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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare review

They say war is hell. Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare takes you to the very depths of Hades.

The long-awaited COD4, IW's follow-up to the excellent Call of Duty 2, is a jarring, intense, and gripping take on war in the new millennia. The enemies are smarter, the weapons are deadlier, and the grenades all too plentiful. COD4 will shake loose your fillings and have you begging for more.

But as any Call of Duty fan can tell you, the people at Infinity Ward are skilled storytellers and masterful scenarists. It's because of this that Modern Warfare finds itself in the company of movies like Black Hawk Down, rife with intense portrayals of serious and complicated situations that, though perhaps not entirely realistic, still convey to the rest of the nonenlisted world how war might feel: completely f***ed up.

The premise is loosely based on several volatile political situations on the other side of the world: A bloody coup occurs in an unnamed Middle Eastern nation that is fed up with Western influence and perceived imperialism. A Russian ultranationalist offshoot is trying to influence the outcome and use the Arab state's upheaval as a distraction for more nefarious and immediate plans. It's as much CNN as it is recent seasons of 24 -- events and timelines obviously exaggerated for effect. The story unfolds from an unapologetic "us versus them, and they are wrong" perspective, with little time spent on the larger philosophy of war. And that's fine, because it's ultimately a story about how soldiers execute their orders: efficiently, without question, with no room for pulpits.

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Call of Duty is one of those roller coaster-type games, where you sit back and let the game guide you down one hopefully thrilling path. But the trick to pulling off a successful linear shooter is breaking the player away from the rails every so often, and that's accomplished by making encounters engaging and avoiding repetitive situations. Jumping between American, British, and Russian troops worked well in Call of Duty 2 and the same method applies for COD4. You alternate missions under British SAS and U.S. Marine Corps command, but both squads are linked by attacking the same ultimate goal from different angles, and because of that variance, it always feels like what you're doing is a vital part of winning the war (without developing into the stereotypical one-man army).

Moonlight rescue missions, frontal assaults and panicked extractions, sniper infiltrations and assassinations, ambushes and support roles, small teams and big squads...even though you're using the same guns and grenades throughout the entire game, every objective you're told to complete is a different exciting experience.

A mission begins with your squad moving through the countryside and taking out enemy positions. It's tense, and the firefights are frequent. But halfway through, you're transported high in the sky on an AC-130 gunship, peering through a black-and-white scope at small dots on the ground. The fancy graphics and sound disappear, creating an odd sense of security as you continue guiding the squad to its objective by clearing the path ahead with the AC-130's massive guns. The calm, nonchalant radio chatter of the airplane's operators replaces the screams for help. And then you're back on the ground in the thick of it -- an excellent example of the game manipulating your expectations of the series. When they're done well, scripted sequences work.
Unless you're playing on the Hardened difficulty setting, for that's where the scripted nature works against the game. Thanks to the more powerful enemies and less powerful armor, Hardened is always a challenge, and frequently a repetitive frustration. The checkpoint system is almost perfectly laid out, but there are certain "brick wall" areas that overwhelm you with punishing enemy fire and little recourse. Repeated attempts reveal enemy patterns and behaviors, and once you can anticipate that it feels like a shooting gallery. You start out impressed with the unknown combat scenario, but that feeling gives way to "and now two guys will run through this door..." In short, play through on Normal the first time for medium challenge and maximum enjoyment of the set pieces, and then challenge your skills later.

Just as the campaign is a satisfying thrill, COD4's multiplayer is treated with equal craftsmanship. A party system fueled by a wealth of playlists of differing maps and modes provides for near-endless entertainment, and a combination leveling/in-game achievement system keeps the carrot at the end of the stick. From levels 1 through 55, there are various rewards to unlock: new weapons, attachments, camouflages, and "perks." These perks are extra abilities that you can grant your character that give you certain advantages. Stopping Power makes your shots more powerful, Deep Impact allows for better bullet penetration through materials, Last Stand lets you draw your sidearm when you've been shot for a final attempt at revenge...other perks allow you to carry more ammo and grenades. And for every weapon, there are challenges that you can complete to unlock further upgrades. Most boil down to "shoot enough people," but there are more interesting challenges, like shooting down enemy helicopter support.

Xbox 360 Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in game play video:

he best way to contain so many options is by total character and class customization. The Create-a-Class feature lets you differentiate your weapon loadout and perk assignments dependent on the situation. There are default classes like "Assault" and "Sniper," but this is the best way to employ your rewards in the game's various multiplayer modes. With 55 levels of progression (and multiple passes through the ladder -- you can surrender all of your unlocked stuff and start over with an emblem of honor), it can be daunting for those starting out at the bottom. You don't get much cool gear or perks, and you'll likely be trounced in the first handful of games by guys who can run faster and shoot better than you. But advancement is quick, and you'll get new guns, better sights, and more valuable perks soon enough -- and that quest for better gear is when the addiction sets in.

With proven mechanics, brilliant visuals and sound, a satisfying campaign, and robust multiplayer, COD4 is one of the best FPS packages of the year -- no small feat, considering the competition.