Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Ranked #12 on Video Game Canon’s Version 2.0

General William Tecumseh Sherman famously declared that “War is Hell” in a speech in 1880, though I think it’s safe to assume that more people are familiar with the anti-war protestations of a certain green Muppet from 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. While this sentiment has existed in the public consciousness for hundreds of years, the basic structure of a game as a confrontation that pits the player against the CPU (or another player) makes armed conflict an ideal setting.

War might be Hell, but it has also been very good for Activision’s bottom line thanks to the Call of Duty franchise.

Publisher Activision and developer Infinity Ward quietly released the original Call of Duty in 2003, and its World War II setting was designed to compete directly with the popular Medal of Honor series. Not so coincidentally, the majority of Infinity Ward’s employees, including founders Jason West and Vince Zampella, had previously worked at 2015 Inc., the developer behind Medal of Honor: Allied Assault.

Call of Duty received a raft of good reviews, as well as several industry awards (“Game of the Year” at the DICE Awards and “Best Debut” at the GDC Awards). And due to its strong sales, Infinity Ward immediately went to work on an expansion and a full-fledged sequel, and Activision tasked Treyarch with producing several console-centric spinoffs. But to become a world-beating juggernaut, the franchise had to abandon its Greatest Generation roots and embrace a more modern sensibility in 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

VGC Essays are original articles discussing each title from the Video Game Canon, as well as their place in gaming history, and how the community interacted with them in the past. This time, we’re looking at Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

Call of Duty 4 represented a sea change for the franchise, and there was nothing quiet about its launch. Building on the success of the modern scenarios envisioned by 2005’s Battlefield 2 and 2006’s Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, the fourth Call of Duty game sold more than seven million copies in its first two months of availability and became synonymous with gaming for a large portion of the public. If Portal expanded the idea of what a first person shooter could be, Call of Duty 4 refined everything about where the genre had been with its cinematic campaign and expansive multiplayer options.

While fans loved the game’s characters, Call of Duty 4’s online multiplayer modes really helped push it over the top. Competing online against other players was still a novelty for PS3 and Xbox 360 owners in 2007, and Infinity Ward’s shooter quickly rose to the top of this new frontier. Players thrilled at the wide range of weaponry and the new “Killstreaks” mechanic, and strived to string together streaks to show off their deathmatch prowess. This competitive spirit also lead to Call of Duty 4’s inclusion in the burgeoning esports scene, but Activision’s desire to release a new Call of Duty game every year would keep the series out of the spotlight until the formation of the Call of Duty Championship in 2013.

Game development can be hell too, and the real competitive legacy that Call of Duty 4 left behind might be its outsized effect on other game publishers. In addition to effectively ending World War II’s status as the dominant shooter setting, the game pushed other genres out of the spotlight and lead to a rash of games vying to be the next big shooter. Some were very good (Left 4 Dead, Borderlands, and Battlefield: Bad Company come to mind), but most were pretty forgettable.

But in a very real way, Activision biggest competitor has always been itself. Because each new entry in the Call of Duty franchise pushed the previous year’s game out, the publisher forged beyond the modern era with futuristic settings that were less accepted by the Call of Duty community, and bigger multiplayer modes (starting with the Left 4 Dead-like Zombies Mode featured in Call of Duty: World At War) that ultimately overshadowed anything players would find in the single-player campaign.

Activision’s emergence as a “megapublisher” (thanks to a late 2007 merger with Blizzard) in the wake of Call of Duty 4’s release also may have spurred on 2010’s huge shakeup at Infinity Ward. The publisher fired West and Zampella after the pair began discussions with Electronic Arts, leading to a legal back-and-forth that lasted for more than two years. Ultimately, West and Zampella would go on to found Respawn Entertainment and challenge Call of Duty in the multiplayer arena with Titanfall and its sequel. A very different Infinity Ward would produce Call of Duty: Ghosts in 2013 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare in 2016. Neither was particularly well-received by fans.

All of this internal strife would eventually lead Activision to partner with Bungie to create the multiplayer-focused Destiny in 2013, collaborate with Raven Software on a re-release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered in 2016, and return to the World War II setting in 2017’s Call of Duty: WWII.

Another giant of the 1800s, Mark Twain, is believed to have said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. The Call of Duty franchise is living proof of this maxim. And I’m sure Yoda would agree.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare can be easily played today on the PC, PS3, and Xbox 360. 2016’s Remastered re-release can also be found on store shelves for the PC, PS4, and Xbox One as a standalone game, and as part of Infinite Warfare’s Legacy Edition.

Publisher: Activision
Developer: Infinity Ward
Release Date: November 5, 2007

Kietzmann, Ludwig – Engadget – Activision: Call of Duty 4 was best-selling game of 2007 – 2008

Kollar, Phil – Game Informer – UPDATE: Infinity Ward Vs. Activision – 2010

Sarkar, Samit – Polygon – Call of Duty Championship coming in April from Activision and Microsoft with $1M purse – 2013