In line with the franchise’s continued, drawn out transformation into a Halo game, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’s debut trailer was released two days ago to the tune of over five million views along with the familiar fan rejoice and critical disinterest we’ve reenacted for almost a decade now. The three minute long video showcases the same gunplay that’s expected of the series in a more sci-fi setting that draws from the futuristic technology of Call of Duty: Black Ops II, the robotic soldier advancements of Call of Duty: Black Ops III and the abundantly clear notion that nobody is even trying to accomplish anything truly noteworthy with this series anymore, evident throughout all of Call of Duty: Ghosts. Who could really blame the developers, though? Publishing giant Activision owns the rights to one of the single most profitable intellectual properties in entertainment history and it is perfectly content with repackaging the same experience with the bare minimum of changes needed to justify a sequel, shipping it out yearly to its universally expected annual record-breaking sales figures. This is the textbook example of how an individual game’s own innovation and profitability can potentially doom its ideas and mechanics to be misinterpreted and rehashed, allowing an entire industry to become complacent. It is central to modern gaming’s struggle to both satisfy established fan bases and continue to create new independent titles that can reach audiences in ways that previous games have not. Untethered to the gaming medium, the downward spiral of Call of Duty exemplifies the dangers of intrinsically linking the creative process to a system that’s more concerned with making a quantified profit, than making quality art. Each holiday season, its release incites my mild disappointment that this is what is considered by many to be representative of gaming’s capabilities and its longevity has acted as a cruel joke, bringing in billions of dollars while more interesting games struggle to break even. Every moment it is praised, I wish for the series’ impending conclusion, and yet, I was two clicks away from pre-ordering this year’s release when the trailer came out… let me explain.
I am not excited for the “far future” setting, a new variation of weaponry or addictively simple multiplayer that Infinite Warfare will most assuredly contain. No, I am pre-ordering it because it is currently the only method to play the upcoming remake of Infinity Ward’s third entry in the Call of Duty series (Treyarch developed Call of Duty 3), Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered. Though the community is often content with merely citing triple-A publishers as the sole source of all of the gaming’s failures, they are quick to forget why 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare impacted game design as it did. Since its release, developers, and publishers alike have feverishly mimicked Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s masterful combination of tightly controlled first person shooter gameplay, chaotic multiplayer and semi-authentic narrative. While many have tried, no game has ever come close to the polish, innovation and impact of Infinity Ward’s revolutionary entry in the Call of Duty series. In their attempts, various studios have misunderstood why this game succeeds at a fundamental level, misinterpreting multifaceted concepts such as the realistic setting and popular multiplayer mode as broader, simplified indications that the public wanted games to be more violent or have less of a focus on a campaign mode. To completely understand the impact of Modern Warfare both its historical context and achievements as a standalone game must be taken into account.
Although 1970’s computer games such as Maze War and Spasim were technically the first games to be considered part of the FPS genre, it was id Software’s 1992 hit Wolfenstein 3D that successfully established the basic movement and shooting mechanics of FPSs for years to come. Due to its fairly black-and-white morality, in a manner similar to how Infinity Ward’s work would one day be reproduced at nauseam, id Software had unintentionally popularized World War II as the primary setting of most major shooters for years to come. By the early 2000s, many titles such as Battlefield 1942 and Medal of Honor had already mined the era as an effective historical backdrop to the age old “shoot the bad guys” gunplay found in the industry since Doom. However, some developers wanted to take the genre further. Following the release of their latest middle finger to Hitler, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Chief designer Vince Zampella and a group of employees from 2015, Inc., left the studio in hopes of creating the most authentic war game possible. By tirelessly recreating the guns, equipment, vehicles and environments of the Second World War, the team released Call of Duty on October 29, 2003, to critical and fan acclaim. Sporting some of the best audio and visual design of the year, Infinity Ward’s first game placed an emphasis on utilizing tactical movement, outsmarting improved artificial intelligence and exploring the richly detailed locations that were torn apart by the horrors of war.
