Jaw-dropping visuals and many exciting skirmishes more than make up for Call of Duty 4's few flaws.

With Call of Duty 2, developer Infinity Ward created what was arguably the best launch title for the Xbox 360. With intense battles across multiple campaigns, and a robust multiplayer experience, COD 2 was a must-have for the fledgling system. The series was briefly handed over to developer Treyarch for the third installment, which, while solid, was simply more of the same in what had by then become an overcrowded World War II genre.

Infinity Ward is back at the helm of the venerable series with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and as the name implies, it takes the series into a fresh, and relatively unexplored new era. The end result is a game that feels familiar enough to fans of the series, but brings enough exciting and new experiences to the table that even the most grizzled war shooter veteran will find something to like.

Set in the present day, COD 4 focuses on the intersecting stories of two soldiers, S.A.S. Sergeant “Soap” MacTavish, and USMC Sergeant Paul Jackson. The campaign is waged in both Middle Eastern and former Soviet Bloc nations, and finds the two soldiers embroiled in a complex struggle to stop a Russian militant from making World War III a reality after he acquires a number of nuclear warheads, and stirs up trouble in the Middle East to divert attention from his true cause. The game seamlessly switches between the two storylines, eventually culminating in a combined offensive on the crazed madman and his comrades.

Unlike previous entries in the series, however, most of the story comes from cutscenes that link the storylines and mask load times, and very little from in-game dialogue between the two characters. This does make sense, however, since intelligence has come a long way from the seat-of-the-pants chaos of WWII. All in all, it is an engaging, surprising, and at times a very disturbing story which pulls no punches, and really gives the gunplay a great deal of context, and imbues a sense of urgency that keeps the firefights tense.

As mentioned before, veterans of the series will find themselves right at home with COD 4’s gameplay, as at its core, it is very similar to the previous entries in the series, from gameplay mechanics to the control scheme. The firefights are set in a variety of indoor and outdoor settings, all of which progress in a more or less linear fashion. While the narrow corridors and pre-set exploration path could be seen as a knock against the design, it is this very element that allows the creators to construct tense set-piece firefights, where the player’s tactical advantages and disadvantages are exploited in full. However, this mechanic also seems to have excused Infinity Ward from the duty to create solid AI; the enemies are not particularly intelligent, and squad mechanics are almost non-existent. Instead, the challenge arises from the sheer number of enemies, and their tactically advantageous locations, either up on rooftops, or behind corners. While the player is sure to find themselves unexpectedly ambushed multiple times throughout the first playthrough, eventually picking off enemies becomes a process of memorizing the four or five locations in each skirmish where enemies will either approach or set up shop, and it becomes a process of hitting all of those locations quickly enough to suppress fire and allow you to advance forward into the next scripted skirmish. In this regard, the enemy design feels a little bit tired, though it’s not as blatantly obvious as the design was in Call of Duty 3.

That said, the firefights are undeniably intense, and you are still forced to choose between the mobility and tactical awareness of shooting from the hip, versus the necessary accuracy afforded by aiming down the sights.
Noticeably absent, however, is a truly robust cover mechanic. While the Call of Duty series has always been about seeking cover and laying down suppressive fire, it is curious that the series has not adopted a cover mechanic similar to other entries in the shooter genre, such as Rainbow Six, Gears of War, and GRAW. Even more curious is the fact that the non-player characters seem to possess more advanced movement and cover capabilities than the player, sliding into crouched cover and sticking their backs to the walls. All in all, it is a disappointment, though there are still a ton of ways in which the player can conceal himself.

New and exciting to the series is the notion that not all cover is created equal, which is exploited at times to satisfying effect. Spot an enemy behind a brick wall, and you’ll have to wait for him to poke his head out. However, catch him ducking behind a wooden fence, and you can pick him off through the cover with a well-placed shot.

