Credit where credit is due: Infinity Ward is working hard to ban cheaters in MW3.

It seems that the desire to cheat is an inevitable part of human nature. There’s just something about getting an unfair advantage that appeals to us so much that we cheat in school, on our taxes, and on each other. Naturally this rule applies to video games and the more popular a game is the greater the number of people cheating at it.

The Call of Duty series is very, very popular and it’s no surprise that cheating is rampant. In my reviews of both Modern Warfare 2 and Modern Warfare 3 I decried their usage of a peer-to-peer networking system for several reasons not the least of which was that it didn’t provide any way for players to deal with cheaters in a game. This is primarily a problem on the PC where you can run programs in the background that will allow you to, among other things, see players hidden behind objects (wall hacks) and auto-aim and fire your gun (aimbots).

To get an idea of why this is so frustrating, here is an aimbot in action using the MW3 Chaos hack. You'll note that it pretty much ruins the game for anyone who's not cheating.

With dedicated servers there’s someone who administers the server who will have the ability to identify and ban cheaters from playing on that server. The P2P system used in MW2 and 3, however, randomly picks one of the players to be the host and there are no provisions for banning cheaters or even voting to kick them from the game. The only real anti-cheating system in place on the PC version of the game is the VAC (Valve Anti-Cheat) system provided through the Steam client that Activision uses with that version of CoD. There are two problems with this system: First, it can take weeks for someone who has been flagged as cheating to be banned from multiplayer, though it does ban them from playing it altogether (as opposed to just a single server). Second, it creates an arms race between the folks who maintain VAC and the folks who write the aimbots and wall hacks for the games. Every time VAC is updated to detect the latest round of cheating programs the folks who make said programs simply update their code to hide it from detection for another few weeks.

[pullquote] This is a warning to anyone who’s thinking of buying [MW2] for the PC: Don’t fucking bother.  — Infinity Ward has fucked over “Call of Duty” fans who play on the PC.[/pullquote]The creation of these hacks also appears to be trivially easy as the first one for MW2 was released within hours of the game itself. I suspect that’s partially because the past several CoD games have run on basically the same game engine as the preceding one with some new bits bolted on. In fact, the wall hack part of these programs uses the game’s own internal systems to do its work. Certain kill streaks in the game (e.g. remote sentry)  already allow you to see players approaching from behind obstacles when you use them. All the wall hack does is turn that system on all the time regardless of whether you’re using an appropriate kill streak or just your trusty rifle. The problem of cheaters using hacks was so rampant in MW2 that after one night of game after game being ruined by cheaters I wrote an angry blog post saying that you should not buy the game for the PC. OK, it was a very angry blog post, but my frustration level at the time was through the roof. It’s one thing to lose to genuinely better players and it’s another to lose to someone who’s skill consisted entirely of holding down a mouse button while a program insured every shot was a headshot.

When MW3 came out the hacks followed and it looked like the whole situation was set to repeat itself, but it did seem like it had improved somewhat. I said in my review that the number of obvious cheaters seemed a lot lower than they were during the first few weeks with MW2, but the problem did still persist and there still wasn’t any easy way to report them or vote to kick them from a game. As before, the hackers just laughed at the VAC system as ineffective and the engine was still fundamentally the same as before, so what was responsible for the lower number of cheaters?

The main screen of the reporting tool. Click to embiggen.

As it turns out, IW assigned someone to handle complaints of cheaters in MW3. Initially it was one person on Twitter named BanCandy who handled complaints for all platforms the game is on, but it should go without saying that she was quickly overwhelmed by the deluge. Now it’s a group of people under the collective name @IWEnforcers and they are some busy beavers. I’ve been following their tweets for quite awhile now and they are swinging the ban hammer as fast as you can manage. This has helped a great deal, but the reporting still wasn’t easy. They required that you be able to provide some evidence for the cheating such as a YouTube video and a link to the player’s Steam profile page. The Theater Mode in MW3 allows you play back a game and even render a YouTube clip so long as it’s smaller than 29 seconds which is barely enough to show one death with a killcam.

