War can be beautiful.
The makers of Call of Duty 4 said they wanted to finally nail the cinematic “movie in a video game” experience. They almost got it right, but they made it three hours too long.
[image1]Clocking in at five hours, Call of Duty 4 is the shortest blockbuster video game in recent memory. But those few hours are a robust, thrilling ride with all the sparkle and flash of a Hollywood summer movie. And like a summer action flick, you can expect plenty of spectacle, lots of special effects, and not a whole lot of plot or dialogue to get in the way.
The game updates the franchise from its WWII roots to a fictional present-day conflict with rogue Russian ultra-nationalists. Bolt-action rifles are now M-16s with silencers and underslung grenade launchers. Securing French villages is now securing rogue nuclear material. Terrorists, predictably, are the new Nazis.
But the new setting doesn’t change the eponymous “call.” The two main characters of the game, Soap McTavish of the S.A.S. and Gomer Pyle of the Marine Corps, hear the call, pick up the phone, and shoot a lot of people. The formula is the same: good guys against bad guys, except good guys are able to endure a lot of bullets and magically heal. Guess who wins?
After three installments, the action of the fourth Call of Duty is as polished as that of its main competitors, Halo 3 and Rainbow Six. Pointing and shooting feels balanced and responsive. Taking cover is more harrowing than ever before, as many of the guns have the ability to pierce through thin walls. And there are a lot of thin walls. Those thin walls and the ability to throw back armed grenades are the only things that really distinguish the action of COD4.
Where the game does separate itself is in the astounding graphics. The framerate is as oily slick as the water of San Francisco Bay. Environments are lush, and plumes of smoke billow from seemingly everywhere on the battlefield, disappearing into the richness of a cloudy sky. Scripted cutscenes are special in themselves. Watching a nuclear explosion from a plane, cliche. Watching a nuclear explosion from a plane inside the blast radius? Hawt.
[image2]But what Call of Duty 4 gets right, what pushes it from a generic shooter to the verges of greatness, is its lacing together of traditional shooter conventions with a wide variety of mini-games and gameplay styles. For example, in the middle of the game and out of nowhere comes a sneaking and sniping mission that feels like it was lifted straight out of Metal Gear’s playbook. Not only do you crawl and creep your way through enemy lines, but the sniping mechanic requires you to keep watch windspeed while tracking your target and holding your breath. It only happens once in the game, but it is worth it.
The same can be said about many of the other details. From the refreshingly original take on the ubiquitous rail-shooting episode to an atmospheric slow-motion death scene, the game refuses to repeat itself. The result is a rich and constantly changing experience that sacrifices length for originality.
That rationale, by the way, works better for video games than it does for penises. [No, I am not going to find a link for that ~Ed]
And that non-sequitur will allow the review to gracefully turn to the online multiplayer game, in which you will meet a lot of dicks. Not that that is any different from any other online experience, including the one that you are enjoying right now.
Multiplayer in COD4 is (dare I say it?) productive of a deeper satisfaction than Halo 3’s diminishing returns. Not only are matches quick to find and join, but you can stay in the lobby after the game is over. Even better, there are over twenty different types of games, ranging from team deathmatch fragfests to non-respawning strategic sabotage missions, each of which can be searched for independently.
[image3]But the most applause-worthy element of the online game is its heartfelt embrace of the RPG-like leveling-up throughout your multiplayer career. You begin as a lowly private, but gain ranks with experience points, that can be gained by winning matches, but also by accomplishing specific challenges, like blowing up enemy helicopters or knife-killing opponents. As you gain rank, more challenges and new weapons and skills are unlocked.
And then there are all the weapon unlockables. As you use certain guns, you can unlock attachments for them, like new scopes or silencers. There seems like there are a lot of stats and experience points flying around, but in practice the whole system is easy to use and gives the online game a lot of incentive. But wait, there’s more!
In addition to a gun and a grenade, you can carry up to three “perks,” or special skills, into battle. Choosing your perks goes a long way towards building unique character classes. If you take the UAV jammer and the bomb detector perks, your character will be invisible to enemy radar and be able to see booby-traps, a role suited for sabotage missions. Take the upgraded damage and increased health perks and your character is ready for a straight-up gun fight. There are countless permutations, and fiddling with options makes waiting in game lobbies a lot less like hanging out at the DMV.
The only letdown in the multiplayer game is the uninspired level design. Most of the maps are of the war-torn urban landscape variety. There’s the war-torn urban landscape at night, the war-torn urban landscape in the daylight, the war-torn urban landscape in the rain, the war-torn urban landscape with a hill, and so on. Many of the maps have few recognizable landmarks, meaning that disorientation is common. Unlike the strategic Rainbow Six: Vegas, there is very little communication among teams in COD4 simply because no one knows where they are or how to express it to others.
[image4]And it should be noted that while the graphics in the single-player campaign are excellent, they nosedive in the multiplayer game. For some reason all of the maps, perhaps in order to testify to their war-tornness, have floating pieces of pixelated junk wafting about. If it was done right, it might be fine, but the crap looks like crap.
When the servers are down (which they were on the opening weekend, yikes!) you can try out the “arcade mode” which scores your performance in single-player campaign missions. It’s a fine idea, but in practice it doesn’t seem any different from just playing the game again. Even worse, your ally A.I. is so good that they will steal your kills, thus stealing points.
The long and short of it is that COD4 is both short and long: short in its refreshing single-player campaign, long in its deep multiplayer value. That the shortcomings of each should be the strong points of the other averts disaster on both fronts. And that leaves us to appreciate the game’s spectacular production value—delivering more ahh's than there are hoo-ahs at a Marine Corps bowling night.