If I said to you, Call of Duty, you'd probably respond: World War II, right? Normally you'd be correct. Not this time, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare strips away the overused World War Two genre and replaces it with a blisteringly sharp modern setting that smacks of cinematic production values and crisp level design. The developers: Infinity Ward has taken a bold step forwards for the franchise and if this is the shape of things to come, well, sign me up for more.
It's not a deep/tactical game; it's a straight-forward shooter. You're not meant to agonise over what gun to setup at the start, or where to find the next ammo cache. This is combat against a relentless AI foe with all the bells and whistles of next-gen attached. That isn't to say that you can't make those kinds of choices, since running in like a mad-man is likely to get you killed in the game. There's no cover system either so you're going to have to crouch or go prone to avoid being turned into Swiss cheese.
You play the single-player (agonisingly short) from the viewpoint of two characters, one British SAS operative and a USMC soldier as the story unfolds. You'll switch from sneaking through night-time outdoor environments to the jam-packed dangerous streets of a Middle Eastern city as the game rockets towards a definite conclusion. There are plenty of insane fire-fights and even a sniper based stealthy flashback that is arguably the best mission in a modern war game to date.
The pace of the single player game is just right and thanks to an excellently scripted and planned series of levels, you're never left twiddling your thumbs or staring bored at a wall. There's always something going on and the first time you lay your eyes on the cargo ship rocking in a thrashing sea, you know you're in for something special. It doesn't let up either; it'll push you on from encounter to encounter without any time to draw breath.
It's easy to get to grips with, the controls are simple and there are a number of custom setups that allow you to tweak them to your play style. If you're familiar with the Halo style B-for-melee and prefer that, then just change to the right control method. I'm never fond of clicking the left or right sticks in to be honest, with some controllers it's all too easy to do that in the heat of battle and either zoom in when you don't want to, or crouch as someone throws a grenade at you.
Talking of grenades and controls, CoD4 lets you throw back grenades if you can get to them in time (watch for the warning indicator) and features a similar GUI to the previous games. There are no health packs and armour pickups, you take too much damage you'll get a warning to seek cover and get out of danger. It's good advice to hide behind something metal as well, since bullets have varying degrees of penetration in the game.
Thin interconnecting walls or doors don't make for good cover, we can tell you this from experience and so can the AI.
You are very rarely on your own in CoD4, there's always some NPC operatives around with you, giving the maps a feel of being a living and breathing skirmish as you're thrown into these dynamic fire-fights that have become the trademark of the Call of Duty series. AI clashes with AI and it's mildly annoying to see them taking cover, using blind-fire and being unable to do the same (we love you Rainbow Six Vegas!) At least you can climb small walls with the A button, as well as rappel down ropes at certain points.
Yet I found myself not caring about that, the game was too in-your-face and the story compelling to bother with little details, like the lack of a decent cover system. Then the story was over and I was left feeling a little short-changed, even a few more hours would have made me happier I think.
The graphics in the game are top notch, they have all the next-gen features and lighting effects that we've come to expect. There are dynamic missions that change from night to day (probably scripted) and the texturing for everything is sharp and spot on. The game is packed with tracer fire, explosions and special effects that are enough to induce eye-bleeding joy without skipping a frame on the 360. The levels are also varied and some are quite big, they show off the engine nicely and provide some stunning vistas to fight in.
When something explodes in the game, you know about it. It looks gorgeous and coupled with the sheer amount of bullet holes and battle debris it keeps the war-torn feel of the game alive from beginning to end.
The animations in the game are another area where the developers didn't shirk, they look good. Granted you only really see them when the AI performs an action. The weapon designs as well as their animations are likewise excellent, the reloading animation for each gun is set up and timed to near perfection. It's worth switching out for another weapon however depending on how pressured you are in a battle. There's nothing more embarrassing than being shot full of holes because you're in the middle of a reload.
The game has great sound as well, from the gunfire to the music, it's all been packaged together to provide the best possible experience for the player. It features a good solid voice cast and some nice grim lines to go with the cinematic campaign.
The AI is good, it provides a decent level of challenge and the allied AI is not quite the hindrance as it has been in past CoD games. There are times you think you might be playing with a human player when the AI bails you out of a particularly nasty situation. I do have one issue with the game at this point though, it seems as though you have to battle hordes of respawning AI enemies until you hit a certain checkpoint. I never did like constantly spawning enemies.
Once you're done with the single player game you can take the game online. CoD4 has some of the best online multiplayer with a variety of excellent game types, I've played before. I was actually in the beta so I knew what to expect. You earn experience for playing in matches and can rank up, unlocking ranks means you also unlock perks. These are bonus abilities that can drastically change the way you play the game. Some examples include deeper bullet penetration, more damage soak and silent footsteps (great for a covert ops style class).
There are numerous classes on offer in the mp side of the game, and you can also create your own custom class once you advance to the right rank. The experience has been improved from the beta and whilst some servers experience lag and disconnects the majority of the games are pretty much perfect.
There are a lot of options on offer for mp in CoD4; team based game types as well as solo deathmatch kill-athons for those lone wolf players. There are certain game modes that you can apply if you feel like playing old school, Quake style, as well as hardcore mode where you get shot once; you're pretty much dead...there's no fancy HUD or anything.
Basically the game's mp has been crafted to give you: the player, the choices that you want right from the get-go.
There is also a nifty kill-cam that triggers when you die; it gives you a player's eye view of the last few moments of your life as you bite the bullet. Useful for plotting revenge and settling the argument of how you ended up being shot from half-way across the map by a sneaky prone sniper hiding in the long grass.
So all in all, Call of Duty 4 is a superb game that deserves the scores it gets. It's let down by being painfully short in single player and that's about it. The game has a definite feel of playing a war movie but there are times that you feel like an extra rather than the star of the show. There are some interesting new missions that haven't been done before and I'll leave you to find out the ones that I mean.