"COD4 is epic in scope and short on time, but brevity can be a powerful tool in capable hands. Over the course of two days, I stormed terrorist bunkers, marched a tank through city streets, and held an entire militia at bay. I was exhausted, and yet, so moved by the climax that I immediately began the battle again."
Infinity Ward’s first-person shooters are renowned for superb storytelling, expertly designed levels, and perfectly tuned gameplay. They could have stayed true to form by churning out another tale from WWII and scored a smash hit. Instead, Infinity Ward marched back to the drawing board with erasers in hand. Tight controls, beautifully dilapidated environments, and an armory of weapons are all accounted for, but none of these attributes can suitably explain why Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a stunning success.
I admit to some skepticism during the opening scenario. My squad and I rappelled to the deck of a seafaring freighter and rushed the control room. I hunkered down for cover, but when I rose to shoot, I found that my squad had finished all the dirty work. I followed them through the barracks and cargo hold, but never had to fire a single round. In the final 60 seconds, Captain Price pulled me to safety twice. I felt like a useless burden. At the time, I didn’t realize how seamlessly Infinity Ward was preparing me for the responsibilities ahead. Within the hour I had gone from a hesitant rookie to pointman, gallantly leading the charge through gales of gunfire. My fellow soldiers counted on me, and somewhere down the line, I knew that Captain Price would be proud to stand at my side.
Like the film 300, COD4’s account of the few defying entire nations can be a bit liberal with the heroics, but the reality of the conflicts creates a terrifying mirror of the world around us. While I fought through a war-torn capital and fortified outposts on a new plasma TV, someone was risking everything in the real world to make sure that I remained ignorantly blissful. After witnessing the unbridled violence of a terrorist uprising in the middle-east and public executions of the citizenry, I felt absolutely privileged, and ironically guilty, to live in the relative safety of the U.S. Fantastic cutscenes and character conversations deliver a gripping story that emphasizes the struggle to maintain stability in a world strangled by conflicting politics, but no mission illuminated this point more brightly than my venture through Prypiat, on the outskirts of Chernobyl.
The desolation of Prypiat, where soldiers dutifully protect no one, paints an unsettling image of the human drive for domination. I had an assassination to perform, and even in that vacant landscape, a small ripple was about to turn the tides of power. I crept through the grass, popping up for a quick shot or knife to the throat. The intense silence was a welcome respite from the urban crescendo of gunfire and grenades, but also my feared enemy. I crossed my fingers while snaking past the boots of patrolling guards and cautiously avoided wild dogs inside the cement frame of the city. After arriving at my lookout, I pulled out my rifle, lined up the sights, and held my breath as the weight of the world fell to my shoulders.
That scene, a flashback of Captain Price’s took place fifteen years earlier, but remains completely relevant. COD4 strays from the typical, linear progression of single-character narratives, and injects players into the bodies of two main characters and a handful of supporting roles. The same technique threw Halo 2 fans into fits of rage, but whereas Bungie focused on the individual struggles of each character, Infinity Ward never lets you forget about the people relying upon you from outside the scene. It’s very clear from the beginning that COD4 is a story of camaraderie and not person accomplishment. While the conflicts and causes span time and space, the effects are inextricably linked.
COD4 is epic in scope and short on time, but brevity can be a powerful tool in capable hands. Over the course of two days, I stormed terrorist bunkers, marched a tank through city streets, and held an entire militia at bay. I was exhausted, and yet, so moved by the climax that I immediately began the battle again. There are four levels of difficulty, and you are being warned, Veteran will break your soul. You can hug the ground at the back of your squad, behind a thin wall, in near-darkness, and a terrorist in the throes of death will still manage to nail you between the eyes. It’s vicious, masochistic, and wholly unfair, but in the most fulfilling way possible.
I would have been perfectly satisfied had Infinity Ward left COD4 at that, but the online multiplayer is almost an entire game in itself. Expect the usual array of team-based, deathmatch, and capture-the-flag games, but never expect to play them the same way twice. Instead of equipping each person with the same load of weaponry and forcing them to scavenge better equipment from the levels, players must choose particular classes with very different weapons and perks. The maps range from claustrophobic deathtraps, to open courtyards, and labyrinthine cities, so arm your soldier to match your strengths and cover your weaknesses.
By far, the most interesting element of online multiplayer is the Create a Class system, in which you tailor every minute aspect of your soldier. Winning matches, playing effectively, and completing challenges awards experience points to move up in ranks. Besides giving a boost to your ego, this unlocks new weapons, equipment, and perks to create the perfect war-machine, stealthy sniper, or any combination you want. The perks are the true stars of the show, as they adorn your soldier with abilities beyond simple matters of weapon preference. With Last Stand, the first shots only knock you to the ground, where you pull out your pistol for one last chance at revenge. If you like to foolishly run in with guns blazing, you’ll need the health-boost of Juggernaut. In all, 22 perks distributed among three slots ensure that all players can find characters they like.
Putting the addictive multiplayer aside, COD4 is still captivating in a way that most games can only desperately hope to achieve through pure visual prowess. COD4 moves beyond the sadistic appeal of digital bloodshed to provoke gamers through tragic heroics, questionable victories, and a fictional tale with echoes of reality. These are the attributes that have made Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare into a masterpiece of contemporary gaming.
Staff review by Brian Rowe (December 11, 2007)
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