Infinity Ward redefined the console shooter with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, but just how much has the core game technology evolved since it launched way back in 2007? While it's safe to say that the scale and scope of both the campaign and multiplayer experience have increased enormously across the current console generation, Infinity Ward recently updated Modern Warfare 2019 with remakes of legacy COD4 maps - Crash, Vacant and Shipment. Comparing the new versions against the 2007 originals - and indeed the Modern Warfare Remastered equivalents - shows up some fascinating results.
So, how do they stack up? Well, the layouts are clearly based on the same blueprint though the reboot's use of more accurate physically-based materials and lighting mark a big change. Credit where it's due; the original designs still look authentic and rich with detail. Given its release date, it's surprising how well it hold ups, even without today's advances in lighting and post effects. It truly speaks to the way Infinity Ward gunned for materials that blended effectively into the scene in 2007: the properties of each concrete slab, brick and wood support were baked in, but they were nonetheless convincing for the day - especially at the low output resolution on last-gen machines.
The reimagining of the Crash map is an especial highlight for me, showing many of the key improvements delivered in the revamped COD engine. The new version is layered with a swathe of small points of interest, from the dramatic new opening helicopter descent to the addition of shop signs across a market street. Obviously, the original map was built for less powerful hardware and, as such, perhaps not everything that appeared on the concept sheet would have made it to the final map. What we have in the rebooted Modern Warfare though, gives us a radical upheaval in so many ways: textures are of a higher resolution, motion blur is added, while light shafts flicker through gaps in windows. Geometric detail is also drastically overhauled: debris, plant life, housing supports - everything is remodelled.
It's a massive game of spot the difference. Overlooking the huge gulf in image quality, the new Modern Warfare goes a long way past the achievements of the 2016 remaster too, as produced by Raven Games. This largely used the same geometric framework as the 2007 original, but added higher-res textures with physically-based properties, plus a form of volumetric dust clouds. The enhancements shine on a map like Crash, though many legacy trappings remain in place: even shadow positions are identical between the 2007 and 2016 remaster. The reboot takes its own path by comparison, introducing fully dynamic body shadows from the player relative to the sun's position - plus an increase in lights deployed in any given scene. Add in the vast increase to physics-driven objects within the environment (particularly interiors) and it's a much richer experience up against the literal translation delivered Modern Warfare Remastered. Some might say that this is an example of remake vs remaster.
Infinity Ward's engine revamp extends beyond technology and into the core gameplay too. Modern Warfare 2019 updates map layouts: new areas are opened up in Crash, like the landing zone - a chunk of the map now accessible right away. There are even new buildings in Vacant that you can explore, with entire areas rearranged for balance. One of the most noticeable tweaks is Crash's famous rooftop sniping position - in the original game you could run around the stairwell but for whatever reason it's closed off in the reboot. All of the legacy maps for the latest Modern Warfare are full of tweaks in this vein. In a sense, it's a shame that more isn't done to leverage the new engine's features in the classic content: there's little scope for the new 'spectral rendering' for example, used on night vision goggles, which accurately maps infrared and thermal information. There are lesser changes, at least, like the new door mechanic, where players can barge through doors or tentatively peek inside instead.
Crash, Vacant and Shipment are COD multiplayer map classics, but Infinity Ward's homage to the original game doesn't end there. A small-scale map called Cargo is also added in this map batch - a nod to the iconic opening level of COD4's campaign. It's an area that never received a multiplayer equivalent back in the day but it's fascinating to see a classic location revisited in the latest Modern Warfare.
Additionally, as far as the head-to-head comparisons go, there's a fun twist in seeing one more flavour of the classic Crash map. Chinese publishing giant Tencent produced a Call of Duty mobile port that includes this location, using an identical layout to the original. It's an experience that has to cater to a very different class of hardware and after the embellishments, refinements and technical innovation delivered by the latest engine, what we're looking at with the mobile version is almost like a demake by comparison. The low quality textures have an almost papier mache-like quality to them, a necessary compromise to accommodate the vast range of smartphone specs out there. It's an interesting alternative look to the game, but obviously, it's the home consoles that aim to elevate the classic content.
The arrival of these legacy maps is welcome but 2016's Modern Warfare Remastered is still a great experience and well worth playing today - especially when so many classic COD maps have yet to make their way into the latest version of the game. I'd love to see the likes of Backlot or Crossfire get the remake treatment for the rebooted game. Of course, Modern Warfare's recent update isn't just about paying tribute to legacy multiplayer maps - other new areas were added to the roster too. Atrium is a new, tight-knit map designed with a fast time-to-death in mind, and then there's the Port of Verdansk, a large Ground War map that runs along a narrow stretch.
Plenty has been added to the game since launch and it doesn't seem like there's any sign of the well running dry - and while these comparisons based on legacy content are good fun, they obviously don't reflect the sheer scale and extreme detail the new engine is capable of. Ground War gives us some idea of where the technology is headed but if the massive battle royale datamining and surrounding leaks are any indication of Infinity Ward's plans for 2020, we should be seeing the new engine really put through its paces as the game continues to expand.