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A Critique of the Campaigns of the Modern Warfare Series


Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare really rocked the boat at its release and shaped the future of the first person shooter genre for years to come, continuing to this day almost 13 years later. Modern Warfare propelled the genre out of the WW2 slump that it had been in since the first Medal of Honor. People wanted something new, something different. And Infinity Ward delivered.

Some personal background here. I have put a lot of time into the Modern Warfare series. I used to buy the games on day one of release every year along with the World at War/Black Ops series by Treyarch. Unlike many other players however, I used to buy them for the campaigns. Whereas many players bought for the twitch-style gameplay, first popularised in Modern Warfare, the multiplayer. However, for me the multiplayer was an addition. A bonus on top of the campaign. Which as we know today has been reversed with many FPS games being multiplayer focused with a tacked on campaign, see COD WW2 for instance. Therefore, this critique will not delve into the multiplayer experiences for each game as I was never too focused on that.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was released worldwide in November 2007, following its predecessor Call of Duty 3 which released the previous year. COD3 was yet another WW2 themed shooter in a sea of them, and is often forgotten as a result. COD4 was something entirely different. Set during the year 2011, COD4 followed the exploits of Sgt. John ‘Soap’ MacTavish of the British Special Air Service and Sgt. Paul Jackson of the United States Marine Corps. The former being the main focus and primary playable character of the game. A serious departure from the M1 Garand’s, Lee Enfield’s, MP40’s and Kar98k’s of the previous games. Modern Warfare offered the player a whole new slew of modern era weaponry to dispose of the enemy with: M4A1’s. AK47’s, M203 grenade launchers, suppressed weaponry, machine grenade launchers, miniguns, high-powered sniper rifles among many others. Plus, a gritty, somewhat grounded, story about neutralising terrorists and a nuclear threat to the nations of the US and UK.

As mentioned, the first game in the series aimed to be much more grounded and expose the perceived realities of modern warfare.

The first aspect of the series I will cover is the gunplay. I will do this as the gameplay is pretty consistent over the course of the series with very few alterations made between instalments, so consider this section a critique of the series gameplay as a whole before diving into the individual characteristics of each game.

The gameplay of the Modern Warfare series is, for all intents and purposes, very solid. The gameplay is immersive, responsive and allows for impressive trickshots and fast paced gameplay. I, personally, play fast. I sprint a lot, rinse enemies at their spawn points which I have learned into muscle memory and finish the missions often in under 5 minutes if I am really going for it. You won’t find the gameplay very realistic if you have any real world experience with firearms. The guns have very little recoil, little muzzle flash and little noise. Like, seriously, the guns are way too quiet and have little impact when firing. So, realistic gunplay is not the main focus, but allows for the aforementioned stylish and fast paced gameplay. This is the main draw. Another critique I have with the gunplay is the lack of variation. All of the guns, bar a few, feel very similar due to the little impact firing has on the shooter. The only key weapon that have any significant difference would be the AK47. This is due to the difference in recoil control. Often, with most weapons, the sight will sit on the target solidly even during full-auto firing, with very little muzzle climb. The AK, however, is the only assault rifle which has any significant muzzle climb with the recoil pushing the gun upwards as opposed to back into the shooter’s shoulder. As mentioned, this gameplay experience changes very little between entries. If there is any differences, I will mention them as and when they are necessary.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

So, the granddaddy, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. My personal favourite in the series and the one I would consider the high point of quality when it comes to narrative and thematic elements. Our main characters and lenses who we experience the game through is Soap MacTavish and Paul Jackson of the SAS and the USMC, respectively. Soap is our first protagonist, who we join just as he has passed SAS selection and is preparing for his first mission under Captain Price. “It’s the FNG, sir”, we hear as the hangar doors open to reveal our squad for the coming mission. “Go easy on him, sir. It’s his first day in the Regiment” “Right. What the hell kind of name is Soap, eh? How’d a muppet like you pass Selection?” Our first encounter with the iconic and fan favourite leader that is Captain Price. We soon prove our worth however by skilfully completing the famous SAS killing house, set up to resemble the next mission.

