What kind of name is Soap?
A simple question from iconic Captain Price that still echoes in the hearts of players, as much as the characters it concerns. It was immediately clear, back in 2007, that Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was going to change everything. Up to that moment, video games about war have always been set during World War I or II, and other shooter titles usually displayed sci-fi settings, like Quake, Halo: Combat Evolved, or Valve‘s Half-Life.
The unique appeal of Infinity Ward‘s Modern Warfare, thus, was its contemporary setting, which allowed it to feature modern weapons with laser sights and technological devices like night vision goggles or powerful gunships. This also helped the game to feel faster and more real, although it was the multiplayer side of it to ignite a revolution that still resonates today.
Under the pressure of a nuclear threat
It’s 2011. After a civil war breaks out in Russia between the government and ultranationalists, a separatist group led by Khaled Al-Asad seizes a country in the Middle East through a broadcasted execution. While the U.S. Marine Corps invade the country to capture Al-Asad, the situation only gets worse: the British S.A.S. infiltrates a Russian cargo ship where the main characters, including Sergeant John “Soap” McTavish, who the player control for most of the game, and the aforementioned Captain Price, find a nuclear device. After a spectacular escape from the sinking ship, a campaign of escalating missions will lead both the S.A.S. and the Marine Corps to uncover the alliance between Russian ultranationalist Imran Zakhaev and Al-Asad.
The story unfolds with the constant menace of the nuclear threat, which collapses in an incident: the device from the cargo ship explodes. Witnessing in the first person the horrors of atomic mayhem in such a realistic setting is at the core of the campaign experience. The same goes for the flashback missions, in which the player wears the shoes of Lieutenant Price, who was ordered to assassinate Zakhaev in Pripyat, Ukraine, in 1996, in the fallout of the Chernobyl disaster.
The multiplayer revolution
Despite the intense and beloved campaign, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare had the most success for its multiplayer. To be fair, apart from the already discussed setting and contemporary weaponry, many of the features that made the game iconic were not new. Call of Duty 2 and 3, in fact, already featured the core mechanics of the series, as well as killstreaks and some famous game modes. But it was putting it all together, making it better, and taking its time, that finally allowed a good online experience to make Modern Warfare the first Call of Duty to conquer the multiplayer scenes. The game connected players easier than ever. Custom lobbies and microphone support, along with the online capabilities of seventh-generation consoles such as Playstation 3, XBOX 360 and Nintendo Wii, opened the virtual battlefield to everyone with an internet connection.
The best way to describe the experience is highly satisfying. Everything, from the points earned by killing another player to the sound of a reward for reaching a killstreak, was addictive. The almost immediate respawn (coming back from death) also allowed the experience to never end; and at the same time, the small, realistic amount of damage needed to kill a player made it feel so easy even when it was, of course, balanced for everyone. The large number of weapons to choose from and the possibility to customize them with attachments, such as bigger scopes, foregrips, and silencers, was also a big part of it.
Influencing war games
The impact of Modern Warfare on today’s games is clear and diversified, although Infinity Ward took inspiration from great FPS titles themselves:
There’s so many spectacular moments that you have when you funnel the action into certain corridors – that’s the reason why, with Counter-Strike, Dust was so huge. […] It’s not fun because you can blow up everything, it’s fun because you know where the action’s going to be and there’s races against time to get to that action.Grant Collier, Infinity Ward’s Studio Head in an interview with IGN Australia, June 2007
What Call of Duty 4 did was opening the way for more accessible war games, and multiplayer experiences that everyone can enjoy. The large console support, the intuitive commands, and the fast point-and-shoot gameplay are all features that made their way through years to recent games like Destiny, Titanfall and many smaller titles. But it also started a trend of contemporary war settings, that appeared in many popular games such as Battlefield 3 and Spec Ops: The Line.
The Modern Warfare reboot
It’s no surprise that, in need of a new successful and immersive title, Activision called 2019’s Call of Duty “Modern Warfare“. The game, a soft reboot of what Infinity Ward made in 2007, actually managed to revive the saga and bring back large numbers of old fans, as well as new players, demonstrating the contemporary, realistic setting of the game is still a popular one. If the latest Modern Warfare didn’t have the same impact on the gaming industry by itself, everything changed when Warzone came out, the free-to-play battle royale experience which has spread worldwide thanks to Modern Warfare’s engine and gameplay and the coincidence of coming out at the same time as the Covid-19 lockdown.
While Warzone is the most popular and diverse evolution that came from the Modern Warfare saga, the Call of Duty franchise also developed its own eSport league, called Call of Duty League, and the mobile version of the game, Call of Duty Mobile. Everything that makes the series still renowned today comes from those choices and features that Infinity Ward enclosed in Call of Duty 4. While many players lamented the series’ tend to stick with those mechanics, the most recent reboots and experiments such as Warzone could prove that there is still more to evolve within the same gameplay style that Call of Duty always pursued.