What stood out to you the most was the overwhelming chaos. The loud explosions, gunfire from numerous soldiers, and overall disorder were all striking. Unlike other first-person shooters during that time, where players were usually in complete control of a single character defeating entire platoons of enemies alone, the original Call of Duty, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this week, immersed you in intense battles with AI allies by your side. You were not a heroic figure like Rambo, but rather a mere soldier, a small part of the larger war effort during World War II.
This was not the initial game to attempt this concept. Electronic Arts’ Medal of Honor games had already begun exploring the concept of a grand battlefield shooter. However, when the team responsible for the highly acclaimed Allied Assault installment grew unhappy with their work at EA, 22 members left to create their own studio and partnered with Activision. This occurred in 2002, and the studio was named Infinity Ward. Shortly after, in 2003, Call of Duty was released.
The game’s newest addition brought grand scale and impressive technical features. Rather than controlling just one character, players take on the roles of multiple soldiers in different battlegrounds, beginning with the D-day invasion and progressing to Operation Tonga and the Battle of Stalingrad. This allowed for a sweeping perspective of the final months of the war, immersing players in the most impactful moments. The pacing is reminiscent of an opera, with a mix of intense battlefield scenes and quieter, more strategic sequences as players sneak behind enemy lines. One moment you may be parachuting into occupied France, and the next you’re defending a position against enemy tanks or navigating through the ruins of a Russian city. The chaos is heightened by the game’s exceptional audio design, featuring realistic gun sounds unique to each weapon and ear-piercing explosions that are accompanied by visual distortions mimicking the effects of nearby blasts. The focus was on creating a truly sensory experience.
Infinity Ward placed great emphasis on AI as a crucial aspect. When engaging in battles in CoD, players were accompanied by competent allies who utilized advanced pathfinding and decision-making abilities to enhance the feeling of a large-scale war. As a result, the game effectively portrayed a cinematic experience of action and consequence. Assigned computer-controlled characters would communicate amongst each other and potentially perish alongside the player as bullets flew by. This created a naturalistic, Hollywood-style atmosphere, complete with moments of both tragedy and euphoric triumph.
From the beginning, multiplayer was a crucial aspect of Call of Duty. In addition to traditional Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch modes, the game also incorporated more strategic options such as Search and Destroy and Retrieval, which required players to complete missions against each other without respawning. This multiplayer feature was created using a scripting language that was accessible to PC players, allowing them to customize their own versions. The game also introduced the popular Kill Cam, giving downed players the chance to see the perspective of their opponent who took them out. This served as a helpful tool for beginners to improve their defense skills, while also exposing the locations of campers (players who remain in one spot for the entire match) for swift action.
The term cinematic is thrown around frequently these days, but when Call of Duty was released, it was a groundbreaking game that revolutionized the use of bombast, scope, audio, and narrative in video games to immerse players in their own war stories. It introduced new ideas while also perfecting many of the emerging archetypes of military shooters, with its multiplayer modes existing somewhere between Counter-Strike and Quake. It’s possible that we could see the potential for Call of Duty to become a successful brand even back then. This was evident in Activision’s decision to launch the first title as the start of a franchise rather than a standalone game. It was also significant that Microsoft quickly secured the rights to the sequel as a launch title for the Xbox 360, especially since there was no new Halo title at the time. When Call of Duty 4 was released two years later (following Treyarch’s third installment), it solidified the series’ status for good and cemented the concept of Microsoft’s new console as an online gaming machine.
After two decades and over 400 million sales, Call of Duty has become one of the most successful brands in the video game world. While it has faced criticism for its focus on Western perspectives, stereotyping, and glorification of military prowess, the industry as a whole has drastically evolved since its debut in 2003. However, the original game’s ability to combine historical accuracy with cinematic elements and intense action, as well as its integration of these features into multiplayer, continues to serve as the foundation for the franchise and other popular mainstream video games.