Reviewed: November 11, 2007
Released: November 5, 2007
It’s been two years since Infinity Ward dazzled us with their Xbox 360 launch title, Call of Duty 2. Last year Treyarch took over the franchise, at least from a historical WWII standpoint while Infinity Ward locked themselves away in some secluded military bunker and took their epic franchise into more modern times. The result of more than two years of intense game design and a next-gen vision of how online games should really be played has finally arrived. Welcome to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
With a story ripped straight from today’s headlines, gamers can finally get a small taste of what our boys over in Iraq are likely going through. This is the stuff they won’t be showing you on CNN and Fox News, but you know it’s happening. The single-player story takes place across multiple countries and follows the Marines as well as the British S.A.S. in parallel events that ultimately converge in a joint operation to save the United States from nuclear devastation.
It would be easy to compare Modern Warfare to other similar games like Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon, and while those franchises share a few common threads, Call of Duty 4 is more of an action oriented title, so rather than focusing on squad tactics and issuing orders, you are merely part of a team, a virtually indestructible team, which means you are only required to kill as many enemies as you can and stay alive.
I was surprised at how little focus was put on the interpersonal story. I really didn’t come to care for my teammates. They were merely distractions to draw enemy fire so I could advance to the next checkpoint. There is even a quote during one of the load screens that says something like, “It’s good to be part of a team. It gives the enemy somebody else to shoot at”, which was exactly how I felt about my squad. Call me heartless, but knowing that they couldn’t die and that 2-4 well placed shots would have me restarting from the last checkpoint tends to negate any feelings of loyalty.
The game kicks off with the traditional training scenario where you learn how to target, fire, and even assassinate some fresh fruit. Then you get to run a short training simulation, a wooden mock-up of a cargo ship you will be invading shortly. This is a timed event where you rush to five waypoints and shoot pop-up targets, flash bang rooms, and sprint to the finish. Your performance on this simulation will result in the game "suggesting" a suitable difficulty level for the rest of the campaign mode. My advice, especially if you are a veteran of the previous Call of Duty games is to ignore their recommendation and play on Hardened. This will offer a challenge worthy of your skills without the frustration of dying every 20-30 seconds in Veteran mode.
The scene shifts to you, aboard a chopper as you fly in low and rappel down to the deck of a giant cargo vessel during a terrible storm. You and your team will move through the ship, taking down anyone and everyone, even a staggering drunk and crewmen asleep in their bunks. You’ll make your way along the length of the swaying ship, trying to spot enemy lookouts through the blinding rain, taking cover in empty containers, and advancing to the rear section of the ship and down into the cargo hold. After a few enemy encounters in the cargo area your team will uncover a hidden nuclear warhead, but before you can do anything two bogies have been spotted headed to your location.
You grab the clipboard with some valuable intel and start to retreat back to the chopper when the ship is rocked with a fiery blast and you are knocked to the deck. The next 30 seconds is perhaps some of the most exciting cinematic moments of actual gameplay you’ve experience this year, as you rush along catwalks, through collapsing passages, and scramble across the slippery deck of the tilting ship, making a final daring leap to your chopper. Fade to black and roll credits. Yep, that all happens before the game even really starts - how James Bond is that?
The opening credit sequence is quite brilliant. You are put into the body of the deposed president, tossed in a car and driven to your execution. Along the way you have full control of looking around, and watching the citizens and militia running around shooting and looting is pretty awesome. It might take you several car rides to see everything that is going on during this lengthy sequence.
The single-player campaign in Call of Duty 4 could be considered short by some, but I found it to be the perfect length and offered an excellent progression of difficulty. Spread across three acts and 16 chapters, you’ll get to experience some extremely intense and exciting combat as both a Marine and S.A.S. operative. The battles really heat up when you get into the urban combat arenas where enemies are lurking on every rooftop and balcony, and sniping from the smallest hole in the wall.
While Call of Duty 4 reinvents itself from a presentation and timeline standpoint it fails to truly bring anything new to the table in terms of gameplay. Vehicles, which were always a fun diversion in previous titles whether you were riding a jeep or moving from numerous gun stations on a bomber, are all but missing. There is one insane car chase at the very end of the game, one chopper flyover where you get to shoot at rooftop targets (a unabashed knockoff from GRAW), and an amazing ride in a Spectre AC-130 gunship, but that's it.
