WORDS BY: Ryan McCaffrey
It certainly couldn’t have been easy for the check-signers at Activision to endorse the abandonment of Call of Duty’s World War II setting: the first-person-shooter series was synonymous with the Second Great War, and it’d been a multi-million seller since its PC debut in 2003. But ditch it they did, as developer Infinity Ward — who now tread on the same Elite Xbox Developer ground as Bungie and BioWare — has pressed the fast-forward button and brought gaming’s most popular Axis-versus-Allies experience into the present day, trading binoculars for laser sights and Hitler for a fictional Middle East president.
In fact, what’s most surprising about Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is just how much better it is than the studio’s previous effort, Call of Duty 2. (Fellow Activision developer Treyarch handled Call of Duty 3.) The fact that Numero Dos was good enough to snap up an OXM Editors’ Choice award at the 360’s launch makes Modern Warfare’s evolution all the more amazing.
We liken the series’ switch to a hard-throwing baseball pitcher who learns to mix up his pitches. If you keep trying to throw as hard as you can, you can be successful for a while (CoD2), but eventually the hitters (gamers) will get wise and start to expect the same thing on the next pitch (CoD3). It’s when you learn to change speeds and upset the hitter’s timing that you transform from a one-year wunderkind into a superstar on your way to the Hall of Fame (CoD4).
That stunning fastball variable at the pitcher’s mound is Infinity Ward’s crowning achievement: a “we-were-sick-of-WWII-too” breakthrough that delivers on every level and offers as much moment-to-moment, hour-to-hour, and week-to-week fun as anything the Xbox 360 has seen yet.
Call of Duty 4’s opening salvo can’t even be called a salvo — it’s simply not that loud — but it’s no less hard-hitting. Following a short training mission (which contains a timed obstacle course that should keep Achievement-mongers and leaderboard *** busy for some time), you’ll take up arms as British SAS recruit “Soap” MacTavish. You drop from a helicopter and onto the deck of a cargo ship listing at sea in the middle of a colossal rainstorm, ready for action.
It’s on this see-sawing, seafaring vessel that Call of Duty 4 first serves notice of its graphical wow-factor. To say Modern Warfare’s visual fidelity is immediately apparent would be a criminal understatement. Torrid rainfall, rolling thunder, crackling lightning, and marvelously detailed textures and character models all combine to make you say “Whoa,” a word you’ll constantly repeat over the campaign’s 10-hour-or-so duration. But the impact of the amazing visuals is made all the more shocking by the constant 60-frames-per-second smoothness of the action, an irresistible combination previously claimed only by Team Ninja’s Ninja Gaiden.
You and a small team roll with your commanding officer, Captain Price, as you seek to disarm a stolen nuclear device that serves as the catalyst for the game’s plot. With Price constantly providing status updates and orders, you’ll move from room to room and hallway to hallway, stacking up at doors and clearing areas as if you’d accidentally slipped the Rainbow Six Vegas disc into your 360.
This inaugural mission is pulled off with a quiet intensity that belies the series’ “Loud, louder, loudest” mantra. You might even wonder if you’re really playing Call of Duty — a question that’s answered when the ship is struck by enemy MiG fighter planes and begins to severely list on its way to the bottom of the ocean. This event sets off a hurried escape where you’re almost literally running sideways, only to toss you into — and nearly out of — your extraction helicopter.
As if it wasn’t all cinematic enough, credits scroll across the screen while you witness (from a first-person perspective, of course) a fictional President Al-Asad as he’s captured by radicals, shoved into a car, and taken through the civil war–torn streets of Azbereijan. Sure, having you control the opening cinematic is straight from the Half-Life and Riddick playbook, but it helps lend weight to the game’s story. It also foreshadows the variety you’ll experience, and sets up your actions for the rest of the game.
These first two segments alone trump any previous Call of Duty, but unlike some games that start strong but peter out, Modern Warfare manages to cram something awesome into each and every single-player mission. And somehow, each level seems to be more gorgeous than the last.
In just the second mission, you’re introduced to night vision — another series first — as you move silently through a swamp before reaching a small village. There you’re given the go-ahead by Price to quietly execute bad guys using either your silenced weapon or a melee knife attack as you comb a pitchblack house in search of your captured informant — the same guy who tipped off your crew about the nuke on the cargo ship. Observant players will notice laptops scattered around each level; like Gears of War’s hidden Cogs, 30 of them are distributed throughout the game, and you’ll earn Achievements for collecting half of and then all of them. Furthermore, the more pieces of enemy intelligence you find, the more goofy cheats you unlock (see boxout).
Throughout CoD4, you’ll split time playing as Soap and as U.S. soldier Sergeant Jackson. As Jackson, the capital city of Azad’s fictitious country in the bright afternoon sunshine is yours to travel and explore. Debris blows in the wind, smoke billows from burning buildings, low-flying jets scream directly overhead, rebels execute drive-by shootings from the flatbeds of beaten-up pickup trucks, and friendly helicopters circle in the sky.
