So I recently found out that SEB has a few fans at Activision as I was contacted a few weeks back and asked if I would like to receive a review copy of Call of Duty 4 of my very own for the low, low cost of writing a review for it. Considering that I was likely to write a review at some point anyway I naturally jumped at the chance. Especially when taking into account that I wasn’t sure if it would be a must-buy or not. You see, I loved Call of Duty and Call of Duty 2 immensely, but I was more than a little nervous about Call of Duty 4 because of the move away from the World War II setting to modern day. Yeah I know a lot of people are sick to death of WWII as a game setting, but I’m not one of those people. To me there’s no end to the amount of joy blasting a few hundred Nazi’s away can bring after a long day at the office. Still, being a long time fan, I kept up with the previews on the game and watched all the amazing trailers and wondered if the game would live up not only to the hype, but the love I had for its predecessors. I’m happy to say that it does.
As the subtitle in the name implies, the folks at Infinity Ward have moved the setting of the game up to the modern day with all the trappings that current warfare brings with it such as grenade launchers and night vision goggles. The single player story takes place in the middle east and parts of Russia with a hostile Arab leader staging a coup and threatening everyone else in the world with a bunch of stolen nukes he got from some Russian guy. Or something to that effect. I have to admit that I didn’t pay that much attention to the storyline because I was too busy trying to stay alive and gawking at the scenery. The upshot of it all is that some bad terrorist guy has taken over some middle eastern country with the help of some bad Russian guys which requires you to go and eliminate said bad guys to make the world safe for democracy. During the course of the game you’ll trade off between various characters in both the U.S. Marines and the British S.A.S. units as they engage in various missions to track down the newly self-appointed dictator. Unlike previous CoD games, the story line in this one is continuous from start to end with you jumping back and forth between the various characters to see it unfold from a number of different perspectives. The story itself isn’t anything particularly innovative or unique, as is probably apparent from the fact that I don’t remember most of the details, but it serves the purpose well and provides for a realistic setting for the game.
The game play itself, however, is awesome. Not much has really changed since CoD2 in terms of the mechanics, but the experience has been ramped up several fold over the previous titles. If you’ve played any of the previous games you should have little trouble jumping right into CoD4’s very intense single player experience. Part of that intensity is thanks to the new graphics engine CoD4 sports which is full of detail, allows for tons of opponents and allies to be on screen at once, and looks absolutely gorgeous. Or at least as gorgeous as desert villages and decaying Russian cities can look. My current gaming rig is old enough that the game turned off most of the advanced options such as shadows and some of the lighting effects and ran the game at a lowly 800×600 resolution and even toned down as much as it was it still looked and played amazingly well. I can’t begin to imagine how drop dead gorgeous the game would be on a high-end gaming rig which I’ll get around to buying once I win the lotto or become famous on YouTube or something. The folks at Infinity Ward spent quite a bit of time on research to make for as accurate an experience as you can have without getting away from it being a game and it has paid off well. I’m no military expert, but there wasn’t anything in the way of actions on the part of the characters or the scenarios that didn’t seem authentic enough.
Not to say that there aren’t any changes to game mechanics as there are a few that are quite significant. For example, walls are no longer bullet sponges able to soak up an endless parade of lead with no noticeable effect and giving the enemy (and yourself for that matter) plenty of protection. Depending on the type of material the wall is made out of and the type of bullet hitting it it’s quite possible for bullets to penetrate them and do damage to whomever is standing behind them. The amount of damage is reduced according to the type of wall, but you can’t rely on ducking into a doorway to keep you safe from the hail of gunfire you’re running from any longer. Running is also a new addition as they’ve added a sprint ability allowing you to double time it for short periods. I don’t recall the previous games having that option so I believe it’s new. Also new to the mix are dogs that will chase your ass down and rip out your throat before you can say “Fido” if you’re not careful. These three things bring new complexity to the experience and make it that much more enjoyable.