There had to be a better way and a clever fellow who goes by the alias Xifon came up with one. He created the MW3SA Reporting Tool which allows you browse through the demo files created by the game’s theater mode and lists off all of the players in each saved game. You find the game that had the hacker in it (it looks up each player’s Steam profile to make it easy) and then click on their name and hit Report. It opens a window and allows you to type in a description and then sends that along with the entire demo file off to IW where they can load it up and watch the playback from that player’s perspective to see exactly what happened in the game.

This tool has the hackers shitting bricks because there’s nothing that can be done to counter it. You can’t hide your Steam ID from the game and the files record exactly what happened during the course of a match. If you’re using a wall hack and repeatedly kill people you couldn’t see it’ll show up in the playback. Aimbotting becomes so glaringly obvious (see the previous YouTube video) that it’s pretty much a guaranteed ban.

The tool proved so popular that, once again, the surge of reports became overwhelming and suddenly it stopped working. Xifon posted an announcement that the queue wasn’t updating and it looked like it was to be a short-lived experiment, but the folks at IW got in contact with him and asked if they could work together to improve it. One of the problems it had was accountability for the person making the report. There wasn’t anything preventing you from submitting someone who just pissed you off by being a better player. So after a couple of weeks the new version was released that corrects that problem.

Now to use it you have to sign in with your Steam ID so any reports you make can be associated with your account. This provides a couple of benefits including the ability to see which reports you’ve submitted and whether they’ve been reviewed and what, if any, action was taken. It also has a scoring system that awards you points for every cheater banned and dings you points if your report wasn’t legit. This is to encourage you to be sure you’re submitting an actual cheater prior to dashing off a report.

These two solutions, the @IWEnforcer Twitter account and the MW3SA Reporting Tool, won’t eliminate the problem of cheaters in Call of Duty games any time soon, but they do help and Infinity Ward deserves a lot of credit for at least attempting to deal with the problem. The process is still slow as I have 3 reports in so far, the oldest dating back to June 9th, that still haven’t been reviewed, but at least they’re there and should get looked at eventually. With any luck, the tool will be a success and put a dent in the amount of cheating in CoD games. Either way, Infinity Ward deserves credit for trying to tackle the problem.

 

Games I’m Looking Forward To: “Call of Duty: Black Ops”

Long time readers already know I’m a huge fan of the Call of Duty series of first person shooters. So it should probably be no surprise that I’m looking forward to the next iteration in the series coming from developer Treyarch.

Actually it might be a surprise given the fact that I have a massive Love/Hate relationship with the last CoD title: Modern Warfare 2. In my review of that game I praised the improvements to the game over its predecessor while also bemoaning what I considered to be huge steps backwards in the decision to not support dedicated servers or allow for kick votes on troublesome players and cheaters. It didn’t help that it was only a matter of hours from the game’s release till there was a fully functional aimbot/wallhack cheat for it which would take weeks before the Valve Anti-Cheat system would get around to detecting let alone actually banning anyone for. This was such a huge problem for the PC version of the game that I did something unprecedented (for me) and wrote an entry prior to the review in which I ranted about how Infinity Ward had fucked over “Call of Duty” fans who play on the PC. I believe I titled that entry:

Infinity Ward has fucked over “Call of Duty” fans who play on the PC.

It goes without saying that I was a tad bit pissed off at the time that I wrote it. Rereading it now I have to say that I stand by almost everything I said in that entry and the review that followed it. MW2 is a great game as evidenced by the fact that, according to my Steam profile, I’ve racked up over 590.1 hours of play time in the game (compared to a mere 68.6 hours in Borderlands which is another great game). In that time I’ve discovered another reason why the lack of dedicated servers is a problem for the game.

The way multiplayer is handled is that the game tries to figure out who has the best PC/connection and makes them the host. Depending on how many games are in your general area of the Net this could mean you get stuck with a shitty connection between you and the host which will make the game pretty much unplayable. If you end up being made host you have a huge advantage over most of the other players as your machine is the one that has final say on where the bullets land. Both of these factors together results in a situation where some nights you’ll have a great gaming experience and many nights you won’t without lots of quitting and trying to find a better game to join. With dedicated servers you could see which ones offer the best pings for you and play with other people who are also getting good pings making for a more level playing field. Having said all of that, I will say that the amount of cheating seems to have decreased since the game was released. I”d like to say that is because of increased policing by IW and Valve, but the truth is other popular FPS games have come out and siphoned off some of the cheaters.

