Review by Evil Dave

Reviewed: 07/07/08

Call of Duty 4 is simply outstanding, and a definite must-buy for any shooter fan.

World War II is played out. It’s been done to death in videogames – and particularly in first-person shooters – to the point of becoming an industry cliche, invoked whenever the Axis-and-Allies description rears its head for a product. This deterioration of a once-proud setting is largely due to game publishers’ affinity for sequels – an affliction that has consumed many a formidable brand over the course of gaming history. Though there are plenty of offenders responsible for this blatant overuse of an historical period, a select few have attained such status as to see their games instantaneously associated with the second Great War.

Call of Duty is one such franchise. The initial game hit store shelves in 2003, and since then the series has seen a nearly-annual parade of sequels across virtually every gaming platform. Of course, it’s not fair to dismiss these titles as examples of the derivative crud that populates the WWII genre; in actuality, despite a pair of sub-par console-exclusive spinoffs, both of the main sequels to the highly lauded original have been similarly praised. In contrast to the initial two numbered releases, though, Call of Duty 3, marked the first time that the series was universally called out for seeming to lack the spark that had kept the franchise so popular over the previous few years. Concurrent to that game’s publication, at Call of Duty 2 developer Infinity Ward (who did not take part in the production of CoD3) there was a palpable feeling following the release of CoD2 that it was time to move the property in a new direction.

And so, a few weeks after the fourth anniversary of the original CoD’s release on the PC, here we sit, with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare ready and begging to be purchased. As you might expect from its name, Modern Warfare serves to translate CoD-style gameplay from the staid WWII background into a current-day (or roughly equivalent) conflict. To accompany its new settings, the game is also the first in the series to include an entirely self-contained, movie-like plot for its single-player campaign; of course, if wouldn’t be a complete CoD game if it didn’t ship with a deep multiplayer component as well, and so Modern Warfare also supports a full range of online and offline competitive options for players to invest their time with. The result of this new direction is a game that bears the franchise name and many of its design quirks, but that feels and plays like something wholly unique. So, while it may feel somewhat strange to play a Call of Duty game without seeing a single Nazi, this new formula works, and in a spectacular way – so much so, in fact, that Modern Warfare may just erase that WWII association in many gamers’ minds.

Aesthetics/Acoustics:

We’re now almost two years into the current generation of consoles, so it’s safe to say that any major game releases from here on out are going to look at least very good. With that two-year head start in mind, CoD4’s visuals have the added luck of being based off of the graphical engine that powered Call of Duty 2, which was regarded as one of the best-looking games of 2005. Pedigrees and development advantages aside, hands-on experience with Modern Warfare affords ample evidence that Infinity Ward has taken the game’s presentation to an even more outstanding level.

After completing the prologue chapter, you’re given a very abrupt introduction to CoD4’s vastly improved character models, as you find yourself thrust into the on-rails role of a Middle Eastern politician being dragged to his own execution. Through his eyes, you’ll gain an appreciation for how intricately detailed each character’s appearance is, from their apparel to their extremely lifelike facial features. Thanks to extensive use of motion-capture, seeing the characters in motion is almost uncanny, as their every movement is brought to life with impeccable accuracy. From sprinting to hurtling obstacles, each soldier clearly conveys the heft and force behind their actions – and aside from an occasional stutter, the various animations flow together seamlessly.

Environments in Modern Warfare cover a diverse array of locations, both indoors and outdoors. Most of them capture the ruined look of a contemporary battle zone beautifully, with crumbling buildings and ruined vehicles littering your path. You’ll be able to discern safe cover from flimsy shielding at a glance – an important consideration, given that bullets can penetrate many surfaces in the game. Numerous special effects are constantly in play, generating everything from real-time structural damage to gritty particle effects amidst the battlefield. Most remarkable of all, perhaps, is the game’s lighting engine. Shadows are incredibly dynamic, twisting and self-shading for every surface, while sudden transitions between lighter and darker conditions produce a brilliant glare effect that is as disorienting as it is spectacular. All this plays out at a near-constant 60 frames per second, with very infrequent hiccups in the frame rate occurring only when something major (such as a helicopter) is on-screen in close proximity to your character.

Not to be outdone, the sound production in CoD4 is as superb as the visuals. Each time you enter into combat, a cacophony of weapons fire, explosions, and the voices of your various friends and foes surrounds and envelopes you, sucking you into the moment in a way that’s really enthralling. Your fellow soldiers are what really draw you into each confrontation – their frantic screams are voiced absolutely perfectly, bringing an added gravity to the fighting that most games can’t claim. Little sound effects, like a grenades dropping and bouncing nearby, or bullets crashing into the wall near your head, are also a vivid reminder of how chaotic your present situation really is.