The one thing about the single player that was surprising was how short it was. I managed to make my way through it all in just a couple of nights of moderate playing and I have to admit that that was a tad bit disappointing. It appears the folks at IW realized it was a bit short too as they’ve tossed in a couple of things to make replaying it a little more attractive. First there’s 30 collectible laptops spread throughout each level that you can collect to unlock some hidden feature. On my first run through I managed to find 15 of them so I don’t know yet what it unlocks, but it’ll get me to go back and play the single player again to find out. Then, once you’ve finished the single player once, it unlocks an Arcade and a Challenge mode. The former allows you to play through any single level you want to with a limited number of lives and a scoring system as though it were an actual arcade game and the latter times your run through the entire single player game so you can try to beat your best time through. These two options combined with the ability to play at harder difficulty levels should help to stretch out the single player experience to a small degree, but it’s still surprisingly short compared to the previous games.
Did I mention how good looking this game is? Because at times it can be creepy-realistic. Of particular note is the mission that takes place inside an attack helicopter at night that looks startlingly like real footage from the Iraq war. You provide air support to some ground troops moving into a village and can switch back and forth between several very large and very lethal guns as you try to take out the enemy while not hitting your own troops (whom are wearing IR strobes as their only identifier) and while avoiding damaging a church because that would be, well, wrong I suppose. Didn’t stop me from taking a few potshots at it, but all that did was end the mission instantly. The entire thing is presented in a black and white simulation of the infrared displays used in actual attack choppers and makes for some very believable moments. The same effect happens whenever you switch on your night vision goggles as the sudden reduction in detail emphasizes the motion capture of the characters making them seem even more real. The fact that you can see the lasers from everyone’s laser sights with the NV goggles helps to make it even more intense. Sound is also well done in this game with every gun making the appropriate noises as you’d expect, but also with the thud of bullets hitting dirt and wood and cement along with all the yelling that takes place in a real battle. The sound design alone is worthy of an award or two for giving you a few damn-near-pissed-myself moments. Again a particular stand out is the radio chatter that takes place during the attack helicopter sequence which sounds like it could’ve been taken right from a FOX News report.
If you’re like me, however, then one of the things you look forward to with the purchase of a new FPS is the multiplayer gaming and here is where Call of Duty 4 really shines. In previous games you had the option of picking what your primary weapon would be—submachine gun, heavy machine gun, couple of rifles, sniper rifle, and shotgun typically—and you’d get a pistol sidearm and a varying number of grenades depending on what you took for a primary. CoD4’s multiplayer starts with a similar setup and then tosses in the ability to unlock additional weapons and something they call “perks” as you play the game through a new “experience” system. In a pseudo-RPGish twist you earn experience for racking up kills and completing mission objectives in the multiplayer game and after so much XP you gain a level indicated as a military rank and the amount of XP needed for the next rank goes up. In all there are 65 levels you can obtain that will unlock some 70 weapons and accessories such as laser sites, scopes, and grenade launchers. At level 4 you can create your own classes allowing you to pick and choose what your primary weapon will be, your side arm, what accessories they’ll have, and up to three perks that modify the class in some way. This is a big change over the previous games and opens up all sorts of possibilities for creating classes that best conform to your play style.
The aforementioned perks is probably the coolest idea of them all. They consist of small bonuses either to your character or your weapons that offer small but useful benefits. One gives you more health allowing you to soak up more damage and another allows you to sprint for longer distances. You can get increased stopping power from your bullets or deeper impact, increase the damage and area of effect of your grenades and claymores, increase the amount of ammo you can carry, hold your breath longer while sniping (to steady the scope), increase the rate of fire of your weapon or it’s accuracy when shooting from the hip and even allow you to reload faster than normal (almost a necessity when using the heavy machine guns). Two of my favorite perks are the Last Stand and Martyrdom perks. The first one kicks in when you’ve taken enough damage to die and it gives you a few seconds of extra life to pull out your pistol and take a few revenge shots at anyone in the area before you kick the bucket. The latter one causes your character to always drop a live grenade whenever he’s killed giving you a good chance of taking out whoever did you in if they should get too close. It’s a very cool innovation to multiplayer that’ll pull you back in time and again.