In the mission, Death from Above, you play the TV operator onboard an AC-130 in charge of targeting and issuing fire orders at ground targets. You get to pick from three powerful weapons, each with their own zoom level and range of devastation. The 150mm cannon is capable of taking out entire city blocks with a single blast, while the 40mm cannon is powerful enough to take out cars and small buildings without too much collateral damage. The 25mm gatling gun zooms in close and lets you take out individual targets with extreme precision. The entire level is played in black and white, or you can invoke thermal vision and play in white and black (yes, there is a difference). This is easily my second favorite level in the game.
Which obviously leads to my first favorite level, All Ghillied Up, a flashback episode that takes you back 15 years allowing you to tag along with Captain MacMillan as you both head deep into enemy territory to assassinate Imran Zakhaev. The mission takes place in Pripyat, just outside of Chernobyl, and just after the nuclear accident that happened around that time. Expect a lot of abandoned cities and pockets of radiation you’ll need to avoid, so listen to your Geiger counter.
This mission is all about stealth and either avoiding enemy contact or taking out enemies in such a way that nobody is alerted. You are virtually undetectable in your ghillie suit, a full-body outfit that eliminates all straight and curved lines of your profile as you sneak through the underbrush. There is one butt-clinching moment where you and MacMillan are laying in a field of tall grass as tanks and soldiers march toward you and right past (if you are lucky). Perhaps even more tense than that is a makeshift enemy camp inside a maze of cargo containers. You must sneak in and avoid four soldiers clustered around a barrel with a laptop to get some enemy intel. One soldier is asleep, tipped back in a chair, one is on patrol, and two others are nearby enjoying a smoke.
Old staples like looking down the barrel for improved accuracy as well as tossing grenades back at the enemy have returned as well as a few new elements. Dogs join the cast of enemies, but they only appear 3-4 times in the game and they aren’t that hard to kill. If one does knock you down you simply have to push the melee attack to snap its neck before it rips your throat out. I think the dogs would have been better implemented as warnings rather than soldiers. It would have been extremely cool to have dogs in the All Ghillied Up mission and then have to worry about staying downwind of them.
The other major new feature that significantly “impacts” the gameplay is realistic ballistics. Bullets have now been granted their right to travel through wood, brick, and even thin metal, effectively reducing your ability to hide behind anything for too long. This feature alone keeps the game, as well as yourself, moving quickly through the levels, but it also gives you the advantage to take down enemies hiding behind a door or a wooden crate.
Weapons have been modernized, but other than the models and shapes changing, the way you play the game remains unchanged. You still have your shotgun for up-close spread damage, long-range weapons, flash, frag, and smoke (far fewer smoke grenades in this game), and the occasional mounted turret, the best of which is inside a crashed chopper. You actually have to spin-up this weapon with the left trigger before you can fire with the right. The Javelin is by far the coolest weapon in the game, launching a tank-busting missile high into the sky before it streaks down to decimate its target.
Before I end up recounting the entire game and spoiling all the good parts lets move on to Arcade mode and multiplayer. Once you finish the campaign you’ll unlock Arcade mode, which allows you to play the game as an arcade experience with a fixed number of lives and scores for enemy kills. But multiplayer is where Call of Duty 4 really shines and ultimately destroys Halo 3 and any other multiplayer combat game currently out there.
The multiplayer experience is so massive that Infinity Ward had to lock most of it down and then trickle it back out as incremental rewards for ranking up through online play. Modern Warfare is a class-based experience. At first you’ll have to choose from the few pre-configured classes, but when you have ranked up enough you’ll be able to use the Create-a-Class to customize any of five unique classes, each with your own weapons, attachments, and perks. You can have a class for urban levels, one for outdoor woodsy levels, a Rambo class, a stealth/sniper class, or anything you want. You can select your class before a match and change classes during a match. This change will take effect when you respawn.
