There was a time, nine years ago at this point, when Call of Duty: Modern Warfare did in fact represent modernity. It was the first and most successful attempt to translate the very real, raging war America was fighting in the Middle East into a video-game narrative, despite the fact that the game goes out of its way to avoid being an actual commentary on current events. Fast forward to 2016, though, and we find a game whose best ideas have been cribbed, improved upon, and just flat-out copied by other games, including and especially other Call of Duty titles. This should have theoretically rendered Modern Warfare toothless. Instead, what we find in Modern Warfare Remastered is a game that has to work overtime to not come off as a ghost of 2007’s Christmas past, and manages to succeed more often than not.
It’s a rather understated success, however, borne of instincts that somehow didn’t take hold of the gaming conscience the way Prestiges and Perks in the game’s ridiculously popular multiplayer did. Modern Warfare‘s success lies in the war itself, when it gets to the dirty business of placing you in the midst of complete chaos, where the bullet that kills you is typically invisible, where there’s nothing pleasant or cathartic about the use of heavy weaponry, and where the player is rarely, if ever, a hero. Much of that success is made possible in the game’s first half, which is kicked off by a chillingly bravura sequence that sees a Middle Eastern leader, held captive by a power-hungry despot named Khaled Al-Asad, being loaded into a car bound and gagged, driven through the streets, forced to watch his people lined up against walls and executed, before finally facing the despot’s bullet in first person, and caught on camera as the money shot to a terrorist recruitment video.
It’s from there that the narrative splits, between John “Soap” MacTavish, a British Special Air Service (SAS) operative doing the covert intel wet work that feeds the operation to kill Al-Asad, and Paul Jackson, a boots-on-the-ground American marine following his crew into the heart of the Middle Eastern war machine to take out Al-Asad altogether. The British side is where most of the actual character of the game is found, with the relative quiet of having to stealth around, run down prey, and slit throats in the dark forcing Soap to become familiar with his vicious yet honorable cronies. Meanwhile, the American side is a never-ending series of wide-open war zones, flooded with cross-firing bullets, bombs, and zealots ready to die for their cause.
The American side of the story imbues the player with something that doesn’t come easily to first-person military shooters: a sense of fear. Every single action you take as you fight your way down ruined Middle Eastern streets is made with heart-pounding trepidation. Heroism ends lives, and to even peek out from behind cover is to risk a swift, unmerciful death. War is always hell whenever games decide to portray it, but even on normal difficulty Modern Warfare requires precision and caution with every bullet you fire. It forces the player to pick up new twitch reflexes and paranoias that, surprisingly, never really go away, even after years away from the last playthrough.
Throughout, it’s impossible to not think of the real men and women who actually put themselves in this situation, and don’t have the luxury of being able to hide behind cover to heal up when injured. Combined with this remastered edition’s fresh and spectacular coat of graphical paint, the game has never seemed more hellish. Modern Warfare, at its most well-executed, is a grueling slice of a very real nightmare, the cherry on top being the game’s most effective, horrifying sequence, of a soldier being caught in a nuclear blast and the player having to guide him through his final moments of life as he crawls feebly across the ground, inhaling the scorching, irradiated air.
In its second half, though, the game starts to slip off the rails, becoming more self-serious as the SAS, in the wake of the nuclear blast, tries to get payback for their fallen brethren. There’s still some greatness in this stretch, especially a flashback to the SAS commander running a sniper mission in Chernobyl, but it’s a predictable ride from there on. The ultimate shame of this edition is that the elements keeping it relevant in the current gaming landscape are the things that made it more than just an overblown interactive action movie, but with only a scant few exceptions (Spec Ops: The Line, Battlefield 4, some scattered moments in the last two Halo titles), the wrong lessons have been taken from its success. Modern Warfare does struggle with relevance, but it still has plenty more to teach the new school of shooters.