Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
6th Nov 2007 | 09:50
If you're a soldier in a war and you don't say much, and if your face isn't made out of as many polygons as your friends' faces are, and if nobody ever specifically mentions your name or talks to you, then you're probably going to die. That's what Call of Duty 4 has taught me.
Fleming, Smithy, Bartlett: just a few good men who gave their lives for a cool ragdoll animation and a dramatic 'man down!' moment. I salute thee.
Here's what I definitely did not want when I heard that Call Of Duty 4 was going to be set in modern day: squad-based gameplay, with over-the-top Ghost Recon technology favouring strategy over bravado-saturated gunplay. I didn't want to replay the game every modern warfare shooter tries to be: that fiddly emulation of planning, ordering, tactics and military brotherhood.
Here's what I did want though: Call Of Duty with terrorists instead of Nazis, nukes instead of V2 rockets, a made-up angry communist instead of Adolf Hitler, and maybe - if Infinity Ward could get around to it this time - an ending. And hoorah, because that's what we got. Even the ending, startingly.
Call of Duty 4 is just like every other Call of Duty game, but in a radically different setting, and with an ounce of clever-dust sprinkled on top. Why mess with a winning formula, eh? Originality, you say? Well, it was a rhetorical question...
Actually, that's slightly unfair - Call of Duty 4 expands on the series mightily. Its Middle Eastern and Russian locales, while still linear, feel far more open than the ruined streets of Occupied France ever were, and every mission contains at least one sweet chunk of surprise and delight (that is, mostly scripted events which make you want to push your swivel chair away from your desk and shout "Wow, that was sort of cool, I liked that").
Take one of the very first missions, for example, in which you get to use your night vision in a townhouse occupied by Russians who can't afford candles.
Having cut the power seconds ago, you enter the building and switch on your goggles to find enemies literally fumbling about in the dark, arms outstretched. Upstairs a panic-stricken man cowers and whimpers in a pitch-black corner, firing randomly into the darkness as you enter the room.
That touches on some part of my brain that the other Calls of Duty never did -
a part of my brain that doesn't expect to be touched while my violence-loving shooty-shoot pre-frontal lobe is having all the fun.
And it happens a whole lot throughout the game too, not always simple emotional tugs like a terrified terrorist (oh, the irony!), but just through sheer, overpowering atmospherics, and often powerfully beautiful scenes.
It's as if the folks at Infinity Ward created a series of regular Call of Duty missions, then went home and each thought of five things that would make those missions memorable, or at least meaningful. Then they all sat in a meeting room and put those ideas into the game, grinning all the while.
But what about in between all this storytelling and narrative gumph? What about the bits where you're projecting lead at subjectively evil people? Well, they're still here too, and they play out very much like they did in past Call of Duty games. It builds on Call of Duty 2 in that the cues for the combat to progress are less obvious than ever, meaning offensive pushes are more fluid and player-led.
You won't be sitting around waiting for your commander to give the order to move forwards, but instead picking and choosing your cover, snapping up vital ground as the fight continues.
Call of Duty 4 doesn't feel as straightforward either. Even though the world around you is meticulously designed and seemingly devoid of rough edges, you rarely feel forced to take cover at specific points. The enemy is fairly adaptable, but with no massive renovations in the AI department.
They take cover, they run from grenades, they shout things in their gibberish language, they sometimes even chuck your grenades back at you - but they're pretty much the clever-clogs Nazis we've shot before.
Of course, that style of flashy-battle warring belongs to one Sgt Paul Jackson of the US Marines, who makes up exactly half of the people you play as. The other half is Sgt 'Soap' MacTavish, and he's in the SAS, mate. The word 'wanker' is uttered but once. And even then I think it was as a joke.
I've grossly simplified the story up until this point, which is rude, because it's a part of the game that Infinity Ward have tried hard to improve.
It's not so much a moronic 'terrorists got the bomb' tale (although the terrorists do 'got the bomb'), but rather a story of a Russian bad guy supplying a Middle Eastern country with nuclear weapons in order to stage a coup and keep the Americans busy while said Ruskie rustles up some fun in the USSR.
This is how the two story threads work: when you're not playing as US Marine Jackson tied up in the Middle East, you're playing as Soap, whose squad is tracking down the Russian guy. It offers a frequent change of pace, and scenery, which again works towards keeping the game from going stale.
Soap's missions are markedly more interesting affairs, slower of pace, and sneakier of foot. They lack the large-scale street combat of the Marine campaign, being set in forested Russian countryside and farmland, but that's very clearly the point - it's a different feeling entirely.
It's no more tactical than Jackson's approach to fighting terrorism, but it feels a lot more clandestine, and is wrapped in a lovely sense of developing camaraderie as the game trundles onwards.
Also, there's not a single instance in which being spotted by the enemy means you'll have to start again (not in the annoying sense we're used to, anyway), which instantly renders the SAS missions ruddy brilliant.
During both styles of warfare, that visceral and captivating tenseness of combat exuded by every Call of Duty game appears in force, amplified by the newfound graphical wondrousness of the engine.
It's enough to make you mistakenly shout "take that, you fascist arseholes" when you really meant to shout "eat it, you freedom-hating bastards". If you're after something a bit new, well, looking down your iron-sights presents you with an extremely pleasing depth-of-field effect, otherwise it's incredibly exciting business as usual.
That chaotic way in which skirmishes develop, that extremely satisfying feeling of killing somebody (aided by crazily accurate procedural death animations, blending ragdolls and pre-scripted movements), that sense of utter hopelessness as you become pinned down behind cover in a hailstorm of screaming bullets - Call of Duty 4 is as powerful, exhilarating and relentless as ever.
In fact, when the game carries you off to the as-seen-in-STALKER wrecked city of Pripyat, it presents the best moments of the entire Call of Duty series. The prevailing mournful atmosphere, the bleak silence, the desaturated hues - it's a sneaking mission like none I've ever witnessed, as you and your buddy, armed with sniper rifles and dressed in full ghillie suits, make your way through the destroyed urban centre to reach your objective.
It's utterly thrilling, the sort of thing that makes me want to award this game a Classic and most definitely where the game peaks.
Very soon after this moment of brilliance, the game hits a brick wall of mediocrity and you'll find yourself trudging unenthusiastically through the final hours of the game.
A mixture of bad checkpoint placement, bizarre difficulty spikes, lazy design and blatant enemy spawn points suck the fun right out of proceedings.
Such an odd dip in quality we can only attribute to possible time constraints, but it's definitely there. If I had a virtual highlighter pen I could mark out a distinct fraction of the game that's simply, inexcusably rubbish. And then, magically, it surprises with a superb ending that flies in the face of the typical fade-to-black Call of Duty closures we've had previously.
And so, Call of Duty 4 remains an accomplished game, a stylistic departure for the series which lifts it effortlessly from the tedium of historical combat and into the realms of fictional modern warfare, tapping into society's paranoia with willful glee.
It transplants even the trademark on-rails sections we (mostly) love into a chilling, deadpan commentary on the disconnected nature of blokes in planes who press buttons and watch things exploding on fuzzy black and white screens.
We've essentially been given all of the things we've asked of Infinity Ward - Call of Duty with better graphics, better set-pieces, a story, some characters and an ending.
And dogs. Go read my box about the dogs. Oh, and watch the game's credits right to the end - there's a secret surprise for those patient enough to wait.