The Modern Warfare Trilogy Revisited

The Modern Warfare trilogy still demonstrates all the highs and lows of the CoD formula, with only minor or iterative changes in the subsequent games. I can’t wait for them to remaster the final game in the trilogy so I can play through it yet again.

Still the Best and Worst of Call of Duty

Call of Duty (henceforth CoD) had, up until Infinity Ward dragged the series from World War II into a modern “War on Terror” setting, played second fiddle to EA’s Medal of Honor series (henceforth MoH). I cannot really say why, other than the fact that EAs series got a head start on PC and 2-year lead on consoles, showcased a brutal recreation of the storming of the Normandy Beaches, and had, if I recall correctly, worked with Hollywood-great Stephen Spielberg during the production of his Band of Brothers series. It was Infinity Ward’s imaginative take on a modern conflict that truly set the stage for CoDs domination of the first-person shooter genre, and especially multiplayer lobbies, for almost 15 years.

So, after all these years, does the single-player component of the Modern Warfare trilogy – the first two of which have since been remastered – still hold up? I played the games on PC, my preferred platform, while Andrew decided to test Microsoft’s backwards-compatibility on the Xbox Series S so that we could compare notes.

Captain Price may have appeared in the earlier Call of Duty games, but it was the events of Modern Warfare that cemented his legendary status. 

Lynley: Let us start with which versions we played. I own the remasters of CoD Modern Warfare 1 & 2, which come with updated visuals and some significant quality-of-life enhancements, most notably the tweaks to the truly terrible and annoying infinite enemy spawn problem in the campaigns. Now I understand that the reason for this system originally was to encourage the player to keep moving, as the game would know to stop spawning enemies from certain points as you moved further into each map. This prevented players from camping in one spot, waiting for the generous health regeneration to kick in as they whittled down approaching enemies.

Graphically, the game looks much sharper, but some models are quite obviously up-rezzed originals and, in most cases, the AI is still staggeringly dumb. This sensation was reinforced when I played Modern Warfare 3 – which has yet to be remastered – and found the AI simply relies on overwhelming you with numbers, grenades, and punishing any gung-ho attitude with a hail of bullets. There is no indication of them using any sort of tactical knowledge to flank and outsmart the player.

Despite Modern Warfare 2’s build up to the Ultranationalist invasion of the US and their subsequent failure to identify a massive invading force feeling contrived, battling on US soil was a novel experience.

Andrew: Despite a 2x upscale and rock-solid 60fps performance on the Xbox Series S, Lynley is perhaps being unkind to the remastering effort when I compared my footage! The classic Xbox 360 version of 2007’s Modern Warfare looks dated, but I’m still impressed at how good it looked given a) the hardware it was originally running on, and b) the fact it managed to maintain 60fps gameplay (or something close to it). It remains an incredibly responsive shooter and still looks fluid in action. The sequels built upon this foundation, with the later games looking considerably more detailed and atmospheric.

Sure, that performance comes at the cost of an incredibly static world, with plentiful low-res textures, baked-in lighting, and very few destructible props. Nothing truly impressive happens unless the developers have designed it that way. However, those scripted sequences were incredible, and the spectacle was – and remains – something that the Modern Warfare trilogy excels at. MoH: Allied Assault and MoH: Frontline (both 2002) had you storm the beaches of Normandy (straight out of Saving Private Ryan), and the first Call of Duty (2003) has you cross the Volga river during the Battle of Stalingrad (straight out of Enemy at the Gates), but by moving to a purely fictional conflict, Infinity War could go overboard.

From the opening raid on a shipping vessel in stormy seas, to the infamous nuclear blast, the equally infamous AC-130 section, and the missions spent stealthing through the irradiated ruins of Pripyat, Modern Warfare wisely chose to jump between characters to give players an incredible amount of variety. Modern Warfare 2 had the frenetic rescue of Captain Price from a Russian gulag, but is perhaps most memorable for its all-out battles against the Russians in American suburbia and on the street around the White House. Modern Warfare 3 felt like the payoff, with combat through the streets of New York, the full-on invasion of Germany across the Rhine, and several covert missions in occupied European cities. It’s all bonkers, but it plays great, looks good, sounds incredible, and remains a guilty pleasure.

You could argue the “All Ghillied Up” mission was the instigator of scripted, follow-my-lead style missions in the FPS genre, but it still remains as tense and atmospheric as hell all these years later.