Additionally it appears that IW took some lessons from the MOD community in adding some new features to multiplayer that were previously only available through one of the various mod packages. Get three kills in a row and you can drop a UAV tracker that will show up any enemies who are shooting as red dots. That is unless they have the radar jamming perk and/or a silencer on their weapon. Get 5 kills in a row without dieing and you can call in a friendly air strike that’ll carpet bomb anywhere you designate on the map. In some of the large outdoor maps in the game this can rack up some hefty scores quickly. Get 7 kills in a row and you can call in a friendly helicopter who will fly around for a while blasting the bejeezus out of anyone dumb enough to be caught in it’s sites until it either A) runs out of ammo and flies off or B) is shot down by the opposing team.
As if all of that wasn’t enough the folks at IW put in “challenges” that will help you to earn XP and additional unlockables. A lot of them involve things like get X number of kills with Such-and-Such weapon which then increases to XX number of kills for even more XP once you complete it once, get X number of head shots with a weapon, place in the top three scores in a Free For All match 5 times, and so on, but there’s also some fun ones such as “sprint for 26 miles” or “fall 15 feet and live” and its companion “fall 30 feet and die.” The latter being harder than you might think as only a couple of maps have buildings high enough to die in a fall from.
The multiplayer offers 16 maps with 13 game variants for upwards of 32 players at once (18 at once on Xbox 360 and PS3). The 16 included maps are all pretty good with multiple routes you can take to get from various points to other various points helping to insure that one team isn’t able to bottleneck the other into a corner and the respawn system seems particular good at dropping you in close to the action without putting you directly in harms way in the process. The game modes include the standard deathmatch (Free for all) and Team Deathmatch options and returning modes include Headquarters (a radio spawns on the map, the first team to claim it scores points for every so many seconds they can hold onto it) and Search and Destroy (one team has a bomb, the other has two targets they need to defend, if you die you’re out until the round ends), but there’s some cool new ones as well. The one that I like the best is probably Sabotage which is similar to Search and Destroy, but instead of one team attacking while the other defends, both teams get a target and they have to fight over a single bomb that spawns in the middle of the map. When you die you respawn after a short delay (around 10 seconds or so) and if you kill the bomb carrier you can pick up the bomb and run it back. Once planted the other side has so many seconds to defuse it before it explodes. It’s almost like a hyper-violent form of football played with explosives and high powered guns.
Just to spice things up a bit, you can opt to run your multiplayer game in either Old School or Hardcore modes. In Old School you start with just an uzi and all other weapons have to be picked up from various locations on the map. You don’t start with any perks, but they are spread around the map like the Power Ups of DOOM or Quake. Plus they crank up the rag doll physics so any deaths are ridiculously exaggerated. Hardcore is exactly what it sounds like: First it removes the HUD so you don’t have any info on ammo remaining or maps showing locations of friends or foes. Then it ups the damage done by the weapons making death a lot faster to come by. Lastly CoD4 offers a “Ranked” mode where the maps and settings are determined by Infinity Ward. It’s apparent that IW spent a lot of time on the multiplayer side of the game and it shows in the number of options and features it offers.
In the end if you’re buying Call of Duty 4 primarily for the single player experience then you’re likely to be somewhat disappointed. Not that the single player game isn’t great because it is, but it’s so short that it’ll leave you wanting more even with the options to play through it a couple of times. If you don’t plan on going online and blasting the hell out of other players regularly then you might want to consider this as a possible rental cause you could easily finish the single player game in 5 or 6 hours tops. If you enjoy multiplayer gaming, however, then this title is an absolute must-buy. There’s enough stuff to do in multiplayer to keep you busy for days on end. Plus once you reach the level cap of 65 there’s one last unlockable called “Prestige” that you can select that resets you back to level 0 so you can do it all over again except you have a little icon showing what a badass you are for starting over and you can do that up to 10 times. I can’t wait to get this puppy going at a LAN party.