Here we are, another year, another holiday season, and another Call of Duty game. It’s getting so you can practically set your watch by it. Last year’s Call of Duty 3 was farmed out to Treyarch for development with so-so results, but this time around Infinity Ward has taken back the reigns of the award-winning first person shooter franchise that they created. There is a catch though: no more Nazis. Say goodbye to WWII, and say hello to 21st century global madness.
As in past games you split time between allied forces, represented now by USMC Force Recon and British SAS. Subbing in for the Axis powers as villains are Middle Eastern extremists and Russian ultranationalists who have joined forces to hatch unsavory plans involving a bloody coup, a televised execution, and some old Soviet nukes. High tech mission briefings, short cut scenes, and expert use of the first person perspective are combined to great effect in delivering a story that is current and engrossing if not completely original.
Call of Duty games have always had an epic feel to them, putting you right smack in the middle of incredibly chaotic battles with a clear sense that every skirmish is pivotal in the greater struggle. CoD4 stays firmly within that tradition and presents a particularly strong balance of different mission types in this installment, from small squad operations to full tilt large scale rumbles. Even the obligatory stealth mission is a joy, sneaking behind enemy lines as a camouflaged sniper, as is an unforgettable spin on the mandatory fixed gunner mission which excels in an area that usually causes nothing but misery.
There are a few flaws of note however, particularly that the game still relies on some questionable spawning tactics where enemies will continually pour out of certain areas, as if being ferried behind the scenes by a fleet of clown cars, until you move up to a more forward position. The effect is exaggerated at higher difficulty levels where your squad mates are increasingly not up to the task and steadfastly refuse to advance until you do no matter how many enemies you gun down to clear a path, leaving exploiting the game’s systems the best option for success rather than trying to simply play better. One can only hope that in the next iteration the series will evolve beyond the need for these kinds of cheap tactics, though the complaints are minor for what is an undeniably first rate single player campaign,
For many shooters multiplayer is merely tacked on to give the game a little more staying power, but CoD4 has given it the attention it deserves by putting together one of the most comprehensive, innovative, and addictive multiplayer suites ever. The whole system is based on the concept of promotions, which boils down to good old fashioned role-playing game inspired leveling up. You start as a green recruit with access only to deathmatches, a limited weapon selection, and a basic skill set. Everything you do earns you experience though, and with it the promotions to higher ranks which unlock more and more stuff to play with—more game types, more weapons, access to challenges, and most importantly the ability to create custom classes by combining different weapons and skills.
No battlefield is ever the same, because the permutations of capabilities across all the players in a given game are just astronomical, and making choices that fit your play style is crucial. Do you want to be able to sprint longer or drop a live grenade when you die? Do more damage or take more? Steadier aim or penetrating shots? RPGs or claymore mines? More grenades or more ammo? The weapons all have great feel, and the variety of game types caters to a wide audience with nods to both the past and the present. If frag-fests aren’t your thing there are several types of control point games, multiple takes on attack/defend, and even a round based homage to Counter-Strike. There’s a wow factor here that’s been missing from the genre, and once you start playing it’s incredibly hard to stop.
Seldom do games combine top notch single player and multiplayer experiences, but truly Call of Duty 4 has done just that. The single player campaign, while relatively brief and lacking much in the way of replayability due to its extreme reliance on its scripted events, is excellently crafted in terms of both narrative and gameplay. There are a few niggling little flaws to gripe about, but they’re certainly worth enduring for all the substantial goodness. The real main event is the multiplayer though, a holiday gift that keeps on giving. Franchises come and franchises go, but between all the weapons, modes, maps, and countless customization possibilities this is one shooter that people will be playing online for a long time to come.