Call Of Duty4: Mod­ern War­fare

Scop­ing out the mil­i­tary FPS that de­fined a gen­er­a­tion


The year is 2007, and World War II is over at last. De­vel­op­ers have fi­nally run out of ways to retell the same old story and In­fin­ity Ward has al­ready got as close to repli­cat­ing Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan’s Omaha Beach scene as videogames feel likely to get. WWII ran for six long years and so has the FPS genre’s ob­ses­sion with it; what be­gan with 1999’s

Medal Of Honor peaked in 2005 with Call Of Duty 2. It’s time for change, and of course In­fin­ity Ward – the COD cre­ator formed from mem­bers of the team that made Medal

Of Honor: Al­lied As­sault – is the one to pro­vide it. But it couldn’t know that Call Of

Duty 4: Mod­ern War­fare would be­come the defin­ing shooter of the PS3/360 gen­er­a­tion, and ar­guably the most in­flu­en­tial game of that pe­riod over­all.

COD4’ s im­pact is plain be­yond the sequels that fol­lowed and the scores of ri­val shoot­ers seek­ing a cut of its suc­cess. It in­spired movie di­rec­tors to start point­ing their cam­eras down red-dot sights and made cus­tomis­able mul­ti­player load­outs and lev­el­ling un­locks stan­dard in games of all stripes. But while it may be com­monly thought of as an on­line game, COD4’ s big­gest trick was re­defin­ing the sin­gle­player cam­paign. Clock­ing in at six hours at a time when games were ex­pected to run for two or three times the length, its story is a mas­ter­class in va­ri­ety and pac­ing. And this globe-trot­ting ad­ven­ture, seen through the eyes of mul­ti­ple pro­tag­o­nists, was lib­er­at­ing af­ter more than half a decade of as­saults on Nazi bunkers. While en­vi­ron­ments are reused – one mis­sion might start in the same place as the pre­ced­ing one, but at a dif­fer­ent time of day – its ideas aren’t. You fol­low the leader and shoot on com­mand, sure, but In­fin­ity Ward en­sures that you’re rarely do­ing the same thing for long.

Take the Black­out mis­sion, for in­stance. At the out­set, you stalk through the Rus­sian coun­try­side, dis­patch­ing en­emy guards sta­tioned at wa­ter­side huts. Next, you take up po­si­tions high above a rag­ing bat­tle­field and pro­vide sniper sup­port, unas­sailed, for no more than a minute. You’re set upon by an en­emy squad around the next cor­ner, and are in­vited to whip out your ri­fle’s un­der­slung grenade launcher. Then you rap­pel down a cliff face, fight across open ground, and res­cue an in­for­mant from a nearby house, cut­ting the power and clear­ing out the place with the help of night-vi­sion gog­gles. There are no set­pieces, no in-your-face ex­plo­sions, no scripted chases: just you and a suc­ces­sion of toys, none of which is in your hands long enough for the nov­elty to wear off.

There are set­pieces else­where, of course. Crew Ex­pend­able, a mis­sion set on a freighter sink­ing in the Ber­ing Strait, ends with a des­per­ate sprint to the top deck. Steam bil­lows from cracked pipes, wa­ter spills down the stairs, and the floor is tipped at a 30-de­gree an­gle. And when you fi­nally re­turn above deck and leap to the ex­fil­tra­tion chop­per, you al­most don’t make it. Your hands scrab­ble on the ramp, but just be­fore you lose your grip en­tirely, you’re grabbed and hoisted into the craft by your com­mand­ing of­fi­cer. Like much of the game, it’s since en­tered into the ranks of cliché, but only be­cause it was so ef­fec­tive that ev­ery­one started do­ing it.

Crew Ex­pend­able also firmly es­tab­lished what would be­come a de facto part of the mod­ern COD cam­paign: hav­ing you spend your time snap­ping at the rigidly scripted heels of your AI squad­mates. These walk­ing, talk­ing, head­shot­ting ob­jec­tive mark­ers do get out of your way from time to time, but you’ll spend much of the game fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of your broth­ers in arms. This now-hack­neyed con­cept was put to best use in COD4’ s cam­paign high point, a tense flash­back set in Pripyat. All Ghillied Up has you crawl­ing on your el­bows through the tall grass, ly­ing prone as a pa­trol of tanks and in­fantry rum­bles by inches away. You creep from cover to cover, snip­ing guards in watch­tow­ers, sneak­ing up on oth­ers for melee kills, and giv­ing feral dogs a wide berth. And while it per­fectly en­cap­su­lates the lack of player agency in

Call Of Duty’s sin­gle­player out­ings, you’re fre­quently given the op­tion of let­ting a pa­trol pass by un­hin­dered. Many have since tried to re­cap­ture this mis­sion’s magic, but none have come close to the feel­ing of crawl­ing be­neath a con­voy of trucks, hold­ing your breath in real life as if it’s some­how go­ing to help your on­screen ci­pher.

As clear as this game’s in­flu­ence has been, it’s the ideas that haven’t be­come wide­spread that are most sur­pris­ing. The open­ing mis­sion, FNG, is a high-wa­ter mark in tu­to­rial de­sign, its fir­ing-range test and timed ob­sta­cle course fit­ting the fic­tion and be­ing per­haps the only FPS tu­to­rial to of­fer real re­play value, with your fi­nal time shown next to In­fin­ity Ward’s in­ter­nal record. That in turn would in­form your rec­om­mended dif­fi­culty level for the cam­paign proper, putting your per­for­mance into of­ten em­bar­rass­ing con­text, goad­ing you into climb­ing the lad­der for one more go, then an­other, then an­other.