Modern Warfare features a rather large (for the series, at least) amount of out-of-combat voiceovers, which play out in scripted segments during gameplay or via mid-mission radio briefings. With only one or two exceptions, all of these lines are delivered wonderfully, and the actors do a great job breathing a measure of personality into some pretty one-dimensional characters. There’s little music to speak of in CoD4, but the few strains of rock that play every once in a while do a decent job of accompanying the action when they pop up. There’s this really awesome rap song that plays during the credits, too, so you’ve got something to look forward to when you’re stuck watching the developers’ names scroll.

There aren’t many games that portray the sights and sounds of war correctly. War is loud, dirty, and violent, and it takes a lot of hard work and patience to recreate that on someone’s TV screen within the context of a videogame. Call of Duty 4 is an example of such a vision coming to fruition, and the result is a virtual take on war that you’ve never encountered before.

Score: 10/10

Setting/Plot:

With the World War II setting now finally retired, CoD4 sports an all-new, entirely fictitious plot that aspires to modernize the conflict in which the game is set. In keeping with series tradition, you’ll once again play the roles of more than one soldier through the course of the game’s three acts; most of your time will be spent as ‘Soap’ MacTavish, a British SAS trooper, while a portion of the first act casts you as Sgt. Paul Johnson of Marine Force Recon.

Your adventure starts out with a little political intrigue, as your SAS squadmate ‘Gaz’ describes a geopolitical situation in which Russia is embroiled in a civil war, while the Middle East harbors a militaristic depot named Al Asad who dreams of expanding his power base. As you might expect, Al Asad does just that, triggering a Marine response to quell the subsequent upheaval. Further east, the SAS begin operations against the Ultranationalist dissidents in Russia by launching a rescue mission for an informant. Without getting too specific, Act I ends rather explosively, and the repercussions from that event lead the SAS to hunt down Al Asad themselves, revisit an episode from team leader Captain Price’s past, and ultimately join forces with the Marines to confront an imminent threat to the population of the U.S.

Infinity Ward seems to have taken quite a bit of inspiration from the Tom Clancy series of novels as they wrote Modern Warfare’s script, as most of their story conventions are not terribly original. For what it’s worth, though, the plot is suitably tense, and the almost unthinkable twist that ends the first act is enough to send a chill down anyone’s spine. As a matter of fact, the entire story is very bleak – the cold, hard, life-and-death reality of war isn’t candy-coated one bit, which will undoubtedly be a bitter pill to swallow for some players. That’s a good thing, though, because the more games quit watering down the harsh nature of the concepts they commoditize, the more seriously their content will end up being taken.

While they’re not terribly interesting characters, your teammates in the SAS (mainly Gaz and Captain Price) and Force Recon (Lt. Vasquez in Act I, Sgt. Griggs in the final two acts) are amusing companions who bring a lot of zeal to their activities. You don’t really get to know any background information about anyone, and so they all remain little more than cookie-cutter soldier cliches; fortunately enough, though, you’ll probably never care anyway, because they seem to exist mainly to spout off witty dialogue and military jargon. If nothing else, you’ll take away a few really neat one-liners from the experience of fighting alongside them.

It’s readily apparent that CoD4 is Infinity Ward’s first attempt at writing a war story without World War II as a backdrop. The moderately interesting characters and rather generic plot aren’t going to keep your attention for very long, but the harsh tone of the story is one that could stick with you for quite some time.

Score: 7/10

Single-Player Gameplay:

Single-player gameplay in the Call of Duty series has always been all about ‘wow’ moments. Those memorable snippets of gameplay are what made the franchise a mainstay in the World War II shooter scene – and their reinvention for the context of modern-day combat are what place Call of Duty 4 head-and-shoulders ahead of the shooter crowd.

From the standpoint of gameplay basics, things haven’t changed all that much from what gamers remember in Call of Duty 2. You’ll still play as a single soldier fighting alongside a group of allies in several of the large-scale infantry operations for which the franchise is known; yet, with the series now set during (roughly) current times, the developers at Infinity Ward had a lot more leeway in designing the mission structure. In keeping with the idea that present-day military operations tend to focus less on troop strength and more on superior tactics and firepower, a good number of the levels cast you not as a regular-Joe grunt, but as a member of a smaller, more tactical group of Special Forces operatives. It’s here, when the game steps back from the gung-ho assault stuff, that it’s at its best, delivering on its promises of compelling, high-stakes modern warfare.

