Call of Duty was one of the games that defined the WW2 FPS genre, and Call of Duty 2 was certainly a worthy follow-up. Sure, Call of Duty 3 really did feel like, to borrow a World War 2 analogy, a WW2 FPS too far, but that was more due to the series being farmed out to new developer. Infinity Ward, the developer behind the first two games in the series, has seen the writing on the wall and wisely chosen to update the fourth release, setting the action in a near future that’s full of brushfire wars, toppling governments and vicious nuclear incidents.
Score one for Infinity Ward – CoD 4 is a stunning game, and very possibly the best FPS this year.
The game starts after a brief intro into the political situation around the world (“Oh God, Oh God, we’re all going to die,” basically), and then introduces you to the first of the game’s two main characters, the improbably named ‘Soap’ MacTavish, and the game’s general control scheme. After running through a brief training mission for an op aboard an ocean-going freighter (your success in which will also set the difficulty for the rest of the game) you’re sent into action on the real thing.
In a very cleverly realised sequence, your team is dropped on board the freighter, where the difference between shooting pop-up cardboard baddies on the range and double-tapping the crew sleeping in their bunks becomes readily apparent.
Infinity Ward aimed for an even more cinematic than usual feel for Call of Duty 4, and the company has nailed the atmosphere of a tense political action thriller from the get-go. The proprietary engine features rich dynamic lighting effects and object sourced shadows, upping the game’s dramatic immersion by a factor of ten. God lights lance through dark rooms and dust and debris hang in the air, while the game’s NPCs are motion-captured to near life-like fluidity. The voice acting can get a little repetitive at times, especially the American portions of the game, but the overall impression is one of near-Hollywood polish.
The modern setting also allows for a greater degree of fluid story-telling. The action is tracked across a virtual globe, like a scene from a Tom Clancy film, zooming in and out of hotspots and military actions. You also occasionally find yourself in the shoes of other players in the drama; one notable early sequence, over which the credits roll, lets you ‘control’ a captured Middle Eastern politician as he is driven through a city rent by unrest and bloodshed. It’s a railroad, but the sense of place and story it delivers makes it a gripping part of the game.
Then, there’s the multiplayer, where the game begins to truly shine. Like many games coming out on PC and Xbox 360, Live functionality is played up with a wide range of achievements and an experience system that effectively turns the game into a combination of traditional military FPS and RPG. As you progress through 55 levels you gain new ranks, unlock new abilities (such as the last ditch effort to draw your pistol after a kill-shot drops you – always awesome), and get access to new and more accurate weapons.
Unlike recent hit Halo 3, the damage model is a lot more demanding – sure, there’s no health bar and spending long enough in cover will recover you fully, but in multiplayer those situations are rare. Headshots, accurate burst fire, and a host of things that go boom make for a lot of one-shot (or one-detonation) kills. One of the most anticipated features of the multiplayer also enforces a cautious play-style – get three or more kills in a row, and you earn the ability to call in air-strikes or summon a UAV scout craft to boost your radar. There’s little of the running and gunning you’ll see in many games; instead, fights are tense games of explosive cat and high-calibre mouse.
CoDs always had a passionate multiplayer following, and the 16 maps, 13 game types and amount of customisation and just-one-more-game-and-I’ll-level-up addictiveness makes CoD 4 like crack to an addict.
This is an astoundingly polished game that will please any FPS fan. Call of Duty 4 comes closer to being the perfect game than any other title before it.