When you think of electrifying moments in Call of Duty, the brain summons nuke-induced helicopter crashes, unexpected protagonist deaths, and not, necessarily, a natter in a tea shop. But the latter was a big deal for players of 2019's Modern Warfare campaign: a post-credits scene in which Captain Price and a CIA handler basically played bingo with references to classic COD. A new task force featuring Soap, Gaz, and Ghost. Namechecks for General Shepherd, Pripyat, and McMillen. The ugly spectre of the Zakhaev family rearing its head, remixed in unpredictable fashion ("That was the father, this is the son, Victor").
The unspoken rule, in the age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is that a stinger sets up a sequel. Agent Coulson finds a big hammer in the desert at the close of Iron Man 2, and so viewers could reasonably expect that a Thor film was on its way. Captain Price is forming Task Force 141 as Modern Warfare concludes; therefore, you might think, Modern Warfare 2's campaign will pick up that same thread, with Zakhaev the Younger as its antagonist.
Which is why it was such a surprise to learn of Victor Zakhaev's passing just before Christmas. Most of us weren't invited to the funeral, and instead had to watch on YouTube. Victor's final cutscene was unlocked only for players who completed a particular set of Warzone intel missions, before broadcasting an abort code to foil Vic's dastardly plans for Verdansk.
In the footage, Price catches up with Zakhaev just as his finger hovers over the nuclear button, ready to trigger a new war with the West. In an echo of his introduction in Piccadilly Circus, the gruff eastender hauls Zakhaev over a ledge, sending our villain down into the depths of a forgotten missile silo. "I won't kill you," he quips, "but the fall will."
As far as Warzone activities go, intel missions are decidedly extracurricular. They require you to ignore the primary objective of battle royale—namely, your own survival in the face of the encroaching circle—and instead track down objects littered around Verdansk. The XP payouts can be huge, but it's tough to find a like-minded squad to complete an entire run. After all, it's hardly the most fun you can have hunting props in Call of Duty.
Most fans, then, have experienced this major plot development second-hand, via one of the COD influencers who raced through the missions and posted the resulting video online. Infinity Ward will be under no illusion about this fact: developers have long understood the potential for players to distribute story beats among themselves. When Ubisoft Montreal gave Far Cry 4 its alternative ending—unlocked by not moving a muscle at the very beginning of the game—it did so knowing that just a handful of players would discover the scene by chance, while the rest would watch on YouTube.
Discoveries like these generate headlines, and that's of particular importance to studios running service games like Warzone. They only get to launch once, and so developers need to provide regular punctuation points that will entice readers of sites like this one to download their enormous game. It's no wonder, given Warzone's new position at the centre of COD franchise, that Infinity Ward has felt pressure to feed pieces of plot into the machine—the more shocking and significant, the better.
Zakhaev's death is great promotion, there's no doubt about that. I'm just less convinced that this is the best medium for Modern Warfare's story. 2019's campaign, for all its controversies, was tightly paced and told, a testament to the former Naughty Dog writers on Infinity Ward's staff. Its crucial cutscenes were payoffs, earned by players invested in the characters they'd played as and alongside for five hours. There's simply no way that an intel mission reward, earned by someone else and glimpsed on mute via a mobile screen while bored on the toilet, can match the satisfaction and catharsis.
And what of the players who dare to discover Modern Warfare and its upcoming sequel years from now, beyond Warzone's zeitgeist period? Will a chunk of their story be missing? And if so, will they even know where to look to find it?
It doesn't help that battle royale is a storyteller's nightmare—a premise that belies sense, in which special forces jump out of a plane and face near certain death so that they can... fly away again in a helicopter. Infinity Ward managed to fudge it, just about, by claiming that Zakhaev's plan was to sow discord and infighting. But it's not the greatest tale ever told, and nor did it stand any chance of being.
It's worth noting that Zakhaev's death is the kind ripe for retconning—Price confirms the kill without seeing the body. But if it sticks, and if Soap arrives imminently in Verdansk as predicted, it's a waste of Modern Warfare's expert plotting. Price has defused not just Victor's nuke, but the momentum that could have carried Infinity Ward into its next game.