[Editor's Note, Nov 9, 2007: We've changed this game's score from the original 9 up to a 10. The reason is simple: the more we play the game, especially against real people online, the more we grow to love it and the less we mind its few faults. It's still not perfect or even particularly evolved from the first three CoD games, but it's nonetheless one of the most finely-tuned, expertly crafted games we've ever played, and we would be wrong not to give it our highest recommendation.]
Nov 5, 2007
It’s funny how much has stayed the same from the WWII-based CoDs, given how much real war has changed in the last 60 years. With Modern Warfare, as usual, you spend most of your time ducking behind crates, barrels and pillars while shots thwack into the scenery around you, your CO screams orders and the grenade icon pops up to inform you that your cover is about to be covered in Soap. Your name is Soap, by the way, except when it’s Jackson.
Jackson is a US Marine, and Soap is a British SAS soldier under the command of the exuberantly mustachioed Captain Price, who is inexplicably alive, the same age and the same rank as he was 60 years earlier in the first two CoD games.
Working for a hairy old man slightly spoils the cool-factor of your new high-tech equipment: flashbangs, nightvision and silencers. But these things do mark CoD4 as a stealthier, more predatory game. You’re usually in control of the situation, rather than drowning in the chaos, and that feels good. Even better when you hit the melee button: instead of inelegantly bonking foes with your gun, you now draw a knife, lunge forward and fatally stab them in one swift, quiet stroke.
The climax is an extraordinary pair of missions playing as a sniper in Chernobyl, under the careful instruction of Scot-in-a-bush Captain MacMillan. You’re both wearing ghillie suits, you see - camouflage that essentially involves gluing a shrubbery to your head. This enables the two of you to race through an incredible sort of extreme-stealth assault course, dashing and ducking thrillingly close to ridiculous numbers of heavily armed hostiles without being detected. Lying in the tall grass and watching as a few men, then a squadron, then an army with tanks crest the hill towards you and nearly step on your fingers - it’s just magnificent.
But between these there’s still an awful lot of popping out from behind a crate to shoot someone when they pop out from behind theirs. It’s a fine mechanic, but the game sometimes rubs your face in its staged nature. Since you’re unable to open even unlocked doors, you’re always waiting for your AI comrades to let you progress. That’s silly enough in itself, but sometimes the only way to make them do this is to “clear” an area - keep killing enemies until new ones stop replacing them. Other times there’s a never-ending stream, and the only way to progress is to sprint past them to some invisible trigger that tells the AI you’re done here. Trying to work out which the game wants forces you to think of it in these artificial terms, and breaks the immersion.
If you don’t much care about plot or context - and that’s a perfectly valid mindset - CoD4 is a thrilling and dramatic ride. Every other mission features a magnificent setpiece or iconic sight: a fleet of helicopters cruising in over the coast of "the Middle East"; a lattice of infra-red beams cutting up the green sky when you flick your nightvision on in a city skirmish; and the bloody sniper massacre beneath the rusting Ferris wheel at Pripyat - firmly CoD4’s Pegasus Bridge moment.
If the whole game had been like that, or even just as inventive throughout, you’d find a frankly silly score at the end of this review. Instead it’s a more restrained one, because CoD4 spends too much of its seven-hour campaign mimicking the series’ former drama and glory in a context that doesn’t suit it. The setup for CoD4 amounts to: “There’s some kind of conflict in a Middle-Eastern country. LET’S GO!”
Your enemies are referred to as “Ultranationalists” but for a country that’s never even named. Hilariously, your pre-mission briefing screen keeps telling you you’re heading out to “THE MIDDLE EAST,” while news reportage yaks about fighting in “the capital.” The capital of THE MIDDLE EAST? There’s something cheap and cynical about this kind of nonspecific design: as if we’ll be happy to blast away at a generic Arab-looking country.
There’s one mission in particular that’s truly chilling. You’ve seen that video on the news, in black and white nightvision, of the people trying to scramble away as silent explosions fling them around like ragdolls, while servicemen laugh at them from behind the camera? This is the game of that.
You just click, and a second or two later a billowing cloud of white-hot death engulfs the target area, killing dozens of people and hurling them gracelessly across the ground. The slurred, grainy visual filter used to mimic a nightvision camera is perfect, as is the jargon text decorating the view and the dispassionate, cruel comments of your spotter. “Kaboom,” he deadpans after you kill four more people. “That’s a good kill - I’m seeing little pieces down there.”
The team-based multiplayer more than makes up for the typically brief running time of the singleplayer. The transplant to modernity has been embraced much better here. Kill-streaks earn you the right to call in support: radar coverage, air strikes and even AI-controlled helicopters to hunt down the enemy team. And all kills, damage, and objectives completed inch you closer to your next promotion, permanently unlocking new weapons and Perks. You use these to design your own custom classes: we favored a semi-auto sniper rifle, smoke grenades and the Juggernaut and Dead Silence perks. We developed a fondness for stabbing people, you see, so we needed to be tough and quiet, conceal ourselves and pick off the few people too far away to shiv.
This character progression is persistent across all servers - they don’t need to be special ranked ones. Infinity Ward figures any system will be hacked eventually, so they’re just trusting players to realize that it’s more fun if you progress fairly. And it is: the ranks come thick and fast, there are lots, and you unlock special challenges as you go.
The action is ridiculously fast and bloody. Every weapon is a more efficient killing machine than its WWII counterpart, and the frantic pace has the side-effect that you never feel pinned down or hopeless. Everyone goes down so easily that even the best player is killable, and respawn times are so fast that dying is never particularly frustrating. The previous games’ modes are all here, along with newcomer Domination, in which both teams try to hold three control points at once. Like the other modes, it draws everyone together into a messy melee, but is open enough to let you find ways around the usual chokepoints.
The two halves of CoD4 don’t have much to do with each other, but together they make a ripe bunch of gaming fruit to munch on. If you have no interest in multiplayer whatsoever, the seven-hour singleplayer campaign here is good fun but a little lightweight, at least at full price. For everyone else, the singleplayer provides a torrent of wow-moments while the multiplayer has lasting appeal. In a spectacularly good winter for games, it’s saying something that we still recommend splurging precious cash on this. Just don’t go in expecting an experience quite as potent as the original.