Reinstall: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

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Reinstall invites you to join us in revisiting classics of PC gaming days gone by. This week, editor Sam Roberts returns to the fury of Call of Duty 4's singleplayer campaign.

With Titanfall jettisoning the idea of a traditional single-player mode and Battlefield 4’s campaign inducing widespread sighs, this has become a disposable bolt on to most of today’s big shooters. Titanfall is able to create much of the drama of a single-player game in the midst of its impressive systems, but it’s worth remembering that the old Infinity Ward were really good at making campaigns, too.

But it might be that Titanfall’s lack of a true single-player mode is a sign of the times: COD’s rigid campaign formula has been exhausted. Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was its peak.

The single-player is, in levels without a significant story beat, a slog to get through today. Perhaps this is because its ideas have been mercilessly recycled in the last seven years by both copycat action developers and Call Of Duty’s own teams not really successfully expanding on that formula (full disclosure: I haven’t played Ghosts’ doggy campaign, though I’ve completed all of them prior to that).

How many times have we seen that moment when your character gets knocked to his feet by a blast and his vision blurred, before you’re picked up by an NPC and finally handed back control of the game? It’s in the first mission of COD4 as the tanker is bombarded by MiGs. Every variation of this and many other scripted set pieces borrowed from Modern Warfare, and it’s not COD4’s fault that people ripped that off. It just turned out to be pervasively influential.

I think the lack of self-expression offered by its linear structure is a bit too cloying by today’s standards. There is some extraordinary visual design in Modern Warfare’s real-world environments, but wander too far out of the intended path and you always find dead spots in detail or convenient fences and barbed wire. I forgot you don’t have the power to open doors in Call Of Duty – you have to wait for the NPCs to do it for you. The lack of interactivity reduces the value of replaying a COD campaign, admittedly, which is probably part of the reason it’s become a disposable aside in multiplayer-heavy FPSs generally.

COD4’s success hinges on the quality of replaying those scripted moments, and they are still pretty decent even when you know Infinity Ward’s tricks. The storyline isn’t particularly entertaining, but it’s a lot sharper than the increasingly ludicrous sequels are, and benefits from not overdosing on silly. Individual moments still excel and highlight the developers’ narrative chops.

You know the ones I mean. When the pilot rescue goes awry during ‘Shock and Awe’ and your player character is consumed by a surprise nuclear blast, you crawl through the rubble for a minute before your character dies alone in a horrific blast zone. Having played that twice before, I thought the impact would wear off. It doesn’t. Yes, you’re basically just crawling in a straight line out of a helicopter, but struggling through this blood red wasteland is a scripted moment of real design merit. The sound effects of your character’s death are a bit more disturbing than I remember, too.

Then there’s the level everyone talked about in 2007. Breathlessly sneaking through the irradiated landscape of Pripyat in ‘All Ghillied Up’ demonstrates the real craft of a linear story-driven FPS; it remains Modern Warfare’s strongest level, and has a nice arc that begins with stealth encounters before escalating into a brilliant last stand. The abandoned backdrop is strikingly beautiful.

Playing it today, I’m reminded that DayZ has thrown up a number of equally dramatic scenarios as Ghillied through its systems at random, while also allowing scope for personality and freeform set pieces. Ghillied is just following a guy down a linear path, as impressively paced and scripted as it is. You can’t repeat it and have a different experience – that’s a problem with replaying any Call Of Duty title. But even without the feeling of newness that it had in 2007, you can see why other developers tried to emulate Infinity Ward’s storytelling sensibilities.

I realise I sound a bit down in revisiting Call Of Duty 4’s story mode – there’s a reason for that. Before replaying the game, I considered the idea that the single-player part of an FPS might be becoming a lost art, but I actually think it’s just this very specific type of linear shooter that’s becoming irrelevant. And that might not be a bad thing. COD4’s memorable tutorial of running through a fake cargo ship of pop-up wooden enemies isn’t far off what playing a COD campaign actually feels like today. When you know the beats inside and out, there’s not a great capacity for surprise.

It’s part of the reason why Titanfall only has a story mode functioning as a multiplayer framework, in my opinion. After Call Of Duty 4, I’m not sure this type of single-player experience ever really improved in pacing or storytelling. It had a finite lifespan that has perhaps reached its end with the failure of Medal Of Honor, the broad apathy towards Battlefield 4’s campaign and COD’s dog-related sagas.

Modern Warfare’s impact was all in the multiplayer, of course. After many yearly Call Of Duty sequels it’s hard to recall or appreciate how refreshing Modern Warfare’s progression-based multiplayer was – Titanfall is getting a similar response now, in that it reworked a genre we maybe didn’t realise needed a rethink in the first place.

Maybe COD4’s campaign is just a relic, then – but it’s still a fun one.