Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare marks a dramatic shift for the franchise. The days of World War II have been left behind for the present day, and the historical basis has been dropped in favor of a fictional conflict. Can the staples of the Call of Duty franchise survive the time shift?
Call of Duty 4 drops the player in the midst of two conflicts, against ultranationalist forces in a Russia in the midst of civil war, and against the forces of Kahled Al-Asad that have staged a coup in an unnamed Middle Eastern nation. It quickly becomes apparent that the two conflicts are connected, and that the leader of the ultranationalist forces, Victor Zakhaev, is providing the bankroll for Al-Asad’s coup. Just in case anyone was wondering about which side is in the right, Infinity Ward went well out of their way to make sure that the enemy forces were shown to be inherently evil with a segment that puts you in control of the deposed president of the mystery nation on the way to his televised execution. Toss in a healthy dose of slaughtering civilians and Infinity Ward has created an enemy that no one can sympathize with.
Players bounce between battlefields in the Middle East and in Russia, and from a cargo ship in the Bering Straits to the gunner’s seat in an AC-130 gunship. The campaign offers a good cross section of modern warfare. The SAS missions tend to be more stealth oriented, and showcase the role of special forces, while the USMC missions tend to focus more on larger firefights and large unit combat. The ‘on rails’ gunning sequences offer a nice break in the action and allow the player to take control of some of the powerful military technology they get to see at work around them in other missions. The variety between missions ensures that the campaign stays fresh and fun throughout.
Call of Duty 4’s storyline follows the lives of two soldiers, well three technically counting the flashback but it’s not that important, one of which is a US Marine, the other a new recruit to the Special Air Service. The story progresses much like you would expect, with the dashing and silent protagonists doing all sorts of heroic things and fighting their intrinsically evil enemy. Not surprisingly, the heroes prevail in the end. The one main difference is that Infinity Ward chose to make the theme of sacrifice central to the story. Let’s just say that Call of Duty 4 takes the saying “Freedom is bought with the blood of patriots” to heart.
One of the negative staples of the Call of Duty series has returned in the 4th game. The maddeningly steep difficulty spikes that have been present in every CoD game have returned. Just like in the previous games, players can be breezing through a level when they run into a particularly difficult segment, the sequence when you’re waiting for the helicopter at the end of the second flashback mission comes to mind, which stops them in their tracks. While difficulty spikes aren’t a problem that is limited to the Call of Duty games, the game certainly sets the bar with them.
Anyone who has followed the development of Call of Duty 4 knows about the plethora of weapons that are in the game. The sheer amount of choice is nice, but doesn’t come into play in the campaign often as there is plenty of ammo for the player’s starting weapons that switching is always an option, never a necessity. The real arena to showcase this gallery of death is in the multiplayer, where every weapon in the game is available for those with enough experience. Usually having so many weapons becomes largely irrelevant as one or two rise to the top and prove to be hands down better than the rest. This is not the case with Call of Duty 4, Infinity Ward has done an excellent job providing a good overall balance to the available weapons roster.
One of the best features in Call of Duty 4 is the bullet physics. Infinity Ward succeeded in making their series even more realistic by allowing bullets to pass through softer materials. No longer will your enemies hide behind picket fences and fire at you with impunity, the player can now shoot right through the fence and teach their enemies a lesson in choice of cover. This is an excellent addition that makes the game even more immersive and should become a staple in all FPS titles.
After finishing the campaign, players are given the option to try their hand at an Arcade mode. This mode simply lets players replay parts, or the entirety, of the campaign while earning a numerical score for their performance. It’s similar in fashion to the campaign scoring function of Halo 3 with one very important difference. The Arcade mode features leaderboards rather than related achievements. While this seems like a minuscule difference, it actually adds more replay value as players can keep trying to perfect their game to try and make it to the top of the class.
