A Masterful Remaster
Call of Duty 4 was the most influential shooter of the last generation. Its control scheme became the standard for first person shooters. Its short, action packed campaign served as a template for the abundance of clones released in its wake. Although, its biggest impact was in online multiplayer, where the addition of a persistent leveling framework, unlocks, and customizable loadouts changed the landscape of competitive shooters.
The newly remastered version released on the back of Infinite Warfare gives us a chance to look back on this classic game. After nine years of annual sequels providing incremental improvements, as well as innovations made by other shooters, one might expect Modern Warfare to show signs of aging. While it’s true it can be rough around the edges, its surprisingly easy to return to. I immediately found myself going through the regular motions of any other Call of Duty game. Left trigger, right trigger, knifing, and sprinting embarrassingly short distances are still commonplace features. It speaks to exactly how influential this game was that games today still play similarly to Call of Duty 4.
Even the campaign feels familiar, as if it could have been released as a new game today and not seem out of place. Its story is short and sweet, often changing the action with one off gimmicks like coordinating helicopter strikes, setting up defenses, or the famous AC-130 mission. These moments seem tame compared to more recent entries. The series since has upped the insanity with every new release. Black Ops had helicopter raids, Advanced Warfare had a mission where the player could only use one arm, and now there is Infinite Warfare featuring space combat. Regardless, Modern Warfare’s comparatively simplistic nature makes for a more grounded experience. It’s still unrealistic, but feels more plausible. Funny enough, this atmosphere makes the nine-year-old game feel refreshing. Perhaps newer Call of Duty games feel too obnoxious. The more absurd something is the less impact its absurdities will have. The more reasonably natured Modern Warfare campaign allows its crazier moments to have more staying power.
The entire first act is a monument to in game storytelling. The player assumes the role of a deposed Middle-Eastern leader as they are dragged into a car and forced to ride along and witness a violent coup underway. People running in fear, executions, and military displays of force set up a nightmare scenario culminating in the execution of the player. It’s a particularly savage scene when presented in the first person.
This execution and coup prompts a U.S. invasion where the player then becomes a marine hunting down the vaguely defined Middle-Eastern country’s new tyrant. This gives way to a series of tributes to US military might. Multiple missions begin with helicopter swarms framed just so to see the full breadth of the invasion, and on many occasions the player’s eyes are directed towards tanks running over things. America’s military is depicted as moving unrelentingly through the nation. It’s an unapologetic US power fantasy that builds momentum with every mission. This momentum comes to a sudden screeching halt when a nuke detonates and devastates the invading force.
Accustomed to sprinting, the player must crawl through wreckage into a hellish city of ruble and fire. They stand up in vain, only to fall back down and die as simply one more name in a long list of causalities.
The scene acts as a powerful bait and switch. The game built up a romanticized vision of warfare revolving around speed and strength, only to take it all away with a single blast of light and a cloud of radioactive heat.
It’s one of the most memorable moments in a video game. So much so many other games have tried and failed to copy it. For instance, Battlefield 3’s campaign has Paris being nuked. This scene failed to be of note because they did it only for spectacle and shock value. It happens, and is quickly forgotten. Whereas in Modern Warfare, this moment sets a tone resonating through the rest of the game, and eventually the Modern Warfare trilogy. It serves as a message that war is fun and glorious unless you find yourself on the losing side of it. This message is then built on in its sequels which depict unrelenting invasions of western countries.
While these aspects keep Modern Warfare’s campaign holding strong all these years later, there are still some awkward frustrations born from the era of the game’s release. Chiefly, enemies spawn out of otherwise empty rooms until the player moves up and reaches these rooms. The player has to go against their instincts and leave cover to charge the enemy in order for enemies to stop spawning. Otherwise, they will spawn infinitely.
There is also an uncanny lack of interactivity. Other characters rarely if at all respond to the player’s actions, preferring to stick tightly to their scripted paths. The player doesn’t get involved in many actions, most noticeably breaching doors. The player must stand by for npcs to do almost everything before the game can progress. With the player’s movement speed appearing to be at least 25% faster than npcs, this creates too many moments where one can do nothing more than wait. These are issues Call of Duty has always had problems with, and this remaster shines a light on how little has been done to fix these issues since.
Not much was added to the campaign, but there have been some additions to the multiplayer. Since the release of Call of Duty 4, online games have been more and more focused on cosmetics. Bringing Modern Warfare’s multiplayer into the modern day meant providing player icons and cards. While ultimately trivial, they’re a smart decision and cool to see.
Other than that, the multiplayer is actually reduced. The remaster only has half of the maps found in the original games. They did manage to include most of the better maps, but it’s still disappointing to see some of my personal favorites left out. As I understand, there are plans to add these maps in the future, but the future is not today.
Instead of removing maps, it would have been a good idea to reduce the amount of game modes. There are three main groupings of modes, each with several modes within them. This scatters what appears to be a surprisingly low player count. Matches are still made, but most games start without full lobbies. If they took out most of the modes, it would result in a more concentrated player base.
As for the gameplay, it’s still fun. Seeing the abundance of kill streaks added in later entries brought back down to the classic three provides a nostalgic delight. There isn’t much else to say about it. It’s Call of Duty reduced to its most basic form.
Of course, the focus of the remaster was to update the visuals. To that end, they surpassed any expectation I would have had for the game. It looks stunning. It appears to have all new textures, making the game look brand new. More than that, effects like focus and blurs are used heavily to give the game a modern visual style. It is exactly what a graphical remaster should be and then some. It achieves the goal of making the game as impressive as when it was first released.
Call of Duty 4 didn’t need much in terms of improvement. It definitely has problems, but it still feels like a contemporary first person shooter. Having gorgeous visuals makes the game a blast to play through again, but it’s more incredible how the game held up and is still a blast to play in its own right.