Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Review - 31/12/2007

Infnity Ward have successfully established the Call of Duty series as one of the best FPS franchises around. While Treyarch's efforts have often been wide of the mark, Modern Warfare is well and truly an Infinity Ward game, and as such is a joy from start to finish.

Brilliant games haven't exactly been scarce this year, what with BioShock, Crysis, Halo 3 and Uncharted, but if you're a fan of the Call of Duty series, then Modern Warfare will beat the lot of them. Master Chief may not like it, but it's the truth. Modern Warfare is not without its flaws, and the arguably short single player gets a bit frantic towards the end, but a combination of fantastic production values in the campaign and one of the best multiplayer experiences out there, make this a must-own and definite contender for game of the year.

As you'll no doubt be aware, Modern Warfare is not set in World War II Europe (duh!). This has given Infinity Ward the chance to go to town with visual effects and level design straight out of a blockbuster movie. Not to mention the storyline, which, while it is fairly simple, gets you in the role of Sergeant 'Soap' MacTavish of the SAS and Sergeant Paul Jackson of the U.S. Marines. The game doesn't shirk from the current activity in the east, but this is really about killing evil Russians in the end, and of course, no one gets offended by that. The missions are completely varied, and the locations vary from a cargo ship out on a stormy sea, to a nuclear bunker, and a post-meltdown Chernobyll. Thanks to some great voice acting and intelligent set pieces, you really feel close to your squad mates. Of course, in traditional Call of Duty style, you can't order your team around, but by the end of the game you'll really come to appreciate the squad around you, setting the game up for an emotion fuelled finale. The game also features cut-scenes using the in game engine, which allows you to move the camera angle and experience the plot movements from the first person perspective, though most of the key events happen straight in front of you on the battlefield.

They've moved the controls around somewhat, since Call of Duty 2 at least, and by default crouch and prone are mapped to the B or Circle buttons, and melee is on the right stick click. You can change this, and on Veteran you'll need the stances close at hand, so it's a good job the option's there. You may still end up hobbling around like an old-aged war veteran who's been left in the sun too long as you get confused between which is crouch and melee, and even grenade and reload if you've been playing with Master Chief too much.

The single player length has been much criticised by various sectors, but personally, I almost thought it was too long by the end. Sure, if you play it on Easy then you'll breeze through (coward!). Indeed, some of the levels are very short, in the ten minute bracket, but there's enough of them so that if you play on Hardened or Veteran (you're well 'ard!), you'll be at it for weeks. The structuring of these levels is superb, you always know what your objective is and exactly how it ties into the story. There are only two flaws with the single player campaign, and a barrage of positives, but let's get the downers out of the way first, so we can become all cheerful again by the end. To start with, the checkpoint system, in a similar fashion to Halo 3, is not good. Checkpoints and therefore the most recent location from which you can resurrect your Brit or Yank, are pretty poor (but not as bad as in Mass Effect). They are triggered on certain events or when you pass certain locations. The trouble is, with the multiple-route, open-ended gameplay style of the next generation, developers have to put a lot of work in in order to get it right.

For the most part it works well, but there will be occasions later in the game where (we're talking about Hardened and Veteran difficulties here, the bread and butter of CoD gamers [enough food references]) you replay the same part of a level many times, because of the intense difficulty which I'll come to in a minute. Often it's possible to trigger new checkpoints where you hadn't before. For example, on one level you have a timer to get to a certain room of a base, and there was one checkpoint roughly a quarter of the way through. I must have played this one section close to thirty times, slowly getting further and further with each attempt, though still having to play through the same bits to get there, before on the thirtieth try the game gave me a random checkpoint about a quarter from the end of the level. I had got past that point numerous times, but the game had never given me a checkpoint until then. So basically, if you're struggling, try exploring corners of rooms and corridors a bit to see if you can eek out a checkpoint from behind the iron-curtain.

The other issue is also more evident on the harder difficulties, and is simply that the game becomes so hard, that you end up exploiting the fact that it's just a game and not real life, to complete the mission. Let me give you an example. One of the levels has you helping along a superior, who has been injured. You have to pick him up and carry him, putting him down when you're in need of covering fire and when enemies appear. At the end of the level you are waiting for extraction, and hundreds (literally) of enemy signatures come at you. You have to put your injured colleague down in a certain position and defend until the helicopter arrives. This, on Veteran and even on Hardened, is a virtual impossibility. The only way to do it is to exploit the fact that it is just a game - I hid inside a small metal shed, went prone and basically hid. Your AI teammate is in fact invincible in this instance, and can kill all the enemies coming towards my shed - any grenades won't hurt as I'm behind a half-inch thick wall (in true CoD style). It's basically a glitch, though clearly intentional on the part of the developers, and all the advice on the Internet as to how to complete this part of the level suggests similar exploitations of your ally's invincibility.

