It can't be easy for most publishers (that aren't named Microsoft) working on first-person shooters due out this fall. After all, said publisher's sci-fi shooter sequel Halo 3 is easily one of the most anticipated games of the year. However, Call of Duty is a pretty big series in its own right, dominating the popular World War II genre with excellent single- and multiplayer gameplay. And with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Infinity Ward has recharged its franchise by busting it out of the World War II setting and giving it a jaw-dropping graphics update.
Perhaps the biggest news with Modern Warfare is that yes, it no longer takes place in World War II, the setting that has served it so well all these years. However, with most of World War II's major battles already featured in a Call of Duty game, it was perhaps time to move on. This new game is set in a modern-day conflict--not in the near future. While the conflict that the game portrays is fictional, Infinity Ward wanted the actual combat to be rooted in today's truth. There are no fancy prototype weapons or equipment here. Everything in Call of Duty 4 is supposed to feel as authentic as possible, and Infinity Ward talked to veterans fresh from Iraq to hear their thoughts on the modern battlefield.
The new game doesn't take place in Iraq. Rather, it sets up a conflict with a mysterious Middle Eastern dictator and his henchmen, who have teamed up with a Russian ultranationalist and his henchmen, thus giving them the media-friendly name of "The Four Horsemen." You'll play primarily as one of two different characters, though you'll occasionally see the conflict through the eyes of other characters as well. The first is a British SAS commando caught up in the Russian storyline, and the other is a US Marine in the middle of the Middle Eastern conflict. How those storylines intersect is the basis of the game's overall plot. Modern Warfare's story will be told mainly through the perspectives of these two characters, since there won't be any fancy third-person cutscenes or glossy news broadcasts. By introducing a modern conflict, Infinity Ward created a storytelling challenge for itself. After all, almost everyone understands what World War II was about, and who the good guys and bad guys were. Introduce an original story, though, and you have to spend a lot more time introducing the various players and factions.
Still, Modern Warfare is a Call of Duty game, and that means that you're going to experience an almost nerve-wracking amount of action. The missions that Infinity Ward showed us featured the trademark intensity that the series is known for, from a nighttime shipboard assault in the midst of a raging thunderstorm to a massive air assault featuring more than a dozen Black Hawk helicopters swooping fast and low over a Middle Eastern city. In fact, the action seems even crazier than before, thanks to the fact that modern weapons and equipment are so much more advanced and lethal than their World War II counterparts. Now, every soldier is armed with an automatic weapon, and there are night-vision goggles, Javelin antitank missiles, and grenade launchers. In at least one mission, you'll serve as the gunner aboard an AC-130 Spectre gunship, providing fire support for troops below; the gameplay looks eerily like real-world gun-camera footage, with radio chatter to match.
However, there won't just be wall-to-wall, over-the-top action in Modern Warfare. That tends to be a bit too emotionally exhausting, not to mention repetitive from a storytelling perspective. Instead, Infinity Ward is looking to really mix things up. "What we're really going for is massive variety of gameplay, so along with telling the story in a sort of a 24, never-know-what's-going-to-happen-next style, we're doing the same with the gameplay," said Jason West, Infinity Ward's chief technical officer. So, there will be sniper missions where you have to sneak around, or the aforementioned one-off missions where you experience life as someone other than the two main characters. You'll even get the chance to experience a coup firsthand--from the perspective of the guy being deposed.
Regardless of what you do in the game, it will look absolutely spectacular, thanks to the game's cutting-edge graphics engine. Infinity Ward spent a lot of time showing off the incredible level of detail in the game, including character models that seem as detailed as expensive, 12-inch premium action figures, right down to the shadows cast by individual bullets. Of course, it's hard to appreciate this when pretty much the entire world around you is going to hell--but even the chaos looks impressively realistic. While there's no large-scale environmental destruction, there is material penetration by weapons, so it's possible to kill someone who is crouching beneath a window, or shoot up through the ceiling to get someone on the floor above. "On Call of Duty 2 we were [an Xbox 360] launch title, everyone was learning and ramping up on beta hardware... So now, the artists have been trained up from day zero, so we think this is the best-looking game you'll see on a next-gen console," said Vince Zampella, Infinity Ward chief creative officer. "We've really squeezed a lot out of the hardware, and it looks 10 times better than Call of Duty 2. And I think Call of Duty 2 looks great."
The single-player game alone makes Call of Duty 4 seem very promising, but toss in the multiplayer and it becomes even more impressive. After all, Infinity Ward has built up quite a reputation for multiplayer. The developers note that the Call of Duty games are among the most popular on Xbox Live, and that Call of Duty 2 was the most popular multiplayer game on the Xbox 360 for almost a year. Modern Warfare won't just be Call of Duty 2 multiplayer with new maps and weapons; there are also a ton of new features designed to improve accessibility, community participation, and persistence. Perhaps the most intriguing new feature is the create-a-class ability, which lets you create your own custom soldier, armed with different weapons and equipment, depending on what you've unlocked. Even better are new special abilities that add an almost role-playing-like aspect to the game. There are potentially dozens of special abilities, but you can choose only one or two at any given time, so it becomes a matter of choice. For instance, there's last stand, which gives you a few seconds after you're killed to pull out and use the pistol to shoot the person who got you. Heavy endurance will let you sprint farther, and fast reload will let you reload faster. Or there's martyrdom, which automatically drops a live grenade if you die. Perhaps the nastiest one we heard of lets you eavesdrop on the other team's voice communications.
In terms of community, Modern Warfare will introduce a Halo-style party system that will make playing with your friends a lot easier. Best of all, the multiplayer graphics look as good as the single-player. There's no sacrifice in graphical quality that we could see, and it's quite possibly the prettiest multiplayer gameplay that we've ever seen.
Having the Call of Duty name is already enough to get the attention of most shooter fans, but Modern Warfare really looks like a huge leap forward for the franchise, and it's hard to imagine how this will not be one of the biggest games of the year. The shift to modern times has injected the series with new energy and gameplay, and it all looks great. But best of all, Infinity Ward has revealed that the game is already far along in development, and it's on track for release sometime this fall.