Of course, the gameplay is not all run-and-gun. From time to time, you are offered the opportunity to man mounted weapons on vehicle missions. While it is disappointing that you never find yourself in the driver’s seat, the missions are busy and varied enough to prove satisfying. Perhaps the best mission in this regard is a nighttime helicopter mission where you man the cannon and pick off targets under infrared vision. The graphics in this mission look like they’re straight off of CNN, and the commentary is spot-on.

The other vehicle missions, however, are less engaging. The daytime helicopter cannon missions are rendered frustrating by the difficulty of visualizing targets, many of whom can down your chopper before you even get a look; also, the final truck escape is frustrating, since you are equipped with a weapon with a very small clip, and the ability to aim is severely hindered.

These minor quibbles aside, however, the game manages to be exciting for nearly its entire length, with many moments that are simply awe-inspiring in their scale and intensity.

Many have criticized COD 4’s campaign for being too short, but in the opinion of this reviewer, the campaign length feels just about right. On the Hardened setting, the game will take most people about 8 hours to play through on the first go-around, and it never overstays its welcome. By the end, you will have been treated to a satisfying experience that feels just about right for what the game has to offer.

Beyond the single player, the game boasts a very robust multiplayer that could give Halo 3 a run for its money. There are a ton of very well-balanced maps and a handful of game types to keep things varied, but what is truly special is the character customization. As you ring up accomplishments and gain experience, you unlock Perks, which allow you to add a few new features to your character. These include weapons with greater stopping power or a more robust demolitions loadout. Perhaps the best is the Martyr Perk, which causes your character to drop a live grenade when killed, punishing those who linger over their fallen target.

There are also some other innovative ideas at play, such as rewarding players for streaks by allowing players to call in airstrikes to add insult to injury. It has the tendency to tilt the tables even further to the side on a hot streak, but with so many players in the mix, it is not often that someone will get three unanswered kills.

All in all, the multiplayer is so good that the disc is sure to stay in the tray long after the single-player campaign is complete.

In terms of presentation, Call of Duty 4 is nothing short of spectacular... for a while. Graphically, the game opens strong, with a tense nighttime battle at sea during a rainstorm. During this scene, the game’s astounding character design and animation is evident, as are the stunning lighting and particle effects. Seamlessly transitioning to the streets of the Middle East, the credits sequence serves up a robust visual feast that could easily be mistaken for live action.

The graphics hit their peak during a battle to protect a tank as it advances through the war-torn streets. The draw distance is phenomenal, the street is littered with junk, and bombed-out buildings truly create a sense of realism. Add this to the dozens of detailed characters on the screen, and some truly great special effects, such as concrete exploding into clouds of dust from impacts, and the haze and distortion created by the tanks exhaust, and it is clear that you are playing the best-looking Xbox 360 game to date.

However, in the last third of the game, the game loses a lot of its graphical luster. The environments during the final hours of the game do not share the same intricate design of the earlier levels. Textures and vegetation look less convincing, the lighting and particle effects become almost non-existent, and the levels themselves look a lot more plain, both in terms of design and polygon count. Even more disappointing is that along with the decline in graphical quality, the gameplay during this time also suffers, relying more on cheap-shot level design than ingenuity to create challenge. It’s as if the developers rushed the end of the game to meet a pre-holiday release deadline.

In the audio department, COD 4 shines. The series has long been known for its sound design, and COD 4 takes the audio to a new level. For those with surround systems, the experience is a true tour-de-force, with excellent soundstage mapping. In addition, a variety of battle noises appear to have been recorded multiple times to correspond with the distance of the gunplay. Top that off with convincing explosions, terrific voice acting, and a cinematic score, and COD 4 leaves nothing to be desired in the sound department.

All told, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a superb and satisfying shooter that breathes new life into the franchise, and manages to conceal the lack of gameplay innovation in a truly atmospheric and adrenaline-inducing campaign. Though the lack of polish in the final third of the game does keep the game from establishing itself as an instant classic, it is still a must-play for any fan of first-person shooters.