Lynley: Overall, I think there is still much that has not aged at all about this series. The gunplay remains some of the best in FPS games to date. You would think, for a game series developed and released through the 2000s, that it would be surpassed by later entries in the series and other games. As much as I love old-school FPS’, the recent release of Serious Sam 4 demonstrated that many mechanics and game design choices are far from timeless. In the Modern Warfare trilogy, each gun feels distinct and has different characteristics – like fire rate, spread, and recoil – but are never impossible to pick up and get used to within minutes. Mastering the weapons in multiplayer is a different story, but any campaign player should get competent quickly and discover their favourites.

What these games brought to the fore, some would say eventually to the detriment of the series, is the spectacle. The set-pieces in these games are – to drag out a tired cliché – inspired by the bombast, and nonsense, of a Michael Bay film. My third time playing through Pripyat was just as exciting and nerve-wracking as the first. The atmosphere created in that lonely, deserted town is something only really matched by the Metro games, while that frantic rush to the exfil point at the Ferris wheel is still heart-pounding stuff. Modern Warfare 2 has several similarly intense set-pieces. The early infiltration of a Russian airbase during a snowstorm, stealthing your way through with just the heart rate monitor to tell you where the enemies are, is fraught with tension. The rescue mission in the Russian gulag still reminds me of a scene from the film Spy Game. Sadly, Modern Warfare 3 tries too hard at times to recreate these moments, and a journey through Warsaw to a sniper’s nest is nowhere near as tense or exciting as Pripyat. By this point, the gameplay often felt rote as it was simply too scripted.

What the Modern Warfare campaigns all get right is the power fantasy. Whether playing as a special forces operator or a simple grunt in the US Marine Corps, you will feel like a character in a Michael Bay film. Your skills are godlike and the toys you get to play with equally so. The standout must be when you are dropped into the weapons officer’s seat in the AC-130 Spectre in Modern Warfare 1. Firing off those heavy cannons at distant enemies is exhilarating, even while you feel somewhat detached as they are little more than tiny specs on a screen – a video game within a video game if you will.

The Ultranationalist atrocities continued in Modern Warfare 3, this time with a biological weapon attack on London after a failed SAS raid. By that point, all I could do was roll my eyes and skip ahead to the next mission.

Andrew: Like Lynley, I agree many elements of the Modern Warfare game remain timeless, although maybe that’s a criticism of the future games in the series and other imitators. Part of it could simply be down to the fact the gameplay is simple and polished to an absurd degree – spot enemy, pull left trigger, pull right trigger, repeat for 5-8 hours. With every aspect of the game, from the irritating infinite enemy spawns to bombastic set pieces, all pushing you forward, Modern Warfare (and the CoDs before it), are glorified shooting galleries. Sure, there’s an element of tactics in your weapon choice and positioning, but a bullet is a bullet, and your ultimate goal is to put bullets into enemies popping up all over the level before they get close enough to do the same to you.

I’ve already discussed the presentation, but it’s worth reiterating as CoD games would be mechanically satisfying but unmemorable if not for the lavish presentation. The visuals are dated now, sure, but they still capture the scope and chaos of modern battlefields. The audio, especially the distinctive weapon sounds when you fire or reload, are almost as important as seeing the gun in action. The music – and there have been some incredible composers associated with CoD games – generates atmosphere and excitement that perfectly complement each new scenario.

Unfortunately, some elements don’t hold up so well. One, as Lynley has already mentioned, is the overreliance on scripted sequences as the trilogy progressed. Modern Warfare had several stealth sequences, but you could still survive most of them if you broke cover and were skilful enough with a gun. During the stealth sections in Modern Warfare 3, you might as well be on-rails as any deviation from the script means instant death. The other failing – and an issue that hasn’t been remedied in the FPS genre – is the appalling teammate AI. To ensure you are the centre of the experience, you have to do all the legwork, and CoD AI companions are useless when not in scripted sequences. Dozens of constantly-spawning friendly and enemy AI clashing against each other felt uncomfortably appropriate in the WWII setting, but simply outdated by the time the first Modern Warfare released. Later CoD games, which focussed on a small squad with plot armour, would prove a more logical approach.

If you’ve never played the Modern Warfare trilogy before, you can always entertain yourself during lengthy mission briefings by betting on which protagonist is going to die next. 

