Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
In the past I have been guilty of sticking to videogame titles that I know will deliver, my shelves are full of sequels and long-running series'. One of these trusted series was the Call of Duty franchise. A fondness for WWII games first steered me in this direction when superior titles to the previous leader Medal of Honor were on offer. It was because of this that when the announcement came that Infinity Ward were ditching the WWII theme for pastures new, a small part of me was saddened. However after picking up a cheap copy of their swansong, Call of Duty 3, I came to the realisation that it has all been pretty much covered. There is limited appeal in the number of times you can storm a bunker or hold off a panzer tank advance with the same antique weapons. Whether the decision to change millennia was due to flagging sales or pure developer whining is unclear but be thankful that they did as all the expertise learnt has been put into a truly cinematic experience.
Befitting of any good FPS the story boiled down involves a couple of deluded mad men with a large nuclear arsenal ready to put the world to rights. The action starts with the assassination of an unnamed middle eastern President by one of the main protagonists, Al-Asad, who is currently in the midst of a coup somewhere in the middle of Saudi Arabia. This serves as a distraction from the main terror that is developing in the former soviet states. A certain fellow by the name of Zakhaev is keen on restoring Russia to its cold war power days; with the help of Russian army mercenaries and a few missiles with a powerful payload. From then on in, two allied nations work side by side to stop this doomsday vision from becoming reality, nicely switching between the stories as they are played out in real time.
In keeping with previous CoD titles you play as not just one nation but in this case two, for the majority taking control of Paul Jackson of the United States Marine Corps 1st Force Recon and 'Soap' MacTavish of the 22nd SAS Regiment. This helps stretch the gameplay through many styles, missions are slower, more tactically paced with the SAS in comparison to the fairly brazen white hot action delivered by the Marine Corp. For this is where CoD 4 earns its medals and merit delivering a diverse battlefield in which to immerse oneself. The action is spread through three distinct locations, that of a middle eastern town, the countryside of former soviet states and a brief but very notable wander through Chernobyl.
The developers seem to have stuck to the premise of "if it ain't broke don't fix it" as little seems to have changed in the battles. Agreed, there has been much updating to take it to the present day but little real innovation. The new features come in the form of more control, during particular levels air support can be called in to dispatch houses that are too well defended. Night vision is employed briefly and for my liking not enough, weapons are modernised but unfortunately control over what weapons you start the level with is not included resulting in annoyances when a different gun may have serviced the situation better. The ability to use a knife is added to replace a melee function with a hit of the R3 button. Controls are fairly standard but an awful button selection in sniper mode uses the L3 button to stabilise the weapon briefly, however whilst holding this down and aiming its likely that you will walk away from any cover you had completely exposing yourself (and not in a good way). Infinity Ward are pleased to present a new bullet penetration feature, depending on the cover and weapon the old wooden shed might not protect you and indeed enables enemies to be shot through walls. The adversaries although deadly have not moved on, replaying levels will put them in exactly the same place, and no significant improvements in terms AI seem apparent; they are stuck most definitely to a well rehearsed script.
As mentioned previously, CoD 4 owes much to its cinematic quality, this is achieved through the best graphics in an FPS shooter so far on the PS3 side of next-gen. House to house searches in the middle east seem all too realistic. Although it would seem that certain elements are best viewed from a sweet spot, going too close and the effect is lost apart from the intended shelter points that seem to have extra attention paid to them. The American middle-eastern missions borrow heavily from films like Black Hawk Down and the closing stages of The Kingdom. Overall, sound helps build the intensity and to a point helps guide you through dangerous situations (it builds up when something is around the corner). A special mention has to be made to the Chernobyl sequence when scouting through the dilapidated swimming complex the lost joys of children playing can be heard in the background giving a better sense of an eerie forgotten past.
Infinity Ward seem to capture the essence of war brilliantly, whether it be the frenetic gunplay involved when surrounded by hordes of enemies or the sense of terror when trying to sneak in unnoticed. During a flashback sequence you take the disguise of a shrub, clawing, running and at times cowering through the deserted Chernobyl city centre. At one point you must hide in the undergrowth whilst a posse of troops slowly walk by your position, tension mounts not knowing the outcome to levels that I rarely experience in games so palpable is the level of immersion. There is a subtle undertone that runs through CoD 4, in as much that its trying to depict war as a necessary evil unlike the almost propaganda-like feel of earlier titles. The story contains a few twists and an unexpected ending that I won't spoil. Every time you fall foul of your foes a quote on war will be displayed or even a piece of trivia. Can an FPS war shooter be developed by those of an anti-war stance? Why else would the cost of a fully equipped bomber be displayed if not to invoke a sense of wonder ($2.2 billion by the way).
Then we come to the multiplayer, first things first, I had a torrid time getting online with CoD 4, whether this is fault of the PSN or Activision is unclear, at first I simply got error messages for entire evenings refusing to connect me. A couple of days later, once this was fixed it failed to recognise that I was logged in to the PlayStation Network, restarts and many attempts later I was finally let in. The multiplayer is solid and contains all you'd expect plus a few little extras. It's all about experience, at first you have a limited selection of weapons in which to start the battles but this quickly expands and your XP mounts up. This does somewhat leave an unfair advantage as those more experienced are better equipped and left me picking up my dead comrades weapons. All the expected game modes are available, a hefty list indeed, thirteen modes in total. A particularly great feature is the killer cam, even time you perish a replay is shown from the inflictor's perspective, allowing the observation of 'how did he manage to creep up behind me?' A PS3 advantage sees the multiplayer being expanded to cater for 24 people online to the 360's 18.
To summarise, Call of Duty 4 is one of the most polished FPS titles I've ever played, it does not redefine the genre but simply shows others how it should be done. An immersive storyline captures the imagination but falls down by being too short. The single player lasts only 5-6 hours but a fully formed multiplayer allays any woes. If the multiplayer has its issues resolved, hours of entertainment is to be had working up through the ranks. It is not the quickest to connect to though, joining can take 4-5 minutes for the server to find a game and do what needs to be done. Infinity Ward have made a wise decision in updating the slightly saggy saga of WWII, it has been wiped down, tooled up, teched up and is ready for whatever the modern day combat situations can throw at it. Hopefully, then, this is the start of another successful modern warfare series.