It would be very cynical of me to suggest that the real reason Infinity Ward decided not to support dedicated servers and, by extension, player modifications is because they had planned to sell Map Packs for $15 a pop after the game was released. It would be very cynical of me, but it would also probably be the truth. IW has released two such packs so far which total up to half the cost of the original game itself for a mere 10 additional maps of which several are ports from Call of Duty 4. As you can probably guess the price point is a matter of some contention among fans, but that hasn’t stopped IW from selling a shit load of map packs and raking in millions in the process. I got a review copy of the game, but I have purchased both map packs because I do play it quite a bit.

So why, you may be wondering after all of that exposition on all that is wrong with MW2, am I looking forward to the next CoD game? Haven’t I learned my lesson and sworn off the franchise in a fit of pique?

There are a number of reasons the biggest of them being that Treyarch are not Infinity Ward. The developer was brought in by Activision for Call of Duty 2: Big Red One which was the series’ first entry to be console-only. It was a sort of sequel/spin-off of the PC’s CoD2. They also developed Call of Duty 3 which was also only available on consoles. Neither game was particularly well received and word has it this resulted in some bitter feelings at Infinity Ward that a successful franchise they had started was being tarnished by a different company. Thus one of the great gaming rivalries was started and among fans Treyarch has often been considered the lesser of the two developers.

When Treyarch took on Call of Duty: World at War, which followed in the footsteps of the ridiculously successful Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, they ended up licensing the latter game’s engine from IW. Arguably a smart move as it allowed the multiplayer half of the game to offer a very similar experience to CoD4 only set back in World War II. CoD:WaW was pretty successful though most fans still seem to consider it the lesser game compared to CoD4. Personally I thought it was just as good as CoD4 in most respects and I played the living hell out of it just as I had CoD4. Whatever faults Treyarch’s earlier attempts at CoD may have had, World at War showed they were progressing as a developer. Of course having the CoD4 engine didn’t hurt.

The point I’m trying, and failing, to get to is this: Other than having licensed the CoD4 engine, the folks at Treyarch are their own team making their own decisions about their game. Infinity Ward wouldn’t have helped Treyarch if they’d been asked as they don’t exactly have the warm fuzzies for the company. That means that whatever stupid decisions Infinity Ward may have made won’t necessarily be made by the folks at Treyarch.

For example, they’ve already announced that Black Ops will see the return of the ability to lean around corners (not in MW2), the ability to mod the game, and — most importantly — dedicated servers. Additionally they’re expanding the “Create a Class” function from the previous games to include not only the ability to change your weapon load outs and options, but also make cosmetic changes such as decals and custom text on the weapons as well as modifying what the red dot in a sight looks like. There’s some question on how modifiable the game will be, but Treyarch has confirmed that some form of mod tools will be made available after release.

Then, of course, there is this:

Oh yeah, that looks pretty damned sweet! RC car that you can drive up behind the baddies and explode? I am SO THERE!

It also looks like Treyarch is really coming into their own as a CoD developer which is probably lucky for Activision considering that most of the top talent that produced the sales record breaking Modern Warfare 2 up and quit after Activision unceremoniously fired two of IW’s founders.  There’s still lots of people left at IW and the “official” word is that it’ll be business as usual and they plan to have their next CoD title break even more records, but that remains to be seen. Given that a part of Treyarch’s advancement is undoubtedly due to licensing Infinity Ward’s game engine it’ll be interesting to see if they’re able to step up and take the reigns if what’s left of IW falters. There’s the possibility that this could be the last great entry in the franchise. Or it could be the start of a whole new CoD empire.

Either way, I’m seriously looking forward to this game.

Don’t expect Infinity Ward to address CoD:MW2 PC issues anytime soon.

Updated 12/17/09: I just might have to eat my words as IW looks set to prove me wrong. A couple of recent Tweets from Robert Bowling indicate that there is indeed a patch for the PC version of MW2 in the works that will fix several bugs and at least one currently undetectable cheat.

