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Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Preview

By Jeff Buckland, 8/25/2007

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Even the guys who made arguably the best World War II action game are sick of doing it. Infinity Ward, creators of the first two Call of Duty games (the third was handed off to developer Treyarch), are hard at work on Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare which takes a sort of alternate look at a modern-day conflict. In it, the Russian Army are fighting against the US Army and British SAS; they're duking it out in many areas of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I got a chance to try the new multiplayer beta and I have to say I'm pretty impressed with what I'm seeing so far.

The 360 multiplayer beta includes three maps. "Vacant" takes place in and around a large, busted up office building somewhere in the former USSR - many of the walls are concrete which governs a certain style of play (more on that later) while the outdoor areas are unforgiving and players can easily outflank one another. "Crash" is somewhere in the Middle East, surrounding the crash site of a Sea Knight helicopter, and it features plenty of rooftop, street-level, and more vertically-oriented fights. "Overgrown" is out in the European country somewhere and most closely resembles maps from Call of Duty 2 - it's more open than the other two so snipers have a somewhat larger advantage here.

New to Call of Duty multiplayer with this fourth game are several unique features. First, there are levels you rise through, like military ranks, and you permanently unlock new weapons, perks, and challenges as you go. There are five preset character classes to choose from - Assault, Spec Ops, Light Machine Gunner, Demolitions, and Sniper - but the best part is that once you've reached a certain level, you can create your own class and pick and choose your weapon loadout as well as optional grenades and perks.

Perks are passive abilities that give you a unique edge in battle. Some perks are simple, allowing you to do more damage or take more damage overall. Others allow you to sprint for longer or fire through weaker walls more effectively. Still others are more complex, giving you silent steps, invisibility on enemy UAV (similar to radar sweeps that would make you show up on their minimap as a red dot), or even Last Stand, which gives you the chance to hit the ground once you're taken down and fire a pistol at a few enemies before you give up the ghost.

The current beta includes quite a few weapons to try out, including the M16A4, the AK47 and M4 for assault rifles, M21 and M40A3 sniper rifles, W1200 pump shotgun, MP5 and Skorpion submachine guns, a few pistols, and the M249 S.A.W. and RPD machine guns. There will be more in the full game, but for now the level cap in the beta is set at 11 so several of the guns cannot be unlocked. There are also suppressor, sight and scope upgrades for some guns, RPG launchers, several types of grenades, some explosives, and more. Some of the more interesting perks are also disabled in this beta, although what we do get to play with really do make a difference when you get in there. Many of these are unlocked either by gaining ranks or by completing various challenges (your progress in these carry over from one match to the next) that require you to get headshots, call in UAV recon, or just plain get kills with certain weapons.

The gameplay modes thrown in here are plain Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Team Tactical and Team Objective modes (the latter two of which are not really popular online just yet). These are not really innovative and play pretty similarly to how they did in past CoD titles, but fortunately it's the gunplay that's solid and keeps you coming back. What is of note is that the Killcam, removed in the third game by Treyarch, is triumphantly back along with a system that pretty much lets you respawn immediately once you die. Throw in an overall faster, more hectic speed, and this is definitely a more intense game than Infinity Ward's previous games. There's also a "Hardcore" gameplay mode in the works where weapons do more damage, the HUD, Killcam, and minimap are removed completely, and friendly fire is permanently on - hopefully we'll get a chance to try this mode sometime later on in the beta.

Instead of just having a guy yell "Killing Spree" when you start getting several kills in a row without any deaths, Call of Duty 4 rewards you with special abilities. Get three kills in a row and you get 30 seconds of a UAV - a spy plane - putting the enemy positions on your minimap. Five kills, and you can call in an airstrike via a top-down map that kills anyone in the path. Seven, and you can call in a friendly helicopter to circle the battlefield shooting at your enemies until one of them takes it down with an RPG. All of these work in both Deathmatch (where everyone's an enemy and the UAV only works for you) or in teamplay modes to benefit all of your teammates or hurt just the enemy team.

Weapons fire through walls here, and that really makes a difference. Besides having different weapons with their own penetrative powers, you can use a perk to increase your ability to shoot through walls and the different surfaces offer different resistances. Got an M4 in your hand and a sniper hiding next to a window on the opposite side of the street? It's drywall, so just pop him right through the wall for a nice surprise on his Killcam. Running from an enemy that has more firepower than you can handle? Toss a grenade and duck behind the concrete barrier, rather than the sheet metal wall that has been hastily put up next to it. It adds a level of depth that may seem frustrating if you don't know how to take advantage of at first, but once you get the hang of it it becomes a useful and fun part of the game.

There are a few issues I picked up on in the beta. One is that the HUD is kind of cluttered and really could use some cleaning up, or at least options to configure or turn off various elements of it. Is there a need for a World of Warcraft-style experience bar at the bottom of my screen at all times? The notifications of the various items and ammo you have are confusing too, with some control assignments placed on D-pad directions while others are on bumper buttons and the like. With a little cleaning up, this could become a pretty nice system. Another issue is with the Last Stand perk and some rather strange animations to go along with it. Finally, I think that the Vacant map has just too many convoluted hallways all over the place, meaning that you are getting shot in the back more often than by someone you can actually see.

This beta is currently limited to 12 players at once. CoD3 had a limit of 24 players and the fights were pretty nasty once vehicles got into the mix, so I do hope we have the option for more players. Infinity Ward has gone on the record saying that the current limit hasn't been set in stone and that they have the capability to go higher with the final release of CoD4, so for now we will have to wait and see how this plays out.

Besides that, I'm having a hard time finding things to complain about. The weapons feel satisfying and once you learn how to use the left trigger to aim in a hurry, the guns are accurate and pack a lot of punch. The visuals are better than any past CoD game with well-detailed environments and characters. The death animations, brought to you partly by ragdoll physics, are much more realistic (and less goofy-looking) than in just about any game to date. The overpowering "Depth of Field" special effect that blurred a few too many things in CoD3 has made it into this game, but the magnitude has been reduced quite a bit to make it less of a gameplay thing and more of an eye candy feature. Finally, the game seems to run at a silky smooth 60fps at pretty much all times, and while I'm not sure that it'll be the same in single player, one can certainly hope.

While there's a whole single player mode that I haven't gotten to try, I am definitely going to be grabbing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare just for the multiplayer mode. The game's set to be released on November 5th this year for PC, Xbox 360, and PS3.



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