How Modern Warfare's brilliant levels, characters and story redefined shooters forever

Infinite Warfare arrives today and brings with it the HD-ified return of one of the most revolutionary titles in the series’ history. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a shooter that simply changed the genre forever. Just as Resident Evil 4 defined third-person shooters, this did the same for first-person ones.

For a series, and genre, generally defined by noise, shouting and running towards explosions, Modern Warfare manages to add surprising nuance and subtlety to its campaign, spinning a contemporary military tale from unusual parts and interesting characters. Best of all, it blends this with more predictable ingredients so that many players don’t even realise they’re playing something so potently revolutionary.

For every heart-pumping sprint through the Iraq War-inspired streets, there are 15 minutes spent creeping through a field with a grumpy northerner making it very clear he isn’t impressed. You might be firing grenades from a helicopter one minute, then sitting quietly in a car being driven towards your execution the next. But it all works so well that you never really question it. You feel like a real soldier because the characters feel like real people. The story and situations feel real, and the action ramps up and falls away in a way that always feels organic.

Everything Modern Warfare does so well can be glimpsed in the tutorial and opening mission. “What the hell kind of name is Soap?” grumbles the iconic Captain Price when he meets your character for the first time. It’s not that he’s mean or angry; he just doesn’t care that much either way, until you earn his respect. It’s an unusual emotion for a game like this. Heroes are heroic, the villains villainous, but indifference? That is unexpected. 

Even the level’s name, ‘F.N.G.’ (short for ‘Fucking New Guy’) isn’t exactly welcoming. However, whether it was intentional or not from developer Infinity Ward, it’s a beautiful bit of psychology - it makes you genuinely want to impress Price and his team. How? Via a test-cum-tutorial that’s just as beautifully crafted - a run through a plywood recreation of a boat, filled with pop-out targets, in training for what’s to come.

It’s the actual boat mission where Modern Warfare really shows its colours. Your SAS team drops from helicopters on to the deck of a tanker in a nighttime storm and shoots the bridge crew with zero warning. Then you murder sleeping men in their beds. At the time, and even now, it’s a tonal gear crunch. You’re meant to be the good guys, remember? Somehow, executing unconscious men with cold, well-practised efficiency feels... not right. Okay, the ship turns out to be full of terrorists and you’re on the hunt for stolen plutonium, so they’re probably bad, but still. This callously pragmatic opener ends with a massively exciting, foot-pounding race to flee the ship as it floods and tilts at awkward angles before finally sinking in a raging storm.

It’s the excitement, ambiguity and questionable choices that CoD nails so well. Most war games, even earlier World War 2 Call of Duties, maintained a slight matinee feel as chiselled heroes fought the obviously evil Hun. Here you have a level called ‘Death From Above’, one of Modern Warfare’s many standout sections, that really emphasises the remote and disconnected ethics of combat.It changes perspective to have you providing fire support from an AC-130 flying over Captain Price and his team, raining down hell on enemies from the plane’s cannons and howitzers.

This level resonates for many reasons. Firstly it’s an eerie recreation of familiar real-life news footage, with the game’s grainy night-vision view rendered in almost identical quality. Secondly, the indifferent wisecracking dialogue of the plane’s gunman was another touch of unusually honest realism. “Niiice,” says one when you land a 105mm howitzer shell on a group of enemies, the explosion pinwheeling their bodies through the air. “Good kill,” intones another flatly when the tearing buzzsaw whine of the mini guns shred another group.

Then there’s ‘All Ghillied Up’, the game’s iconic sniper mission: a flashback to a younger Captain Price infiltrating Chernobyl on ‘the first government sanctioned assassination since World War II’. It’s a masterpiece of tension and pacing, which begins with you crawling through the tall grass - rendered all but invisible thanks to the camouflaged ghillie suits. It builds from a stealthy procession of one-two sniping headshots and creeping, focusing on caution and staying low, right up to a final standoff by Chernobyl’s iconic Ferris wheel. Its dramatic flow and pacing, in such a recognisable location, make a level that’s better than some entire games.

The ‘mission’ ends with you being pulled from the car, tied to a post and then shot in the face by the game’s big bad, Zakhaev - those last few seconds staring into the barrel of his desert eagle creating an amazing ‘wait, what?’ moment as you realise what’s about to happen. It could have been easier to have a stern military type tell you what was going on inside a briefing room while Al-Asad’s face flashed up on a screen, but isn’t this so much cooler? Doesn’t this make it so much clearer what’s at stake and that real people are involved, not just mission objectives?

