"It's not the plot twists that will keep you playing so much as it is the sense that you're a part of them. As you head through the cities and the farmlands of present-day Russia, you're not some tourist dropped off somewhere to look at the pretty scenery; you're a soldier (multiple soldiers, actually, since the game shifts perspectives over the course of its 20 or so missions) exploring an unforgiving, hostile landscape where one careless step could spell disaster. This is a war. People on all sides will die and your goal is to make sure that you come through it all in one piece."
Many gamers are tiring of World War 2 games. That could've been a problem for a company like Infinity Ward that made a name for itself by letting people gun down virtual Nazis. Faced with that dilemma, the development team went to work. The solution it settled upon is Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and the subtitle says it all. Germany, France, muskets and tanks that belong in Donald Duck cartoons have been replaced by contemporary environments and weapons. That alone would've been enough to secure accolades and hefty sales thanks to the general quality of the Call of Duty 2 engine, but Infinity Ward didn't stop there. Instead, the team members crafted an experience that builds on the strength of earlier projects to excel in exciting new ways. To borrow and mangle a phrase, they went in deep and they went in hard.
The first mission makes that immediately apparent. A helicopter hovers over a frigate adrift in the tumultuous Bering Strait. You're on board, a rookie soldier fresh out of a brief tutorial stage. By moonlight, your squad rappels to the ocean-tossed vessel. The lot of you push forward, firing at muzzle flashes as you delve into the bowels of the ship for the precious information you've heard is on board. You find it eventually, but the stage isn't over. What happens next is surprising and cinematic, a wholly satisfying entry point for perhaps the finest military shooter to date.
Call of Duty 4 is about more than individual missions, though. Each stage is satisfying on its own merits (and available from a handy menu once cleared), but the way they all combine to tell an epic tale elevates the game to a higher level. It's not the plot twists that will keep you playing so much as it is the sense that you're a part of them. As you head through the cities and the farmlands of present-day Russia, you're not some tourist dropped off somewhere to look at the pretty scenery; you're a soldier (multiple soldiers, actually, since the game shifts perspectives over the course of its 20 or so missions) exploring an unforgiving, hostile landscape where one careless step could spell disaster. This is a war. People on all sides will die and your goal is to make sure that you come through it all in one piece.
Incredible visuals drive that point home. Environments are active, varied and expansive. You'll raid a coastal village by night, travel through shell-shocked city streets, sneak through an abandoned city and much more. There's almost never any clipping or draw-in, even when you're looking for it. Soldiers are well-animated too. They duck for cover, seek vantage points and slump against the architecture like real people, not drones. Even when columns of black smoke are rising toward the sky and frag grenades are exploding around you while an enemy soldier peppers you with fire from a turret and his friends try to rush you, nothing stalls. From the most minute detail--reflections on television screens, shadows dancing on walls or the ripple in rivulets of water flowing through crevices on a cobbled street--to the most spectacular, the graphics are nothing short of breathtaking.
The audio is also a treat. An orchestrated score lends the game a movie-like atmosphere, but that's not even the best part. You'll pay more attention to the gunfire and the explosions, the whine of a ricocheting bullet or a hushed conversation outside a guardhouse. Your comrades let you know where to look for enemies and how to proceed. For once, they actually have something worth saying!
It's a shame the enemy AI doesn't meet the same standards as your own squad. Imagine that you've taken a wrong turn and lost track of your team. Rounding a corner, you surprise some soldiers. A burst of gunfire takes out two or three, then you duck through a doorway to reload. At this point, enemies in most games would either rush you or ignore you. In Call of Duty 4, they do neither. Stay where you are and they'll be along shortly, one or two at a time. Ramping up the difficulty level alleviates the problem a bit because you have to fight harder to survive, but the game still seems content to take a 'numbers over brains' approach. Sometimes swarms of soldiers or a perfectly-tossed grenade will give you trouble in spite of things, but most players will be able to work through the game fairly easily even on the default setting because checkpoints are so plentiful. Achievements add to the game's longevity, but then it would be over if not for one important thing: online play.
Call of Duty 4 was made for Xbox Live. You'll find numerous maps available, nearly all of them superb. They reuse assets from the main adventure, but so what? That only ensures that everything players love about the story mode is available online with improvements. No matter what your style of play, you'll find a suitable environment. Snipers can head to roofs and window ledges, while underground tunnels await the sneaks among you. There are multiple game options available, too, including one where your first death is your final one for the match and you're left to spectate while the remaining players battle to be the last one standing. As you rack up the hours, you'll also learn new abilities that can be assigned to skill slots and custom classes, plus you'll reveal challenges you can complete to boost your rank more quickly. Since so many people are online and there are so many ways to customize characters, you have to approach every opponent with caution. Who knows what they're capable of doing to you if you make a mistake? That dynamic makes each round thrilling, whether you're playing your first session or your hundredth.
When you factor in both the single-player and online experiences, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare should easily keep you busy for 30 or 40 hours before you even consider going through on a higher difficulty level (though given how awesome some of the stages are, who could blame you?), snagging those last few achievements or playing another match with a maxed out character. By taking a new approach and doing nearly everything perfectly, Infinity Ward has made war-based shooters exciting all over again. Don't even think about missing it!
Staff review by Jason Venter (November 16, 2007)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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