Lynley: As with most things, a bit of distance allows us to recognise the shortcomings, and the Modern Warfare trilogy certainly has some issues. Starting with the least, and simultaneously the most controversial aspect first – the story. The writers fell into the lazy tropes of 90s action films, with generic Middle Eastern and Russian bad guys. Pulling from the headlines of the time, Modern Warfare 1 takes us to some generic desert nation in the grips of a civil war, led by a madman. As a US Marine, you get to mow down hordes of nameless and faceless Arabic people, all presumably in the service of democracy, sticking to “making the world safe” tropes.

Of course, these people are being manipulated and assisted by Russian Ultranationalists, whose true motives remain somewhat opaque throughout the trilogy. Honestly, beyond them wanting to gain power and being stereotypically evil, their motives are not well established or articulated. Handing off nukes to would-be dictators and madmen, launching not one but two nuclear attacks on the US, and even invading the US (there is even a mission called “Wolverines!” in Modern Warfare 2 after the battle cry in the 80s film Red Dawn) without much of a response beyond some special forces’ secret missions and defence manoeuvres. We know, of course, that if you launch a nuke against the US, they are likely to launch one back, “mutually assured destruction” and all that insanity.

Other than the iffy politics and tired stereotypes in the writing, the story itself is as nonsensical as anything Michael Bay has ever directed. Antagonist reasoning is undeveloped: what did Shepherd hope to accomplish in Modern Warfare 2 and how did the Russian madman in Modern Warfare 3 hope to maintain control and not expect a US counter-invasion? Despite two nuclear attacks on the US, Europe was not even on high alert and unable to respond to Russians marching in from the East before they pushed as far as Germany. The plot is filled with so many conveniences and contrivances to make suspension of disbelief almost impossible. Luckily, the action moves at such a breakneck speed that you do not have time to dwell on it. However, if you do spend any amount of time thinking about it, the jingoism is somewhat unsettling – the ‘Merica First type of plot is losing favour.

The level design is also dated, in that it consists of interconnected arenas that you can easily see coming, given they’re full of conveniently placed cover and lanes for yourself and enemies to fight through. While the design may not be as open as it could be, the incidental details are spot on. From propaganda posters and bullet holes, to blind spots and closed doors concealing enemies ready to burst out. Being observant and realising that there is more than one route to victory – other than the obvious path – adds a degree of replay value. It also allows for a degree of tactical planning for those paying attention to their loadout and the environment.

Despite these criticisms, I still found myself getting into the groove and enjoying myself. Making silly mistakes, rushing into enemies instead of being methodical, hunkered down listening to the constant whizz of bullets flying past my head, with enemies aggressively pursuing me. It’s still entertaining and a massive adrenaline rush, making the Modern Warfare trilogy as exciting to play today as it was over a decade ago.

Modern Warfare 3, despite its reliance on scripted sequences, still has one hell of an opening. Within an hour, you’ll have fought to the top of the NYSE building, engaged in an aerial battle against Russian helicopters, sabotaged an enemy submarine using submersible vehicles, raided that submarine, and turned its missiles on the enemy fleet. 

Andrew:

The Modern Warfare trilogy makes the same narrative mistakes as many military shooters –tales about bombastic action and endless feats of heroism (or mass murder depending on which side you’re on) interspersed with scenes that want to be grounded and generate an emotional response other than euphoria. The best stories are often the simplest, with a singular climax or twist to generate an emotional response. Modern Warfare starts this way and, if I had to pick, the first game is the most cohesive and grounded of the three.

Unfortunately, starting with the rushed introduction sequence that leads into the infamous “No Russian” setup, Modern Warfare 2 goes off the rails. Suddenly we have multiple villains, predictable betrayals, Russian nationalists invading the US and Europe, and a string of dying protagonists (a twist that lost its impact after the first game). There’s simply too much happening, not enough time devoted to developing each character (hero or villain), and far, far too many deus ex machina moments. It’s at this point, however, that I’m reminded of how little of this comes to mind while playing through the Modern Warfare trilogy.

Despite all of the themes and tropes in the Modern Warfare trilogy that you could analyse and criticise – the boring hyper-masculine heroes, the equally boring and nonsensical villains – it still succeeds when it comes to providing pure entertainment. God knows I wish people would stop throwing $60 at the annualised franchise and play any number of more complex and thoughtful games – including those within the FPS genre itself – but I can’t deny the allure of their impeccably polished gameplay loop paired with quality presentation. The Modern Warfare trilogy still demonstrates all the highs and lows of the CoD formula, with only minor or iterative changes in the subsequent games. I can’t wait for them to remaster the final game in the trilogy so I can play through it yet again.

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