Let’s face it – we’ve all had it with World War II. As Zero Punctuation agent provocateur “Yahtzee” pointed out, we’ve been playing World War II games for longer than it took to actually complete the bloody thing. This year alone has seen a few WWII titles hit the shelf, and by this point we all die a little bit inside as we take up yet another shooter sporting the trademark ‘kaching!’ sound of an .30 Cal M1 Garand ejecting its last round. You can’t imagine how happy I was to hear that Call of Duty 4 was going to be set in a modern combat theater.
Call of Duty and Call of Duty 2 were both developed by Infinity Ward, with Treyarch taking the reins for Call of Duty 3 to allow the guys at Infinity Ward to reinvent the series in the modern setting. Call of Duty was one of the biggest selling titles on the PC, garnering several Game of the Year awards when it was released in October of 2005. Call of Duty 2 was the highest selling Xbox 360 launch title, and we scored it at 95%. While Call of Duty 3 wasn’t as well received as its two predecessors, there won’t be any problem with that for Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. This is the best shooter of the year, hands down. That is a pretty bold statement, so let me back it up.
There is no doubt that Infinity Ward knows how to really push the graphics on the Xbox 360. The smoke effects we saw in Call of Duty 2 were mesmerizing. What will amaze you now is how much better Call of Duty 4 looks on the exact same platform! Gone are the European hedgerow corridors of Call of Duty 2, to be replaced by an incredibly detailed urban environment. Static foliage was replaced by living and breathing plant life to create some of the best environments we’ve seen to date in a shooter. Buildings look like they’ve taken the business end of months of military might. Weather effects are in play in several of your missions, swaying plants with wind or obscuring vision with rain. The slight blur of the forward looking infrared (FLIR) TV eye on the AC-130H Spectre Gunship as you tilt and pan to find targets is accurately represented. The motion captured animation for every character in the game brings your team to life in a more realistic manner than any of the previous titles. Even the concrete launch pad of a Nuclear Missile silo has every detail accounted for in its presentation. The art team has truly outdone themselves this time, but let’s talk about the Ghillie Suit.
There is one particular aspect of first person shooters that has always irritated me – the way they handle snipers. Sporting normal camouflage and firing their weapons at short range and from the hip, snipers have been misused and abused in nearly every game I’ve played since the Commodore 64, until now. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare has put the sniper back into their proper role – high-ground fire support. Sporting the best Ghillie Suit (the faux-foliage ‘suit’ that allows snipers to blend into the ground) we’ve seen in any title to date, including cutting off the index and middle finger tips of the gloves, you are wearing, you’ll be pressed into a snipers worst nightmare. You’ll have to encroach into enemy territory, prone crawling under vehicles and across overgrown fields literally a foot away from patrolling enemies. This is graphically as close as you’ll get to the real thing without spending a few years with your head shaved whilst being called a maggot.
Naturally, it isn’t just the detail that got the makeover. Infinity Ward spent a great deal of time working on the texture maps, adding specular and normal mapping, blending in soft shadows and post-screen filters, and then dashing in bloom that looks awfully close to the “God rays” we’ve seen tossed about in DirectX 10 demos on the PC. Even the DX10 depth-of-field effects are presented here.
Given the amount of enemies that can be on screen at any given point, and the incredible lighting and texture work I’ve mentioned above, you’d expect this to be jerky and slow to load – you’d be wrong. Throughout the entire game, I didn’t see a single framerate hitch. While I did note some pop-in on the horizon every once in a while, and the beautiful foliage isn’t as beautiful up close, the framerate seems to be completely shackled to 60 frames per second. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a great title to showcase the power of the Xbox 360.
