How Modern Warfare 2 Turned Video Games Into Blockbusters

What’s your favorite moment from Modern Warfare 2? Maybe when you shimmied up the snow-capped mountains of Kazakhstan, winds gusting, facing certain death with one false step?

What about when the attack helicopters carved through the sky above, transforming suburban America into an all-out warzone?

What about the deep sea scuba mission, where a squad propels through the darkened ocean, soaking in all the marine wildlife like an amateur biologist, before infiltrating a rogue oil platform?

Personally speaking, nothing compares to the brief interlude where the player briefly gets the vantage point of an astronaut on the international space station, where you briefly get a grim look of a nuclear detonation from orbit.

All of these sequences added up into one of the greatest campaigns in first-person shooter history. More than a decade after its release, Modern Warfare 2 remains definitive proof that a video game could mirror, and even exceed, the action movie megatons at the box office.

Infinity Ward, longtime developer of Call of Duty, stared down an ultimatum in 2007. They had just released the original Modern Warfare, which uprooted the franchise from its World War II roots and transported it into the fraught military operations of the global war on terror. That game had plenty of spectacular bombast, (who could forget the ghillie suit mission? Or the kidnapping scene?) but the company suddenly found itself in the unenviable position of iterating on a game that had quickly dominated the industry.

So many copy-cats rushed in to capture the Modern Warfare zeitgeist, and Infinity Ward was keen on defending its perch. There was that Medal of Honor reboot, and the faulty 007 Legends that attempted to transmute James Bond into a gristly military shooter.

None of them could match Infinity Ward’s tenor, and two years later they returned with a game that doubled down on everything that made the prequel a phenomenon. It was a miracle, and its shadow looms large to this day. Ask any longtime Call of Duty head about their favorite entry in the series, and their eyes will glass over when they start talking about Modern Warfare 2.

Like the previous entry, Modern Warfare 2 is a first-person shooter. An international cabal of special operatives are once again thrust into a globetrotting adventure attempting to track down a rogue network of terrorist cells. In practice, that means we’re going to shoot a lot of bad guys in outstandingly dramatic environments.

First-person shooters typically worked in the Doom formula before Call of Duty made landfall. We dropped into a labyrinth, full of secret passageways and locked doors, and trial-and-error’d our way to victory.

Modern Warfare 2 trimmed the fat and streamlined that process entirely. Call it a “corridor shooter” — there’s one critical path forward with few offshoots, diversions, or side stories. The game shuffles you from set piece to set piece, so we can enjoy the fireworks in full bloom. This rankled some long-time purists of the genre, but the rest of us relished the way Modern Warfare 2 replicated the technicolor excess of the best Mission Impossible sequences on an Xbox 360.

Everything in the narrative is perfectly curated. There are no missed connections or bungled opportunities. The flashes of violence are edited and deployed with precision — the game subtly guides us through every beat. When the climax hits, like, say, when we plunge our knife into an unsuspecting soldier’s neck from an inverted Spider-Man hang, it’s downright euphoric. That lesson permeated through the rest of the industry. Exploration and discovery are great tenets of game design, but sometimes we just want a thrill ride.

That’s not to say that Modern Warfare 2 is skin deep. One of the most famous levels in the game is called “No Russian,” where the player steps behind the guise of a double-agent forced to carry out a terrorist attack in an airport. It’s sobering. The player is asked to light up everyone they see with machine gun fire. Civilians run for their lives, bodies pile up haphazardly, all standing as a stark, bare-faced commentary on the terror of a mass shooting. Here is Call of Duty, a franchise that has asked us to absent-mindedly blast away at countless human bodies over the last 20 years, finally reckoning with the true sorrow and loss that all the bloodshed leaves behind.

“No Russian” was immediately controversial — even getting banned outright in some versions of the game — but as time goes on, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Modern Warfare 2 was at least attempting to express a cogent political perspective, at a time when that was vanishingly rare in triple-A studios.

Infinity Ward, and all the other developers who’ve tried their hand at Call of Duty since 2009, never quite managed to keep the fire alive. Modern Warfare 3 arrived in 2011 to diminishing returns and fainter critical praise. Treyarch’s Black Ops games have ebbed and flowed over the years, as have the scant few returns to the battlefields of World War II. There have been experiments with the discord of the far-flung future, (called, hilariously, Advanced Warfare and Infinite Warfare) but nothing has ever approached the artistic risks and daffy fun of Modern Warfare 2 since. You could chalk that up to creative turnover or the ephemerality of catching lightning in a bottle. Who knows, but it’s tough to imagine the Call of Duty iron getting that hot ever again.

Still, I like to imagine that Modern Warfare 2 serves as a true north for countless other developers. When I sit down in front of an FPS I really like — one that lands on that uber-precise sweet spot between chaos and precision — I’m often transported back to 2009, crackling with anticipation for whatever curveball Infinity Ward was going to throw my way next. That, my friends, is the mark of a classic.

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