Opinion Piece

Random Loot: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s Legacy

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Random Loot is a new series in which I get to focus on one particular game, movie or even comic, be it relatively old or quite new, and then ramble about it, often going off-course in the process or using it to make a point about something else entirely. This series is far less critical than my reviews. I’m less concerned with being entirely fair, and more with just presenting my personal views. You’ve been warned.

For many long years the FPS genre was dominated by WWII, a trend started by Medal of Honor which delivered a series of great games before its eventual decline. It was during this time that Call of Duty was born, battling it out with MoH, eventually going on to claim victory and become the heavily criticised juggernaut that we know today. But while Call of Duty was doing well for itself with its WWII setting, its true success stems from its fourth game, the original Modern Warfare.

Regardless of how you feel about the series today, or even how you felt about it then, there is no denying that Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is one of the most influential games of the past generation, giving birth to so many of the mechanics and clichés we associate with the genre today. Its legacy has been somewhat unfairly tarnished by legions of developers aiming to replicate its success and oversaturating the market with bland military shooters in the process. The worst offender is the very company who began it all, Infinity Ward, whose ceaseless march to replicate past glory has led them to become almost hated within the gaming community at large. Almost all of the developers aiming to replicate the magic have failed to understand why Modern Warfare was a revelation at the time, why it worked so well, and why they cannot clone the formula. There cannot be another Modern Warfare, and there never should be. We need a new game, another revelation that inspires designers everywhere, designers who hopefully also understand that inspiration does not mean imitation.

So what made the very first Modern Warfare great?

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Although it makes up a small portion of the game and is therefore often overlooked as the key to its ultimate success, much of  Modern Warfare’s greatness stems from its singleplayer campaign, a linear, tightly scripted action-movie that just so happened to be interactive. The campaign is a masterful demonstration of pacing, always knowing exactly when to slow down the action and when to ramp it up. While one can see the hand-holding which would go on to become smothering in later entries, it’s thrilling, tense, quiet and even a little thoughtful at times. Call of Duty 4 is the first game I credit with convincing me that, in the right circumstances, a shorter campaign can be better, as up until that point I, like so many others, was often swayed by sheer size rather than quality. The six or so hours it took me to complete Call of Duty 4’s rollercoaster ride were far more enjoyable and far more fun that so many other games that provided double, triple or even ten times that amount. Pacing is an art unto itself, and one that many developers seemingly struggle to understand. While it’s obviously hard to pace something like Skyrim where players can wander off on a whim, any linear or relatively linear game has no justification for poor pacing.

While epic action set-pieces are so common these days as to illicit heavy groans from critics and gamers alike, it’s easy to forget that Modern Warfare was the game that essentially pioneered the bombastic formula, and that back then it was something never really seen before. Sure, other games had done set pieces,  but it was Infinity Ward that popularised the idea and took it to the next level, crafting an engaging campaign filled with memorable, brilliantly realised moments that have stuck in the memories of people everywhere. Crawling out of the burning wreckage of a crashed helicopter as a nuclear bomb lights up the sky is a memory that has stayed with me, even after all these years. It’s a simple yet poignant moment, and remains powerful to this day. Likewise there’s the legendary All Ghillied Up in which you quietly sneak through long grass in order to evade enemy patrols, carefully sniping guards out of towers, a sequence which kept me on the edge of my seat when I first played it. More than any other mission All Ghillied Up encapsulates the lack of player agency that has become Call of Duty’s most damning trait, and yet it’s one of the greatest sections the series has ever managed to create, and despite their efforts Infinity Ward have never replicated the magic. And then there was the AC130 level that provided a clever commentary on American’s military might while also being thoroughly enjoyable to play. Meanwhile stalking through the desolation of Chernobyl and making a last stand in front of a ferris wheel remains, in my mind, a brilliant example of design, the dreary, almost chilling atmosphere of the dead city turning into one of excitement and tension.

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In comparison modern Call of Duty games fill themselves with bigger and bigger set-piece moments, trying to pack in larger explosions, more helicopters and extra absurdity, bypassing even the most insane summer-blockbuster movies in terms of sheer spectacle, all while completely ruining the joy of it all. Whereas Modern Warfare carefully spaced out its massive moments to make each one feel special, none of Ghosts’ set-pieces felt very interesting. There’s only so many times the lead character can be blasted backwards off his feet by an explosion before it becomes mind-numblingly boring. There’s only so many times the lead character can make a death-defying leap, and be caught at the last second before it loses any semblance of being cool. The developers still manage to create the odd sequence that causes your jaw to drop, but when was the last time you saw forums abuzz with people talking about some epic set-piece in Call of Duty, other than the controversial ones?

By today’s standards the narrative seen in Modern Warfare is nothing special, yet for the time it was unusual to see that much emphasis placed on story within a shooter, especially one which gently prodded at touchy subjects. Infinity Ward never dared to truly delve in deep and tackle the issues head-on, but the result was still enjoyable and knew how to effectively use what is now essentially a built-in hostile, knee-jerk reaction when the word “terrorist” is used. Dialogue was rough and characterisation was non-existent, but it moved along at a fair lick and was interesting enough to keep you gunning from one scripted moment to the next.

