Hunt down an international terrorist and expose his ties to a bloody revolution.
PC Release: November 5, 2007
By Ian Coppock
Well folks, this is it. The world is ending. The sky is falling, the earth is belching flames… and a Call of Duty game is being reviewed on Art as Games. I’ve made no secret of my disdain for the Call of Duty games over the years, but in truth, the series is far too influential for any video game critic to ignore. The recent controversy over Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare has also propelled the series, and Modern Warfare in particular, to the forefront. There’s a lot to discuss with a series like Call of Duty, but Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a great place to begin. It holds a special place in the hearts and minds of shooter fans everywhere, but this winter, that place is going to be under duress.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is, well, the fourth entry in the Call of Duty series. The game was developed by Infinity Ward, the creators of the original Call of Duty and one of three studios licensed to produce Call of Duty games today. Infinity Ward was long regarded as the best Call of Duty producer, but the studio’s own founders were fired in 2010 under mysterious circumstances, and things have never been quite the same. Treyarch, the creator of the Call of Duty: Black Ops sub-series, has since assumed Infinity Ward’s role as the most venerable Call of Duty producer, but before all that, Modern Warfare was king.
Originally released in 2007, Modern Warfare marks both a rapid departure from the first three Call of Duty games and the genesis of many gameplay and design elements that remain endemic to the series to this day. As its title implies, Modern Warfare moves away from the World War II setting of the first three Call of Duty titles, which were released throughout the early 2000’s. Instead, it opts for a contemporary setting and modern weapons as well as a narrative more reflective of the security issues the world faces today. These and other series innovations propelled Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare to the forefront of gaming; and, even nine years later, many fans still consider it the best Call of Duty game ever made.
Modern Warfare is set in the year 2011, which back in 2007 was seen as a pivotal, epic year of epicness (not so much in real life). Modern Warfare presents a contemporary setting that is entirely believable: Russia is engulfed in a civil war between the Federation government and pro-Soviet “Ultranationlist” forces, prompting the United States and Great Britain to keep an even closer eye on events in Eurasia. At the same time, an unnamed country in the Middle East undergoes a violent revolution, with a pro-Western democracy being subverted by a rabidly anti-Western authoritarian. U.S. and British Intelligence believe that the two conflicts might be connected, and it’s investigating this connection that takes up the bulk of Modern Warfare‘s story.
As in previous Call of Duty games, the narrative in Modern Warfare is split between several playable protagonists. Players start things off from the perspective of John “Soap” MacTavish, the newest member of Britan’s super-elite Special Air Service. Soap is inducted into the SAS under the command of John Price, a battle-scarred Brit and proud owner of the venerable “most epic mustache in all of video gaming” award. The rest of the game is played out behind the wheel of Sgt. Paul Jackson, a United States Marine who takes part in an invasion of the unnamed Middle Eastern country, which for the sake of this review will be referred to as Explodistan. The two protagonists never actually meet or intersect, but they each represent a different half of a story that takes them to hot-spots the Middle East, Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan. This game’s graphics and character animations still look pretty good even after nine years, though most of the environments are way too glossy to be believable combat areas.
Just like its predecessors and its descendants, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a linear first-person shooter that ushers players through immaculate set pieces packed with neat arrangements of enemies. Players can equip up to two weapons, starting out with a pre-determined loadout but able to pick up new tools of war found in the battlefield. As Soap or Jackson, players can also throw grenades, deploy explosives, and melee enemies with a combat knife. Call of Duty also utilizes the Halo health system, in which players can take cover and wait to heal before going back out into the action. Players will occasionally receive access to more specialized equipment – for example, an entire level is spent blowing things up from the seat of an AC-130 gunship.
The player is rarely alone in their efforts to secure world peace. Soap is accompanied by the rest of his SAS squad, while Sgt. Jackson is at the front of an entire Marine brigade. The only noteworthy NPCs in this game aside from the antagonists are the player’s commanding officers. John Price is a charismatic tactician with an admittedly brilliant voice performance that has earned him a reputation as one of gaming’s greatest military commanders. This performance contrasts sharply with Jackson’s commander, Lieutenant Vasquez, a hilariously hyper-American behemoth who sounds like he’s voiced by Randy Savage.
One of the problems that more recent Call of Duty games have made for themselves is that their gameplay is monotonous. Each level is the same old setup of linear set pieces and swarms of bad guys. Modern Warfare is no exception, but it does go to some considerable lengths to keep the gameplay fresh. One of these methods is that each of the game’s two sub-campaigns contain different styles of combat. Because Soap is in a black ops team, the SAS missions are geared much more toward stealth, creeping slowly through the Russian countryside and taking out enemies from afar.
The U.S. Marine missions, by sharp contrast, comprise fighting on the front line of a major conflict and fierce street-to-street gun battles. To further the disparity, Modern Warfare alternates between Soap and Jackson every 2-3 missions. It’s a good way to keep the gameplay feeling fresh, as it forces players to switch gears between stealthy covert ops and heavy battlefield combat. Most of Modern Wafare‘s exposition is set before and after the missions, and there’s little narrative delivered in-game outside of capturing physical objectives. It’s standard fare for a military shooter, but the alternation is a good way to keep the pacing unpredictable.
