Modern Warfare: A brief history
7th Nov 2011 | 15:51
It seems unlikely now, but for years, the Call of Duty games were mere solid performers, beloved by fans of first-person shooters but nowhere near the general public's pop-culture radar.
But 2007's Modern Warfare propelled the franchise into the stratosphere in sales terms, producing revenues so titanic that the launch of every subsequent CoD game has been a bona fide pop-culture zeitgeist moment. So, how did Modern Warfare get so big?
The first stirrings
To get to the roots of the Modern Warfare games, you have to go back to a surprising place: 2002's Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, published by Activision's deadly rival Electronic Arts. After that much-loved WWII fps came out, developer 2015 had an almighty falling out with EA, and 22 key members of the team left to form a new developer called Infinity Ward.
Activision schmoozed the three co-founders - Vince Zampella, Jason West and Grant Collier - and bought 30 per cent of the fledgling company. Thus Call of Duty was born: the first thusly named game arriving for the PC in 2003. Call of Duty 2 - like its predecessor set in WWII - came along in 2005, with Infinity Ward justly proud that it was one of the few games ready for the launch of Microsoft's Xbox 360 console.
World War II is over
Feeling that, over the years, they had done World War II to death, the Infinity Ward crew, with Activision's solid backing, took what now looks like a genius decision: to set its next first-person shooter in an up-to-date setting. It would be called Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.
Activision, meanwhile, swiftly realised that it had a major franchise on its hands, and commissioned another developer Treyarch, to make a third Call of Duty game, which would go on sale in 2006, while Infinity Ward took two years to perfect Modern Warfare.
So, in November 2007, the Modern Warfare sub-franchise was unleashed on an unsuspecting world, and it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to assert that it changed the videogames industry forever, permanently erasing the previously widespread view that games were a mere adjunct to pop-culture, rather than one of its central pillars.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was a mega-hit - during its first 18 months in the shops, it notched 13 million sales. Just as lavish was the critical acclaim it received.
Modern Warfare's single-player was the point of entry for most people who bought it, and it became instantly apparent that it considerably raised the bar compared to previous fps games - while not the longest, it was chock-full of spectacular set-pieces and Hollywood-style cliffhangers.
The game's plot centred on Russian ultra-nationalist leader Imran Zakhaev, who had funded a military coup in an (unnamed) Middle eastern country to take the heat off his activities closer to home. This device allowed gamers to play as six different military characters, including the enduring Soap MacTavish of the SAS and the US Marine Sergeant Paul Jackson.
The action concentrated mainly on Russia and the Middle East, and was impressively varied for a first-person shooter - for example, at one point, you took on the role of a thermal-imaging operative on an AC-130 gunship above a battle-zone.
But Modern Warfare's biggest legacy, undoubtedly, lay in its multiplayer component. It's team-based and deathmatch modes really hit a chord, and its use of XP to rank you up according to your actions led to a massive constituency of gamers becoming completely hooked.
It also introduced the concept of Killstreaks, which meant that if you took out a string of enemies without being killed yourself, you could earn goodies like air-strikes.
Modern warfare came out at just the right time, since Microsoft's Xbox Live online service had just reached maturity, and finally, broadband was pretty much available to all UK consumers. Modern Warfare swiftly became responsible for more multiplayer action than any console game before it, and single-handedly created a whole generation of online console gamers.
Modern Warfare 2
Two years later, Modern Warfare 2 arrived, this time with a fanfare as noisy as any ever made by Hollywood. Which was entirely justified, as it set a new opening worldwide sales record by generating a staggering $550 million during its first five days in the shops.
It sold 4.7 million copies on its opening day, and generated more than twice as much money then as the then-biggest film, The Dark Knight, generated in its first three days on release. In your face, Hollywood.
Modern Warfare 2 stuck to the blueprint established by Modern Warfare - and why not, since that game went down so well? Its relatively short single-player component took up the story shortly after where Modern Warfare left off, with the now-dead (you killed him at the end of Modern Warfare) Zakhaev proclaimed a martyr, and his Ultranationalists seizing control of Russia.
This time around, you mainly played as Sergeant Garry "Roach" Sanderson, a member of an elite counter-terrorism unit called Task Force 141. Soap MacTavish and Captain John Price from Modern Warfare also featured, and the action took in locations including Afghanistan, Russia, Washington DC and a Rio de Janeiro barrio.
Modern Warfare 2 built significantly on its predecessor's multiplayer strengths, pushing the Killstreak system much more to the fore and giving players much more Killstreak rewards than before, with the ultimate prize (for a 25-kill streak) being the game-winning tactical nuke.
New multiplayer modes kept things fresh, and the fact that Modern Warfare 2, two years after release, still remains one of the most popular games online speaks volumes. And a new co-operative mode, SpecOps, was introduced, again to acclaim.
A bitter aftertaste
Despite the phenomenal success if Modern Warfare 2, it emerged that all wasn't rosy in the world of developer Infinity Ward. Founders Vince Zampella and Jason West had a massive falling out with Activision (which, by then, owned the developer) in March 2010, and flounced out amid a welter of litigation from both sides (which is still ongoing) to set up a new developer called Respawn, which promptly signed a publishing agreement with Electronic Arts.
This left Infinity Ward in some disarray, with many staff leaving along with Zampella and West, and gamers questioning whether Modern Warfare 3 would live up to Infinity Ward's high standards.
But naturally, the company regrouped, and teamed up with another developer called Sledgehammer to make Modern Warfare 3. Meanwhile, alternative developer Treyarch upped its game considerably for 2010's Call of Duty: Black Ops.
Now, with Modern Warfare 3 upon us, the Call of Duty juggernaut continues to roll on, breaking box-office sales with almost monotonous regularity, while dominating Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. The Modern Warfare franchise begun by making history, and despite apparent recent setbacks, it continues to do so, keeping games at the focal point of pop culture in the process.