Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Developer: Infinity Ward
In his excellent 1992 book The Age of Missing Information, author Bill McKibben suggests that if you really want to experience the adrenaline rush of war, don't watch it on TV. Instead, hire someone to throw a brick through your bedroom window in the middle of the night. McKibben was obviously writing many years before videogames like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare were able to bring the sights, sounds, and intensity of battle so fully alive. But his point is still valid: No matter how real the images on our screens, we're still missing the physical reality of war--the dust in our mouth and the blood on our hands. Still, Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4 comes awfully damn close.
As in all forms of entertainment, there are game reviews and there is games criticism. Reviews read like something out of Consumer Reports: This is a great toaster. It has programmable settings for toast, waffles and bagels. The slots are extra big. It comes in three colors. The cord is kind of short. Games criticism, on the other hand, deals with the ideas and aesthetics of a game, the design choices and the political, emotional and psychological subtext. This is a review, but games like Call of Duty 4 cry out for real criticism.
From the opening level aboard a rolling, sinking ship, to the final, emotionally satisfying scene of the single player game, through the rainstorm-drenched multiplayer level, one thought kept reoccurring: My God, I've never seen this in a game before. I've never seen lighting this real or this beautiful, never seen an aerial bombing sequence this perfect, and never felt the need to physically cower as jets--called in for an airstrike by a fellow gamer--began to carpet bomb the ruined street on which I was fighting.
Graphics and Sound
When all games look this great, we can finally stop talking about graphics and focus on gameplay, but there is no getting around the every-single-frame-is-amazing look of Call of Duty 4. More than anything, it is a masterpiece of environmental detail, thousands of little touches that make the levels come alive: moths dance around streetlights, shreds of paper and ash float through the air, heat waves roll after every round of rocket fire. I'm sure that, in a few years' time, this game will look relatively primitive but for now, some of the environments are as close to photo real as I've seen. Some nice depth of field effects serve to enhance the already spectacular visuals. It would be easy to heap superlatives on the look of this game: It really is astounding.
Likewise, figures and weapons are fluidly animated and rendered, though the lip-synching of dialogue to character is far from perfect. On the Xbox 360, it all runs at a smooth 60 fps, even in the most heated, chaotic battles.
The sound of the game is every bit as amazing as the visuals, and it is obvious that just as much attention to detail was paid to the aural environment as the graphics. Weapon sounds are varied and effective and artfully reflect the acoustic environment in which they are used. The sounds of the battlefield in full pitch are overwhelming. Voice acting is professional if just a little lacking in character. The musical score is subtle but now and then rises to the fore, and it does a lot to raise the emotional pitch of a scene.
Story and Gameplay
Moving the Call of Duty series out of the played-out World War 2 setting of course opens up story and gameplay to a near-infinite variety of options, so I was just a little disappointed that the "ripped from the headlines" single player campaign focused on the not unexpected boogeymen of Middle Eastern terrorists, Russian madmen, and nuclear WMDs. Having said that, the cut scenes and story transitions are more often than not truly cinematic, chilling, and effective, and they are surprisingly memorable and emotionally compelling. The story does take a number of unexpected turns as it moves the player through the campaign.
The Call of Duty series has always been based on moving the player through a series of scripted levels, where there is only the illusion of choice and freedom, and this new game is no different. The firefights, the stealth levels, the bombing runs are incredibly intense, a lot of fun, and sometimes very challenging, but in the end there is basically only one way to win, even if the environment suggests otherwise. For example, there is a timed sequence where the player needs to move out of a rural farmhouse, down a hill to an extraction point, while facing several waves of enemies. The ability to call in multiple airstrikes or hunker down in sniping spots might indicate that perhaps facing the foes head-on is a viable solution. Instead, several playthroughs reveal that the only real solution to the puzzle lies in doing an end-run sprint around the enemy with very little engagement.
This scripted approach to gameplay is, of course, not a flaw, but a design decision and ultimately allows for more control over pacing (which is perfect in this game, with a new type of challenge at every level), story direction, and level flow. One can't help but wonder what it would be like, however, to explore these truly incredible environments in a more free-form way. This is where multiplayer really shines.
The single player component of Call of Duty 4 clocks in at around 6-8 hours, but while "short" compared to some shooters, it is just what it needs to be. Happily, we seem to be moving to a period where game developers feel free to make their game as long or as short as the story requires, rather than pad them out in order to add an extra bullet point to the box copy.
Call of Duty 4's single player game, though overall a brilliant achievement, doesn't really innovate or stray too far from Infinity Ward's proven formula. However, the multiplayer game is strikingly full of new ideas and gameplay tweaks that will give it years of extended life.
Sixteen well-designed maps, a ranking system that unlocks new modes and game types, the ability to design your own class of soldier, perks like helicopter gunships and airstrikes--all of these make Call of Duty 4 the richest and most satisfying multiplayer FPS available.
In a year that has already seen the release of several incredible games, Call of Duty 4 sits at the top of the stack. Visceral, brutal, exciting, and amazing, Call of Duty 4 pairs a compelling single player game with an endlessly deep multiplayer experience to create a game that must stand as the current state of the art, at least in the shooter genre. I'm giving this game perfect 10s. Is it perfect? Of course not. If I were using a rating scale that allowed it, I might take off a few fractions of a point for the less than original plot, or level design that was sometimes limiting. However, Call of Duty 4 really is damn near perfect, and it is absolutely not to be missed.
Overall Score: 10