A far cry from the bloated, over the top power-fantasy that the series would one day devolve into, the original Call of Duty took a more historical, documentary-like approach to its own narrative, showing the war on all fronts by putting the player character in the point of view of a soldier from each of the Allies. Over the course of 26 missions, the game continually reaffirms the horrors of war and continuously shows that individuals (even our player characters) are largely unimportant and expendable in the grand scheme of things. Levels such as the iconic “Stalingrad” introduction to the Russian campaign (taking significant influence from ‘Enemy at the Gates’) prove how effective disempowerment can be in a game, forcing the player to rapidly sprint through enemy lines in fear every artillery shot by depriving them of a weapon for its opening. The original Call of Duty is successful for two main reasons, the first, is that it respects war in such a way that the game acknowledges its role as mere entertainment inspired by history, rather than replicating it. It means to pay homage to the brave men who stood up for our country and educate audiences on their lives without ever glorifying it. Secondly, it is a mechanically sound and well-designed action game that is only heightened by the gravitas of the game’s context. After the successful release of both an expansion to the first game and two sequels, Infinity Ward decided it was time to take the series into a new direction one again.
Forgoing the well explored World War II setting that had dominated the genre, the Infinity Ward developers had to relearn and rethink everything they knew by studying modern warfare and all the political history, ever-evolving technology and socials aspects it entailed. By releasing in a year that had already seen the likes of Portal, Team Fortress 2, Bioshock and The Elder Scrolls VI: Oblivion, let alone the other generation-defining FPS Halo 3, expectations were a bit high, to say the least. Not only did Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare exceed the expectations set up by the series, it essentially set the bar for accessible, but exceptionally executed action games for the coming decade. Gameplay-wise, CoD4 didn’t reinvent the FPS genre, but instead, optimize and refine its various elements to the point of near perfection. While it might seem somewhat disheartening to say that a game from 2007 controls nearly exactly like its successor in 2015, this is more of a testament to the foresight of the original game than a jab at its current state. Staples of the series such as regenerating health and the ability to aim down the sights of guns returned while the addition of knifing (instant melee kills), improved sprinting and the ability to go prone (lay down on the ground for cover) provided the player an extra level of control over their character.
This is where the game initially impresses most newcomers. There is a smoothness and fluidity to the movement in the game that is utterly unmatched by others in the genre. Animations seamlessly transition from one to another, wasting minimal amounts of time to perform actions in order to keep the player constantly engaged with their surroundings. Movement is more crucial than ever in this game due to destructible environmental hazards like cars and the fact that bullets partially penetrate most structures, making no space feel totally safe for long. Because of the soldier’s limitation to carrying two guns (plus peripheral equipment such as flash bangs and explosives) like many FPSs at the time, the game has an inherent risk-reward system based on your choice of weaponry. Certain areas are specifically designed to make use of the weapons or tools available to the player, but the majority of the game can be approached from different angles with any type of weaponry. Traditional situations, such as close-quarters houses calling for the spread of a shotgun or wide open fields appealing to snipers, are balanced by new scenarios, such as requiring RPGs to take out attack helicopters and defense missions needing claymores to delay waves of enemies. Simple technological advancements such as laser sights, silencers, and night vision all serve as a logical evolution for the FPS genre dependent on the setting, and the game subtly introduces these mechanics in plausible ways. It doesn’t ever feel like there are sectioned off areas for night vision, stealth or explosives, the story accommodates the use of every new tool, making the entire campaign flow naturally.
What sets Modern Warfare leagues ahead of the pretenders is impossible to pinpoint to a specific mechanic, instead, it is the overall game feel that each entry in the series has had from this game onwards. Regardless of what competitive shooter is your personal favorite, Call of Duty’s simplicity and responsiveness is unmatched by the likes Homefront and the Medal of Honor reboot. Currently, the only modern FPSs that can even be equated to this series are the Battlefield games, who are similarly running out of ideas. Running at a smooth 60 frames per second, aiming, running and shooting are all given a sense of weight and control. Even games with budgets the size of Halo 3 are commonly outdone in this department, as some of the more “futuristic” weapons feel more like toy laser guns than lethal killing machines while each gun in Call of Duty 4 is given realistic, knockback, audio, and effects.
