"For many, it is difficult to perceive a first-person shooter as nothing more than an opportunity to blow the brains out of some intricately rendered enemy soldiers. But, if the art of videogame lies in giving players agency; in immersing them in an interactive, sometimes visceral, experience, then the humble first-person shooter is capable of so much more. Call of Duty 4, Infinity Ward’s modern take on first person military combat, understands this and hints at new ways of experiencing narrative..."
For many, it is difficult to perceive a first-person shooter as nothing more than an opportunity to blow the brains out of some intricately rendered enemy soldiers. But, if the art of videogame lies in giving players agency; in immersing them in an interactive, sometimes visceral, experience, then the humble first-person shooter is capable of so much more. Call of Duty 4, Infinity Ward’s modern take on first person military combat, understands this and hints at new ways of experiencing narrative that videogames can, for once, call their own.
The setting, though a departure from the previous games in the franchise, is nothing new. Set amidst a background of global political intrigue, you will fight sometimes frighteningly believable terrorist soldiers, make a harrowing escape from a sinking ship, try to defuse the threat of a nuclear holocaust, make way through bunkers and enemy bases to hunt down the ultimate evil and be surprised by a few well-placed plot twists. If this sounds like nothing more than your typical Hollywood blockbuster action movie, you would not be far off, and like in the movies, such stories sometimes ring hollow.
However, to make such a simple analogy would unfairly underappreciate Call of Duty 4’s immense degree of sophistication. From the moment you make that faithful leap onto an awaiting helicopter, as bullets screech past your eardrums and your squad mates hurry you with their commands, this becomes clear. Call of Duty 4 is full of these type of unpredictable moments, a testament to Infinity Ward’s unrelenting but nuanced approach to set-piece shooting. Supported by intuitive and refined controls, the orchestrated sequences in Call of Duty 4 are, in a word, awe-inspiring. Taken separately and in terms of design, these sequences hold up easily to any piece of modern cinematic warfare.
But, as a whole, the importance of Call of Duty 4 goes ‘deeper and harder’ than merely satisfying gunplay and action. This is because the game revels in its medium; it takes the first-person perspective and runs with it, using it to evoke real emotion from the player in ways unrelated to the superficial satisfaction of pulling a well-rendered virtual gun’s trigger. For example, in the second ‘level,' you take on the role of an overthrown president, nothing more than a bit player in the overall narrative, bound and gagged, unable to move anything other than your head, watching as your country falls into ruin and finally literally looking down a barrel of a gun as someone else blows out your brains. Though such experiences are few and sometimes far between, they punctuate the gaming experience, giving it depth and emotional resonance.
It is unfortunate then that there are moments which violently jolt you out of this state. As you move through the beautifully designed locales, you slowly come to the realization that Infinity Ward’s approach to set-piece shooting is often overly heavy-handed. You will notice that enemies will always show up where you expect them and their flow is halted easily by sprinting from trigger-point to trigger-point. In this way, the game has a tendency to devolve into a mechanical exercise: clear out, move in, repeat. At this point, Call of Duty 4 loses its muster, taking away the active and dynamic decision-making which should characterise the first-person experience. This may have been all too clear to Infinity Ward and they offer a variety of play modes, from on-rails turret shooting to stealth missions, to break up the core gameplay.
Therefore, from a pure game design standpoint, it could be argued that Call of Duty 4 is nothing more than a refinement of established but somewhat limited gameplay mechanics. This is true but in a number of important aspects apart from the strong control scheme, Infinity Ward’s gameplay decisions should be applauded. For instance, the damage you receive from enemy fire will always have you on the brink of death, emphasizing the importance of cover and tactical positioning and creating an unrelenting sense of danger. Also, technically, the detailed graphics, dramatic soundtrack, bowel-moving sound effects and expert voicework add to game’s merciless atmosphere.
It is this atmosphere, of death and destruction, and the thematic and emotional resonance of Infinity Ward’s treatment of war, which make Call of Duty 4 a memorable and thrilling experience. While some aspects of the game are unnecessarily ham-fisted and mechanical, the game shows that the first-person perspective need not only be a means to an end; it can immerse the player in the story and allow them to experience crucial narrative events for themselves as themselves from new vantage points. In between, the player is assaulted, both literally and figuratively, and every gut-wrenching explosion or headshot is an experience in of itself. In these ways, Call of Duty 4 has made an invaluable contribution to the ongoing narrative of the wartime first-person shooter genre.
Community review by Carlo84 (December 10, 2007)
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