Thursday, December 13, 2007

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Review

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, developed by Infinity Ward and published by Activision.
The Good: Action-packed and exciting single player campaign, copious multiplayer modes and features with flexible customizable classes, approachable tactical gameplay, quality friendly and enemy AI
The Not So Good: Kind of short campaign
What say you? A complete first person shooter experience: 8/8

One of the game franchises I’ve successfully avoided is Call of Duty. I only sampled the demo for the first two games and the third didn’t even come out for the PC; I think the overabundance of World War II shooters and multitude of online games shuffled it to the back of my list. In any event, the apparently highly-anticipated next title in the series is here and the game has finally caught up with the rest of the world and features modern day weapons. Yes, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare brings the tactical shooter away from the hedgerows and Germans to a contemporary setting with high-powered rifles and helicopters. Will this fresh touch accentuate the gameplay experience? Will I be able to resist the urge to make childish jokes, such as a “Call of Duty” being the need to use the potty? Apparently not. Heh, I said “duty.”

I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare features some very nice graphics. The environments in the game, which include a variety of settings from ships to deserts to forests, all are highly detailed and very realistic. The character detail is also nice, with disturbingly realistic animations and great texture work. The weapon animations are also well done: I especially enjoy the reloading animation as the used clip is dropped to the ground. Bullets impact surfaces and grenades kick up dust when the hit the ground. There are some unnecessarily showy graphics (who knew that Kevlar was so shiny?), but the game looks great. Plus, it performs well even at high settings. Bonus! The sound is also top notch, with some excellent action-movie background music and great voice work. Though your teammates do become repetitive after a while, having them give out semi-dynamic audio clues on enemy locations (“near the red car!”) is pretty cool. The guns are a bit quieter than I would think they would be in real life, but then again I am no expert on weapon noise. So overall, Cal of Duty 4 is clearly in the upper echelon of the first person shooter genre in terms of graphics and sound: it looks and sounds great.

Call of Duty (heh, I said “duty”) 4: Modern Combat features a single player campaign in addition to multiplayer features. Though the single player campaign is on the short side (around six to eight hours), it is filled to the brim with action and excitement for its entirety. Throughout the nineteen missions, the player alternates between two military operatives for the British and Americans. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare focuses on “special forces” missions, which means lots of well-armed enemies. The protagonist (that’s you) can take a decent amount of damage before dying at the default difficulty setting. This strikes a good balance, being fun but not too easy. There are higher difficulty settings for those players adept at the Call of Duty franchise. You can’t manually save your progress, but there are plenty of automatic save checkpoints after essentially every encounter so this never becomes an issue. The interface is minimal, taking up only the corners of the screen. It displays all of the pertinent information when needed and doesn’t obstruct your view of the enemies. Blurring your peripheral view while looking down sights is a nice touch. The game also displays a warning when grenades are too close (something that comes up a lot). Objective locations are clearly indicated in the game, so you’re never confused as where to go next. Call of Duty 4, like previous games, lacks a health meter, instead opting for an increasingly redder view and slowly regenerating health. It might not be realistic, but the game would be quite impossible otherwise.

The levels are scripted but highly enjoyable; most of the missions feature linear paths with the occasional open area to advance using the cover of your choice. And you must use cover, as the AI is deadly smart. In fact, even if you are using cover, the AI will usually lob a couple of grenades your way to flush you out of your hiding spot. The AI of Call of Duty 4 is some of the best seen in a first person shooter: your comrades will certainly take care of themselves, up to a point. You will usually have to advance the crew past the next checkpoint, but you don’t need to take on all enemies yourself. Make sure you keep moving forward, as enemies will keep coming until to pass an invisible point on occasion. Computer controlled friends also move and behave very realistically, advancing through doors and performing other tasks just like their real-life counterparts. It’s a bit scripted, but it sure looks convincing and puts you into the game. The gameplay blends a hyper-realistic military simulation like ArmA with a more accessible game. You need to behave realistically (use cover, fire in bursts) but the game is still fast paced enough to keep you interested in the action. You’re never too far from the next firefight (a problem with the aforementioned ArmA). I’m not a big single player person (especially with first person shooters), but I did find solo Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare to be delightful amusement.

