This Call of Duty article contains spoilers.
Call of Duty is one of gaming’s most enduring franchises, and while it may often be derided for a lack of new ideas, it continues to sell into the millions year after year. A huge chunk of this devoted player base will buy the game for its multiplayer, and while the formula hasn’t changed much over the last decade and change, it remains a fun and polished way to spend an evening.
What is often overlooked by many, however, is the franchise’s rich history of excellent campaigns. While many are rooted in the “follow soldier from A to B while shooting” before a scripted sequence, the series has seen an impressive number of emotional moments scattered throughout its bombastic campaigns.
In honor of the upcoming Modern Warfare reboot, the dark and realistic tone of which is apparently making playtesters cry, we’re taking a look at the franchise’s most memorable, and harrowing, moments:
The Nuke – Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
The first in the Modern Warfare sub-franchise, Call of Duty 4 catapulted the series into the stratosphere with its excellent multiplayer progression system, addictive killstreaks, and one of the modern FPS genre’s finest campaigns.
While early in the game you’ll walk in the shoes of a diplomatic leader on his way to being publicly executed and kill terrorists aboard a cargo ship as an SAS operative, the all-out war doesn’t begin until you step into the combat boots of an American soldier flying into a battlefield in the Middle East.
Your squad’s tactical retreat is slowed by the player rescuing a downed helicopter pilot, before boarding another chopper to get to safety. Unfortunately, while in the air, a nuclear bomb is detonated, grounding the squad and leaving you as the only soldier left alive.
As you stumble from the crashed remains of your vehicle, surrounded by corpses, you’re enveloped in swirling ash and radioactive dust. Crawling with no real purpose, your soldier eventually collapses and succumbs to the effects of the bomb in one of the most shocking moments in a game that’s full of them. It was clear then that no one was safe.
“No Russian” – Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
An incredibly controversial moment to this day (the entire scene can be skipped if players opt-out), the “No Russian” level sees players take control of an undercover operative attempting to infiltrate a terrorist cell. As you and your cohorts leave an elevator and make your way into a Moscow airport terminal, main villain Makarov utters the words “Remember, no Russian,” before he, his team, and the player open fire on dozens of civilians.
Working your way from room to room, players can choose not to take part in the slaughter, but it doesn’t make it any easier to watch. Unfortunately, at the end of the mission, it turns out that your cover has been blown and you’re fatally wounded anyway, as Makarov leaves your corpse behind to help destroy international relationships. Talk about a downer.
D-Day – Call of Duty: World War II
The storming of Normandy’s beaches in 1944 stands as a true testament to the bravery of good men in the face of overwhelming odds and in defiance of tyranny. As such, it has become almost mythical and will undoubtedly be remembered for generations. It’s the quintessential “Good vs. Evil” narrative condensed into a single event in time.
With the way it’s been retold in so many mediums from books to movies to video games, it was a risk to make it the opening level of Sledgehammer’s second Call of Duty title, World War II. That risk pays off, though, as bullets fly through the air and comrades and squadmates alike are cut down by gunfire. The muddy sands are a killing field, and while there’s an element of player-empowerment in the way you work your way from bunker to bunker, the human cost of the war is never too far from view.
This isn’t so much a moment as an entire mission of harrowing events, and their basis in reality (with a lack of romanticism in the retelling) only serves to amplify their significance.
All Ghillied Up – Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
A mission fondly remembered for its heart-pounding tension as you sneak around the desolate outskirts of Chernobyl, this stealth mission is quite possibly the greatest in Call of Duty’s history. Playing as a young Captain Price and under the command of your superior officer Captain MacMillan, you’ll sneak under tanks, crawl through long grass, and snipe pairs of enemies in unison, knowing that any wrong move could end the mission.
Arguably the real star here is the setting itself, Chernobyl’s eerie emptiness bought to life by apartment buildings without tenants and dilapidated playgrounds. As you and MacMillan creep through its dusty streets, the silence is deafening.
The scariest thing to consider is the reality of the events that took place in Ukraine, and the fact that their effects are still being felt to this day.
London Attack – Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
A harrowing moment both in terms of content and presentation, London terror attacks are shown in the conclusion to the Modern Warfare trilogy. As part of a squad of SAS operatives on the trail of a terrorist cell in London, players fight their way through warehouses, alleyways, and even the London Underground in the mission “Mind the Gap,” chasing a van with some kind of weapon on board. Eventually catching up to the van and causing it to flip over, the squad finds that the vehicle is only a decoy and that whatever cargo was supposed to be on board simply isn’t there.
The game then transitions to a cutscene showing the Davis family on holiday, their final moments captured by the family’s video recorder. While the player watches, helplessly, a chemical attack occurs directly in front of the family’s child. The squad’s failure is magnified, as if the game makes you complicit in the awful events on screen by forcing you to watch, a voyeur to a heinous act. Chilling stuff.
Epilogue – Call of Duty: WWII
World War II and the events surrounding it are well known and stand as testament to the depravity and downright darkness inherent in human beings. That Call of Duty, a blockbuster mega-franchise built on explosions and gunplay, would attempt to touch on the horrific events of the Holocaust feels like it could be an unwise decision, but attempt it Sledgehammer Games did.
The scene in question is the final playable scene in the game, as your ragtag squad walks through a recently liberated concentration camp looking for any sign of their Jewish comrade, Zussman. Every empty bunk bed and hut tells another chapter of humanity’s darkest story before the squad eventually catches up to a Nazi officer who is about to execute Zussman.
Thankfully, players are able to save their friend, but the entire mission seems contrived because it’s all too easy to feel like there’s a happy ending. The game seems to want players to ask questions but doesn’t feel prepared to answer them, but that’s an article for another time.
For now, though, this is arguably the most harrowing moment in Call of Duty, and inarguably the most harrowing moment of mankind.
That’s our list, but what moments stuck out to you in Call of Duty as being memorable for any other reason than it involved explosions and slow-motion? Let us know in the comments below…