Developer Infinity Ward has literally built its good name on World War II. The studio's core team first crafted the superb Medal of Honor: Allied Assault at Tulsa-based development house 2015 before going on to found Infinity Ward and create Call of Duty, arguably the most popular WWII shooter franchise running. But after the group undertook a marathon development cycle to produce Call of Duty 2 in time for the Xbox 360's late 2005 launch, Infinity Ward was ready for something newer: something present-day, to be specific. The company immediately went into production on Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the most ambitious and narrative-driven shooter from Infinity Ward to date. We were lucky enough to hit the ground running with two of the game's campaign missions to find out how the team is expanding Call of Duty's scope with this latest game's new design and technology.
As producer Mark Rubin mentions, the events of World War II have been set in stone for decades now; there's only so much room for game creators to maneuver fictitiously within that established timeline. But Modern Warfare has gone modern-day, naturally, and Infinity Ward has thus been able to create a cohesive, original narrative that will see you traveling to far-flung locations around the globe, and bearing witness to military conflict and political intrigue that's just a little bit larger than life. Call of Duty 4 is sticking to its heritage in some key areas that returning players will find familiar, though. As in previous games, you'll take up multiple roles as members of multiple international special forces. In Modern Warfare, you'll play a character in the US Marine Corps' elite Force Recon unit, and on the British side, you'll be in the Special Air Service, or SAS, with whom Call of Duty fans should already be quite familiar.
Don't think of these two groups as representing two distinctive campaigns. The American and British special forces may operate in different geographical regions in the game, but they'll be embroiled in and fighting against the same high-pressure plot against world security. Understandably, Infinity Ward is playing the game's story close to the vest, but so far we know you'll be fighting against a nefarious group led by a couple of shady characters called Al-Asad and Zakhaev, who are stirring up international unrest to further their own aims. We know that Al-Asad is masterminding a political coup somewhere in the Middle East--but that coup is primarily a diversion from Zakhaev's real plan to topple the Russian government, possibly through nuclear means. The Americans will operate primarily in the Middle East, while the SAS will take up arms mostly in Russia. As we saw during our time with the game, you'll switch between the two factions from mission to mission as the story dictates.
To present all this international intrigue, Infinity Ward is employing a number of narrative devices not seen in past Call of Duty games. The game will use a number of semi-interactive cutscenes to convey some key story points, wherein you'll be able to look around and observe events but not necessarily interact with them. We saw one cutscene in which a government official was violently thrown into the backseat of a car--after receiving a rifle's butt to the face--and then whisked through the streets, where bands of insurgents were firing their weapons into the air and executing prisoners at various points along the route. Did we mention you're in the shoes of this unfortunate official and seeing these events (and taking these blows) from his perspective? Yeah, that made things a little more brutal and immediate. This scene culminated in our character being tied to a post as Zakhaev and Al-Asad deliberated over a pistol. That pistol was eventually pointed directly at our perspective, and the scene ended with the distinctive crack of a gunshot.
In addition to switching between the Marines and SAS as the plot necessitates, the campaign will sometimes divert from present-day events to tell more of Modern Warfare's backstory. One mission will actually occur in flashback, taking place in the quarantined Chernobyl zone some 15 years before the game begins. We're told that upon completing this mission, players will gain greater insight into Zakhaev's far-reaching plans, his quest to obtain nuclear materials, and why he only has one arm in the present day. For those interested, a segment of this level can be seen deep within our video from Microsoft's E3 press conference, though we didn't get to see an updated version ourselves.
Enough about the big-picture stuff; we did actually play two of Modern Warfare's missions from start to finish. The first was called "The Bog," which we got to take a look at during our E3 stage demo of the game back in July. This mission tasked us, as Force Recon, with fighting our way through a Middle Eastern town in order to secure an embattled tank trapped in a bog (where else?). That involved a lot of house-to-house fighting, popping up from below windowsills, and easing around corners. The gameplay here felt like pure Call of Duty, except we got to replace the old M1911s and M1 Garands with M4A1s equipped with under-mounted grenade launchers, as well as big, mean SAW machine guns. We were frankly stunned at the speed and smoothness of the gameplay, given the game's overwhelming visuals, but we'll elaborate on that later.