Signaling the series’ transition from historical, war-time period piece to high-octane, modern day thriller, CoD4 adeptly manages to maintain the semi-authenticity that served as a pillar of the original games. Although this radical switch from fact to fiction would prove detrimental to the tone of future entries in the franchise, the narrative here remains both grounded and interesting, never sacrificing one for the other. By using a misguided American military invasion of a vaguely Middle Eastern nation as a catalyst to increasingly dangerous and tangible threats of terrorism, the story immediately invokes the same sense of regret that real Americans were starting to feel as they collectively realized just how enormous of a mistake their government had made. The game’s 2007 release date couldn’t have been timed better. Had this game been released earlier, it would have been accused of criticizing its own country, if it was released too late, it would be deemed an obviously heavy-handed, hindsight biased waste. Instead, Infinity Ward played up the seemingly real threat of terrorists having access to weapons of mass destruction to show the audience what fear can do to us, both as individuals and as a nation. Using broad strokes to establish most characters and pre-mission loading scenes to inform the player, CoD4 tells a twisting tale of the dangers of nationalism, revenge and blindly following orders.
Opening with the preparation for a British SAS mission to recover suspected nuclear materials from an enemy cargo ship, the player character, John “Soap” MacTavish, runs through a mock-up of the upcoming operation where they are taught the basic controls and mechanics of the game. Depending on how fast the training exercise is completed, the game suggests an according difficulty that it thinks would provide an appropriate challenge before thrusting you right into the action. Following the tutorial level, newcomers to the franchise are introduced to the iconic perspective changes that give the world a sense of scale and allow for significant tonal differences across multiple characters. While the game primarily alternates between the tactical espionage of the SAS forces and the gung-ho, American Marine invasion, the second level actually plays from the point of view of the deposed president of the oil-rich, unnamed country in the Middle East, en route to his own execution. After being brutally murdered by separatist leader Khaled Al-Asad on live television, the player begins the first of the story’s three acts, each with their own highs and lows, switching between various perspectives following the terrorists in the Middle East and their relation to a growing ultranationalist movement in Russia.
Fitting with the new action-thriller tone, there is a more personal atmosphere in Call of Duty 4 that focuses on characters and their internal relationships rather than previous games’ obsession with broad historical events. Even without the given absolute villain of Adolph Hitler in their WWII games, Infinity Ward manages to establish realistic antagonists with their own motivations and histories. Ironically, even future games in the series managed to this get aspect wrong, featuring either cartoonishly evil villains such as Black Ops II’s Raul Menendez, retroactively added characters to insist their importance rather than write them a cohesive character like Modern Warfare 2’s Makarov or forgoing both, and depicting an entire nation as ludicrously, over-the-top and fundamentally evil like World at War’s generalized Japanese forces. Although this may seem insignificant, the reason that so many clones of Call of Duty are unsuccessful is because they fail to establish a meaningful conflict, negating all possible tension or thematic value by never creating a stake for the player to get invested in. Whereas CoD4’s villains like Imran Zakhaev and Al-Asad, acting out of intense nationalism, are representative of the real world dangers of blindly following one’s government (or any single philosophy, really), stories with poorly executed conflicts like Call of Duty: Ghosts’ laughable excuse for a threat, the generic rogue super-soldier Rorke, attribute all the potential real world conflicts to one “evil” character. Using Ghosts as an example (because its campaign is just all around garbage), the story doesn’t effectively create the illusion that there are complex social or political factors that clash with each other, it tries to convince the player that one man can be the source of all of a world’s ills. This is not only unconducive to progressive problem solving, but incredibly lazy and uninteresting writing.