Like-occurunces appear throughout the latter half of the game. While it's always most rewarding to play CoD games through on Hardened, you almost feel you are missing some of the experience as on the Regular difficulty defending that position would be possible in one go. But now for the positives. Firstly, the game looks stunning. It may be a different sort of stunning to the majority of Halo 3 or Uncharted's gameplay, there's not much motion blur or flashy effects - it all still looks suitably gritty, but the atmosphere that has always been present in these games has been exemplified to an unparalleled degree. Diffused lighting and particles of dust visible in the air look fantastic, and Infinity Ward have done a great job of making you feel as though the whole world's available to explore, whereas in reality it's just an impeccably designed corridor.

AI is good, particularly on your own side. Modern Warfare presents an interesting comparison of gameplay styles, with the U.S. Marine levels featuring (for the majority) large scale combat with legions of friendlies, and the S.A.S. ones a much closer knit affair. As such, when playing as the Americans your allies will be pushing through the level regardless of your progress, and you'll just helping out with certain objectives. There are times as the S.A.S. when you wish for a button to call your team to your position, and often your friendly AI gets pinned down or caught in crossfire, but because the main characters are invincible, you just see a seemingly indestructible human getting peppered with bullets. They do help you out frequently however, and you really notice it when they're not there to cover you, or fend off dog attacks (seriously!). Enemies stay in cover and patience is key for outwitting the AI. They won't flank you, or rarely at least, but that's a Call of Duty trait - slow, considered, cover and move gameplay. Oh, and it's a joy to have a game so reliant on defence that doesn't need a cover engine as in Rainbow Six Vegas and Gears of War. It's much more real as a result.

The story is compelling, and distracted me personally from pretty much untouched campaigns in Halo 3 and Mass Effect, which should give you some idea of how good it is. Once completed, you can play through again with certain cheats, depending on which intel items you secured (just like collectibles in other games), or in arcade mode, where the speed at which you complete levels is taken into account, and a score is tallied up as you kill each enemy and pass each objective. It's certainly good value for money.

The main innovation in Modern Warfare comes with the bullet penetration. It is possible to shoot enemies through walls, depending on the power of your gun. In the campaign it works well, but it also exemplifies the fact that there's no (or very little) destructible scenery. I find this allows for a formulaic approach to the gameplay which I love about CoD, but if you're looking for a super-fast paced, ultra-real experience, then CoD isn't the answer. In multiplayer, bullet penetration really comes into its own. Funnily enough, Modern Warfare comes into its own here as well. There's a plethora of modes and maps, and it's easy to go through an hour's play without seeing the same map twice. The party and matchmaking system Bungie invented has been lifted straight out of Halo, and we couldn't be happier. It's hands down the best way of doing communal gaming, and as such more developers should be willing to use it. You invite friends to your party, then join in ranked matches on the same team together.

The big thing with the multiplayer is that while it is essentially class based, this basically gets thrown out of the window once you reach level four (about five games online). At this point you can 'Create-a-Class'. This consists of choosing guns, attachments, equipment and perks. Perks are special attributes that your character has, such as better stamina for prolonged sprinting, extra health, deeper bullet penetration etc. As you rank up from completing challenges (for example when you've got 25-headshots over the course of your time online with a certain weapon) and simply getting kills and playing, you unlock more weapons, accessories, and perks. The game doesn't do a brilliant job of matching you with similarly matched gamers, and you'll be sure to curse the P-90 that everyone past a certain level insists on using, but you can't start with yourself until you reach that point. I've always found something odd about giving people already better at the game the best weapons, but then as long as they couldn't play people too many ranks below them, it wouldn't be an issue.

The perks are well balanced, and you're only allowed three, one from each set, for example, if you have a grenade launcher attachment on your gun, you can't take RPGs, C4 or extra grenades into combat. Choose a red-dot sight instead and these options remain open. In this sense, the game is wonderfully balanced, but there are some frustrations. Last-stand and Martyrdom perks are horrible to play against. Basically, with Last-Stand your enemy will drop into a prone position and pull out a pistol to give themselves the element of surprise over you in a heated combat situation. Martyrdom sees you drop a grenade as you die, which, as you can imagine, is really nasty to play against. With everyone picking a mix of these perks however, it certainly keeps you on your toes online and makes for some interesting variety.

You are rewarded after three kills with a UAV drone (there's a perk to make you invisible from it), which is essential to keeping tabs on who's trying to flank you; five kills with an airstrike on a certain position you designate; and after eight kills with an AI controlled helicopter. This all means you can end up with a scene not dissimilar to all out war, something Call of Duty has never really managed online before.

Basically, you should buy Call of Duty even if it's just for the multiplayer alone. Hell, you could buy it for the single-player alone, there's still more life in there than the majority of contemporary FPS games. As a bundle however, this becomes far more than a recommended purchase, and something which stands out as one of, if not the best, game of the year.

- Mike Hazleton


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