While it doesn’t appear to deal with the issue of people using aimbots/wallhacks to cheat — IW seems content to rely on Valve’s VAC system to identify and ban those players — it will fix a cheat involving substituting texture files that paint all players as red, remove extra foliage that obscures line of sight, and eliminates the blood splatter effect when you’re wounded. All three of those changes give a huge advantage to the player using them, are not detected by VAC, and won’t necessarily result in a ban if you use them according to Valve’s official FAQ on the topic. The patch should fix that exploit and repair any modified texture files.

I still say that the problem with aimbots/wallhacks and the lengthy delay between when someone uses them and when they are actually banned for them (Valve says it can be many weeks before you’ll be banned) is still something they need to address. It only takes a handful of cheaters in a night or two to put you off of playing the game and that’s something you’d think IW would prefer to minimize. Still, they are working on patching exploits and bugs in the PC version and I have to be fair and admit that’s more than I thought they’d do. Bowling has even hinted that IW might be, and the emphasis is on the words “might be”, considering making available some means for custom content such as user created maps.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 moved over 6 million copies for the Xbox 360 and PS3 combined smashing records along the way in November. Sales on the PC? Well, those numbers are much less impressive:

According to a new report from Gamasutra on last month’s NPD figures, the PC version of Modern Warfare 2 moved “nearly 170,000” copies at retail. That doesn’t include figures for Steam, Valve’s digital distribution system, which are likely to have been significant—today, over 100,000 Steam users were playing the game online at the same time, but we’re not sure how that breaks down to retail and online sales.

Still, at least 170,000 copies to a group of gamers that balked at the lack of dedicated servers and a higher-than normal price tag is…. pretty good?

On the one hand it’s good to see that PC gamers are generally voting with their wallets, but on the other hand the success of the game on the consoles pretty much guarantees that the folks at IW aren’t going to be too concerned with the plight of those 170,000 PC gamers that did buy the game. If anything I’d hazard a guess that they’ll probably just use it as a justification for dropping PC development altogether.

To date no one at IW has had anything to say about what they plan to do with all the hackers/cheaters running rampant through the PC version of the game. Infinity Ward front man Robert Bowling (a.k.a. @fourzerotwo on Twitter) has been addressing player concerns about issues such as the over-powered Model 1887 Akimbo shotguns, the public-private match glitch, and the unlimited ammo glitches, but both of the attempts I made to ask about IW’s plans to deal with the hacking/cheating issue on the PC went completely ignored.

Now he does get a lot of tweets and he does end up repeating a lot of the same answers, but in digging through the last 24 hours of his tweets I found only three replies to people raising concerns about the PC version. One of whom had to send out 16 tweets of his own before Robert even responded and when he did, this was all he had to say:

@Zube56 what specific issues on PC are you wanting the team to look into? You’re 16 tweets in and haven’t named anything (besides cheats)

Considering cheats are probably the biggest issue the PC version is having at the moment, you’d think that would be enough. The other two replies weren’t any more useful.

One was to report a cheater through the player’s Steam account page, which isn’t always practical. The cheater in question was named “Multicam” and if you do a search for that name on the Steam forums you find at least two people with that name. Given that only one of them has played MW2 recently you could probably figure out which one to report, but type in my gaming nick (GodLes) and you get five people. Type in “Sgt Mike” and you get 9. Type in “Sniper Killer”, and I’ve seen a lot of players who go by that name, and you get 33 possible choices. The more popular the words the more possible players you pick up. “Ninja”, another popular gaming name, gives you 9,228 possible players.

Given the low number of PC copies sold combined with the ridiculous number of Xbox 360 and PS3 copies sold, I’m not too optimistic that IW is going to lose any sleep at night over the problems the PC version is suffering from. I know I won’t be bothering to ask Robert Bowling for comment on the issue any longer as it’s clear he has nothing to say. I will continue to follow his tweets to see if IW does decide to toss us a bone somewhere down the line, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for it.

Infinity Ward has fucked over “Call of Duty” fans who play on the PC.

Yes I am upset and it’s probably a bad idea to write a blog entry when I’m as upset as I am now, but I’m going to anyway because this needs to be said. This is not a review of the game, I’ll write one of those later. This is a warning to anyone who’s thinking of buying it for the PC: Don’t fucking bother.