Call of Duty is rarely known these days for having great narratives, but the story in Modern Warfare 4 is serviceable, if occasionally clunky. After discovering a Russian warhead in a freighter bound for the Middle East, the Special Air Service deploys to Eastern Europe to investigate where the bomb came from. At the same time, a radical anti-American insurgent named Al-Asad (a possible reference to Syria’s Bashar Al Assad) kills the president of Explodistan and becomes its new ruler. America, carrying on its proud tradition of shortsighted foreign adventuring, promptly invades Explodistan with overwhelming numbers of Marines, Sgt. Jackson among them.
It is Call of Duty 4‘s grounding in realistic scenarios that makes its narrative surprisingly enjoyable. Rather than dealing with exosuits and robots as later Call of Duty games do, Modern Warfare 4 presents itself as a simple counter-terrorism thriller that takes players all over the globe. There’s not much character development, as both protagonists are silent and their commanders are stuck firmly in their gruff drill sergeant niches, but the game continues more subtlety than one might expect of a Call of Duty game. Heck, sometimes the game is actually profound, especially in one scene where the player is forced to crawl through a field of their dead comrades. These purely emotional encounters are a rarity in modern Call of Duty games and demonstrate a lot of self-awareness on the game’s part. The voice acting’s pretty good and the writing is concise. The pieces are all there.
Modern Warfare runs like a charm on most any PC and the current version is virtually bug-free, but it’s not free from problems nor worry. Worryingly for a big-budget title, Modern Warfare is riddled with inconsistencies between its subtitles and its spoken dialogue. That might not seem like such a big deal at the outset, but it happens alarmingly frequently, starting with the mission where Soap and John Price have to rescue a Russian informant. Nothing breaks immersion faster than spelling or dialogue errors, and they’re no less noticeable in Modern Warfare.
The other issues the game’s campaign presents have more to do with portrayals of race than anything else. There’s only one black soldier in the entirety of Modern Warfare, and he fits perfectly into the “Hilarious Black Sidekick” stereotype. Sometimes it can get pretty cringe-worthy, like when he happens to be carrying rap music on his person and blasts it through a captured television station. There’s also only one woman in the entirety of the game, and she’s a damsel in distress whose helicopter crashed and now only Sgt. Jackson can rescue her. These portrayals are pretty par for the course with American action media, but that doesn’t excuse their presence in Modern Warfare. Sadly, these are also pretty mild for a Call of Duty game.
Modern Warfare is not a bad game. In fact, it’s one of the most enjoyable military shooters ever made. The problems that I’ve taken with Call of Duty over the years have much less to do with Modern Warfare specifically, and more to do with the series as a whole. After the release of Modern Warfare, Activison and the studios beneath it have released a new Call of Duty game every year like clockwork. The irony is that very few of these games actually present any innovations to the series. The most notable example of this phenomenon is 2013’s Call of Duty: Ghosts, which didn’t budge the formula forward an inch. Most Call of Duty games are lucky to budge it forward at all. It’s a bit disturbing that Activision has convinced an entire generation of gamers that they need to buy the same game every year. Meanwhile, titles like Team Fortress 2 (http://geekfactor-radio.com/art-as-games-team-fortress-2/)and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive prove that the market demand for shooters can be satisfied without releasing new installments on an annual basis. Make no mistake, Activision’s claim that it’s simply fulfilling market demand is a lie.
The other main issue with the Call of Duty series is Activision’s stunning disconnect from its own audience. The publisher has overseen the release of multiple future-themed Call of Duty games for the last half-decade, despite fans’ growing weariness of the setting and a yearning for a return to World War II or older, more historically grounded ideas. This resentment has come to a head with the announcement of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, which not only ignored Call of Duty fans’ weariness of the sci-fi setting but pushed it further than it has ever gone. As a result, the trailer for Infinite Warfare is one of the most disliked videos in YouTube history. Meanwhile, shooter fans’ desire for a new setting has been proven correct with the Battlefield 1 trailer, which has quite rightfully garnered critical acclaim for ushering in a novel World War I setting.
In closing, Modern Warfare is the best Call of Duty game ever made, for better and for worse. It’s great that Activision managed to produce a quality shooter, and depressing that none of the Call of Duty games released in the nine years since have been quite as good. A remastered edition of Modern Warfare will be released this fall, but only if players also buy Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.
Here’s a pro tip: don’t do it. Don’t give Activision money for Infinite Warfare until it’s demonstrated itself to be worthy of the purchase, or until Modern Warfare Remastered is available separately. Players have little to lose by purchasing the original version of Modern Warfare. Its visuals are a bit dated, sure, but the gameplay will be the same, and that’s truly what makes it fun. Modern Warfare‘s multiplayer has a tiny but active community still going, which is more than can be said for Call of Duty titles released much more recently. So suit up, grab a rifle, and save the world from certain destruction. Modern Warfare has lots of explosions, but also poignancy, and that alone makes it quite a novel Call of Duty game.
You can buy Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.