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 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 foul-mouthed 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 market today that couldn’t feasibly borrow 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 one of the first entries on the design document: the new setting. No WWII game could support its range of locations, its spectacle, its arsenal or killstreaks. The Create A Class system wouldn’t work either – you can’t put a red-dot sight on an M1 Garand, after all. And its weaponset is more believable, its story’s mix of fundamentalist Islam and Cold War paranoia more plausible than any sci-fi tale. Modern Warfare is fantasy anchored in reality, a powerful mix that beats history every time and retains its magic to this day, despite the craters left by the hordes that have followed in its footsteps.