How ‘Modern Warfare Remastered’ updated the classic without ruining it

Phil Hornshaw

From the beginning, it was clear to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered developer Raven Software that the best ideas for updating an iconic multiplayer game like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare would from its fans. The project had not been announced, so the team couldn’t really ask fans what they wanted, though, so they took a good hard look at the Modern Warfare community. They combed Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Steam forums and anywhere else they could find active Modern Warfare players — the “hardest of the hardcore,” as Raven Software Studio Director David Pellas put it — to find out what fans would really want from a re-release of Call of Duty 4.

“There was a realization that this is freaking terrifying, because it’s not just important to us,” Pellas told Digital Trends earlier this month. “There’s actually a really healthy community out there, like 20,000 still playing on Steam pretty regularly. It’s crazy, but they love it.”

No one at Raven was hesitant to take on the project, Pellas said, but it was daunting — and the studio was acutely aware of how the community might react, at least early on. Though remaking a modern classic would be like navigating a minefield, they had one guiding principal that made finding a clear path slightly easier (at least on paper): They had no intention of changing the way Modern Warfare actually played.

“I’d probably say regularly it was like, ‘Okay, is this going to make a fan pissed off?’” Pellas explained. “But I think that we got out in front of that really early with ‘Don’t f–k with the gameplay’ as our number one tenant, and that coincides with Raven’s mantra of ‘gameplay first.’”

Maintaining the original gameplay of Modern Warfare was Raven’s primary design pillar throughout the remastering process. It sounds simpler than it was — in order to bring Modern Warfare into the modern era, the developer (and several support studios in Activision’s Call of Duty stable, Beenox and Certain Affinity) didn’t just update the textures of Infinity Ward’s title, they actually rebuilt it.

All in the timing

Modern Warfare Remastered is, essentially, a remake of 2007 shooter replicated using current version of the Call of Duty engine, which is itself an update of the game engine in which the original game was built. Over the years, Call of Duty studios have reworked, improved and expanded on that engine — today, it’s fundamentally different from the engine used to make 2007’s Modern Warfare.

While Raven had all of the original source code, models, level layouts and animation data for Modern Warfare, not everything about the game was fit for upgrading. Some of the art and animation was just not compatible with the modern engine, and the look and feel Raven was trying to create by remastering Modern Warfare in the first place. So the developer created new models and animations.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare Remastered
Call of Duty Modern Warfare Remastered

“We wanted to make sure that we had the timing down right, we wanted to make sure we had that feel of it in the engine,” Pellas said. “So starting with those layouts and starting with the gameplay and the timing, our engineers created a system that would record controller inputs. And it did a comparison between how much time it took move from start to run, how much time it took you from pushing the button to have an action actually take place on the (Xbox) 360, and compare that to what it was on the Xbox One and the Playstation 4.”

Gathering up all that timing data gave Raven the information it needed to replicate Modern Warfare with a more modern look and feel. Its dedication to gameplay, however, meant that developers couldn’t cut any corners or make any unnecessary changes; no matter what, Modern Warfare Remastered had to feel like the original. The timing had to be as close to identical as possible, Pellas said.

“I can tell you down to, I think it’s the hundredth of a second — within a couple of hundredths of a second — we are identical in timing with things like ADSes (Aiming Down Sights) and things like mantling,” he said. “But we’ve also made improvements to them so that visually, they look more modern, and they act and behave as gamers today would expect them to. For the mantling, we added animations so instead of just running up to something, pressing a button and playing an animation to mantle over, and then picking up and running again, you can now run to it and if you press the button, you’ll actually plant your hand on the object you’re trying to mantle, crawl over it like you would in a modern game, and then you can keep moving. The timing is exactly the same, but the visuals are the upgrade that we did in that regard.”

Anywhere Raven made changes to animations, Pellas said, it first made sure that the changes wouldn’t alter the timing of the gameplay experience in any way. So down to hundredths of a second, he said, Modern Warfare Remaster should perform exactly how Modern Warfare fans expect — but, essentially, with prettier, more engaging and more modern visuals.

But making even cosmetic changes while trying to recreate the feel of the original created new challenges. There are elements of Modern Warfare that players consider iconic, Pellas said, and so the studio wanted to make sure to preserve those as well, while still improving and modernizing the game.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare Remastered
Call of Duty Modern Warfare Remastered

One example Pellas used was the aiming-down-sights with a sniper rifle in Modern Warfare, which brings up an overlay on the screen that represents the rifle’s scope. In the original game, Pellas said, the animation of bringing the scope to the player’s eye only went about a quarter of the way, before the scope overlay “popped” into place. Many players considered that a classic Modern Warfare element, he said.

“I agree that that’s classic,” Pellas said. “However, when we did that and put it in there, it did not look good — it really looked dated and it didn’t feel like it belonged in this modern space with this game, especially with all the other improvements that we’ve made along the way. So what we did was, we figured out what the timing was for the ADS and we said, ‘We cannot deviate from that within our limits.’ And we created the animation that moves up, and it feels more natural because you’re connected to your weapon a little bit more. And it still pops, you’ll notice at the last minute it still pops because we felt like that was an important part of it, but we ended up doing more of an animation into that.”

Enhancing the ‘true intent’

With the rules for the gameplay feel throughout Modern Warfare Remastered established, Raven looked to recreate the well-loved single-player campaign of the game, and many of its well-known, classic moments — moments like the detonation of a nuclear weapon that the player experiences from a first-person perspective, or fleeing a sinking ship.

Pellas said Raven worked closely with Infinity Ward, the studio behind the original Modern Warfare, to get another key piece of information necessary to their project: What the developer was originally intending to create, or convey, with the game’s levels, scenes and encounters.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare Remastered
Call of Duty Modern Warfare Remastered

“I think that for [the single-player] campaign, we were definitely more liberal with our animations and additions, as long as they enhanced the true intent of the moment,” Pellas said.

The goal of these changes is to make the game feel like it always has — but also to bring it ahead in time by a decade, with all the gaming trappings that come with the jump.

For example, Pellas mentioned one of the cinematic moments in “Shock and Awe,” the Modern Warfare mission in which a nuclear weapon is detonated, causing the helicopter the player is riding in to crash — and causing another soldier to be sucked out of the helicopter’s door in the chaos. Raven added first-person animations to the scene, but was careful to maintain Infinity Ward’s original intention.

“In our ‘Shock and Awe,’ you’ll actually see the first-person hand come up and try to block the light that’s blaring in your eyes,” he said. “So you see the ‘god rays’ kind of come through the hand, and you’ll also see that in that moment before that guy gets sucked out, you’re actually reaching to grab him, because you can see him going. And then when he goes, we’re not trying to change the narrative and put something in that wasn’t really there, but we wanted to emphasize that that was supposed to be an emotional moment, and IW intended it to be an emotional moment.”

And in practice, Modern Warfare Remastered is pretty impressive. Compared to this year’s Call of Duty, Infinite Warfare, Modern Warfare Remastered has a different, more deliberate pace. Yet, somehow, it feels right at home in the modern shooter space.

Those hardcore fans Pellas wanted to court seem to be responding well to it, too. At this month’s Call of Duty XP fan event, quite a few fans wandering the halls could be overheard discussing how impressed they were with Raven’s work. Pellas said that while he and the studio knew Modern Warfare Remastered was going well when they shared it in playtests with other Call of Duty developer, it was still a load off to find actual players enjoying the title.

“Hopefully this roller coaster is going to feel familiar to gamers who’ve lived it before,” Pellas said, “but it’s going to feel modern and belong in the space today to people who may not have been exposed to it before.”