In terms of actual gameplay, this means that you won’t spend all of your time shooting at bad guys within the scope of a large battle; instead, the combat you’ll engage in tends to be more abstract, along the lines of infiltration or extraction missions. Make no mistake about it – though this might seem somewhat unsatisfying, given the high-intensity nature of the gunplay, it can be utterly gripping to experience. Case in point: one mission requires you and a single CPU teammate to infiltrate an enemy base to set up a sniper perch for an assassination attempt. To do this, you must literally crawl through an open field, with your ghillie suit camouflage as your only concealment, as a small army of approaching enemy soldiers and APCs pass directly next to you. It’s taut moments like those that really drive home the fact that this isn’t your grandfather’s war anymore.

That’s not to say that you’ll spend all your time creeping around behind enemy lines; in fact, the head-on firefights you’ll get into easily match the tension-fraught stealth segments. One minute, you’re storming a listing freighter in the middle of the ocean; the next, you’re rescuing a downed helicopter pilot amidst an onslaught of unfriendly gunfire. That assassination you furtively crept around to perform? Once you’ve taken the shot, you’re stuck frantically fighting for your life as you make your way to, and await, extraction from the combat zone. One mission even pulls you off the ground, planting you in an AC-130 gunship to cover your teammates’ escape with the plane’s overwhelming firepower. Not for one moment will you get a ‘been there, done that’ feeling over the course of the campaign, thanks to the impressive assortment of unique situations the game throws you into.

No matter what objective you’re chasing, the game always feels smooth and responsive with the PS3 controller. The Call of Duty ‘aim down the sights’ contrivance works wonderfully with the modern armaments (and gun sights) present in CoD4, so you’ll always feel completely in control of your shots. You’ll come to appreciate just how important that can be when you realize how many different weapons there are in the game – more than twenty-five firearms, plus an assortment of grenade launchers, RPGs, claymores, and other explosive toys. Specialty grenades are also a boon to the gameplay, as a well-placed flashbang can be your best friend when you’re clearing a room filled with bad guys with guns.

For the most part, those antagonists will put up a decent fight. They’re not the smartest foes you’ll ever see in a videogame, but the enemy A.I. is still pretty solid, and holds its own in just about every situation. They use cover effectively, keeping their bodies well-shielded from sources of incoming fire, and they’re talented at quickly popping out from that cover to take a few shots at you; they’ll also keep you on your toes by tossing a live grenade into your lap if you’ve hung out in one spot for too long. For experienced players, they won’t pose much of a threat in small numbers, but they’ll usually show up in droves, keeping the odds pretty even. Your teammates are roughly just as intelligent, though the main characters who accompany you throughout the game have the good fortune of being invincible, which obviously renders them a bit more useful than the average jarhead. There will be times when their presence impedes your movement and results in a cheap death, but they’ll also save your hide once in a while, so it ultimately balances out.

About the only problem with the single-player content in CoD4 is the series’ continued employment of infinite-enemy closets. Should you decide to hunker down and catch your breath for a minute, you’ll never be able to clear the area around you of enemy combatants, thanks to wave after wave of reinforcements that will unceasingly crash down upon you until you’ve advanced up near the point from which those enemies are spawning. Fans of previous games in the series will understand the frustration of being perpetually forced to move forward, which feels like a relic from a bygone era in game development. It’s a minor quibble, and one that likely won’t even cross your mind as you play, but it’s one for which other design solutions were available.

From the moment you rope down from your first helicopter to the thrilling final escape sequence, Call of Duty 4’s electrifying single-player gameplay will have you on the edge of your seat, anxious to tackle the next set of unforgettable circumstances it puts you into.

Score: 10/10

Multiplayer Gameplay:

While all of the previous releases in the Call of Duty series have found critical acclaim for their single-player gameplay, those titles’ multiplayer components rarely merited more than passing approval for their playability. With such a moderately successful background, CoD4’s stupendous multiplayer experience feels almost like a revelation, achieving a perfect storm of sorts by combining its predecessors’ solid gameplay with the trappings of modern combat.

At first glance, one would be hard-pressed to find more than superficial differences between the old and the new Call of Duty multiplayer. You’ll still compete in standard game modes such as Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Search-and-Destroy, Headquarters, and Domination, as well as a handful of variations on these that may (for example) remove your HUD and turn friendly fire on. Beyond the game types, though, the gameplay itself feels almost entirely reinvented, largely thanks to the vastly improved atmosphere of the contemporary setting. Just about everything cool from the campaign made it into the multiplayer, too, so you’ll never run dry of stuff to try against other players. All of those awesome gameplay moments in which you’ll partake during single-player – like watching an opposing player run obliviously past you, thanks to your ghillie suit – feel indescribably sweeter when your opposition is comprised of actual people. The smooth feel of the presentation and controls are translated completely in tact as well, so the changeover from story-driven to competitive play is as seamless as it gets.