This small segment, I feel, perfectly sets up the experience of the first Modern Warfare game. You’re not a superhero or high-ranking soldier who everyone bows before. You’re the new guy, you’re expendable. You’re skilled but you have to prove it. There’s no huge fanfare for your arrival. This opening was recreated in the second instalment but was not able to match the atmosphere of the dark hanger, plywood killing house and critical experienced eyes of your squad mates.

Modern Warfare features a much more grounded, yet still exciting storyline than its successors. This was a huge component of its appeal around the time of release, having the player experience some of the real world tools and events that special forces witness and engage in. The first mission, Crew Expendable, has the player take part in an SAS raid of a freighter in the Bering Strait. The expertise, precision and pace of which the missions features resemble the real life raid of the Iranian Embassy in 1980, wherein the SAS eliminated all terrorists and saved the hostages with minimal casualties in around 10-15 minutes. Another real life inspired mission was the AC-130 mission ‘Death from Above’. In this mission, you take control of the main guns of an AC-130, providing air support to the SAS on the ground. You can see by watching real life AC-130 missions that the experience in Modern Warfare is not too dissimilar. Pointing and clicking on white heat signatures until they stop moving. The banter between the crewmates can also be heard in real life AC-130 footage, highlighting the dissociation between the gunner and the events on the ground.

By the end of the game, the SAS and USMC has eliminated the Russian Ultranationalist threat and won the civil war for the Russian Loyalists. Zakhaev and Al-Assad were dead. But not without great loss to the protagonists. Jackson died when a nuke was detonated in the unnamed middle eastern city, along with 50,000 other US soldiers including Lt Vasquez. Griggs died in a shootout with the Ultranationalist on the bridging in the final mission, along with Gaz who was executed by Zakhaev before his death at the hands of Soap. And lastly, Captain Price is presumed dead on the very same bridge after passing the pistol to Soap. The camera fades as we hear a newscaster report that the events of the game, namely the nuclear missile launches, were missile tests by the Russian government, in an attempt to cover up the events of the game.. I feel that this little piece of information is often overlooked and illustrates that the nature of these special forces means that what they do and achieve may never make headlines and they may never gain the recognition they deserve.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

I’m sad to say that the relatively grounded (for a COD game) themes from Modern Warfare are not inherited by its progeny; Modern Warfare 2. Modern Warfare 2, a well-received game and often considered the best in the trilogy by many, is certainly not the high point for the series in terms of themes and narrative. The story writers this time around opted to go down a more Hollywood-esque action movie style of narrative as opposed to the more grounded real world themes seen in its predecessor.

Modern Warfare 2 takes place 5 years after the events of Modern Warfare. Captain Price is still presumed dead. The Ultranationalists have ultimately won the leadership of Russia via politics. Zakhaev is now lauded by the Russian people. And we join the story initially through the eyes of Private First Class Joseph Allen of the US Army Rangers. After a mission in seemingly Afghanistan, Allen is picked by General Shepherd to join his elite task force: Task Force 141. Also part of this task force is Soap MacTavish from the first game, now a Captain himself, Ghost, an enigmatic anonymous British special forces operator, and Gary ‘Roach’ Sanderson, our eyes for the Task Force 141 missions. Allen’s first mission is to go undercover, with the aid of the CIA, into a Russian terrorist cell led by Vladimir Makarov, who wishes to see Russia dominate the world under his leadership. As part of this mission, Allen has to take part in a terrorist attack at the Zakhaev International Airport in Moscow, killing hundreds of civilians in the process. Upon completion of the attack, Makarov, who already knew Allen was an undercover agent, kills him and leaves him for the Russian authorities to find, ID and blame America for the attacks. This ultimately leads to a Russian invasion of the continental USA. From here we follow the actions of Roach and Task Force 141 attempting to draw out and kill Makarov, as well as covert operations to hinder Russia from behind the scenes. And Private First Class Ramirez, also of the US Army Rangers, fighting on the front lines in the United States against the Russian invasion force.

