Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
The question most frequently asked of new releases on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 seems to be one of "next-generation" credentials, something of an unfair proposition when we've yet to define what denotes a game as truly "next-gen." This question could be about to get a whole lot simpler, however, with a number of the year's festive releases looking to finally live up to the billing, delivering experiences that are markedly richer, more vivid, more real and more immersive than what has gone before. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is perhaps the most unashamedly next-gen title we've yet to get our greedy, clammy paws on.
For a start the game dispenses with the cliched-to-the-point-of-coma WWII setting that was the meat of many a shooter on the last generation, opting instead for a present day setting, where the enemy is not an army waiting just the other side of the hills, but a guerilla force with an agenda beyond national borders and issues of state.
The timing is a breath of fresh air from a plot perspective, of which we'll learn more in a moment, the updated setting also affording the game a far more interesting reportoire of destructive tools; from simple pistols to the FGM-148 Javelin, through shot-guns, machine guns, fixed emplacements and more besides. You'll also be laying strategic charges, surprising rooms full of potential terrorists with flash-bangs, disorientating enemies with smoke grenades and creeping around wearing night vision goggles where needed. Its a veritable war-playground, and the combination of plot and technology certainly gives the game a present-day relevance that previous Call of Duty titles couldn't muster.
Back to the plot, however, and we're treated to a classic James Bond-style premise, as we're charged with taking control of US Marines and British SAS forces in a bid to stop a mad Russian Ultranationalist party leader from using stolen nukes to blast Russia back to the Soviet era. Naturally, this will also involve distracting the west with the small matter of a middle-eastern coup - and even the detonation of a nuclear weapon in the region. Cleverly, characters in your squad such as Captain Price have a little unfinished business with our wannabe-Stalin (Zakhaev), and through flash-backs and present day cut-sequences, told beautifully in-engine and integrated seamlessly, we build investment in the game's characters and are pulled into a plot that sounds a tad hammy on paper, but is so well-told and directed, as to draw the player entirely into the importance and occasional desperation of the situation.
At this point it is worth talking about the combat, which is of course the bread-and-butter of the gameplay itself, and is the principle joy of Call of Duty 4. Landscapes (especially in the great outdoors) can be vast, sprawling battlefields over-run with troops, and in this frenzy, you may even - just for a moment - feel a little scared and daunted. It is the panic and violence of warfare that the game captures so expertly, throwing you in at the deep-end and asking you to snipe enemy forces while your comrades are pinned-back, or forcing you into tense close-quarters combat amid burnt-out military installations. I must confess that at times I struggled to discern friends from foes, such is the atmosphere Call of Duty perfectly realises, fields of combat swarming with troops, both friendly and otherwise.
While developers Infinity Ward have realised the horror and panic of armed combat brilliantly, stirring the player's emotional attachment to the game's singleplayer campaign (which will see you switching between Marine Paul Jackson and SAS soldier Soap MacTavish, depending on the mission), you never get lost or feel like you're missing the point. This is because your squad-mates will usually be close by, pointing the way in a realistic fashion, and directing you even as the objectives mount and mission complications arise (and they frequently do). Here we find another refined element to the experience. Stages don't always begin with you sneaking through grass, or leaping from a plane (though they sometimes do, still), instead you'll be thrown from vehicles, caught on collapsing bridges, trapped in a falling watch-tower and even captured. Soap MacTavish, in particular, is always in the thick of trouble - and this helps build not only immersion, but plot reinforcement too, as you wonder desperately how you can survive a quickly changing situation. The game's story even delivers a couple of genuinely surprising twists, but I'll leave those for you to discover.
The game's singleplayer portion lasts in the region of five to seven hours, depending upon the difficulty setting and your own FPS prowess, with levels usually taxing the player - but not to the point of frustration (although in the game's closing stages I could be found cursing my own reaction times and careless actions). Given the constraints of mission objectives and the game's plot, Call of Duty 4 isn't a game that gives you a myriad of different routes via which to complete the title, that said, even as you knowingly follow predefined paths, the action is of such quality, the set-pieces so creatively integrated, that you never feel rail-roaded.
A word now on the audio and the music, which does a first-class job of pulling the player into the game world - thanks to well-acted cut-sequences, and realistic in-mission dialogue. Composer Harry Gregson-Williams deserves special mention for his sterling work on the game's score, too, which is pure Hollywood, and compliments the on-screen frenzy perfectly.
Oh, and did I mention that this is probably the best-looking Xbox 360 game to-date? I didn't? That'll be another 'next-gen' hallmark, then, visuals that are so inseparable from the experience as to become a given - the player unquestionably accepting the reality of the world (albeit a world where only certain elements of the scenery are truly 'interactive', ahem).
Multiplayer, inevitably, is also more fun than you can shake weasel at - Infinity Ward's maps perfect for the game's innumerable (if predictable) game types, in which you can choose classes (Warfighter, Sharp Shooter, Survivalist, Marksman, et al), depending upon your own skills, the game type, and the map. Online or off, the multiplayer is rock solid, and features like the Kill-Cam enhance the hilarity to be had. XP will also help you improve your character and expand your options once certain achievements have been reached in multiplayer. I look forward to seeing how this portion of the game will be expanded in the future.
Wrapping things up in a neat Christmas-present sized package, then, I still feel I could have warbled longer about the weapons, the mission variety, the plot nuances, the un-ending immersion, the enemy AI (which is very good, by the way), or the visuals. But I think you're getting the gist by now - Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is the complete package. The single-player is a little short, but the action is relentless and polished to the point of reflection, the multiplayer, meanwhile, will keep you coming back time and again. This is the next-generation. A bona fide masterpiece.