Though we'd seen this level before, our hands-on opportunity gave studio head Vince Zampella a chance to illuminate some of the more subtle gameplay features as we played. Enemy forces fired at us unseen as we fought our way through the streets, and we were nevertheless able to suppress them by simply firing at the windows they were attacking from. In fact, this will work against all enemies in the game; we had a real Rambo moment where we leapt into the open and sprayed down a bunch of enemies with a SAW, just so we could get across to find new cover. Occasionally an enemy flare would go up into the sky, bathing our surroundings in a harsh red glow. Zampella said this will actually allow nearby enemies to see us better, which in turn will make it easier for them to take aim on our position.
Lastly, we have to point out our favorite part of this level, which you can see in the video demo. You'll get the chance to use a Javelin antitank weapon to zoom in and lock onto enemy armor, and then launch a rocket directly upward a couple hundred feet into the air. The satisfaction of seeing the projectile plummet straight down and obliterate the tank that's threatening you a few yards away must be enjoyed firsthand.
We then got to jump into "Hunted," the next sequential mission in the campaign, and one in which you'll play as the SAS. Though the between-mission cinematic wasn't in the game yet, we gathered that our team had been conducting a nighttime VIP escort via helicopter in Russia--before our chopper was shot down, that is. So we carefully picked up next to the wreckage and set off quietly with our compatriots across the Russian countryside, ducking and crawling our way through fields of crops and around farmhouses to avoid the sentries patrolling the area. Upon reaching the perimeter of the small village nearby, we saw a couple of paramilitary dudes harassing a local resident, and we had a chance to attack them by surprise and save the guy's life. Zampella mentioned not-so-cryptically that achievements in the Xbox 360 version may be tied to optional heroic moments like this.
We pushed through the village in the dead of night, but we pretty much had to abandon any pretense of stealth after we'd engaged our first round of bad guys; there were plenty more where that came from, naturally. Some of our most dramatic firefights happened within a couple of greenhouses, which Zampella pointed out aren't the best place to take cover. Glass exploded all around us as we tried to fight to the center of town without getting mowed down by the helicopter circling overhead. The mission culminated when we reached a barn where the baddies had stashed some Stinger missiles. We had a jolly time launching those heat-seekers at the chopper, but of course it wasn't ready to go down without a fight. It dropped some chaff to confuse a couple of our missiles before we finally brought it down.
Clearly, Call of Duty 4 is the sort of game for which mere words do an injustice. You need to play it on a big screen with roaring surround sound to get the full impact, but we can say this is easily one of the most intense military-themed shooters we've had the pleasure of getting our hands on. Absolutely integral to that experience, from our perspective, is the game's performance level, which Infinity Ward has committed to keeping at 60 frames per second throughout both single- and multiplayer modes. So few developers have prioritized a high frame rate this generation that we'd almost forgotten how much it can impact gameplay. The incredibly smooth performance in our demo really gave the controls a precision and the action an intensity that we couldn't help getting excited about.
What arcane rites Infinity Ward has performed to get this game running so smoothly and looking so good are anybody's guess. Zampella attributes the game's high visual bar less to technical improvements and more to experienced artists and programmers simply making better use of the tools they have at their disposal. However, he did concede that developers are having to fake fewer effects than they did on previous hardware; games are using more generalized lighting models, characters are self-shadowing properly, and so on. These cumulative elements have all added up to an extremely impressive-looking game that even those jaded with modern-day military shooters will want to keep an eye out for when it ships toward the end of the year. We'll do our best to bring you more on Call of Duty 4 before that time.