough, have half health and their HUD is slightly obscured). There are pockets of area denial burning embers left on the map, too. It's a powerful killstreak that can be devastating if used properly.
It's inclusion in Modern Warfare has been questioned online due to its controversial reputation in real-life warfare. As Tom Phillips pointed out in his story this week, the chemical is banned for use against civilians (but not soldiers), and its recent deployment in Syria prompted Amnesty International to suggest its use against the country's general population there constituted a war crime.
Modern Warfare's campaign is billed as a gritty and realistic depiction of war inspired by current headlines and events. It includes a level featuring a terrorist attack in Piccadilly Circus and another in which you play as a child soldier who must stab a Russian soldier to death. At an Activision-hosted event in Los Angeles this week, Infinity Ward multiplayer director Geoff Smith was asked by video game journalist Chris Priestman in an interview attended by Eurogamer whether the studio had any responsibility in multiplayer to reflect the tone of the campaign, in the context of this week's debate about the white phosphorus killstreak.
"For us it's a detachment," he replied.
"Our game is more about two sides and there is no good guy or bad guy. You can play on either one and we're just creating this playground to play on.
"I always felt like in the previous games, multiplayer is the distant weapon fire you hear a few blocks away from where the single-player is. We all share the same world, and they set the scene. But we're a different play space and a different vibe. And it goes across trying to create this big breadth of content, with different things for different people. It's just a different experience."
Smith later continued: "We're presenting a play space. We had a nuke in previous games. Maybe people are reacting to the more realistic visuals. If it was cartooney, would it be more acceptable?"
The white phosphorus killstreak emerged as an attempt by Infinity Ward to replicate the Electro Magnetic Pulse killstreak seen in previous Modern Warfare games. "It's really hard to convey this electromagnetic pulse that disrupts your HUD," Smith insisted. "It wasn't a set-change or a mood change that the stakes had changed for us."
Smith was also asked whether Infinity Ward had any responsibility to portray the traumatic, real-world impact of white phosphorus, but he confirmed there are no specific death animations for the killstreak.
While Modern Warfare's developers don't see much of an issue with the inclusion of the white phosphorus killstreak, it has been called bad taste by some. This taps into the tonal disconnect the Call of Duty games have always suffered from. This is a series that strives to tell serious stories about war in the same breath as it proclaims how badass killstreaks are. And then there's zombies.
As Smith notes, Call of Duty has always put devastating weapons of mass destruction in the hands of players and let them run riot. Previous games have featured everything from Molotov cocktails to flamethrowers and airstrikes to nukes, not to mention killstreaks that see aircraft drop cluster bombs on the map, trigger napalm strikes and call in a pack of viscous dogs who tear apart enemy players. But white phosphorus is a devastating chemical weapon with a recent controversial political history. It comes with plenty of baggage.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, it seems, is unafraid to court controversy. It'll be interesting to see whether white phosphorus appears in its campaign and, if so, whether Infinity Ward does anything interesting with it.
Activision paid for flights and travel to and from the event.