Perks are special abilities you will earn and you can assign up to three per class. These range from anything from bonus weapons (RPG, C4, Claymore) to personal enhancements (increased health, faster reloads, invisible to radar), and combat enhancements (improved accuracy, steady aim, deep bullet penetration). There are some really fun perks like Last Stand where you get 15 seconds after being shot to use your knife or pistol to take down anyone nearby, or Martyrdom where you drop a live grenade when you die.
Perhaps the coolest perk is Eavesdrop that allows you to hear enemy conversations. Normally, during online play you only hear your own teammates, which allows you to coordinate and strategize. With Eavesdrop activated you are now privy to enemy tactics and can relay that info to your own guys. Of course this only works if you are playing with others sophisticated enough to be using team tactics in the first place.
One of the more innovative concepts in multiplayer are the Kill Streak bonuses awarded for consecutive kills. If you can kill 3 enemies you can call in a UAV for a radar sweep that will reveal enemy locations (for anyone not using the UAV Jammer perk). Killing 5 enemies will bring in an airstrike allowing you to pick the target on an overhead map of the level and obliterate it. And killing 7 enemies summons the attack chopper that will swoop in and send enemies running for cover and their rocket launchers.
There are 55 levels you can rank-up through and then you have the option to enter Prestige mode, which basically restarts you back at the first level with a clean slate and a special icon to indicate just how badass you really are. There are 10 levels of prestige, effectively giving you 550 levels of ranking. When the guys at Infinity Ward told me there was more than 300 hours of multiplayer gameplay in Call of Duty 4 I was skeptical, but now I think that estimate may be too low.
To keep you motivated during those 300+ hours of gameplay are numerous weapons and skill challenges – ten sets in all. There are only a few at first but as you acquire more weapons and rank up, more will unlock. For instance, the Assault Rifle challenge is broken down into all four assault rifle classes with six challenges per weapons. Now mirror that for SMG, LMG, Shotgun, and Sniper then tack on Boot Camp, Operations, Killer, and Humiliation challenges and you have hundreds of objectives that will take you months to complete.
There are numerous multiplayer modes, but even these are limited until you earn a high enough rank. Newcomers will head for Team DM or standard Deathmatch games, but there is great fun to be had in Domination, Ground War, Sabotage, Headquarters, Search and Destroy, Team Objective, Team Hardcore, Old School, and Oldcore. The “core” games eliminate the HUD and activate friendly fire, while the “old” games remove the classes and put everyone on the same level.
Regardless of the type of game you are playing, Call of Duty 4 is a fantastic experience with support for up to 18 soldiers over the PlayStation Network and your broadband connection. The game does a good job of matching you with similarly skilled players. Stages are pre-selected and rotated but you can always vote to skip a level you don’t like – majority rules.
To wrap up this section, I’m compelled to complain about the weak 7-page manual (or should I say “insert”) that came with the game. Obviously, somebody is trying to force you to buy the strategy guide, and you should, if you want to have any type of competitive edge in the online arena, not to mention any chance in hell of finding the hidden intel in the solo campaign.
I must also complain about the Mature rating. Personally, I don’t care because I’m old enough, but I think I speak for a few million pre-17 gamers out there with strict parents who won’t be allowed to play this game when I say, “why is this game rated M”? There is virtually no blood (or gore) to speak of, and the death and carnage is no worse than any of the WWII Call of Duty games that have come before this. And with the exception of a few “shits, hells” and “wankers” there is no bad language to speak of. I can only assume that the ESRB is more forgiving when it comes to historical war shooters than those set in modern times. It’s a sad commentary considering a lot of those pre-17 gamers will likely be enlisting in a year or two to do this for real.
The PS3 is virtually identical to the 360 and PC versions of the game. The obvious exception would be the lack of rumble feedback for the bigger guns and the thumping heartbeat as you are about to die. The online experience is identical in features and modes but is lacking in the big picture. I had far more dropped games on PS Network, and BlueTooth headset communication was poor and far less reliable than Xbox 360.
Call of Duty has always impressed me with its amazing visuals but nothing could really prepare me for the absolute photo-realism of what I was seeing while playing Modern Warfare. Sure, there are moments where the game sinks into videogame land, but for the most part you’d be hard pressed to tell you aren’t watching footage from some CNN guy embedded with the troops.