Instead of oversimplifying real world problems or falsifying new ones, Call of Duty 4 subverts the average player’s expectations and explores largely realistic territory, as far as games of 2007 were concerned at least. Missions like “Death From Above,” that plays from the perspective of an AC-130 gunship, use gameplay to convey the cold detachment of modern airborne and drone weapons. Fluorescent black and white screens, three levels of magnification and a few button presses are all that separates the operators of these machines from the world they can so easily destroy. Other levels such as Captain Price’s iconic flashback, “All Ghillied Up,” take a more personal approach. Serving as both the back story of the main antagonist Zakhaev and a cautionary tale about the dangers of blindly following the philosophies of long-gone political systems, this story shows that the only objective difference between the “protagonists” and “antagonists” of any given conflict is who they follow. The most memorable scene of the game comes at the end of the first act, during the climax of the American invasion. After what initially feels like a generic campaign against an under-equipped enemy, most players initially view the mission “Shock and Awe” as either a triumphant toppling of Al-Asad’s capital city that champions the strength and virtue of the United States, or a cynical critique of America’s real word hubris that condemns its initial involvement in the Middle East. As it turns out, neither of these are the messages that people walk away from this segment remembering. During the Marine’s siege of the capital, command suddenly orders all personnel to start evacuating due to a potential nuclear threat. On the player’s way out of the city, their captain insists on rescuing the survivors of a recent crash. Upon rescuing the sole living crew member, the remaining soldiers rush back to their transport helicopter and prepare to fly away when the unthinkable happens. Time seemingly slows to a crawl as a nuclear explosion brightens the sky. First, the radio signals turn to chaotic static, then the shockwave engulfs the city below and finally the helicopters are hit by the blast, sending soldiers hurling into the sky and crashing the player’s helicopter in a blaze of flame and radiation.
The ensuing level, entitled “Aftermath,” is yet another fake out, instilling a false sense of optimism that our marine, Sergeant Paul Jackson, just might survive, before slowly dashing these hopes in one of the most grueling death scenes in gaming history. Fading into the sound of Jackson’s pained heartbeat; the originally heavenly lights seen outside the wreckage of the downed helicopter give way to the red wastes that remain of the city. The player limps to the edge of the wreckage and falls to the street with an ear-splitting thud. From here, the full effect of nuclear weapons can be seen. Buildings crumble, ash fills the air and the imposing mushroom cloud looms over the city. Faint radio signals instructing survivors to seek out fallout shelters make the player believe one last time that they can live, before Jackson’s body finally gives in and collapses to the ground. In his final action, he looks up, seeing familiar lights wash over him as the level ends. Condemning both sides of the conflict for resorting to war and violence over diplomacy, Aftermath decisively makes its anti-war stance clear to audiences and makes them question whether their ensuing actions are actually solving anything. Within a narrative that constantly surprises the player, the nuke scene in CoD4 remains the standout of the story and an iconic moment of this generation in gaming.
What most developers take from this scene are its brutality and the sense of shock it instilled in the community. Sadly, this is a gross oversimplification of the themes portrayed here such as the futility of war, the self-fulfilling consequences of violence and the problems with devoting yourself to a cause that may not always be justified. Many game designers, corporate executives, and even future CoD teams choose not to create a similarly complex message, instead, opting to go for pure shock value over anything meaningful. Modern Warfare 2’s controversial “No Russian” segment, in which the player controls an undercover FBI agent embedded in a group of Russian terrorists who shoot up an airport, may have been somewhat justified in the game’s narrative. Modern Warfare 3’s “controversial” level, however, is a comically over-the-top home video of a father watching his innocent wife and child die in a terrorist attack. This immature execution of serious themes undermines the mediums progress and is a clear sign of gaming’s storytelling infancy. However, this desire to create unique experiences is a small step in the right direction. Game narratives are not limited to the good vs. evil that they have often embraced since their creation, and games that blur the line between the two, like Call of Duty 4, prove this without question.
