The Evolution of ‘Call of Duty’

The Modern Warfare trilogy delighted in destroying monuments, both the literal and figurative kind: The White House, the American suburbs, the New York coastline, the Eiffel Tower, the streets of Paris, and so on. It has been outlandish and bombastic, but in retrospect and after playing Call of Duty: Ghosts, all that iconic destruction feels weirdly restrained. It’s a bunch of bluster being corralled by the invisible walls of “realism,” and it all feels like a desperate attempt by the developer to break out of an old mold that it had set for itself. By that, I don’t meant that Infinity Ward didn’t want to make a shooter — they most certainly did — but they wanted to make a different kind of shooter than what Modern Warfare could allow. I think the “Modern Warfare” moniker limited the kind of action that could be presented because it was a title that came with certain expectations of tone and setting. Expectations that were set before Call of Duty morphed into the spectacle shooter that it is today.

Call of Duty used to be about the average soldier. It wasn’t about one man’s heroic mission to win the war; that was the realm of Medal of Honor. Call of Duty was about the universal experience of war. Call of Duty wanted to show World War II from the perspective of multiple countries — Russia, Britain, and the U.S. — in order to highlight that shared experience. This ethos continued in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. That game wanted to do to terrorism what the original Call of Duty did for WWII. It wanted to show us the conflict from multiple angles, so it jumped between protagonists in order to show us a terrorist attack up close and then show us the political aftermath of that attack. Modern Warfare took this theme very seriously, as evidenced by the unusually grim ending that implies all of the soldiers die. The game had a dour message about modern warfare, so despite all the grand action, Modern Warfare set itself firmly in the real world, grounded by its deathly serious theme.

Even as the series got crazier, it was crazier within the scope of that deathly serious theme. Each subsequent game was still an examimation of modern warfare, but the scope expanded to actual warfare rather than terrorism.

Infinity Ward naturally wanted to go bigger for the sequel, but in trying to grow the scope of the action, they ran into limitations thanks to the grounded and serious tone set by the first game. They couldn’t get too elaborate with the action. They couldn’t go to space, and they couldn’t go to giant underwater bases (both things later Call of Duty games did). They couldn’t get Bond-villain crazy. They had to stay grounded, and the best way to up the stakes and spectacle while maintaining that sense of plausible reality was to shift its destruction to monuments and iconic images of Americana. Modern Warfare 2 blew up the White House, the suburbs, an airport, and an Applebee’s wannabe. It shifted the focus of destruction away from military targets toward civilian targets. It became an examination of “the war at home,” literally, and as the first Call of Duty game to have us fighting on American soil, this succeeded in shocking audiences and increasing the dramatic stakes while remaining in line with the serious tone of the original game.

Modern Warfare 3 increased its scope again to examine what a modern world war would look like. This time, Infinity Ward shifted the destruction across the pond to focus on European monuments: the Eiffel Tower, Paris streets, a bombing in London. It’s big and bombastic, but it’s also grounded by the serious subject of modern war in a modern city. The bombing of London is shown to us through the home movie of a family on vacation. We see our big awesome modern war from the perspective of an average citizen, and it’s not a flattering point of view for us or the war. Infinity Ward wanted to scare us. They wanted us to consider the delicacy of modern life against a modern war.

It’s good that there’s no Modern Warfare 4 because I don’t know how Infinity Ward could grow the scope of war beyond WW III while still grounding the game with a serious theme. Modern Warfare 3 reached the destructive limits of what was excusable and plausible within the logic of its world. There was one sequence in the game that had you fighting on a plane as it fell out of the sky. There was a brief moment of weightlessness, and instead of fighting on the ground, we were fighting in the air. Then the plane crashed and the sequence ended. That kind of outlandishness simply couldn’t be sustained within the Modern Warfare framework — you can’t make people fly.

This has all changed with Ghosts. Now freed from those tonal constraints, Infinity Ward can get as outlandish as they want. The game opens with the complete destruction of L.A., followed by a cut scene that explains how the southern border of the U.S. became a No Man’s Land. Ghosts isn’t grounded by the same ambition of social commentary, it doesn’t need to be serious, so Infinity Ward is now free to blow up whatever they want. And like a kid with a new toy, they start by destroying a large swath of the nation. Just ‘cause.

This would have felt too absurd by Modern Warfare standards, but Ghosts is a new world, and as such, it can establish a new baseline for the normalcy of spectacle. Since Modern Warfare 3 reached its limits, it’s necessary for Ghosts to establish this new baseline since that gives the series room to further expand its scope of destruction. Infinity Ward is now free to blow up as much as of the world as they want, and it won’t feel out of place in this universe of sci-fi space weapons.

With Ghosts, Call of Duty has evolved much like the Bond movies. The grounded reality of Sean Connery has given way to the more spectacular world of Roger Moore. That’s not to say there’s no sense of reality, but the game isn’t limited by what’s real. It’s free to go to space if it wants, free to destroy the southern border of the U.S., free to turn Las Vegas into a desert, and free to make South America a unified political and military force.

Heck, it’s almost free to add in giant robots à la Titanfall, the new game from the original creators of Call of Duty, which features giant mechs fighting alongside humans with jetpacks. It’s a game completely unrestrained by reality, perhaps a step beyond where Ghosts has just taken Call of Duty, but now that Call of Duty has finally broken the chains of realism that it’s been struggling against for years, Titanfall might just be a prophetic look at the future.