Underneath the cinematic experience also lay an accomplished FPS that boasted absurdly smooth shooting mechanics that were bolstered by satisfying guns. Simply put, playing Call of Duty 4 was a pleasure, one enhanced by a generous aim-assist. Fire up any of the current games and those underlying mechanics haven’t changed all that much. They’re a little smoother, but really that’s about it. On the one hand it’s a testament to just how damn good Modern Warfare was that it’s core gameplay is still at the top of the FPS pile, but on the other it’s just another sign that indicates unwillingness to change overly much.

The game was just as impressive in how it handled multiplayer, delivering something the likes of which we had never seen, introducing concepts that are now commonplace and even stale, such as a persistent levelling system which gradually gave you access to more options and the Killstreak system, which has since become a shadow of its former self.  The numerous iterations since Modern Warfare have all taken the concept of Killstreaks to heart, and then abused and destroyed the entire system, failing to understand what made it work in the first place; simplicity, and balance. Call of Duty 4 contained just three simple rewards for skilled players to attain, each carefully balanced so as to feel like a satisfying gift for your skill without being overpowered or dominating the game when unleashed. The UAV gave you the power to see other players on the map, but could be countered simply by staying mobile. The helicopter was powerful and could strike fear into the hearts of the opposition, but smart players could carefully use cover to avoid it, while the airstrike was devastating by quick players could generally get themselves out of harms way. They give you an edge over the other players briefly, but are no promise of victory, while they were also neatly spaced out in terms of the kills required to access them. A lucky airstrike or helicopter run could rack up some serious kills, but never enough to ensure you’d win.  But as the series grew the developers somehow felt that if Killstreaks were so good then having more of them was obviously the correct way to make a superior game, the very same attitude they had toward massive set-pieces, and so modern Call of Duty multiplayer matches often feel like nothing more than an endless barrage of Killstreaks, each seemingly more powerful than the last. Killstreaks now hold far too much sway over the outcome of a match, and more often than not the final kill cam will show someone being gunned down by an automated helicopter or bombed by a jet. They dominate the battle, and are little more than a tool to be abused. Having more options is often a good thing, but those options must be balanced. Killstreaks should support the action,  not be the main attraction.

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Persistent progression gave players a constant goal to aim for, each unlock perfectly spaced apart so that each new item was always just within reach, teasing you into playing just another couple of matches until suddenly it’s 3AM and you’re a little hazy on what your own name is. Really unlock systems haven’t changed all that much even today, and they’ve become so common as to be almost downright annoying in some cases. Actually seeing games that don’t bother with a progression system is somewhat refreshing, but for the time it was something of a revolution, creating a reward loop of instant gratification. Players who might normally become frustrated due to their own lack of skill and constant defeats were encouraged to keep playing just so they could get their hands on a new gun, giving them a reason to keep going where they would have otherwise stopped. Who knew that deliberately withholding game content from players would dramatically increase the amount of time they would spend playing, rather than just annoy them.

Perhaps it’s strangely fitting that members of Infinity Ward left and went on the create Titanfall, a game that feels like it understood what made Modern Warfare work, refined it and then built upon it with fun new ideas. Titanfall understands the underlying concepts that made Modern Warfare tick, learned the lessons and used them wisely. Meanwhile Treyarch don’t get the credit they deserve for crafting the best Call of Duty since Modern Warfare in the form of the original Blacks Ops – a shooter that boasted a strong story, great gameplay and solid multiplayer offering – and for attempting to bring new ideas into the stagnant franchise.

Now, of course, Sledgehammer are entering the fray, having just unveiled their vision for Call of Duty in the form of Advanced Warfare, and what little we’ve seen thus far seems to be promising the most progressive game the series has seen since Infinity Ward left World War 2 behind. They’ve been granted three years of development time to try to create something different, and bring much-needed energy back into the franchise. No pressure.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was a revolution at the time, and has left a staggering legacy. The linear, set-piece driven modern military shooter  may have become a problem within the modern industry, but that’s not Modern Warfare’s fault, and to blame it is idiotic at best. It’s not Call of Duty’s fault that the industry is fuelled mostly by greed, leading to publishers and developers attempting to clone whatever is popular. Modern Warfare may have begun the trend, but it’s other developers that make the choice to try to copy it. By today’s standards it’s something of a relic, but just sit down and play through the campaign one more time. It feels…beautiful. There’s artistry there, the kind that’s missing from its own sequels which have become wrapped up in offering more – more explosions, more guns, more set-pieces, more pointless complications, but, most importantly, less soul.

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If Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was a breathtaking painting done by a master, then the sequels are all pale imitations created by amateur artists looking to replicate their beloved idol, always failing to realise that no matter how good the imitation it will never be truly great in its own right. In a horribly funny twist of fate it’s the very company that created the first Modern Warfare, Infinity Ward, that are the most guilty of this, whiling away the hours trying to replicate that same success but with more explosions, more set-pieces and even less player control, never grasping the simple concept that they need to move on, not to create another Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, but to simply create another great game.

No artist will ever create something truly wonderful of their own by merely trying to capture past glory through imitation, no matter how good that imitation may be.

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2 replies »

  1. You are spot on with this little ramble, this game is the one game that sticks in my mind as truly genre defining. Everything since that has simply tried to replicate it or build on it, but really the FPS scene should have sought another path after this game as this was the pinnacle of genre. Yes good game and been made since this but nothing for me will top it.

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