As the story progresses, motivations for the villains of the game just become more and more ridiculous. Apparently, all along, General Shepherd was using Task Force 141 to clean up any loose ends of his involvement in the ongoing war. His involvement was apparently due to his loss of the men during the nuke which went off in the first game and thinks the best way to gain more recruits was via a full-scale war. His ambitions lead him to shoot and burn Ghost and Roach during the mission Loose Ends. This betrayal has Soap, now our player character again, and Price hunt down General Shepherd hiding out in Afghanistan with his new task force and kill him.

As we can see from the outline of the story, this is much more far-fetched than that of the first game, leading it to be more akin to a Hollywood action flick as opposed to a special forces operations game. Many, if not all of the missions, feature a visually impressive set piece action sequence, seemingly to entice younger players and keep them engaged. Examples that immediately spring to mind for me are as follows:

  1. The final moments of the mission Takedown, where our previous protagonist, Soap MacTavish, leaps through a 3 storey window (whilst spouting a witty one liner), colliding with our target, falling from said building and crashing on top of a parked car below where Soap promptly arrests the target.

  2. The subsequent Task Force 141 mission, The Hornets Nest, where we see our protagonists attempt to exfil from the Rio favela with the help of Nikolai, our informant from the first game. The missions finishes with another Hollywood sequence where our character, Roach, has to run solo across the rooftops of the favela, avoiding gunfire from the local militia, and jump essentially off a cliffside balcony onto a rope ladder dangling from Nikolai’s Pave Low.

  3. Another finale sequence, during the mission Contingency, our good pal Captain Price literally launches an inter-continental ballistic missile from a nuclear sub at mainland United States.

  4. The mission Cliffhanger features one of the most egregious Michael Bay style moments for me. At the end of the snowmobile chase sequence (an already cliché inclusion) we undertake a ludicrously long jump across a ravine only for 2 structures on the other side to detonate for no apparent reason other than for the sake of it.

  5. And the last one is just plain daft. When Soap pulls a whole knife from his chest, which Shepherd employed to stab him, and throws it directly into Shepherd’s eye. This whole blade was embedded in Soap’s chest, mind you. And apparently with the loss of blood, wooziness, disorientation after surviving going over a waterfall… Soap managed to cleanly dispatch General Shepherd like it was nothing. Ok…

The combination of the weaker story and ludicrous plot devices caused Modern Warfare 2 to be strikingly weaker in comparison to Modern Warfare. Its almost as if the story writers felt the only way to one-up the first game was to make it more over the top. Or the set pieces were included to entice younger players to play the game and not get bored. Despite the sales figures and critical reception of the first game indicating otherwise. Unfortunately, after the release of Modern Warfare 2, the sales figures were heralded. Thus, we move on to Modern Warfare 3.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

Ah, Modern Warfare 3… my least favourite of the bunch. You tried to recall the grittiness of your ancestor… Whilst clinging on to the over the top Michael Bay-esque themes of your predecessor… and you failed in every regard.

Yes, Modern Warfare 3 kinda sucks, in all honesty. It is, by far, the most forgettable in the series. This entry did nothing new compared to the entries that came before but didn’t refine or recapture the greater aspects of its forerunners either. At least Modern Warfare 2 strived to be a cheesy Hollywood action flick in interactive form as opposed to continuing the thematic elements of Modern Warfare.

To continue into why this is, I must outline where we are story-wise during Modern Warfare 3. There is no time skip this time around, Modern Warfare 3 takes place in the immediate aftermath of Modern Warfare 2. Soap is in critical condition after being stabbed by General Shepherd. Captain Price and Nikolai are transporting him to the place that Nikolai knows. The war between Russia and the US still rages on, however, Russian President Boris Vorshevsky, one of the more moderate Ultranationalists in power, is open to brokering a peace deal with the United States early on in the game after the Russian Armed Forces are driven out of the continental USA. Of course, Makarov cannot allow that, and so arranges for his kidnapping. Over the course of this game, we step into the shoes of Derek ‘Frost’ Westbrook, of the US Army Delta Force, and Yuri, a former Ultranationalist member and close friend of Makarov, before Yuri defected and joined the Loyalists under Nikolai. Yuri is called in to assist Captain Price during Soap’s hospitalisation and joins, the now disavowed, Task Force 141 as a result. Frost’s campaign missions are often centred around high value objectives on the front lines of the war, whereas Soap, Yuri and Price conduct theirs behind the scenes. We do also play as different characters for individual missions, such as Sgt Burns of the SAS in “Mind the Gap” and Special Agent Harkov of the FSO in “Turbulence”.

