Nine years on, and Modern Warfare is still Call of Duty’s finest hour

In Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, developer Infinity Ward envisioned a future embroiled in space combat. At the same time, it seems, the studio was also thinking about the past. After measured leaks and sly social nods, the Legacy, Legacy Pro and Digital Deluxe editions of Infinite Warfare came packaged with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered – a spruced up version of the game that forever changed not just the Call of Duty series, but the FPS genre as a whole.

Modern Warfare's success wasn't just commercial. What's often lost since the series transitioned into a bombastic, crowd pleasing juggernaut is that Infinity Ward created one of the best FPS campaigns ever made. I've long stopped thinking of Call of Duty as anything other than hi-octane popcorn entertainment, but I'd put Modern Warfare up there alongside Half-Life 2 or whatever your favourite Halo game is (the correct answer is Reach, if you were wondering).

In contrast to the series' later reliance on open combat, much of Modern Warfare follows the SAS as they quietly and efficiently work to stop a Russian terrorist in league with Ultranationalists. Despite the modern day setting, the moment-to-moment action rarely relies on technological gimmicks. This is highlighted through the tutorial when you, as new recruit Soap MacTavish, are introduced to your primary tactical aids: bullets that penetrate thin walls and doors, and a flashbang grenade.

The first main level, as the SAS boards a freighter off the Bering Strait, only reinforces this sense of professionalism. You move through the tanker, taking out targets silently as your squad moves along the deck. It's – and here's a word not normally associated with Call of Duty – restrained, letting you revel in the satisfaction of sweeping unseen through a hostile space before triggering the alert and letting loose with a firefight.

As you escape the encounter, Modern Warfare pulls one of its cleverest tricks: switching perspective. Suddenly you're the deposed president of an unnamed Middle-Eastern country, being carried to the site of your execution. It's a hint that the game is prepared to pull the rug from under you, a gimmick used later to chilling effect.

By letting the player jump protagonists, Infinity Ward is also able to change the pace – keeping things fresh by letting each mission offer its own distinct flavour. As you switch into the body of the Marine Corps' Sgt. Paul Jackson, the action becomes louder and more frantic. Jets fly overhead, and gunfire rings across the streets as the army moves to secure the Middle-East setting from the terrorist Al-Asad.

Gone is the quiet subtlety, as the US troops face an enemy more numerous and more aware. These sequences are reminiscent of moments from later Call of Duty games, but here they feel more purposeful in how they relate to the flow of the campaign. Before the constant, drawn out firefights become fatiguing, Infinity Ward literally drops the bomb.

It's important to remember that Modern Warfare is a success across its entire campaign, because it's the few set piece moments that stick in the memory. Most of the levels are great, but a few are exceptional. Take Jackson's death, moments after the nuclear explosion that downs his helicopter. You're forced to crawl slowly out to a scene of absolute devastation, as shrapnel burns and ash falls in front of the looming, inescapable statement of a mushroom cloud. It felt shocking and transgressive at the time – an FPS unafraid to kill off its all-American hero, not in the heat of the explosion, but after a long moment of solitary despair.

And yet, as standout moments go, it's only Modern Warfare's third best. It's surpassed by Death From Above, an earlier mission played as an AC-130 gunship's thermal imaging TV operator. It's an eerie sequence, as you hover over the battlefield, picking out targets via their bright white thermal signature. The low-res imaging mirrors real life scenes of such footage, giving the whole experience an uncomfortable edge.

On a systemic level you're clicking on targets and watching them die, much like in the rest of the game. But here there's no peril nor tactical decision making, and so everything feels detached. "This is gonna be one helluva highlight reel," quips your fire control officer, as if he were watching a sports game. Call of Duty has tried to shock many times since – most infamously in Modern Warfare 2's No Russian level. But Death From Above is effective precisely because it's so chillingly mundane.

The game's best moment is neither shocking nor subversive. Instead, it's one of the best linear FPS sequences I've encountered in a game. All Ghillied Up rewinds the clock 15 years, showing Captain Price's first encounter with main antagonist Imran Zakhaev. Price and his then captain, MacMillan, must traverse Pripyat while avoiding Zakhaev's troops. It's a brilliantly tense setup, using the alien desolation of the setting as an ominous backdrop for the task at hand.

It's packed with great moments, whether it's coordinating with MacMillan over targets, or laying still in the grass as tanks roll past just inches away. It barely matters that the final third of the game descends into B-movie, as the SAS and USMC race to disable nukes on course for America's east coast. As the credits roll, Modern Warfare has established itself as one of the great FPS campaigns.

To that great package, Infinity Ward added a trailblazing multiplayer mode. The remastered edition will feature a streamlined, 10-map variant, possibly to avoid competition with Infinite War's own online offering. Modern Warfare's multiplayer would make a nice companion piece – less audacious in its killstreak bonuses and perks, but with all the flair to explain Call of Duty's mainstream dominance across nearly a decade.

However extensive the remaster, it'll be great to see Modern Warfare given new life. Whether you love or hate what Call of Duty has become, the series' post-World War II direction got off to an auspicious start. It's heartwarming to think of a new generation of gamers able to experience the series at its best.

Phil Savage

Phil is the UK Editor of our sister site, PC Gamer. He's been writing for them for over a decade, initially starting out as a freelance writer specialising in MMOs. Now he leads PC Gamer's UK team, but still sometimes finds the time to write about his ongoing obsessions with Destiny 2, GTA Online, and Apex Legends. When he's not levelling up battle passes, he's checking out the latest tactics game or dipping back into Guild Wars 2.