Join GameSpot as we celebrate gaming history and give recognition to the most influential games of the 21st century. These aren’t the best games, and they aren’t necessarily games that you need to rush out and play today, but there’s no question that they left an indelible impact on game developers, players, and in some cases, society at large.
In 2007, the newly annual Call of Duty series–while incredibly popular–had a lot of competition. It was a landmark year in games, particularly for shooters; BioShock, Team Fortress 2, and Halo 3 all arrived that year, as did Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed, and Portal. These days, you might not expect the yearly Call of Duty entry to capture lasting attention among a sea of inventive new franchises. But in 2007, the fourth Call of Duty game, Modern Warfare, was a standout in its own right. Modern Warfare not only marked a shift for the series–it also fundamentally altered multiplayer shooters for over a decade to come.
In the 10 years or so leading up to Modern Warfare, first-person shooters had undergone rapid changes. In the mid-’90s, PC shooters were evolving thanks to technical advancements, and 1998’s Half-Life helped set a new standard for storytelling in the genre and in games generally. Both local and online multiplayer improved on a technical level, especially with regard to matchmaking and console multiplayer–thanks, in large part, to Halo 2 and Xbox Live. And then there were Medal of Honor and Call of Duty, which kicked off the World War II game boom of the early 2000s.
Modern Warfare owes a lot to these foundations. Its moment-to-moment gameplay, especially in the campaign, didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel. If you looked past the waves of enemies and incredible set piece moments, the campaign was still a rather linear series of checkpoints and, as then-GameSpot reviewer Jeff Gerstmann noted, it was “almost shockingly short.” But shock was kind of the point. It was all too easy to get swept up in its larger-than-life action and its fictional-but-still-plausible modern-day narrative. Gerstmann summed up the now-infamous mission All Ghillied Up, in which you crawl through the grass as tanks rumble over you, as “a breathtaking moment in a campaign filled with breathtaking moments.”
In many ways, Modern Warfare tread new ground. It was the first Call of Duty game not set during World War II, breaking from the series’ origins as a Medal of Honor competitor. And it wasn’t a total power fantasy like those WWII games, either. Gerstmann said it perfectly in 2007: “In a world filled with war games in which the good guys come out unscathed and the world is left at total peace, Call of Duty 4 will wake you up like a face full of ice water.” That’s illustrated best by the mission Shock and Awe, in which you have to work to evacuate your AI squadmates before a nuke detonates, all set to a countdown timer. No matter how fast you operate, you will fail, and that nuke will go off–and everyone, including you, will die.
The single-player campaign received widespread praise among critics and fans, and so too did the multiplayer. Modern Warfare introduced a number of series mainstays, including Hardcore game modes (where your health is much lower and there’s no HUD, among other changes) and Killstreaks, which later branched out into different kinds of streak rewards. But it was Modern Warfare’s class-based progression system that would end up having the biggest impact.
In Modern Warfare’s multiplayer, you started off with a choice of three classes (five total, after you leveled up a bit and unlocked the rest) with different specializations and loadouts. What set it apart was the new perks system, in which each class had preset, distinct perks that you’d unlock as you played that class. That meant that, by playing a specific way, you’d be rewarded with further ways to improve that playstyle–and once you unlocked the ability to create a custom class, you could combine perks from each class you’d been playing and leveling up.
It was a system that gave you solid incentives to keep playing, outside the general fun of competition, and that’s the kind of thing that creates dedicated players who stick with a game for months and years. Many shooters adapted this in the years following. Once a strong competitor, 2010’s Medal of Honor emulated Modern Warfare’s progression system and Killstreaks (and was followed up by one final entry in 2012 before the series was shuttered). Battlefield: Bad Company 2 in 2010 also had similar class-specific rewards, a shift from previous Battlefield games’ broader unlock system. Even Halo: Reach, a decidedly very different kind of shooter, brought classes and customizable loadouts to the Halo series’ multiplayer.
In recent years, as team-based shooters and battle royale games grow in popularity, this exact kind of progression system is becoming less and less common. Today’s Call of Duty games take inspiration from these games, not the other way around; 2018’s Black Ops 4 included a battle royale mode, and progression in battle royale games is by design not gameplay-related. But Modern Warfare set the stage for the modern concept of multiplayer shooters, games that players keep coming back to for tangible reasons–whether those reasons are gameplay-specific rewards or a randomized loot box full of cosmetics.
Call of Duty is among the most successful video game series of all time, all but synonymous with gaming in general. It is a powerhouse, even when a yearly installment fails to impress. There have been 11 Call of Duty games since Modern Warfare, some of them more sensational, perhaps–Modern Warfare 2 caused quite the stir–and some of them outstanding in their own right. Some things that have since become almost essential to the Call of Duty experience, like Zombies, came after Modern Warfare. It speaks volumes that, over 10 years later, Modern Warfare is not only one of the most important Call of Duty games, but also one of the most notable games to come out of one of the best years in gaming in the 21st century.
For a look at the rest of our features in this series, head over to our Most Influential Games Of The 21st Century hub.