What really keeps the experience fresh (and addictive), though, are the two ingenious systems Infinity Ward implemented into online play. The first revolves around RPG-style stat accumulation, where each gamer’s account maintains persistent statistics throughout their career. Players earn ‘XP’ (think MMO-style experience points) as they complete matches or achieve in-game objectives, like killing opposing players or defusing bombs. The online interface also includes a complex, multi-tiered list of ‘challenges’ that can be achieved for XP rewards, ranging from the simple (kill X amount of enemy players with such-and-such gun) to the virtually impossible (play an entire full-length match without dying). Accumulating XP increases your rank, which in turn unlocks new challenges, weapons, and ‘perks’ for use in future games.

The second of the additions to multiplayer, perks, are Modern Warfare’s concession to class-based games. Each player is given the opportunity to customize their avatar by selecting three perks from a pool of about twenty before dropping into a match. Every perk slightly modifies the way you’ll play – one allows you to sprint slightly farther, one allows you to carry extra grenades, etc. With these abilities, gamers can tailor a unique setup to suit their comfort zone, without needing to accept the broad limitations of inflexible character classes. The alterations are never more than skin-deep, though, and so they don’t eclipse the basic gameplay to any great extent, keeping the playing field level for players of all ranks. It’s a really efficient system, and the various potential permutations will almost assuredly induce at good deal of experimentation from anyone who pours time into the multiplayer.

In the end, all of the various facets that comprise CoD4’s multiplayer – the perk system, the XP grind, the awesome controls, the ridiculously cool stuff you can do – coalesce into a gameplay experience that you can simply lose yourself in for days. There’s nothing terribly innovative about the entire package, but what’s in there is built so virtually flawless that any shooter fan is sure to get a ton of mileage out of it, even amidst this crowded genre at the peak of the holiday rush. It’s just that good.

Put quite simply, Call of Duty 4 is one of the best multiplayer shooters to ever grace a console. For a series that’s never been more than a multiplayer also-ran, that’s an almost complete – though entirely welcome – surprise.

Score: 10/10

Features/Value:

Although Call of Duty 4 is one of the most spectacular single-player shooters released to date, it has one glaring drawback: its length. On the Normal difficulty setting, it will take most players only around five or six hours to blow through the entirety of the campaign, from prologue to epilogue. Higher difficulty settings pad the playthrough time by varying amounts, though this results more from the punishing challenge than anything else – series fans will be pleased to know that Veteran is still ludicrously hard, to the point of requiring luck to succeed almost equally with skill. Completing the game also unlocks an arcade mode for the single-player missions, but there’s little reason to bother with it.

Thankfully, any player who finds the solo content even faintly agreeable will undoubtedly unearth restitution in the deep, accessible multiplayer element. Online play is fully supported, with game sizes varying between 12 and 18 players, and latency is rarely ever a problem during internet play. The online community for the game is already startlingly vibrant, so you’ll never have to wait very long to get into a match and let loose. For gamers with more actual friends than internet friends, system link and split-screen play are both available as well, although this isn’t a game that you’ll want to share screen space for.

While its multiplayer gameplay is as deep as you’ll find in any shooter on the market today, the brevity of the single-player portion is likely to leave a bad taste in many players’ mouths.

Score: 8/10

Total Score:

Call of Duty 4 is not the best game to come out this year. It can’t hold a candle to some of the more ground-breaking titles that have been released during the past twelve months, and it knows it. You know what, though? When gamers have grown tired of all the inventive and original new games they’ve been playing recently, CoD4 will be right there, beckoning to them like a comfortable old couch or a pair of worn-out jeans. It’s true that there’s nothing in this game that evolves or adapts the shooter genre – but so what? It comes so darn close to perfecting its strain of first-person gameplay that anyone who has ever enjoyed a few hours of shooting stuff will unquestionably have fun playing it – and that’s all that matters.

If you’ve ever played and liked a first-person shooter on a console, then Call of Duty 4 is the perfect game for you. Otherwise, you’re best off either trying the game out with a rental first, or just sticking with the boatload of other games out there this holiday season.

Score: 9/10 (not an average)

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Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Product Release: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (US, 11/05/07)

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