The reason why is quite simple. Infinity Ward decided that it was too much work to do much more than simply port the game over from the Xbox 360 so that’s all they did. The broke a long-standing tradition among first person shooters on the PC and decided they were not going to release a dedicated server to the fans. Instead they announced that MW2 would make use of a new matchmaking service they would be calling IWNet. They made this announcement during an interview on BASHandSlash.com’s podcast. It was not received well:

Bowling, the Infinity Ward community manager, said IWNet makes multiplayer more accessible to the PC community on Modern Warfare 2, replacing the need for dedicated servers that are hosted and managed by players. But the hardcore PC crowd to whom he was talking, on BASHandSlash.com’s webcast, did not take the news in a completely positive light.

“The silence you hear is because we’ve got a community right now structured in such a way that it relied on having dedicated servers,” one of BASHandSlash’s moderators told Bowling.

“You’re definitely reshaping the way the community has been set up,” another said later.

“Definitely,” Bowling acknowledged.

Reshaping is certainly one word to use. I prefer to use the words fucked over. Which is definitely a much harsher assessment, but the lack of dedicated servers is not the worst of it. A bit later the folks at ArsTechnica filled us in on the other changes to come:

We thought the lack of dedicated servers was bad, but now we can add the lack of console commands, the inability to have a say in who hosts the game, a lengthy pause while the game migrates to a new host if the currently selected host quits, no leaning, no option to record matches, and no way to kick or block trouble players, hackers, or cheaters.

See that last part I made bold type above? That’s where Infinity Ward has fucked over PC fans of their game. Mere hours after the game hit store shelves there was an aimbot/wallhack released for the PC version which you may recall me writing about previously. CoD:MW2 was released on November 10th. They didn’t get around to banning the first batch of cheaters until November 30th at which point about 2500 people were banned from Steam. Not that it matters as there is a crack out there and you can make as many Steam accounts as you want, each of which gets its own SteamID. There’s even a YouTube video showing you how to do it. Plus there are new hacks being created all the time. That’s just a fact of life on the PC. Hell, some of the hacks even advertise themselves in the game.

There’s no way that Infinity Ward or Valve can keep up with the cheaters in any reasonable amount of time. If we had dedicated servers this would be less of a problem as the admins can kick and ban by IP address at the first sign of a cheater. As things stand now not only are there no admins to deal with cheaters, but there’s no means of kicking cheaters at all. At the very fucking least it would’ve been nice to have the ability to call a vote to kick someone who’s being an ass in the game, but Infinity Ward won’t even let us do that.

I can live without dedicated servers if I have to. I can live with the max size of a match being 18 people. I can live with not being able to use custom user created maps. I can even live without the ability to lean around corners. Not being able to get rid of the cheaters, however, completely ruins the multiplayer game which, when you consider how short the single player is, is the main reason to buy the game in the first place.

There’s a certain class of person out there known as a Griefer and it appears they are having a field day with MW2. And why not? It’s not like anyone can do anything about it outside of Valve and Infinity Ward and that’ll take weeks before the SteamID is banned and then they can just make another one and keep right on going. This evening I joined and quit no less than two dozen games because the cheaters were out in force with no less than at least 4 cheaters in each game and one where half the players where cheating. I spent an hour just trying to find a game that didn’t have a cheater in it. When I quit the last game I sat down and wrote this entry.

This has to be the stupidest decision Infinity Ward has ever made. I find it hard to believe there isn’t a single person on that development team who didn’t foresee this being a problem with their decision to drop dedicated servers and remove any ability to kick players from a game. It was one thing when it was one guy every few dozen games or so, but when every game you join has a whole bunch of fucking cheaters in them it kills any desire I have to play the game at all. On the console versions all you have to worry about is people taking advantage of glitches that will eventually get patched and when people get banned there they can’t easily get back in. The PC is a completely different environment and only a fool would try to treat it like a console, but that’s just what Infinity Ward has decided to do.

