Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Review
When developer Infinity Ward and publisher Activision announced that Call of Duty 4 was going to take place in a modern-day setting rather than World War II, I breathed a sigh of relief. First person shooters and Nazi-killing have gone hand in hand since the invention of the genre, but it was really getting tired. But then I asked myself - if the only thing Infinity Ward has been doing for most of the last ten years was WW2 games, can they actually pull off a game that takes the signature cinematic action they're famous for and do it right in a totally new setting? I'm happy to say that yes, they most certainly can.
Call of Duty 4 takes place in both the former Soviet Union and the Middle East as the many nuclear weapons start to disappear from those Russian countries and appear in the hands of terrorists not too far south of them. As is in Call of Duty fashion, you'll be playing as multiple soldiers in this new fight on nuclear terrorism, from the U.S. Army and Marine Corps as well as the British S.A.S. But the tours of duty of each of the soldiers you play as don't go quite as smoothly as they have in past Call of Duty games, and I think you'll find that the level of emotion in this one really gets turned up since it's possible for some of this stuff to happen today - and what happens will make a much bigger impression on you than any WW2 game would.
CoD4 doesn't directly mirror real-life events, but it does pretty much start out with a worst-case scenario for our next decade or so. There's a military coup in some random Middle Eastern country, one that happens to be holding a ton of ex-Soviet nukes, and the Americans and British are sent in to intervene. The Ukraine is one of the targets for the British S.A.S. as they try to track down the source of the nukes, while the U.S. forces are on the front, right there in these dirty, realistic cities in the desert. Few games have captured the detail level of a modern-day Middle Eastern city, at least when compared to photos from over there, but Call of Duty 4 does that well. And its depictions of snowy Russian rural areas - including a trip to Pripyat, the city which housed many of the people working at Chernobyl - are very convincing and do a great job to immerse you.
This series of games has always done a good job pacing the action with slow moments along with fast-paced ones, and you also won't just get to see the action from the perspective of a ground soldier. Sometimes you'll get to man the side-mounted grenade launcher in a troop transport helicopter, or in one of the game's best moments, even get into the gunner's seat of an AC-130 gunship to have the spotter calmly point out targets as you click a button here and there to take out buildings, vehicles, and troops. It's ironic to me that when videos first surfaced of the real-life AC-130 in action in Afghanistan, that people criticized the plane and said it dehumanized the killing aspect of war too much - that the AC-130's "TV" system of taking out people was too much like a video game. Well, here we are, doing it in an actual video game. It's a ton of fun, but it also gets you thinking, too.
When you're not controlling multi-million dollar killing machines, your arsenal will consist of a nice mix of modern weaponry: semi-automatic shotguns, a range of rifles, light machine guns, grenade launcher attachments, night-vision goggles, silencers, big chunky things that I can't even describe but make nice flaming husks out of enemy tanks, that kind of thing. All of them sound great and look excellent, and you'll have a blast using them. But the biggest thing is that Infinity Ward is one of the first developers to truly embrace the wall-penetrating properties of today's weaponry.
Yes, Counter-Strike has allowed people to shoot through walls and doors for many years now, but it never worked quite the way it does in real life. Here, the many types of surfaces you'll have enemies hiding behind offer a lot of tactical choices you'll have to make that you never had to make before. Sometimes the only thing separating you and your enemy's body is a bit of drywall, but it might be a long way off. With a basic sight and no sniper rifle around, it's often best to just hit your enemy behind the wall rather than wait for him to to pop his head out for a pinpoint shot. They might be hiding behind some tougher cinderblock walls and you may have to get up closer to toss a grenade in. It's not long before you, as the gamer, will be constantly taking into account how penetrable your enemies' cover really is, and it's a nice addition of depth that gamers will get accustomed to very smoothly.
