Call of Duty: Black Ops III was announced last month and, as always, reaction to the news was mixed. These spring reveals of big-budget titles for later that year (see also: Assassin's Creed: Syndicate and Star Wars: Battlefront) are as inevitable as the next round of Katie Hopkins hate speech: we know it's coming, many of us already know we won't like it, but we still act surprised when it arrives.
I'm a big Call of Duty fan and it still feels like shitting on the series and its fans is the default setting for many gamers and critics out there. It's still "cool" to roll eyes and slam Activision for announcing another entry to the franchise. But unlike Hopkins, Activision's money-spinner isn't actually hurting anyone, and remains loved by millions.
Does this mean that the series' fans are dullards who overlook indie darlings like Monument Valley and Gone Home in favour of rote corridor experiences? No, of course not. We're just playing what we enjoy. The short of it is: lots of people genuinely like Call of Duty.
And yet, there's another consistent reaction to each new CoD reveal that has always intrigued me. Chances are you've seen this one yourself, but I often spot people online saying things like, "Call of Duty multiplayer hasn't been good since the first Modern Warfare," or, "CoD 4 is still the best game in the series."
Is it though? Really?
I decided to fire up the Xbox 360 and hop back into Modern Warfare's multiplayer to answer that question. Returning to the game with fresh eyes today reminded me of just how innovative it was for its time, and how it cemented the status quo of what an online FPS should be. Think back to 2007, when every shooter studio wanted to produce a Call of Duty-killer. Other military shooters leapt on it like seagulls swarming a discarded tray of chips, but none could come close to Infinity Ward's brilliance.
But is it ever pared back in contrast to 2014's Advanced Warfare. I scrapped all my old "Create a Class" set-ups to cherry pick new builds from the small offering of firearms on offer, such as the sturdy M4 Carbine, vicious MP5 sub-machine gun and the brutal Barrett .50 cal sniper rifle. It's clear that with fewer guns on offer, the game's balance can nudge closer to true equilibrium.
Even the perks are scaled back, and although the likes of Juggernaut – which gives players more health – felt cheap back in the day, they certainly didn't feel like unfair advantages during my recent sessions. I don't know if it's Infinity Ward or Activision subsidiary Raven that have been maintaining Call of Duty 4 online, but it still runs like a dream. The last time I played this game was in 2012, and it was rife with hacks that resulted in players running under the map, spam pop-up boxes and other dodgy shenanigans – but there's none of that, now.
What's left is a pure experience that easily brings a smile to my face, even so long after the first time it did. I remember thinking, back in 2007, that the game felt like paintball, thanks to the constant ebb and flow of battle across each superbly designed arena, and that feeling still holds up today. My first comeback match was on freighter stage Wet Work, which really captures the thrill of gaining ground and driving the other team back to their side of the map.
It was here, in the dark of the map's rain-drenched night, that I remembered each character build has access to night-vision goggles, and that "PITOOOO" sound they made as I flipped them on was a nostalgic kidney punch. Hugging the surface of freight containers and edging around the map's borders, I was able to start picking off enemies with ease. I was shit at the game when it originally came out, but years of playing subsequent entries really do give you a skill set that's transferable across the entire franchise. Come the end, I'd not done too badly at all.
Next, I went for the Black Hawk Down-inspired map Crash – one that I have great memories of. It's a dream in objective modes like Sabotage or Capture the Flag, and without the distraction of aircraft killstreaks gridlocking the sky – Modern Warfare 2's AC-130 streak reward can do one – the conditions for victory rely almost purely on player skill.
'Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare' trailer, from forever ago
Sure there's a chopper killstreak in CoD 4, but you need seven subsequent kills to earn it. Without tons of gadgets and other streak rewards to chain up kills, this is harder than it sounds. You really need to earn those rewards on your own. Although there are only about 3,500 CoD 4 players online worldwide right now, they're real die-hards for sticking with an eight-year-old game and, as such, they're a skilled bunch. The level of play was brilliant.
It was great to see our team hunkering down in the map's elevated shop fronts and back alleys and working together without coordinating in voice chat – as if the map's choke points and defensive zones had become second nature. We just sort of knew where to be and which lines to hold in order to drive our opponents back. I don't know if that speaks volumes about the game's still-brilliant map design, but I had an absolute blast.
The matches then moved to other maps like missile site Countdown, with its lethal expanses and sniper-rich killzones, the multi-tiered factories of Pipeline, and claustrophobic interiors of Vacant. Call it rose-tinted specs, but the whole experience was full of fond memories and "Oh yeaaaaah" exclamations whenever a familiar environment jogged my memory. The spread of locales might be a bit thin, with most maps being set in either the Russian countryside or Middle Eastern urban districts, but their superb design makes the palette swapping forgivable.
So, is Modern Warfare still the best multiplayer that the Call of Duty series has to offer? Have the many years of subsequent instalments and countless millions of investment failed to produce something superior? Well, not exactly, because obviously the answer to that comes down to your own taste, more than anything else. If you place raw skill above using fancy exo-suit tricks or future tech to score kills, then yes: this is the best entry. But whatever your poison of the present day, I urge you to dust off your copy and give it a bash, as it's not aged half as badly as so many other games of its era.
Watch: DIY Guns
Call of Duty's toy chest of online tools, perks and death machines has expanded greatly over the last eight years, and has resulted in a broad range of CoD "flavours" that appeal to each fan in different ways. Comparing Black Ops II and Advanced Warfare and the first Modern Warfare reveals three very different experiences with varying victory conditions, control nuances and tactical considerations.
This is contrary to claims that the franchise never changes, and you can bet lots of people will regard Black Ops III to be their all-time favourite entry when it launches in November. It will certainly speak to people in ways that the risible mess that was 2013's Ghosts could not. It's probably safe to say that Treyarch's latest won't boast the stripped-back, uncluttered core of its predecessor, but in the name of injecting new life into the series, that's fine.
Modern Warfare is the barebones Call of Duty experience. There's a fluidity and urgency about the game that leaps off the screen during every tense skirmish or final push towards victory. This is a feeling many new releases can't match, and although the first-person shooter genre has moved on a great deal since 2007, it owes this game a huge debt. CoD 4's DNA is all over the competition, and that's surely evidence of its status as an enduring pioneer. Give it another look, seriously.
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