"A world map hovers on screen and whirls around until the Middle East pops into view. The screen zooms in to a city along the west coast of Saudi Arabia, possibly Jiddah. We’re taken in closer, to the computerized image of two figures carrying an immobilized President Al-Fulani. A moment later and you’re looking through Al-Fulani’s eyes as he’s being thrust into the backseat of a car. As you’re driven through the war-torn city, you can do nothing but watch as masked terrorists fire guns, raid hom..."
A world map hovers on screen and whirls around until the Middle East pops into view. The screen zooms in to a city along the west coast of Saudi Arabia, possibly Jiddah. We’re taken in closer, to the computerized image of two figures carrying an immobilized President Al-Fulani. A moment later and you’re looking through Al-Fulani’s eyes as he’s being thrust into the backseat of a car. As you’re driven through the war-torn city, you can do nothing but watch as masked terrorists fire guns, raid homes, and execute citizens right on the streets, as the voice of a man named Khaled Al-Asad is heard exclaiming about an oncoming revolution. Finally the car comes to a halt, and you’re whisked out of the vehicle and tied to a wooden post, where Al-Asad and an unknown, bald figure stand before you. The mystery man hands his ally a handgun. Al-Asad walks up to the camera in slow motion, the rumble in the Xbox 360 controller indicating a heightened heartbeat. He points the gun at the screen. Bang. Everything goes black.
That’s the title sequence of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and once we’re put in Al-Fulani’s shoes, we’re not taken out until the gun clicks. This prologue works as a wonderful metaphor for the game itself and what it stands for. By placing players in modern-day situations and focusing on realism and total immersion in intense warfare, developer Infinity Ward has successfully removed the barrier between player and character. It’s you out there in the middle of every dire scenario, every impossible gunfight, every critical mission gone wrong. Al-Asad wasn’t aiming his gun at Al-Fulani… he was aiming it at the screen, at you.
Call of Duty 4’s single-player campaign is only around six hours long, and yet that is six hours of perhaps the most intense FPS action I have ever experienced. Infinity Ward has discovered how to make a shooter truly perfect from beginning to end: By deleting all of the down moments and turning in a compact experience that grabs the player by the throat from the start and never lets go until the credits roll. There is no dead space. There are no quiet moments. You will be under damn near-constant fire, fully aware that in this world it will only take one, two, three bullets to kill a man. And even when you’ve taken cover and the gunfire whizzes harmlessly past you, you’re still not safe from an endless barrage of grenades your opposition is more than happy to utilize. This is a war where there is no chance to relax and take a deep breath. This is a war where there is no such thing as safe.
What’s interesting is that Call of Duty 4 doesn’t do anything particularly new. It plays like any other quality console FPS and seems at first to offer the same kind of smart, tactical action that can be found in any Tom Clancy title. What sets Call of Duty 4 apart from its competition is the pacing. Infinity Ward has created an opposing force that is smart, brutal, and relentless. The game’s difficulty will set in rather quickly, and once the player is fully aware of the immediateness and urgency of every single battle, he will know not to take so much as a single step without careful consideration. The cautious Call of Duty 4 player knows when to stick his head out to shoot, when to back away when the opposition is too strong, when to run from a grenade or when to chuck it right back at the bad guys. Use of the same reckless FPS tactics we’ve been training on for years will get you killed instantly, even on the default difficulty setting.
Where Call of Duty 4 also excels is in placing players in unique situations that provide a new angle on realistic warfare. I’m reminded of a haunting flashback sequence in which we’re taken through the desolate ruins of Chernobyl as it still suffers from nuclear fallout. Dressing us up in a ghillie suit, the emphasis in this level is clearly on stealth, acting as a breather from the non-stop intensity of the rest of the campaign. The silence is well-placed and reflects on the unsettling eeriness of the environment we’re exploring. Once you reach the city, there’s this lengthy segment in which there is no action, no shooting, no death… You’re just walking through the empty buildings, observing the spooky barrenness of what is now a ghost town. Rarely has the simple act of doing nothing been so utterly captivating.
Jump back to the present. Russia has been divided by civil war as government troops fight off ultranationalist rebels in a struggle that could end in nuclear war. The battle extends to the Middle East, where a good chunk of the campaign takes place. One of your first major missions has you being dropped into a war-torn Arab city and tasked with fighting through countless insurgents in an attempt to hunt down this Al-Asad. Enemies come from all sides in Call of Duty 4, and this is never more evident than in the unnamed Middle Eastern city where a large portion of the game’s first act is set. Infinity Ward uses sneaky design tricks to make the game linear without ever feeling linear – it feels like you’re in the center of an actual military operation, and that you’re actually traveling through enormous environments that you can’t explore because there is a mission at hand, when in fact the barriers are there and you just won’t notice them.
What Infinity Ward undoubtedly set out to do was create an experience that mirrors the kind of military struggles that are happening in the world today, in Iraq or elsewhere. The idea is that you’re never alone, that you’re not some sort of super-powered cyborg warrior, but just another nameless, faceless soldier in the middle of an operation in which anything can happen. As you watch countless people die all around you, you’re fully aware that you’re just as vulnerable as any of them. Step out of cover for a moment and watch how quickly you get mowed down. Reality will set in. This is the reality of warfare.
Call of Duty 4 also pounds the player with a number of story-based scripted events that, coupled with the game’s first-person narrative, really demonstrate just how brutal war can be. (One in particular stayed with me for a long time; you’ll know it when you see it.) Call of Duty 4 is a game, but it’s also a step beyond that. It’s an experience unlike any I’ve ever witnessed. It’s a fully immersive reenactment of just how hellish war can become. It’s both a bleak warning and a damn exciting, entertaining title. That the graphics and sound are as stunningly realistic as one could ask for certainly doesn’t hurt.
My point is that this six-hour game gave me more thrills than most fifty-hour games could ever hope to provide. From start to finish I was bolted to my Xbox 360, and when I stopped, it wasn’t because I was bored, or because I had other things to do… it was because I needed a breather. So if you think even for a second that it’s not worth paying sixty bucks for such a short-lived shooter, then know that even once this fantastic game has come to an end, you will keep coming back because it just feels so good. Call of Duty 4 really is that incredible.
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