As a result of this fiasco I can not recommend people buy the PC version of this game no matter how amazing it is. Perhaps IW will come up with a fool-proof way of eliminating the cheaters in a more timely fashion, but until they do it’s just not worth the aggravation on the PC. As a long-time fan of the company I am deeply disappointed and my outlook isn’t helped by the almost complete lack of comment from the Infinity Ward people on the problem.

Controversies and hacks can’t stop Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 from breaking records.

In it’s first day Activision and Infinity Ward’s latest iteration of the CoD franchise broke sales records and Activision isn’t about to not tell you about it:

Most Anticipated Game of the Year Becomes

Biggest Entertainment Launch in History

Santa Monica, CA – November 12, 2009 – Activision Publishing, Inc. (Nasdaq: ATVI) announced today that Infinity Ward’s much-anticipated Call of Duty®: Modern Warfare® 2 has become the biggest launch in history across all forms of entertainment with estimated sell-through sales of $310 million in North America and the United Kingdom alone in the first 24 hours, according to internal Activision estimates.

Modern Warfare 2 was released on Tuesday, November 10th, to worldwide fanfare across the globe, including over 10,000 retail outlets in the U.S. alone which held midnight openings to meet consumer demand.  In its first day, the blockbuster title sold through approximately 4.7 million copies in just North America and the United Kingdom, according to internal Activision estimates.

“The Call of Duty franchise has become a cultural phenomenon showing the power of video games as an entertainment medium,” said Mike Griffith, CEO, Activision Publishing, Inc.  “The shattering of these entertainment records is a testament to the compelling, cinematic and uniquely engaging experience that the Call of Duty brand delivers. Modern Warfare 2 has taken interactive experience to unprecedented heights setting a new standard for entertainment.”

There are developers out there who would kill to see 4.7 million copies sold in the entirety of a game’s shelf-life, let alone on day one. The vast majority of those sales are most likely the console versions. Not a bad start at all and breaking the previous first day sales record of Grand Theft Auto IV which had first day sales of 3.6 million copies. If you expand it to worldwide sales, well, Activision didn’t actually provide any numbers for that, but Analyst Ben Schachter estimates it sold seven million copies worldwide.

I have to admit that holding out until after Christmas is going to be tough.

Well that didn’t take long. First CoD:MW2 wallhack/aimbot already out.

11/13 Update: Thanks to the folks over at the MacNN Forums the video is working once again.

11/12 Update: It appears that this video has been hit with a take-down claim from Activision or Infinity Ward. They claim it’s a copyright violation, though I’m not sure how that can be the case. I asked IW spokesman @fourzerotwo for IW’s official stance on the hack yesterday on Twitter and never received a reply. I guess they’d rather just hide the video than talk about it.

The game is out just a few hours and the first aimbot/wallhack has already shown up for the PC version:

I figured someone would release a cheat along these lines eventually, but I didn’t think it would happen this quickly. As the game currently stands there is no way kick these cheaters off your games. Can’t do it as an administrator or host and can’t do it with a vote. If a hacker joins your game you’ll just have to suck it up, or go find something else to play.

Considering that one of Infinity Ward’s big justifications for not putting out a dedicated server was that their network would do a better job of policing against cheaters and hacks, this doesn’t bode well. IW is going to be looking at a lot of unhappy gamers if they can’t get rid of this hack pretty damn quickly. If they respond as slowly as they did to hacks and cheats in the first Modern Warfare they may find their place as a fan favorite deteriorating quickly. Especially if they don’t add in some means of allowing the players to boot out cheaters.

It looks like the bloodbath may have already started. The IW Forums are swamped right now with page loads timing out due to too many database connection attempts.

Games I’m looking forward to: “Modern Warfare 2”

Anyone who’s hung out at SEB for any amount of time knows what a big fan I am of Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty franchise. The fourth iteration, subtitled Modern Warfare, had be a little worried by the move away from WWII, but it turned out to be an excellent game with highly enjoyable multiplayer that keeps me coming back. Now they’ve released the trailer for the sequel titled Modern Warfare 2. No word on if in the long run they will tack Call of Duty onto the front of that or not, but even without it the trailer looks fantastic:

Alas it comes out in November so I’ve got several months yet to spend with CoD4 and CoD:WaW.

SEB Review: “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare”

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

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.

Single Player

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.

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