These day Call of Duty is often used as a form of insult. After years of annual releases, a vocal minority has lost interest, and when the biggest doesn't feel like the best, it's easy to throw malicious negativity at it, a bit like gaming's Metallica. But let's not forget how amazing Call of Duty has been in the past. The first game was well received by critics and was created by Infinity Ward as their attempt at a Medal of Honor killer, a series that key people from the studio had worked on for EA before they broke away and formed a new studio, finding a home at Activision. However, it was with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare - many people's favourite in the series - that they shook up the whole action world and set a new bar for what a first person military shooter can, should and must be.
The seed that was sown back in 2007 has since blossomed and become a huge tree whose shade to various degrees covers almost everything in the genre. Not so long ago it was almost absurd. EA dusted off the Medal of Honor license and did their equivalent of Modern Warfare, which resulted in two painfully soulless titles that no one remembers today. DICE's Battlefield series managed to stick to what makes Battlefield Battlefield, but traces of the Call of Duty DNA could be sniffed out here and there if you looked carefully, perhaps mainly in their single-player efforts. Even the giant Halo was infected and when Halo 4 was released it was done so with killstreak-inspired performance based rewards in the form of stronger weapons, and symmetrically identical conditions were replaced in favour of customisable loadouts. Even killcams made an appearance.
What exactly was it that made Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare so completely groundbreaking, revolutionary and influential so that the rest of the industry suddenly felt compelled to "follow the leader"? What was it that Infinity Ward did that made them the trendsetters and all other trend followers?
The simple answer is of course that it was incredibly good and accessible to a broad mass of players. When something comes out and is appreciated as widely as Modern Warfare was, others tend to latch on. The game was received with open arms by the gaming press and the only universal complaint seemed to be that the campaign could have been longer. But what was it specifically that was good about the game? As the Call of Duty series is notorious for never tinkering too much with the formula, one may wonder how it is that neither Infinity Ward, Treyarch and Sledgehammer has managed to top the fourth entry.
We think a lot of it comes down to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare modernising the "realistic shooter". The premise and the way the story was presented made it easy to relate to, particularly for anyone who had looked at how the turmoil in the Middle East appeared on the news. The events that took place in Modern Warfare were such that you could imagine them actually happening, especially in direct comparison with the subsequent games in the series. This meant that the central conflict in the game immediately became palpable and easily grasped. The game succeed in this very early on, in an introductory scene where the Saudi Arabian President Yasir Al-Fulani is executed because of allegations that he has been a supporter of the Western world for personal gain, all on live TV. Before that, we also get a nasty look at a country in flames in which civilians are killed in the street.
This embedded sense of realism extended even over to the way that it played. In the training mission Infinity Ward makes it clear that this will not be an arcade-y, jittery and chaotic shooter, but one where you have to take your time and take aim at your target, using cover to methodically make your way along the battlefield. Enemies were no bullet sponges you had to empty the whole magazine into, they didn't take much more than a couple of shots to the body and they reacted naturally to gunfire. This vulnerability was also extended to the player itself, especially on the higher difficulty levels, where you and the enemies were just as delicate. This vulnerability also helped to promote realism and made the firefights exciting and precarious.
The game's characters were also presented in a way that played along with this. While the most common way that game developers get the player to connect with the characters is to have small, intimate moments alone with them (Infinity Ward themselves did this with the new Infinite Warfare, where they obviously want you to feel a bond of friendship with the people who go into battle with you), there's none of that in Modern Warfare. There is no scene where Captain Price, Gaz and the Soap sit drinking coffee between missions, talks about the children who are waiting for them at home, and how annoyed they were about their favourite team losing the Premier League.
Captain Price is perhaps the series' most iconic figure, and that's without us knowing anything about him as a person or his personal life. He still felt genuine, however. Your whole squad did, and they weren't perceived as a bunch of fictitious roughnecks. You respected them; perhaps because they are first and foremost professionals, purposeful men who were prepared to put life and limb on the line to get the job done. The way they spoke to each other and the player was authentic and when they found themselves in trouble, no one jokingly proclaimed that they would not make it home for dinner and no one trumpeted that they "liked challenges anyways". The conflict was never trivialised. This also gave their mission tension, when none of the people involved feel like caricatures the result is that they feel vulnerable. The player could not be sure that everyone would come home unscathed and that made it all the more memorable.