The animations and character modeling are ultra-realistic, and you’ll see your team executing coordinated CQB moves right from the military handbook. They breach doors, cover corners, and provide cover fire for advancement and even reloads. The details on the models goes right down to individual gear; grenades on the belt, extra ammo, and some of the best weapon models you’re likely to see without enlisting.
There are day and night missions, providing ample opportunity to break out the night vision goggles. These not only turn the view into monochromatic green, but also reveals the laser targeting sights of any weapons in view. It also amplifies the negative effects of an enemy flash bang grenade - gotta love that retina burn.
The urban levels were easily the highlights of the game with multi-tiered structures, narrow alleys, balconies, rooftops, basements, and all sorts of places to take cover. There is one mission where you are escorting a tank down a street lined with enemies on both sides on multiple levels. This level really showcases the visuals and the level design. There is fantastic use of lighting, real-time shadows (even from the light of a TV), weather effects, smoke, fire, and particles for dust and debris. The graphics are quite literally, explosive.
The one thing I didn’t like was my inability to tell friend from foe, but then I realized, that’s probably the way it is in real life which makes me wonder why there isn’t a lot more friendly fire. Not everyone who is an enemy is wearing a turban or a bandana or has a “shoot me” sign on their back. Sometimes the differences are very subtle and really require your utmost attention and reflexes to identify and shoot the proper person. There are a few hints like names and ranks over friendlies and red crosshairs on enemies when firing from the hip.
As far as visual differences between 360 and PS3, they are too few and minimal to even mention and what few variances there are could be considered subjective and easily tweaked with your TV or in-game brightness and contrast settings. Texture for texture and model for model, the systems are identical.
When you combine the gorgeous visuals with the epic original score by Stephen Barton and the main theme and music production provided by award-winning composer Harry Gregson-Williams you have something that is not only emotionally immersive, but also incredibly cinematic. While major parts of the game are played in musical silence, there are key parts where music plays a pivotal role in fueling your adrenaline for the battle at hand.
The voice acting goes above and beyond anything we’ve heard in a Call of Duty game. Battle Chatter is back and far more effective than it was before. Your team will call out enemy locations as well as letting you know when they are reloading or advancing to a new area. You’ll also get continual radio updates on where to go and what to do.
The sound effects are what really sell the war experience. Each and every weapon was digitally sampled and sounds just like its real-life counterpart. They even got the sound of heavy guns and tanks recorded as well as engine noises and explosions and all sorts of environmental sounds like weather, rain, wind, and the sounds of footsteps on a wide variety of surfaces.
The 3D surround mix not only immerses you in the world but also offers its own tactical returns by allowing you to hear enemies sneaking up on your position. This is huge in multiplayer where there is far more sneaking than the solo game. And while the visuals between 360 and PS3 are virtually identical, I have to give the nod to PS3 for slightly superior sound. Perhaps the extra capacity of the BD disc allowed for uncompressed audio, but regardless, I just noticed a lot wider range of frequency and powerful bass and overall clarity.
If you are in this for the solo game you’ll likely feel a bit cheated. On Normal mode you can blast your way through the single-player game in 8-10 hours. Hardened bumps that to 12-16 hours and Veteran will likely hit the 18-20 hour mark with a lot of death and checkpoint restarts.
Multiplayer is the obvious focus for this fourth installment of Call of Duty, and to fully exploit every last challenge and rank you can expect to spend anywhere from 200-300 hours, or more. Much like you, the game only gets better the more you play it.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Combat is easily the best game in the history of the franchise, at least from a technical standpoint. I didn’t find it nearly as immersive or personally rewarding as I did the previous WWII games where I actually came away having learned something, but that is the risk you take when you abandon history and delve into fiction. Perhaps, someday, when the current events in Iraq are declassified, Infinity Ward can do something a bit more relevant with the genre.
Even so, Modern Combat is just about as perfect a game as you can get. It falls short of total perfection only because it really doesn’t evolve the FPS genre in any significant way – not that I know what that might be, but I’d know it if I saw it. It’s a must-own, must-play game for anyone (screw the ESRB) who owns a next-gen console or high-end PC.
So lock and load and get your ass online so I can shoot it. I need to rank up…