Mean­while, Death From Above, which puts you in a gun­ner’s seat in an AC-130 gun­ship, was per­haps the game’s most con­tro­ver­sial mis­sion, yet there is re­straint here: the op­po­si­tion starts out in a town-


cen­tre church, and you’re sent back to the start if you so much as scratch the stonework or catch civil­ians in the blast ra­dius. It’s gen­tly sub­ver­sive, too, the de­tached com­men­tary from mis­sion com­mand por­tray­ing an Amer­i­can mil­i­tary that has grown too ac­cus­tomed to killing at the touch of a but­ton from a mile up in the sky. Be­neath the clouds of smoke lie themes that would go largely un­ex­plored in shoot­ers un­til Spec Ops: The Line. And how many FPSes be­fore or since have had the brass neck to end a level by killing off the pro­tag­o­nist (see ‘Shock and oh’) at the end of a mis­sion?

What is most re­mark­able about all this is that the cam­paign was such a small part of the pack­age. If the in­flu­ence of Mod­ern

War­fare’s sin­gle­player com­po­nent can only truly be as­sessed at the end of its gen­er­a­tion, the im­pact of its mul­ti­player mode was im­me­di­ate and enor­mous. Yet of the scores of games that took its ideas, it re­mains the purest and ar­guably the best. Its un­lock sys­tem is grace­fully paced, its de­fault classes en­sur­ing new play­ers don’t suf­fer at the hands of the high-level hard­core. But there’s some­thing for ev­ery skill level here. Pres­tige mode, which en­ables you to re­set your progress when you reach the level cap, means that play­ers still have some­thing to work to­wards af­ter 200 hours.

And while sub­se­quent Call Of Duty games have taken the con­cept to lu­di­crous ex­tremes, COD4’ s kill­streak sys­tem is re­strained and beau­ti­fully bal­anced, award­ing you a UAV re­con af­ter three kills, an airstrike af­ter five and a he­li­copter af­ter seven. That’s your lot. Avoid­ing be­ing killed af­ter the first is a mat­ter of stay­ing on the move, sur­viv­ing the sec­ond means en­sur­ing you and your team­mates aren’t clus­tered to­gether, and the third re­quires stay­ing in­doors or shoot­ing it down. To­gether they en­sure that the bat­tle­field is al­ways chang­ing, main­tain­ing pace and pro­vid­ing a fizzing dopamine rush to the player that calls them in – the flurry of hit-marker ef­fects as an airstrike rains down, the

suc­ces­sion of text pop­ups as a gun­ship racks up the kills, the power chords that herald a level up. This is a case study in how to re­ward suc­cess, a mix of Peg­gle’s Ode To Joy and Burnout 3’ s back­slaps seen through the op­ti­cal scope of an as­sault ri­fle.

You’d ex­pect the mul­ti­player of a game that’s al­most seven years old to be a waste­land by now, and first glances are omi­nous. A wel­come mes­sage in­vites play­ers to a web­site to vote for maps to be in­cluded in Mod­ern War­fare 2, and to fol­low the Twit­ter ac­count of Robert Bowl­ing, a for­mer com­mu­nity man­ager who left In­fin­ity Ward two years ago. Yet there are still a few thou­sand play­ers on­line at any given time of day, lured back by In­fin­ity Ward’s tight map de­sign and weapon bal­anc­ing – two things that have been

found in­creas­ingly lack­ing in sub­se­quent CODs. The most in­struc­tive in­di­ca­tor of where the se­ries was head­ing came in Mod­ern War­fare 2, when ten points for a team death­match kill be­came 100. With each new it­er­a­tion, the se­ries has be­come louder, faster and dumber, to the point where COD is now a by­word for the foul­mouthed worst of Xbox Live. Even that says much about its in­flu­ence, since it stole that un­wanted crown from the pre­vi­ous on­line FPS bête noire, Halo 2. Call Of Duty 4 is un­ques­tion­ably among the most im­por­tant games of its gen­er­a­tion, even if many would see its im­pact as more in­fec­tion than in­flu­ence. There are few shoot­ers on the he mar­ket to­day that couldn’t fea­si­bly bor­row w its sub­ti­tle, and any mod­ern mul­ti­player FPS that ships with­out cus­tomis­able load­outs, perks or level-up un­locks does so at its peril. And all be­cause of what was surely urely one of the first en­tries on the de­sign doc­u­ment: the new set­ting. No WWII game me could sup­port its range of lo­ca­tions, its spec­ta­cle, its ar­se­nal or kill­streaks. The he Cre­ate A Class sys­tem wouldn’t work ei­ther – you can’t put a red­dot sight on an n M1 Garand, af­ter all. And its weapon set is more be­liev­able, its story’s mix of fun­da­men­tal­ist Is­lam and Cold War para­noia more plau­si­ble than any sci-fi tale. Mod­ern War­fare are is fan­tasy an­chored in re­al­ity, a pow­er­ful mix that beats his­tory ev­ery time and re­tains its magic to this day, de­spite the craters aters left by the hordes that have fol­lowed in its foot­steps.

Only very late in the game does In­fin­ity Ward hint at the di­rec­tion the Call Of Duty cam­paign was to take in sub­se­quent games. This rigidly scripted, ex­plo­sion­filled es­cape from en­emy trucks and he­li­copters was a taste of things to come

TOP The AC-130 also fea­tured in ModernWar­fare2, but as one of the game’s most pow­er­ful kill­streak re­wards, not as a cam­paign level.

ABOVE Crew Ex­pend­able’s freighter was re­pur­posed for mul­ti­player. Wet Work’s long, nar­row space was a sniper’s and shot­gun­ner’s par­adise

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