Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II’s single-player campaign went live last Friday for those who pre-ordered the game, and one early moment immediately blew up online. A brief video showcasing the Activision shooter’s Amsterdam level spread like wildfire, both because it looks almost lifelike at a glance, and because it offered a short glimpse at an alternative to the annualized military blockbuster machine.
“oh my god amsterdam looks *incredibly* realistic in the new call of duty — almost can’t believe this is a video game,” UX writer and content designer Juan Buis posted above a video of MWII on October 21. In this case, the hyperbole was deserved. As the in-game camera pans across the streets bookending one of Amsterdam’s canals, the lighting and reflections make it look like a smartphone video rather than gameplay footage.
The fourth mission in MWII, itself a sequel to a reboot of the Modern Warfare Call of Duty sub-series, brings Captain John Price and co. to the streets of the Dutch capital to sneak around and surveil a Mexican cartel meetup. They need to kidnap one of its members for clues, which requires some very on-rails spycraft that nevertheless offers a beautiful view of the historic city.
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In fact, the game footage lines up eerily well with the real street that inspired it. Infinity Ward narrative director Jeffrey Keith Negus shared on-location video of the spot that inspired the scene in the game, letting players see just how uncannily the game’s developers managed to recreate it, including the fortuitous moment a boat just happened to pass under the pedestrian bridge.
The whole thing was reminiscent of the “scarily real” looking Ride 4 footage that went viral online last year around this time. In MWII’s case, the illusion only breaks as soon as you look closely at a particular object, or when one of the robotic NPCs catches your eye. There’s no fighting or big action set pieces in the level either, meaning the developers could likely focus most of their attention on fine-tuning the mostly static details (though there were plenty of critics as well dissecting the scene).
It was enough to make some wistful for what one of the biggest studio operations in blockbuster gaming could do if it chose to put those resources behind any game that wasn’t Call of Duty. “Imagine if they spent this kind of money and polish on a game where you didn’t just shoot guys in the face this is a beautiful city recreation and I’d love to explore it, shenmue style,” tweeted Jazzpunk co-developer, Luis Hernandez.
Inkle Studio designer Nat Clayton offered a similar thought. “This has been getting dunked on in some circles all day, but I feel the thing about this clip is less the visual fidelity being remarkable and more just…” they wrote. “We don’t often see the graphics developments we’ve made used to render deeply mundane, normal, real world spaces.”
Unfortunately, those games tend to not sell the 30 million copies a year that Call of Duty does.