While this is probably the best Call of Duty yet, there are still a few staples of the series that have stayed the same and in some ways detract from the action. For example, a couple of the guys in your smaller S.A.S. squad are pretty much un-killable, as it wouldn't make any sense for a group pinned down behind enemy lines to get reinforcements. For the larger fights as an American soldier, yes, your buddies will die and get replaced by someone with a different name. Since they all kind of have the same voice (and, like in past games, will pretty accurately point out enemy positions by yelling out) it works, but in all circumstances the squad A.I. still only pays attention to where you are and not what you're doing.
For example: you're looking through the scope of a Dragunov sniper rifle and are about to take someone out at long range. You click the left stick to hold your breath and steady your aim, start squeezing the trigger, and all of a sudden all you can see is a close-up of Private Dingbat's hip. You see, your idiotic squad will completely ignore whatever it is you're doing and often only move with you when you move up. And when they adjust or move around, they will just walk right into your line of fire, even if you've been pumping out a stream of bullets from a light machine gun for a few seconds already. Sometimes, you might even lose the mission due to friendly fire! (Luckily, the generous checkpoint system means you won't have to backtrack too much.) This has happened a lot in the Call of Duty series in the past and it's got to stop, as everything has been tweaked over the years except this; it's really embarrassing nowadays.
The multiplayer modes in Call of Duty 4 are played out pretty similar to what we've seen in past games. Simple deathmatch and team-based games are what you'll see at first, and at first they don't really seem to have much depth, but it turns out that in this game, the gunplay is actually really good for online modes like this. Those weapons you played with offline are pretty deadly when turned against you; unlike in the single player game, the terrorist faction that's playable online has access to all of the guns, not just AK-47s. Bullets hit really hard in CoD4 and you can die in a single sniper headshot, but with the triumphant return of the Killcam system, which was missing from the third game, you'll get to see exactly how you died (even if the way the game engine handles lag also makes the Killcams look a little iffy sometimes). The 360 version of the game supports 18 players over Live, and while the frame rate and network stability did drop a bit with over 16 players on a map, I still had a blast.
The multiplayer maps look great, with an excellent variety of up-close or distance-based action in urban and rural settings. The online play runs at around 60fps most of the time, so you can fully expect to have a smooth match when playing online. The matchmaking system isn't quite as robust as what we saw in Halo 3, but it's still solid and shouldn't disappoint you too much if you are looking for a game to mix up the Master Chief-based action in your online sessions. New this time is the ability to "rank up" to unlock guns, attachments, and the new perks that let you penetrate through walls better, take more bullets before you go down, disappear off enemy radar and UAV scans, and more. It adds up to a deep game that lets you still readily kill people who have ranked up and unlocked all of the guns, but it also gives you a solid motivator to keep playing and get your own ranks.
Once you rank up a few times, all of a sudden those five "classes" you've been having to choose from go away and you get to create your own custom weapon loadout, and that's where this game gets really fun online. And while there actually are a lot of interesting gameplay modes here, I'm a little doubtful that we'll see people playing anything more than the basic DM and Team DM modes; I guess it remains to be seen what the community gravitates to, but if the CoD4 beta and current matches on Halo 3 are any indicator, then it seems that people don't really like trying out gameplay rules they're not used to. Still, the online play also gets a good kick in the butt with an optional Hardcore ruleset that changes the game to include friendly fire and removes the HUD, radar, Killcam, and a couple of other things that make playing Call of Duty more convenient or accessible. Infinity Ward has done a great job trying to add a level of depth that might actually be explored in the coming year or two, but it's up to the players to actually crawl out of their plain deathmatch shell and give them a shot.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is the best game in the series yet, largely due to the change in setting and the level of emotion that Infinity Ward has embedded into their story. While it lacks the many cooperative play options of other games, it's still got great action in the style of previous Call of Duty titles and fierce online play with satisfying gunfights and a great progression system. Everything that made this series famous is here, and I think you'll be surprised just at how well it all works in the new modern day setting. There are a hell of a lot of new action games available on the 360 this holiday season, and this one should definitely be at least near the top of your list.