I am a big fan of multiplayer first person shooters, and Call of Duty 4 is extremely fun in this area. The game comes with sixteen maps, all of which support all five game types. All of the maps are small (unlike the relatively huge maps of Battlefield or Enemy Territory: Quake Wars) and focus on pretty constant combat with no lulls in the action. Most of the maps mirror locations from the single player campaign, adjusted for maximum enjoyment. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare features five modes of play, none of which are terribly innovative but variety is the spice of life: free for all, team deathmatch, domination (control points like Battlefield), sabotage (like capture the flag), headquarters (one control point that must be captured then defended with no respawns), and search and destroy (Counter-Strike bomb planting). We've seen most of these modes in other games; headquarters is an interesting domination-style match with an ever moving control point that results in some very chaotic matches. The game also supports custom game settings like respawn time and the “killcam,” plus old school (like Unreal Tournament) and hardcore (realistic one-shot, one-kill) gaming modes. All of this variety is nice, and while the general premise is always the same (kill people), the level of coordination required in order to win is altered.

Finding a game is easy using the in-game browser (which actually works, unlike the one used in Battlefield). Call of Duty 4 features stat tracking and experience ranks that are used to unlock additional weapons. The higher-level weapons aren’t generally better all-around, just different. The achievement structure is organized to give you a handful of things to unlock every three ranks or so; players will always have something new to play with after every couple of rounds. Large chunks of experience can be gained by doing a variety of activities, like using weapons to holding a grenade to kill an opposing player: the game tracks them all. Using specific weapons will unlock better sights and silencers for that particular weapon. Most of the time you’ll just unlock things by playing and not really planning on killing someone through a wall, so there is a nice surprise factor in gaining levels. I also appreciate that the more advanced weapons aren’t overly powerful and they don’t put new players at a grave disadvantage like Battlefield 2142 did. Resetting achievements every three games like Enemy Territory: Quake Wars does has its advantages for improved game balance, but having long-term unlocks does keep people playing more. And the advantages high-level players enjoy aren’t terribly extreme. Call of Duty 4 features enough stat related features to keep people playing for a long time.

Call of Duty 4 features very flexible customizable classes: the default five classes cover the range of loadouts, but when you start unlocking things you will want to create your own classes and the game allows you to save up to five. Each class contains a primary weapon, sidearm, special grenade, and three perks. While the sidearms are all pistols, primary weapons include sub-machine guns, light machine guns, assault rifles, shotguns, and sniper rifles: everything for any game situation. I usually opt for the MP5 sub-machine gun for small levels, the M4 with grenade launcher for medium-sized levels, and the M4 with sight for large levels. I wish that the default loadouts would incorporate newly acquired items or add more choices as you progress to highlight some good combinations for classes. Perks include a host of different personal upgrades: the ability to carry more ammo, increased damage or rate of fire, higher explosive damage, steady aim, making less noise, and the very popular ability to drop a live grenade when you die. You can only choose one perk from each of the three levels, so higher level players won’t get to choose the three best perks. It’s a nice system that has some impact on gameplay, but not enough to unbalance things.

The multiplayer of Call of Duty 4 is generally quite hectic, even with realistic walking speeds due to smart spawn points near teammates (like F.E.A.R.) for nearly constant combat. You can take a couple of hits before you die, but if you are seen out in the open you will perish soon enough. Hardcore mode is even less forgiving and it’s played with a high level of tension. Games can become grenade-happy, especially when players equip extra frag grenades and the martyrdom perk that drops an additional grenade upon death. Still, the game is fun and full of killing. Good (or at least cautious) players are rewarded with kill streak bonuses: three kills without dying gives enemy positions on radar, five grants and airstrike, and seven in a row comes with a chopper. Call of Duty 4 is balanced very well to be semi-realistic without being too slow and the end result is a very enjoyable multiplayer game.

Call of Duty 4 is fun and you should buy it. That pretty much sums it up, as the game features a compelling single player campaign and robust multiplayer features to make for a very inclusive first person shooter. Even though it’s a bit short, the single player campaign makes up for it by being filled to the brim with action. The AI is extremely capable and a challenging opponent able to counter most offensive plans. The levels are designed to give the player a bit of freedom when encountering outdoor areas without being completely confusing. The multiplayer options are very comprehensive, easily equaling online-only shooters. There are a multitude of game modes, tons of things to unlock and achieve, and great gameplay that is well paced. To illustrate how much I like Call of Duty 4, I actually uninstalled a number of other first person shooters after playing this game because I see no need to go back to them ever again. You can’t ask for much more: Call of Duty 4 is an outstanding shooter.