Call of Duty was an underdog. It is very hard to get your head into that space with Modern Warfare 2 looming over us all in full SAS gear, blowing cigar smoke in our ears, receiving more pre-orders than any other game in history and scaring all the other shooters into spring 2010, but it's true. The series that dared to lock horns with Medal of Honor was once a plucky young thing with aging Quake 3 Arena tech and publishing difficulties involving a split with EA and last-minute rescue by Activision.
That's not to say the guys at Infinity Ward didn't know exactly what they were doing. This was a studio made up of ex-2015 employees, the team that made Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, subject of today's other retrospective, in the first place. Still, they had enough ideas and heart to win rookie studio of the year at the Games Developers Choice Awards, and it's nice how much of that still shines through the original Call of Duty today.
All of the team's talent is right there on display. As an FPS the game is still neat, punchy and tactile, with Nazis crumpling excellently with each well-aimed shot. Flanking and suppressing manoeuvres are always rewarded, the guns make excellent noises, and the level design alternately seduces, teases, jokes with you, tests you, and occasionally about-faces and comes flailing at you with some ruinous bastard of a mission that never seems to end.
Call of Duty's design philosophy, of packing a single-player campaign into fewer hours, was much rarer back in 2003. It enabled Infinity Ward to lavish so much attention on each mission that the set-pieces and memorable moments never stopped coming, and it enabled games journalists the world over to make an awful lot of very excited analogies involving rollercoasters and, in fact, every other kind of fairground ride except possibly those chunder-conjuring spinning teacups, while simultaneously marking the game down for only being eight hours long.
But to think of Call of Duty as a rollercoaster is missing its significance. It didn't win 70 game of the year awards because it was ceaselessly exciting and scary, or because of anything to do with the edge of your seat or the seat of your pants. It won 70 game of the year awards because it offered us something we'd never seen before. Call of Duty being an excellent shooter was only its rock-solid foundation - the reason it awed gamers everywhere was because it brought World War 2 to life.
All of Call of Duty's innovations, every single one, pull in the same direction. The demand for the player to use ironsights and routinely go prone, the ringing in your ears and blurring of your vision after an explosion, this density of scripting, how you were often only part of a squad - all of it was dreamed up and implemented to draw you into the game, like sealing wax between the game and your imagination. That had the very important side effect of popping the top of your head off and making you realise that, holy s***, men actually did this. Like, for real. They were given guns and put on planes and boats and taken a long way from home and told where to run and they died.
Everyone remembers being part of a suicidal charge to defend Stalingrad as weaponless Russian peasant Alexei, or that very first mission with the US Airborne where you catch up with your sergeant and find him dead, his parachute snagged on a tree. But going back and playing Call of Duty, what you realise you've forgotten is the gently harrowing tone of even the unscripted combat.
You're always made so aware of the presence of your squad-mates, these men fighting alongside you and dying uncelebrated and unremembered. And it's not just that they die all the time, but they can die so quickly and for such colourless reasons. You'll be clearing a house when a Surprise German in the corner will spray you with a sub-machinegun, and your friends will all keel over bloodlessly.
It'd be difficult to argue that Call of Duty was tasteful, but it did and still does manage to be something more than a shooter. In his Eurogamer review all those years ago, Rob Fahey described how the game's scenarios had managed to "put a lump in his throat" and "make his blood boil", even commenting that the game's art direction sometimes came across as "too pretentious". And those feelings were echoed by many, many other reviewers.
But going back and playing Call of Duty now after receiving its expansion pack and four sequels on a yearly basis like an American footballer taking one hit after another, I'm standing up, I'm taking off my helmet and I'm wondering this: Where on Earth has this series' heart gone? Watch the intro to Call of Duty 1 and the Modern Warfare 2 launch trailer and you'll probably get where I'm coming from.
Fundamentally, Call of Duty gave the impression that war is more often than not a bad time. Modern Warfare? What is Modern Warfare? It's not actually modern warfare, for one thing. It's SAS teams dropping onto Russian cargo ships in the middle of a storm, finding a nuclear bomb and then leaping back onto their helicopter as the ship sinks.
It's shooting a man's arm off. It's also, apparently, firing missiles at a medieval castle and two men jumping over a sliding, flaming motorbike. That's not a bad time. That's awesome! What man or woman wouldn't answer the call of duty if your duty was to ride a skimobile down a mountain while firing a machine pistol with one hand?
This change isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course. I'm just very aware right now that the first Call of Duty promised an emotional depth to this series, and if all sight of that wasn't lost when they chose to set footage of men dying to an Eminem single, it currently seems very distant. This decision to exchange the game's backdrop from the most exciting moments of a real war to an action movie (complete with villain and stunts) seems a shame, to me at least. It feels like all Infinity Ward is trying to do now is drop jaws by any means necessary.
Never mind the fact that they might have just made the biggest-selling videogame of all time. Playing the original game again, I feel like this series could have been more than that.
Look out for our review of Modern Warfare 2 at 8am GMT on 10th November.