First, the good stuff about Modern Warfare 3: Yuri is, by a long way, one of the more interesting playable characters of the series. Ironic, considering the rest of the game does not match his character. We find out how close Yuri was to the events of the series later in the game, and the twists were actually shocking to me at the time. We find out that Yuri was with Makarov in the unnamed middle eastern city at the time of the nuke detonation, with Makarov radioing for its detonation. We also find out that Makarov and Yuri were in the car which evacuated Zakhaev after Price and MacMillan’s assassination attempt. Later, we also discover that Yuri was even supposed to be a part of the massacre at the airport. This was actually the trigger for Yuri’s defection. He could not condone the act and alerted the Russian FSB to the attack. This resulted in Makarov’s “execution” of Yuri in the multi-storey car park immediately prior to the massacre. After which, Yuri attempts to pursue Makarov, Viktor, Lev, Kiril and an undercover Joseph Allen as they gun down civilians, just out of sight from the attackers themselves.

“I was a soldier of Russia, not a taker of innocent lives” – Yuri.

Interestingly enough, in the remastered editions of Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2, they accounted for these twists and left easter eggs for them. You can see Yuri and Makarov in one of the UAZ jeeps in “One Shot One Kill”, even granting a trophy called “Time Paradox” if you successfully shoot Makarov and Zakhaev. If you shoot Yuri in the same scenario, the game comes up saying “Friendly fire will not be tolerated!”, quite a nice touch. In the Modern Warfare 2 Campaign Remastered, Yuri was added into “No Russian” and can be seen early on in the mission. Once you hit the checkpoint at the top of the escalator, immediately go back down and you will see Yuri stumbling through the metal detectors before collapsing in the same spot during the flashback in Modern Warfare 3. Just some neat additions to the remastered versions.

So, with such an interesting character boosting the intrigue of the TF 141 missions, how do the Delta Force missions compare with their protagonist? Not well.

The Delta Force missions are centred around one squad of operators consisting of; leader Sandman, Truck, Grinch and, the player character, Frost. Frost is, well, not interesting at all. He has no discernible character traits, nor does he have any back story which fits in with the larger Modern Warfare narrative in the way that Yuri does. It seems to be that the Delta Force operators and their missions are purely to be played for visual spectacle and grandiose set pieces on the front line of the American/European-Russo conflict. The operators take part in missions to retake communication control in a near destroyed New York City, capturing a submarine in the East River and using its missiles against the Russian fleet, rescuing the vice president in Hamburg from the Russians and rescuing the Russian president’s daughter from Makarov’s extremists. The only role that the Delta Force operators play in the wider narrative of Modern Warfare is the sacrifice themselves in one of the penultimate missions to allow Price and Yuri to escape and kill Makarov in the subsequent mission.

The finale is the aforementioned assassination of Makarov. The war is over as the US and European nations broker peace with the Russians. But Price still wants Makarov dead. Yuri and Price roll up to this huge hotel clad with heavy armour and medium machine guns, they storm the hotel and massacre Makarov’s men. The mission ends with Makarov killing Yuri who lays down his life for Price, and Price killing Makarov by hanging him with a metal cord. Price lights a cigar and admires his handiwork as the credits roll. Thus, ends the original Modern Warfare saga.

The Modern Warfare series, from my analysis was a steady decline in narrative quality from start the finish. The series started with the noble aim of bringing gritty modern warfare realism to the first person shooter genre. The quality dipped as the series skewed more to b-movie cheesy Hollywood action with the sequel. With a further decline as the writers attempted to capture the covert operations grittiness of the first and juxtaposed it with the cheesy action set pieces of the sequel by having them carried out by the two different characters and their relevant compatriots, thus leading to a forgetful and very non-striking experience which failed to capture either.

With the release of the rebooted Modern Warfare entry in 2019, with the sequel all but confirmed judging by the ending of the single player campaign, time can only tell how well the new series will fare and if they avoid the pitfalls of its predecessor.




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