Harry Gregson-Williams and Stephen Barton have done audio work and musical scores for everything from the John Woo movie “The Replacement Killers” to “The Tigger Movie”. They handled “Shrek 2”, as well as “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater”. The beautiful intro music on the train in the beginning of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” was all their work. They are even handling the music to the upcoming “Metal Gear 4: Guns of the Patriots” and childhood-throwback “G-Force”. Don’t balk at the guys who did the music for “Chicken Run” – these two are compositional geniuses, and the score for Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is no exception to the rule. The soundtrack ebbs and swells directly in line with the action on screen, conveying the sense of urgency and frantic action that your character should feel in these situations.
The sound effects for the title make fantastic use of the Dolby 5.1 setup, with special attention paid to bullet directionality and the Doppler Effect. (Bullets sound high pitched but get lower pitched as they whiz past your head) The AC-130H mission was a great example of the real dead-pan radio chatter you’d hear between the combat controllers on the ground, the fire control officer, the wizzo (weapons officer), the TV operator, and the gunner team. My only complaint is that the battle-spam voices between these guys tended to repeat a bit.
Voice work is important to immersion. A lot of the time you’ll get actors and actresses that sound like they are trying way too hard, making the performance hammy or over the top. To bring the realism up a notch, Infinity Ward turned to a pair of pros – Craig Fairbrass and Gideon Emery. Their performances were solid, but they were very much on par with whomever else handled the voice work for the rest of the cast. By the end of this game, you’ll feel a bit of an attachment to the characters – something that only a solid emotional experience can bring.
They say that if something isn’t broke, you don’t fix it. The controls that worked so well in Call of Duty 2 made their way directly into Call of Duty 3. In turn, they simply made their way over to Call of Duty 4. They are laid out pretty much as you’d expect – you use the sticks to control movement and camera controls, while the face buttons handle things like switching weapons, reloading, and jumping. Triggers and bumpers give you grenades and guns, as well as aiming down your sights. There is a light auto-aim function that makes the target somewhat ‘sticky’, but it is so slight that you’ll likely not even notice it. What can I say? The controls work.
There is one area that rears its ugly head again – independent control of the sound. Often times the fantastic music or sound effects drowns out the great voice work. Unfortunately there is only one big slider button to adjust things, so you are simply stuck with it. Since the vast majority of game developers manage to turn the music up to 11 and keep the voices at 3, this is an unfortunate oversight. The fact that I dug the controls for this last year and the problem persisted again this year makes it that much worse.
The pattern for the last three Call of Duty titles has been pretty much the same – you’ll play as a character from Nationality A, then you’ll jump to a somewhat loosely connected person of Nationality B. Eventually you’ll visit a new location as Nationality C, and somehow through the combined efforts of all three of these characters, the war ends, as does the game. While World War II had Inter-Agency and International cooperation, the armies of the world typically did their own thing for the most part. Since this is the modern battlefield, you’ll quickly note that things have changed.
For the first time in four titles, the storyline is told in a progressive fashion. You’ll begin as a new S.A.S. recruit, callsign “Soap”, and eventually move into Joint-Ops with the U.S. Marines. You’ll play several roles from assaulter, to rescuer, to sniper as you progress through the storyline. Each character, while still being presented as a ‘blank’ for you to play, somehow feels more a part of the action than ever before. The storyline is a simple but familiar terror plot – one you’ll become very familiar with the hard way. I won’t ruin it for you, but suffice to say that the President of a Middle Eastern nation has been executed by Al-Asad, the leader of a radical group who is working with an Ultranationalist Russian named Zahkaev and his son in a plot for the nuclear destruction of the decadent United States. Naturally, it is up to you and your team to stop them before they release nuclear weapons on American soil. Simple!
As you have come to expect from this series, the battles will be frantic, loud, and tense. Simulating a real-world battlefield, you’ll find yourself in a wide variety of mission types. I’ve already mentioned the AC-130H mission, but you’ll also get to ride side-saddle as gunner on a Blackhawk. You’ll get to spend a little time behind the scope of the Barrett .50 Cal M82A1 (we’ll get back to that in a minute). You’ll spend time assaulting a cargo ship, and you’ll spend time running for your life as you dodge incoming fire crossing from building to building. The game features an incredible variety of set pieces that come together to make it feel like you are prosecuting your missions in a real environment. No longer does the game feel like a collection of “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” moments. While the game is still scripted, the script is certainly solid and took me by surprise several times.