However, it’s the levels ‘Shock and Awe’ and ‘Aftermath’ that perfectly blend Modern Warfare’s storytelling and action chops. They follow Sergeant Jackson, a US Marine who’s on the hunt for Al-Asad. The levels mix elements of films such as Apocalypse Now and Black Hawk Down to create the archetypal Gulf War shooter level, opening with a helicopter attack on a Middle-Eastern city that switches to a ground assault as marines pound dusty roads and slam into walls for cover. You’re playing that bit in that film you’re thinking of right now.

It’s the ‘Aftermath’ section where Modern Warfare really tries something different, though. Having discovered a nuclear threat, Jackson’s team breaks off their evacuation to rescue a downed pilot. As their helicopter climbs to escape,there’s a huge flash and a mushroom cloud suddenly blooms on the horizon...

What happens next is one of the game’s most defining moments. As you crawl from the wreckage of the helicopter, the sky looks like it’s on fire and debris floats by as the air burns around you. And you crawl on. Past a children’s playground where, for a second, the ghostly sound of playing floats by. And you crawl on. Everything gaming has taught you up to this point tells you a jeep will screech to a halt in front of you, or you’ll hear a helicopter buzz overhead. Rescue is coming - shooters don’t kill their heroes. So you crawl on. Right up to the point the screen fades to black and Jackson’s status updates with the message: MIA.

In a world where games now routinely kill characters left, right and centre, and play with our emotions like a game of whack-a-mole, it’s difficult to emphasis how important this moment was. First-person shooters used to be like Arnie in Commando: all explosions and dumb action. This was more like Arnie in Judgement Day: raising a thumb as he’s lowered into molten metal. That trend to play with your feelings and brazenly defy expectations, currently overused to the point of barely registering, started with stuff like this.Fallen heroes

The game saves its biggest sucker punch for the end. Having averted a nuclear attack on America, you (as Soap), Captain Price and his team chase down Zakhaev. It doesn’t go well. After an incredible truck chase and battle against a helicopter, everyone fights a hopeless last stand on a bridge against impossible numbers. There’s an explosion and the last thing you see is everyone either dead or injured, with Zakhaev and his men walking past, executing survivors one by one. Men like Gaz, who have fought by your side since the tutorial, are simply gunned down without comment. Then Price,clearly badly injured,slides a gun across the road to you. You line up the shot on Zakhaev and pull the trigger...

Game Over’s a good name for this final level. Was that a win? Sure you saved the world and killed the bad guy but at what cost? It’s as satisfying as it is conflicting. By the end of the story, you like these people and you’ve earned their respect. It makes this ending feel wrong somehow, unjust and, as a result, pulling that final trigger is one of Xbox’s greatest moments. Take that.

Few shooters or action games managed to tell a story with that much skill when Modern Warfare came out. People genuinely cared about Price and Soap and wanted to know their fate. It’s a shame that difficulties between Infinity Ward and Activision saw directors Vince Zampella and Jason West ignominiously removed from the studio,leaving the series to muscle through two more instalments that, while strong games, never matched the blend of character and action of its predecessor. It’s worth noting that the upcoming Titanfall 2 will be the first time Zampella has helmed a single-player campaign since Modern Warfare.

And, finally, it’s impossible to talk about Modern Warfare’s place in gaming history without talking about the multiplayer. If you think it’s odd to only mention this now, and so briefly, it’s because in away you never really stopped playing it.This created the system of kill streaks and loadouts that have basically been reiterated and tweaked ever since. Underneath all the boost-jumps and sci-fi guns of recent games, Infinity Ward’s tight, rapid framework is still unmistakable. Like the single player, it set a template that other games would still do well to copy. If you’ve ever wondered how CoD got so big, it started here.

This feature appears in this months Official Xbox Magazine, buy a copy or subscribe here

Leon Hurley
Managing editor for guides

I'm GamesRadar's Managing Editor for guides, which means I run GamesRadar's guides and tips content. I also write reviews, previews and features, largely about horror, action adventure, FPS and open world games. I previously worked on Kotaku, and the Official PlayStation Magazine and website.