What is even more surprising than the quality of the game’s superb design and story is the fact that many die-hard fans never experience them. Cementing its place in gaming history, the endlessly replayable and rewarding online multiplayer of Call of Duty 4 ushered in the era of applying RPG mechanics, such as class systems and leveling up, to modern action titles. In 2016, customizable classes, skill trees and experience points have become almost standardized in modern gaming, but its implementation in 2007 was a fresh change of pace from multiplayer games that were only as deep as their basic combat mechanics and offered little rewards for player performance outside of victory itself. By rewarding each kill or achievement with experience points and establishing a variety of challenges for the player to accomplish over time, the game encourages continuous activity and incentivizes improvement. Climbing the ranks not only opens up new game modes but unlocks new guns and abilities for the player to utilize when personalizing their character. Instead of premade classes found in games such as Team Fortress or placing different weapons across the map Halo style, Call of Duty 4 allows players to customize classes as they see fit. Classes contain one primary weapon (assault rifles, submachine guns, light machine guns, shotguns or sniper rifles), a sidearm (pistols), a special grenade type (flash, smoke or stun) and 3 “perks,” abilities that offer things like extra ammo, increased health/damage and longer sprinting times. Considering that there is such an enormous amount of possible class combinations, the game is balanced reasonably well, with no clear “best” weapon or extremely overpowered perks (with the exception of martyrdom possibly) that plagued later games like the ridiculous Model 1887s and the Javilan glitch in Modern Warfare 2.
Setting itself apart from its competitors, the Call of Duty series emphasizes individual positioning, tactical movement, and map awareness over aim and coordinated teamwork. Group victories offer bonus XP, but the player’s own performance is what mainly determines their reward. Regardless of class, players die very quickly, making each moment tense and dangerous. To keep this breakneck pace, respawn times are kept to a minimum in most modes and maps are relatively small and densely packed in order to assure that the player is always engaged. All 21 maps are expertly designed, featuring unique environments ranging from the sands of the Middle East to the snow of Russia, multiple paths and a fair amount of verticality. Adding to the incentive to do well are “killstreaks,” rewards for getting a series of kills without dying such as UAVs that reveal enemy locations, airstrikes, and friendly attack helicopters. While following games would drastically increase the amount of killstreaks, encouraging players to get 25 successive kills borders on enabling camping, and goes against the principle flow established by CoD4. Similarly, the plethora of copycats that suddenly adopted similar class systems failed to realize that quality always trumps quantity, resulting in unbalanced abilities and indistinct maps/weapons. Call of Duty is the juggernaut of the industry it is today for a multitude of reasons, but the largest among them is the game’s accessibility. As mentioned earlier, CoD4 didn’t radically change the way the series plays, it optimized and added to the systems that complement the gameplay. Its combination of simple controls, quick matches, instant gratification experience system and balanced items make it one of the greatest online multiplayer experiences in gaming.
By perfecting longstanding FPS conventions, designing an iconic action-thriller campaign and applying RPG-style experience and class system to its multiplayer, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare revolutionized its genre and paved the way for the impending boom of multiplayer based triple-A titles. Unfortunately, as with any successful property, corporations and profit seekers soon put out slews of derivative titles that adapted only the spectacle, violence, modern setting and basic framework for a “hit game,” without any of the nuance, subtlety or mechanical polish and innovation. In truth, a fair number of these clones are serviceable pieces of entertainment, if a bit mindless, and even some of the later Call of Duty games after 4 deserve some merit for maintaining the series mechanical quality. The worst sin committed by these titles is not their repeated failures, it is their complacency. Activision’s absolute satisfaction with the status quo and its unwillingness to try any significant new ideas is not only turning one of the most forward-thinking franchises into the most predictable releases of any year, it is setting a bad example for other studios.
- Matt Bruzzano
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