There are a few mechanics that have transcended the jump through time from World War II to today – specifically the health mechanic, shellshock, checkpoints, and AI. Tackling these in reverse order, the AI has been improved quite a bit. The enemies will seek cover, as will your allies. Unlike Call of Duty 1 and 2, it doesn’t feel like there is a never-ending supply of friends coming to help you, although there are a few missions where there is a never-ending fountain of enemies trying to kill you. While they do pay attention to their surroundings a bit more, tending to flank or use alternate routes if possible, the enemy does still have a death wish, often exposing themselves completely to take a shot or running directly headlong towards a pair of crack-shot snipers who have just mowed down 50 of their friends. After we teach them how to stop murdering themselves on my bullets, perhaps we could teach the main character how to open a door for himself as well.
On the positive side, the checkpoint system has been balanced a bit more than in previous titles. There are checkpoints at logical points where you might suffer a ‘setback’ and need to try a new tactic. If you save and quit, you’ll go right back to this checkpoint. As the game loads that save it’ll show the mission briefing again to make sure you know your objective. At no point will you be staring at a loading screen, and that is pretty cool.
One staple of the Call of Duty license is the shellshock survival moment. While there are fewer of them than previous games, it still does rear its slow-motion-fall-over-and-then-get-picked-up head a few times, which tends to breaks the immersion a bit.
All of this brings us to the health mechanic. It is one that we’ve seen retread time and time again since its inception. Essentially you can collect bullets like they are going out of style as long as you spend a few moments obfuscated from the enemy. If you’ve played a shooter from the last 5 years you know exactly what I’m talking about. What this does enable is the ability to really experience the storyline in its entirety. In a world where most people don’t finish the games they buy, I can forgive them for this.
For those of us who like a bit more of a realistic challenge, you can play the game on Hardened difficulty. On Hardened difficulty your enemies will all become battle-hardened professional assassins, making you regret peeking your head out by putting a hole in it. The difficulty is not for the faint of heart and will lead to a bit of repetition, but it also reveals the scripted nature of the game. When you know exactly where the enemies will funnel because you’ve seen it 11 times trying to pass a particular checkpoint, it tends to get a bit rote. All that said, let’s talk about the mission I’ll be playing far too often.
As I mentioned earlier, you’ll do a bit of a flashback mission where you take control of a young Captain Price in his special forces sniper mission. After a lengthy and careful trek through the radiation-swept downtown area of Chernobyl, you’ll eventually make your way to the top floor of a large hotel. Here you will unpack an M82A1 .50 Caliber sniper rifle that you’ll be using to eliminate an important target. You have to compensate for wind, distance, humidity the Coriolis effect (taking into account the curvature of the Earth to calculate the trajectory of a very long range shot), and line of sight into your target prosecution. Since this mission took place 15 years prior to the rest of the game, many of the modern advancements in modern marksmanship have not been put into wide use yet, so you’ll have to rely on visual cues such as the staff car flags to determine windage. As with any real-world scenario, you’ll only get your cold-barrel shot to take your target. Since the report of the .50 Cal rifle is quite loud, you’ll have every enemy within 5 miles headed your direction, so don’t miss. While you aren’t adjusting for bullet drop compensation quite yet, this is the closest we’ve come to what I’d like to call a ‘realistic simulation’ of the real world weapon. Naturally, like the real world mission packages, your mission goes to Hell and gone once you pull the trigger and the enemy makes it their life’s ambition to track you down and execute you in the most painful way possible.
