Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Warzone are gritty, realistic shooters, right? Well, the game's latest cosmetic DLC is about as far away from that as you could get.
This week, a new 16-bit-themed DLC pack was released for Infinity Ward's first-person shooter. It adds new weapon skins such as the Commodore assault rifle and the Genesis submachine gun (I see what they did there), as well as a new 16-bit death effect. And it's this death effect that's refuelled a debate that's been bubbling for a while now about Modern Warfare and Warzone's tone.
This death effect sees enemies killed with one of the weapon skins included in the DLC pack explode in a shower of 16-bit pixels. It's like something out of Tron or Scott Pilgrim. There's even an accompanying "deres" audio effect. Here's how it looks:
This death effect has got Modern Warfare fans talking, I think it's fair to say. And there seem to be two differing opinions: one, this kind of wacky in-game effect is fair game, after all, Call of Duty has never been realistic - despite what the marketers say about it. And two, there's no place for wacky in-game effects in a game that was billed as a realistic military shooter from the beginning - and actually followed through on that promise.
Let's back up: when Infinity Ward pitched Modern Warfare, it described the game as gritty and realistic, and this certainly could be felt in the developer's attention to detail and philosophy when it came to map design. Most of the maps depict real-looking locations, war-torn and blasted apart. The weapons in the game are incredibly realistic, with impressive reload animations and audio. Even the movement of the soldiers feels weighty. The overall feel is one of realism and authenticity. At least, that's what Modern Warfare is shooting for.
But Modern Warfare has in the months since it came out added DLC weapon and character skins, as well as tracer effects and takedowns that are entirely unrealistic. Silly, even. The game has a finishing move in which you summon a bat called Edward who eats your hapless foes face until their head explodes. One of the characters can wear cat ears. And now this 16-bit death effect.
"COD has never and will never be about realism," Theycallmemrlurker said in response. "Their graphics and sounds? Maybe. But gameplay wise? No."
"The game was advertised with one aesthetic and now we are switching to something entirely different," Lead_Sails pointed out. "It would be like adding hyper realistic graphics to Fortnite; it visually clashes and doesn't fit."
In the run up to Modern Warfare's release, Infinity Ward came under fire for its White Phosphorous killstreak. 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 was questioned online due to its controversial reputation in real-life warfare. 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.
At the time, Infinity Ward multiplayer director Geoff Smith said the multiplayer portion of Call of Duty was detached from campaign, and had "a different vibe".
"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," Smith said. "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.
"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?"
Some players have suggested a cosmetic block toggle that would prevent death effects and other DLC aesthetics from showing up, but I can't see Activision ever giving the green light to something like that. Competitive games of Call of Duty double as shop windows for this stuff. If you die to someone will a cool weapon skin or soldier outfit or, in this case, you die in a shower of pixels, you may think, huh, I fancy that, and head off to the in-game store.
Whatever your feeling on this realism debate, Modern Warfare and Warzone looks like it's doubling down on the silly skins. Dataminers have unearthed Jigsaw and Leatherface operator skins for Halloween. Now imagine seeing those on a real-life battlefield.