Call of Duty 4 was one of the most talked-about games coming out of this year's E3, and it's not hard to see why. Developer Infinity Ward--who conceived of the franchise and last worked on the breakout Xbox 360 launch title Call of Duty 2--has gone back to reinvent the series with its fourth iteration, which will take place in a modern-day military context and will contain the deepest story and most cinematic narrative elements yet seen in a Call of Duty game. It will also contain a robust multiplayer offering, of which Infinity Ward plans to release a subset exclusively on Xbox Live in the coming weeks. We went hands-on with the multiplayer beta and came away extremely impressed with the latest technical and design improvements and changes.
Of course, the COD4 beta will contain the usual competitive shooter trappings you're used to. We got to play all three of the maps that you'll find when you download the beta, such as Overgrown, an abandoned Russian town with bombed-out buildings and lots of doorways to hide in; Vacant, a lot with some old warehouses and destroyed office spaces (complete with old computer equipment you can shoot up); and Crash, a Middle Eastern town with a helicopter that has crash-landed in the middle of the map. We also checked out a smattering of multiplayer modes, like domination, with three flags scattered around the map that your team will gain points by capturing and holding, and search and destroy, which has a specific player on the offensive team delivering a bomb to one of two preset locations to gain a win for the team. Old standbys like team deathmatch will also be in there, and luckily, any game mode will work on any map.
However, the most exciting aspects of Call of Duty 4's multiplayer mode are its ranking and custom-class systems. We'll start with the ranking. You'll gain experience throughout each multiplayer match that you complete, primarily by making kills, but also through all manner of peripheral actions as well. You could earn, say, 10 points for making a standard kill, but if you manage to wound someone before a teammate finishes them off, you could still reap a fraction of the standard 10 for an assist. You can even earn points for doing things like killing someone through thin walls, or dying by falling from a set height. You'll see a meter at the bottom of the screen during each match showing how close you are to achieving your next rank, and ranking up will unlock access to new weapons, player classes, and other goodies that will make multiplayer more varied and engrossing.
The second part of this equation is the create-a-class system, which becomes available to you when you reach the rank of private. This interface lets you individually tweak pretty much every aspect of your character's weapons loadout and abilities, which is a lot more interesting than it might sound. You'll get to choose a primary weapon from traditional categories like assault rifles, submachine guns, shotguns, and sniper rifles, and then access a whole slew of add-ons for each one (more on those in a moment). Then there's a sidearm--one of several pistols, in other words--and a grenade type, like flash, stun, or smoke. Then you get to the three "perk" slots, which are what let you get really creative with your virtual soldier. The first perk slot is weapons-based, so you'll get to add things like C4, claymore mines, or a rocket-propelled grenade weapon. Interestingly, there are checks and balances in place to keep you from becoming too powerful. For instance, if you add an under-mounted grenade launcher to your primary rifle, you'll lose access to the first perks slot. You can't be toting too many explosives around with you at one time, after all.
It's the last two perks slots that confer the most intriguing and often RPG-like bonuses, though. You can give yourself more health or cause your bullets to simply do more damage, for instance. But you can also make your bullets penetrate through walls more easily, or improve your accuracy when shooting from the hip (that is, without raising your sights to eye level). Then there are the truly offbeat perks like last stand, which causes you to bleed out slowly when killed, allowing you to get off one well-placed shot with your pistol before you die. The idea is that you might just take your killer down with you. Then there's martyrdom--or anti-teabagging technology, as Infinity Ward studio head Vince Zampella affectionately calls it--which makes you pull the pin on a grenade as soon as you die, such that anyone who happens to be, say, squatting obscenely on your corpse will get a nasty, explosive surprise a few seconds later.
Naturally, you'll be able to save and name your custom classes for quick access in multiplayer matches. Most of the new weapons and perks that you can use to outfit your custom class will be unlocked as you gain experience ranks, but there are also a separate number of challenges associated with each weapon that will subsequently open up new add-on gear as you complete them. For example, as you complete challenges with the AK-47, you'll gain access to a silencer, a red-dot laser sight, an ACOG scope, or even a grenade launcher (which, again, will block your access to the first perk slot). Overall, it seems like someone who's put a lot of time into this game online will be able to assemble a custom character with a truly imposing array of weaponry and innate character buffs. We do hope those checks and balances will keep the playing field relatively level, though.
As we played COD4's multiplayer beta, we felt an appreciable amount of progress over just a few matches, because we could see our progress bar inching forward pretty rapidly at the bottom of the screen, and also because you can see the exact amount of experience you've gained from each kill (represented with a floating "+10," for example). We also liked the more immediate kill-based rewards you can reap within each mission. If you can achieve a three-kill streak without dying, you'll gain access to an aerial drone (the UAV) that will reveal the current locations of your enemies on you and your teammates' minimaps as soon as you use it. Five kills will net you an aerial strike that you can target by calling up an overhead map. Finally, seven kills (which we never even got close to reaching during our time with the game) will bring in a helicopter that will circle around the battlefield and pick off enemies indiscriminately, until one of those enemies manages to level their RPG and shoot it down.
There's little we can say about this game's visuals that hasn't already been conveyed in trailer footage so far, other than to confirm that yes, the game does look as good and play as smoothly as those trailers. The leap in visual fidelity between Call of Duty 2 and this game is profound, and yet it runs just as smoothly--at a consistent 60 frames per second--as its predecessor. We're especially pleased to see a developer so successfully walking the line between impressive visual fidelity and a rock-steady performance level, especially in the online shooter category, where a high frame rate and precision aiming are so important.
Infinity Ward has set up a playlist system for Call of Duty 4 similar to that seen in Halo 2 and 3, which lets the designers control everything from the number of players to the game modes and types of weapons you'll see in multiplayer matches. So while we played in a series of games that maxed out at 12 players, producer Mark Rubin mentioned that the developer has the ability to roll out 100-player matches, if the network infrastructure could support it and such a mass of players would actually be fun on the game's maps. The point is, Infinity Ward will be able to tweak the sizes and styles of matches based on feedback during the beta and then after the retail release.
The release is in November, but when is that beta hitting? The answer is: August. Sure, it's August now, but Infinity Ward says we should realistically expect the release toward the end of the month, and notes optimistically that the beta just passed certification with Microsoft. Keep your eyes on Xbox Live for the chance to play all this madness for yourself, and we'll bring you more on Call of Duty 4 as soon as humanly possible.