Death of the Critic

Going Back To Call of Duty

Written by: Tom Blaich


It has been interesting to see where
Call of Duty has ended up. I came to the franchise back in 2005 with Call of Duty 2: The Big Red One and got hooked when I first picked up the original Modern Warfare. Call of Duty 4 changed the face of the modern shooter, and when it was announced that it was being re-released with this years integration of the franchise, it felt like it was time to go back and see where modern Call of Duty games began, and where they began to go off the rails. I have not been drawn into the last few titles and a part of me missed the simplicity of the older titles. While they kept the fast-paced, frenetic action, they shortened the feedback loop and added in so many different systems that started to overwhelm me. There was always something going on: a different medal, award, or unlock. It got to the point where there was always something flashing across my screen, and it started to lose its attraction.

So I went back to
Modern Warfare, Modern Warfare 2, and Black Ops. Even now, each has a fairly lively and dedicated community of people playing on the PC. It was interesting to jump back into these older titles that I had poured countless hours into over the years. 4 was a much slower game than I remembered. Outside of maps like Shipment, the time to engagement seems lower, and the time to kill seems faster. There are fewer weapons, and progression is slower and shorter. Fewer things to unlock, lower kill streaks, and more limited class options. It was a simpler version of the Call of Duty we are all familiar with. Distilled down into the essence of what makes the game fun.

The campaign was excellent, as it was the last half dozen times I played. Still easily the best story of the
Call of Duty franchise, and stands out amongst modern shooters. There is tension, action, set pieces, and genuine emotional moments. The nuclear explosion still carries an impact as your character staggers around in the aftermath. It is a moment that every game afterwards has tried to hit, but none have done as well. It hits great action notes without going too far into the realm of ridiculous action fantasy. The ending is satisfying, tying up what seem to be all of the loose ends, while still leaving a thread open for a sequel.

Modern Warfare 2 is where the series really blossomed into what it is today, when Call of Duty found the shark for it to jump. More guns, more explosions, more kill steaks. It’s unbridled insanity on the grand scale, but it still really manages to grab onto you. Possibly my favorite of the modern Call of Duty multiplayers. They introduced cool new attachments, perks, and ideas, while still holding enough back that their insanity could continue to spiral out of control with Modern Warfare 3. The feedback loop felt perfected, where they always had something on the horizon for you to aim for, without overwhelming you.

The campaign went for more of an action movie vibe than political thriller. More emphasis on big, bombastic set pieces and globetrotting, character hopping action. Once human protagonists have become superhuman, but they still manage to have effective story beats, with the betrayal of Shepard genuinely surprising me the first time I played, and his eventual knife-related comeuppance feeling excellently satisfying. The story itself does not make much sense, instead serving as a conduit for ridiculous set pieces. Battling Russian soldiers not he front lawn of the White House is certainly memorable, and latter games have been chasing that image ever since.

Black Ops tried to rein back the game a bit, sensing that it was quickly getting out of control. They aimed to deliver a slightly more grounded, and realistic game. More political intrigue, fewer White House assaults. They tried to work their obligatory twist in, and for once it was something different than a player character dying. The multiplayer seemed to be a bit slower and the kill streaks were not as intense. Fewer aerial gunships blasting people into oblivion, and more focus on individual gunplay. They set the stage for the modern system of unlocks with their currency system allowing you to configure your character more freely, but it lost something by removing many of the unlocks from the equation.

Modern Warfare 3, the games started to go out of control. Ballooning single player campaigns that had stories that seemed like little more than excuses to jump all over the world and introduce different maps for the multiplayer. Obligatory “zombies”-like modes. Multiplayer insanity. The strategy seemed to go out of the window in favor of packing as much into a game as possible, building the experience around selling a season's worth of maps. Quantity of content quickly overtook quality, and the games quickly lost touch with reality and went further and further into the future to find the next “unique” experience. They wanted new guns, new attachments, and new kill streaks. Black Ops 3 is scarcely recognizable next to the original Modern Warfare. That tiny bit of restraint was lost, and now, every time you killed someone, five medals would pop up on screen. They were constantly rewarding you to keep you from leaving.

By going back, you can see how far we have come. Maps were simpler, without having to worry about someone jet packing over your head. If you played the game intelligently, you could do well. If you died, you felt it was your fault. By dialing the action back, they lowered the random quality of gameplay. The skill gap widened. The campaigns felt more restrained and realistic instead of whatever it is now. Maybe
Modern Warfare Remastered will lead the developers in a different direction. They have backed themselves into a corner where they have nowhere to go but down. By showing them that what players what is a smaller, more restrained experience, the future of Call of Duty might change.



Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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