Then it comes to you amid all the noise and chaos — this is still a Call of Duty game, after all, giving you the signal that balls-to-the-wall action is not so much promised as 100-percent guaranteed. Again, though, the intensity doesn’t necessarily stem from a glut of trigger-happy enemies or the vehicles screaming by in Dolby surround sound. Instead, the Rainbow Six déjà vu rings loudly as you storm a television station thought to contain President Al-Asad. The shootout that takes place in the cubicle-cluttered newsroom has you dodging bullets and shards of glass, while hurling grenades straight back in enemies’ faces using the RB button. (Why you can only pick them up and throw them back instead of just kicking them, we’re not sure.) It’s all an absolute thrill.
THOROUGHLY MODERN GHILLIE
We don’t want to spoil all of the amazing moments you’ll experience during the campaign, but we’re compelled to share a few more highlights. Other notable spots include blowing up cars in urban shootouts; taking out enemy tanks with the high-arching Javelin missile launcher; saving teammates as they wrestle with enemies; being mauled by dogs; running through smoke grenades and planting C4 explosives on moving tanks; leveling buildings and squads of baddies from above in an AC-130 gunship (see image at right); peppering people with high-caliber explosive rounds from an attack helicopter’s gunner seat; and even a major catastrophe that’s bound to shock you as much as the end of the opening credits. And that’s to say nothing of the game’s end run, which mixes against-the-clock pressure, a high-speed car chase, a gratifying “*** you” payback, and a truly emotional moment with an ally before the final credits roll — after which you’d best not put down the controller.
But we must give specific praise to “All Ghillied Up,” the final level of the second act. Armed with a silenced sniper rifle and decked out in a Ghillie suit (you’re basically a walking bush), you (in a flashback sequence as a young Captain Price) must make your way alongside Captain MacMillan to a distant building to try to snipe the game’s antagonist, Imran Zakhaev. Following your C.O., you can sneak by or silently shoot patrolling foes, all while avoiding detection. An Achievement awaits those who can make it through unnoticed, which requires you and MacMillan to snipe two chatty tangos simultaneously before the tensest moment in the game: having to lie still in a grassy field while a platoon of bad guys walking side-by-side — including a couple of tanks — stroll by just inches away from you. It’s not only a stellar stealth mission for a Call of Duty game and easily the best level in Modern Warfare; it’s also one of the finest stealth levels in any game we’ve ever played.
All told, the variety throughout Modern Warfare’s campaign brings the series back down to earth a bit. The ubiquitous chaos of the two previous iterations had grown a bit too comical and over-the-top. In Call of Duty 4, however, the wildly different flavors in pacing — and the fact that when characters die, you actually care — lend a welcome newfound narrative gravity to the franchise. The campaign is completely worthy of a 10 on its own, in fact; but it’s the multiplayer mode that solidifies the game’s instant-classic status and is one of the most compelling reasons you’ll be wired into Live for a long time to come.
WAR FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY
Quality, quantity, and depth are the three primary and dominant reasons why Modern Warfare’s multiplayer mode stands toe-to-toe with anything else on the 360 — including Halo 3. The core gameplay is, as fans of Call of Duty 2 would expect, top-notch. Weapons are balanced, grenades are useful but not overpowered, and lag is nonexistent. But Call of Duty 4 takes a series-changing leap in the peripherals. Party system à la Halo? Check. An onslaught of quality game modes, including standard deathmatch, Search and Destroy, Domination, one-on-one duel, a one-shot/one-kill hardcore mode, a higher-jumping/weapons-via-pickup-only old-school mode, and old favorite Headquarters? Check. Matchmaking playlists? Check. Plenty of fun maps to game on? Try 16 of them out of the box! Four-player split-screen? Yep. How about RPG-like perks that give your character latent bonuses like the ability to reload faster, absorb more damage, or detect claymore mines through walls? Why, yes! Underpinning it all, however, is Modern Warfare’s fantastic online leveling system. Everything you do on the battlefield — get kills, make assists, complete objectives, and so on — earns you experience points that lead to new ranks. And earning promotions nets you rewards that are both instant (temporary radar, call in air strikes and choppers) and perpetually tangible (new weapons, attachments, matchmaking playlists, and create-a-class). You’re not simply unlocking just-for-show armor permutations à la Halo 3. You max out at level 55, but the goodies come well before and even after that point. At level 4 you unlock the aforementioned ability to create your own class. Choose your primary and secondary weapons, grenade type, and three of the aforementioned perks. You’ll have five slots to work with, plus the ability to give custom names to each. Believe it or not, that’s still not all. A wealth of challenges also await you — even at level 55. Complete tasks such as knifing five enemies or killing a near-dead foe with the melee damage of a grenade hitting them, and you’ll earn new weapon attachments such as laser sights and silencers.
Simply put, Call of Duty 4 does everything right and nearly nothing wrong. But where it elevates itself above even the best 360 shooters is how all of the good stuff is ludicrously good. The campaign never lets up, while multiplayer is a triple-A affair in itself. Infinity Ward’s enthusiasm for being freed of World War II shines through in every moment of gameplay, and this swing for the fences has belted Call of Duty 4 way out of the park.
+ Awesome moments on literally every mission.
+ Great multiplayer quality, quantity, and depth.
- A few frustratingly tough areas.
? What's the story behind the epilogue level?