We can’t talk about Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and call the review complete without addressing the incredible multiplayer component. While we got a peek at three levels from the game during the multiplayer beta, that was merely scratching the surface. You’ll start the multiplayer experience as a true lowbie – you can’t even create your own classes until you’ve ranked up to Level 4. Heck, you can’t even use the demolition or sniper kit until you’ve ranked up to level 2 and 3, respectively. Utilizing a server-side stat system, players earn experience through kills, assists, defends, and the like as you play through the 16 maps included in the box. It is when you hit Level 4 that things get more interesting.
In previous Call of Duty titles you had medics, engineers, snipers, heavy machine gunners, and the like to pick from, all of their gear being fairly set at the time of selection. With Call of Duty 4, you can create your own class, mixing and matching weapons and attachments to create custom configurations unique to your play style. It is important to note that there is no support class, so don’t expect to be a Medic or Engineer. That said, if you want to use a sniper rifle to pick people off from afar, then switch to a silent pistol for up close kills, but also pack special stun grenades for the trip? Simply earn the experience to unlock all of those items and you can spec that out to your heart’s content. There are also special skills called “Perks” that give you a bit of an added edge. Perhaps a bit more bullet penetration, maybe a UAV jammer to keep you hidden despite the overhead radar, or maybe just the ability to run faster than everyone else – the choice is yours. Again, just unlock them through experience and you can mix and match as you see fit.
Online play isn’t the only way to earn new equipment. Accessable from the multiplayer menu are a series of challenges that allow you to practice with each weapon, allowing you to add equipment to them. Like any good challenge, they start off relatively simple and progress pretty evenly until you are being asked to do things that even Rambo might have to take a few attempts to accomplish. When you do manage to reach Level 55, the level cap, you’ll earn yourself a shiny badge that tells everyone that you have completed that objective. At this point, you’ll be restarted with no unlocks, but you keep the badge. Watch out for the guy who says he is ‘new’ but has a medal next to his name.
Another new aspect to multiplayer is the ability to call in close-fire air support. Calling in a squadron of fighters, you can mark an area to be hit with an airstrike. Coordinating with your team, you can have them call out where to drop bombs for maximum effectiveness. You earn the ability to drop a UAV in the area after three kills, and an airstrike after a few more.
The usual suspects of capture and hold, deathmatch, team deathmatch, and the like are all present and accounted for, but two new modes have made their way into the mix – hardcore and old school. Hardcore means that you don’t jump nearly as high and bullets seem to do a tremendous amount of damage. Old school is the reverse of hardcore – it seems like you have ridiculous vert jump skills and your enemies are bullet sponges. You can add either new modes on top of the multiplayer scenario, so expect to see plenty of hardcore deathmatch out there.
My personal favorite mission type is Headquarters. In this mode you are asked to work with your team to capture a base point. Once that base point is captured by your team, the other team must get inside that base and ‘destroy’ it by seizing it for a certain amount of time. While this sounds simple, the fact that your team doesn’t respawn while you hold the base changes things dramatically. You earn points towards a pre-determined goal amount, and the one who reaches that amount first wins.
Another new mode is called Sabotage. Sabotage plays out very similar to a game of Counter-Strike – one side has the bomb and attempts to reach one of two bomb points. The other team has to kill the other side or disable the bomb before time runs out. The difference here is that when the bomb is dropped, your side becomes the aggressor, with you now trying to bomb the enemy points. This tug-of-war gameplay lead to some fantastic struggles during multiplayer testing. I think it’ll be quite a hit.The single player campaign in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is relatively short. In a scant 5 hours you can complete the game on Regular difficulty level. To complete it on Veteran will likely take you a few more hours as you fight through some of the more difficult choke points. What’ll keep this disc in your system is the multiplayer. We’ve only scratched the surface of the class-based multiplayer game, and already it is showing promise of being one of the most polished online experiences to date. Infinity Ward clearly did their homework. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is exactly the reboot that this franchise needed. I’m sure that it took a lot of convincing to get Activision to sign off on moving to a modern setting instead of the wildly successful World War II model that has performed so well since the game’s inception, but it has paid off in spades. Goodbye Halo 3, hello Modern Warfare!