With its sandbox-like “Open Combat” missions and the return of fan-favourite villain Makarov, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this year’s Call of Duty campaign might be a fun step forward for the series. Sadly, it’s a disaster. Modern Warfare 3 is the worst single-player outing for COD in its lifetime; a duct-taped mess of missions, many of which are quite literally ripped from Warzone, that frequently plays like DMZ multiplayer with bots. It’s almost certain to be remembered as Call of Duty’s lowest point when it comes to single-player design.
I’ll leave it to our review to analyse MW3’s worst mistakes. Instead, let’s remember Call of Duty’s finest hour and the game that laid the foundations for the shooter’s contemporary image: the original Modern Warfare. 16 years later it remains the series’ most accomplished campaign. A masterclass in FPS design, it has a carefully measured tempo delivered via a wonderfully textured set of missions. Seemingly taking notes from Nintendo’s manual for Mario, Call of Duty 4 weaves between novel ideas and builds quick-fire missions around unique gameplay concepts. From sinking ship escapes to aerial bombardments, through stealth assassinations and car chases, the original Modern Warfare is a constantly rotating menu of gourmet shooter design.
That texture set Call of Duty on a strong path: 2009’s Modern Warfare 2 in particular benefitted from making every mission its own individual blockbuster. But few campaigns since Call of Duty 4 have achieved its sense of tone. The series is perhaps best known for being a never-ending cacophony of muzzle flare and detonating oil drums. But across the first two missions of Modern Warfare, your every carefully-placed shot is muffled by a silencer. These levels – “Crew Expendable” and “Black Out” – made a statement back in 2007: this is not the loud, relentless conflict of the original World War 2 games. This is an era of special operations.
Modern Warfare does feature its fair share of intense battles that continues the legacy Infinity Ward established in its first two games – in “The Bog” you destroy AA guns exactly as you did during Call of Duty’s Burnville mission, while the truck chase in “Game Over” is a straight homage to the Eder Dam escape in the original British campaign. But that intensity is reserved for missions played from the US Marines perspective, and always interspersed with levels focused around the much more restrained SAS. That’s not to say that Captain Price turned a shooter into Metal Gear Solid (although that certainly was an influence on the celebrated “All Ghillied Up” sniper mission), but those British perspective chapters allowed for quieter, eerier moments that established not just a more varied tempo, but a murkier tone that explored the complexities of war in the 21st century.
World War 2 is easily portrayed as a ‘just’ war: the united powers of the world striking back at evil fascists. But back when Call of Duty 4 launched in 2007, the realities of modern conflict were much muddier. Price’s mission reflects that; its exploration of Russian ultranationalists propping up Middle Eastern terrorism is not exactly deep, but it provides a simplified demonstration of how fragmented superpowers cause destabilisation in other countries to further their own agendas.
That simplified viewpoint may mean Infinity Ward fell short of its cinematic inspirations (it’s not quite an interactive Generation Kill) but compared to what would follow, Modern Warfare is the series’ most sophisticated outing. Its own attempts at nuance are largely successful; “Death From Above”, the mission in which you obliterate enemies from the targeting camera of an AC-130 gunship, is chillingly detached. With each successful elimination your observing officer makes disturbing remarks. “Yeah, good kill. I see lots of little pieces down there.” It remains an effective commentary on dehumanisation in the age of digital warfare.
Simultaneously, “Death From Above” is an exceptional mission. Effectively a reinvention of the dated turret trope from late 90s/early 00s FPS design, it demands careful deployment of ammunition as you attempt to eliminate enemies while avoiding your allies. It’s incredibly involved, but its fixed-camera perspective means it’s a solid break in the campaign’s rhythm. It follows on from “The Hunted”, a twilight-set mission in which Price and his men desperately try to escape Russian ultranationalists. To go from such an eerie heart-pounder to this unnervingly relaxed shooting gallery is quite the left turn, and the sort of variety that gives Modern Warfare its strength.
That precise rhythm can be seen within the confines of each mission, too. Take the freight ship-set opener, “Crew Expendable”; a quick and quiet room clearing mission in which the most regular noise is the muted back-and-forth click of your silenced MP5’s bolt. But it’s best remembered for its explosive finisher; the corridors filling with water as your team races to the top deck before the ship disappears beneath icy waves. Almost every mission in Modern Warfare shares this sense of undulating tension and drama. It’s perhaps best encapsulated by the back-to-back “All Ghillied Up” and “One Shot, One Kill”, in which the nail-biting tension of being a sniper hidden among the grass is burst in an exhausting hold out against what feels like the entire Russian army.
For several years it seemed like Call of Duty forgot those lessons. The variety of mission types became a go-to menu of tropes and that confidence to be restrained was lost. There was nothing like “Black Out”, in which you quietly trek through the fields of Russia while distant rocket trails burn across the midnight sky. By Treyarch’s Black Ops it felt like permanently holding the trigger was mandatory, and the years since have been an up-and-down struggle. Odd gems like the surprisingly thoughtful Call of Duty: World War 2 and wonderfully experimental Infinite Warfare often struggled to stand out from a series that seemed to have lost its confidence and lustre.
That was until the Modern Warfare reboot. Infinity Ward’s 2019 return to contemporary battlefields captured so much that was great about the original Modern Warfare. Its smaller, tenser encounter design reflected the very best of the 2007 original. “Clean House”, the room-clearing operation set in a London home, is a direct continuation of the eerie, uncomfortable tone that Infinity Ward had successfully established with its previous SAS missions. And, with the benefit of stronger writing and more emotive cinematics, it was able to double down on those themes of political conflict and discuss the personal sacrifices demanded by morally dubious operations. It never quite hit the highs of the original Modern Warfare but it was damn near close, and promised a series that could potentially eclipse its parent.
And then disaster. Modern Warfare’s subsequent sequels turned it into a sub series that settled for remixing old hits rather than building on past successes. And so, despite its age, the original Modern Warfare remains the best and most forward-thinking Call of Duty campaign ever made. To play it today is to play something that feels like it was released within this console generation, so strong is its design. Its greatest hits remain the greatest hits, from the shocking detonation of its nuclear warhead to the energetic on-foot chase of “Sins of the Father” and all the famous beats between. We can hope that it will be eventually dethroned – we all want evolution and improvement, after all – but for yet another year, Modern Warfare remains the Call of Duty campaign king.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Features Editor.