Infinity Ward was also pretty ballsy with killing off their characters. The soldier, Paul Jackson, who the player controlled on the US side of the conflict, was killed in a nuclear explosion halfway into the game, a scene that has become iconic because of how shockingly unpredictable it was. Infinity Ward gave us some brief hope that our character had survived the catastrophe as we got to crawl out of the crashed helicopter and for a minute take in and process the inferno that we suddenly found ourselves completely alone in.
People clearly remember how the game's tragedies were presented. When Jackson suddenly died, and the game without fanfare went on, we didn't know anymore what we should expect. Would we make it at all? When, towards the end, Gaz takes a bullet in the forehead, it's shown without fanfare, we received no final scene where he died a clichéd hero's death saving us, he didn't die in our arms crying - at a distance we witnessed how he ended up at a disadvantage, and how he had to pay the ultimate price. The lack of the typical "sad-scene-setup" did not make the scene any less terrible, but rather the opposite, again because it felt real.
Moderation is the key here. Restraint and subtlety - less is more - was one of the most important philosophies that made The Last of Us the masterpiece it was, something more than a zombie killing party in amongst the rest. Modern Warfare did not try to shove a new set piece down the throat of the player every fifteen minutes. There were game elements that broke the flow of the action for a while, where the famous AC130-track stands out the most. The staff aboard this gunship were almost scarily indifferent and nonchalant towards the apocalypse they unleashed on the enemy troops below. There is no excitement in their voices when they confirm that their bombs hit the target, it's a typical day at work for them, and it all looked, once again, incredibly lifelike.
And we've not even mentioned the legendary mission "All Ghillied Up", where you are in the role of a young Captain Price, who has infiltrated an enemy-controlled Chernobyl together with his superior, alone with just silenced sniper rifles and ghillie suits. Suddenly you had to intelligently pick out the targets that needed neutralising, and also which to simply sneak past. When you then get caught with your pants down by a large convoy of heavily armed soldiers as well as tanks, you could only lie still in the grass, hoping that they would not notice one's presence, a scene that was as nail-bitingly tense as it was a welcome one in terms of pace.
Since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was released, subsequent titles have not really done much other than to elaborate on what was made standard in 2007. We have seen playable characters die in horrible ways (the most memorable among death scenes in the sequels is probably the one where General Shepard set Roach and Ghost on fire in Modern Warfare 2), but it has become part and parcel of what one expects from these games now, because that's the way it is - the first time something is done, it's the most effective. Repetitions rarely go down in history, and adding jetpacks and robot enemies are not really the "innovation" the series needs to top Modern Warfare. It needs to go back to the drawing board and surprise us again. If that's even possible.
Of course, you can't forget how important the game's multiplayer was for its success. We have already mentioned how things like the game's killstreaks, loadouts and killcams were contagious to other franchises, but we are absolutely convinced that it's possible to trace the success back to one word: simplicity. In comparison to more modern games in the series, there were very few options to tailor the equipment you took with you into the matches, but it was enough. You couldn't equip your weapons with more than one attachment at a time, there were not five different kinds of lethal grenades and five different tactical options; it was just the right number of everything. The game offered only three killstreaks. Three kills without dying gave you a UAV which showed the enemies' positions on the radar, five kills netted you the bombers, and seven gave you a helicopter. That was everything it had and it was enough. Modern Warfare was never overwhelming that way, and that is something we appreciate enormously in hindsight.
With Modern Warfare, Infinity Ward realised that complexity is not synonymous with depth, pompous spectacle does not mean drama, and that less can often mean more. It's something we feel that the Call of Duty developers have lost sight of along the way. It's always about being bigger and bigger, but we think they need to slow down a little if they want to take over the world once again.