One of the downsides of the campaign is the lack of co-op. In a linear FPS like Call of Duty 4 there really isn’t any excuse for its absence. While co-op would have been new to the Call of Duty series, it needs to happen. Unlike games like Bioshock and The Darkness, the campaign does not offer enough on its own to offset the lack of co-op. Fortunately, Infinity Ward has greatly improved the AI of the NPCs so that they actually help the player. Usually AI squads amount to little more than meatshields, but the squad mates in CoD 4 actually help a lot and can be relied on most of the time.
The multiplayer aspect of Call of Duty 4 is one of the best implementations on the console. Had this game released three months ago, it would have been the undisputed king of multiplayer FPS games on the 360, but Halo 3 and Team Fortress 2 make for some stiff competition. Regardless of your feelings for the Call of Duty series, the multiplayer deserves your attention. The available gametypes are fun and varied. Playing different game types on the same map produces completely different experiences, and considering the number of gametypes and maps, you shouldn’t feel like your repeating yourself for a while. There’s a lot of variety in the maps which helps keep the multiplayer from getting stale despite hour after hour of play.
The online experience is extremely customizable. Players can create their own classes where they can use different weapon combinations. Players can unlock new features, like silencers or improved sights, for the weapons that are available to them, as well as unlocking additional perks. Perks are performance boosts and abilities, like additional health or bullets that penetrate surfaces more easily, that can dramatically change how a class plays. Sick of getting ganged up on? Toss the RPG perk onto your favorite class and teach your opponents a lesson for traveling in groups. The customization allows players to tailor their experience and greatly enhances the game’s value in the long run.
The multiplayer is not without its faults. After getting into a game, players can expect a smooth experience with lag being a rarity. Getting into the game can prove difficult, especially for parties. While finding a match is relatively easy, the game lobbies close down often enough to be noticeable, kicking the player back out to find another match. Parties can get split up as some members can get kicked out of a lobby while the rest of the party starts a match without them. While the problem isn’t debilitating, it does occur often enough to become a bother. The matchmaking aspect can also become annoying as it doesn’t seem to take skill into account when forming teams. The size of parties entering matchmaking also isn’t taken into account, so a group of total strangers can get paired up against a bunch of friends or clanmates who proceed to use their superior teamwork to hand out a beat down. There’s also no way for the match to switch hosts after it has started, so if a host decides to quit, then the match immediately ends. While these faults won’t deter you from playing online, they certainly impact the overall experience.
Call of Duty 4’s online aspect works off of a rank system. Players get XP for kills and completing match objectives and ‘challenges’, a kind of achievement like system that offers XP as a reward rather than gamerscore points. This XP allows the player to advance in rank and unlock new weapons and playlists. This feature is a double edged sword. It gives the hardcore players goals and rewards to work for, but also creates a large barrier to the casual players and newcomers to the game. The weapon unlock system helps the game’s replay value in the long run, but also makes the learning curve much steeper than it needs to be. Getting killed over and over again by players with better weapons and perks can get really annoying when you only have access to an M16 with an iron sight. The available playlists are even restricted, and when players start they are limited to team deathmatch and free for all lists. It’s bad enough when the people you play with in your first few matches online call you a n00b, but when the game you’re playing joins in it can get a little excessive.
Rewards won are not limited to the overall online experience, players can unlock rewards in the match by killing a certain number of players without dying. Players can unlock UAV reconnaissance, an air strike, or a helicopter gunship flyover by going on a three, five, and seven kill streak. These can really help turn the tide of a match, but more often than not, they’re used by the winning team to pound their opponents into the ground even further. They play well in a match between relatively balanced sides, but can become downright oppressive when you’re losing badly and the other team starts unleashing hell.
Call of Duty 4 marks a monumental shift for the series, and one that Infinity Ward has pulled off exceptionally well. The game offers an excellent campaign, along with marvelously balanced and fun multiplayer. The title offers the most complete package of any FPS on the 360. This is a game you’ll be playing for years to come. Unfortunately, the title also falls short in a few areas. The hiccups in online play, the barriers and learning curve presented to new players, and the lack of co-op in the campaign are all areas in which future titles can improve. These issues notwithstanding, Call of Duty 4 stands a cut above and deserves your attention.
Final Score: 9 out of 10 - Very Good (How do we rate games?)