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War may be Hell, but Hell?s a lot of fun
Call of Duty 4 may very well be the first anti-war war game. At the very least, it makes a damn powerful argument for nuclear disarmament.
French film critic (and filmmaker) Francois Truffaut claimed that an anti-war war film was impossible to make. His argument was that, through the act of putting war on film, it was glorified. This sentiment should probably go doubly for videogames, especially in the traditionally gung-ho first-person shooter genre. So, how does this game manage to cause such an emotional reaction?
As is obvious from the game?s sub-title, the series has moved from the WWII era into modern times. So it?s ironic that Call of Duty 4 is, in some ways, the Saving Private Ryan of the videogame world: a look at war that is both viscerally thrilling and emotionally devastating. The game?s plot is a Tom-Clancy-esque foray into fictional conflicts, centralized in the Middle East and Russia. A militant group executes a Middle-Eastern leader in a coup, one of the most disturbing and memorable sequences in the game. In that sequence, the player is put into the doomed man?s shoes: a brilliant move that brings one closer to the story than any cutscene could. The leader of said group must be found and killed by the militaries of the free world, specifically the U.S. Marines and the British S.A.S. The campaign has you play as soldiers in both armies.
This is no morally ambiguous conflict: these guys are pretty seriously evil, so you never really question the need for military action. I never got a very good grasp on how the various regions are connected in the game, but the story, something sorely lacking from the previous games in the franchise, is pretty damn compelling. There?s a segment at the end of the first act which will stay with you for a long, long time after you finish the single-player campaign. It?s a powerful moment that really subverts your expectations of how a videogame?s story should play out. It extends to the gameplay, as well ? the battles have a gritty, torn-from-the-headlines feel to them that, at times, can be downright uncomfortable.
There will be those that complain that it?s not much of a departure from Call of Duty 2 gameplay, which is valid, but Call of Duty 2 is the best WWII game I?ve ever played. The fact that Infinity Ward didn?t stray too much from formula is a good thing. The console version of the game is missing any leaning or cover mechanic, which would?ve been a good addition, but it still controls perfectly ? a twitch gamers dream. There are a few annoying moments, such as enemy helicopters that fire on you with accuracy that would make William Tell crap himself, but nothing that damages the experience. This game?s polished to a shine. Some people might think the single-player campaign is a bit too short, but it?s very replayable, and there is an unlockable ?arcade mode,? in which the player can replay individual levels with a scoring system. It?s also a memorable and extremely satisfying experience, and can be a hell of a challenge, at least on the higher difficulty levels. On Veteran, the hardest mode, it can get downright frustrating: truly for the hardcore gamers only.
Oh, and the game runs like a charm. The engine is flat-out amazing. It runs at a silky-smooth 60fps with no noticeable hiccups, which is especially impressive considering the fact that it?s one of the best-looking games on the market. (There have been complaints that the game isn?t rendered at a full 720p, like Halo 3, but, playing it on a 720p monitor, I couldn?t tell any difference at all.) It?s certainly the most realistic-looking game to date (although I haven?t played Crysis yet, and, from what I?ve heard, that might take the cake), even if the texturing isn?t quite up to Unreal Engine 3 (The prolific engine used in Unreal Tournement 3, Mass Effect, Rainbow 6: Vegas, Bioshock, Gears of War, etc.) standards. But then, there?s next to no texture pop-in, so there?s something of a trade-off.
And it?s intense. The most intense FPS I?ve ever had the pleasure of playing. The first time an RPG flies by a foot away from your face is guaranteed to get your heart pumping. It takes the intensity of the firefights in Call of Duty 2, and ratchets everything up about 10 notches. Forget the beaches of Normandy ? Try storming a nuclear missile launch silo, knowing that failure means the death of everyone on the East Coast of the United States. You?re enormously outnumbered, there are enemy vehicles in the area, and hundreds of bullets are whizzing by your head. Your only cover is a crumbling roadblock. And you?re timed. This is one of the first games in which a timed segment actually adds to the experience, instead of cheapening it.
Similar to its predecessors in the series, the sound design is amazing. Play it loud. The whizzing bullets, the booming explosions, and the high-pitched whine in your ears when a grenade goes off a little too close for comfort? they all sound amazingly realistic. The Harry Gregson-Williams/Stephen Barton score adds to the intensity without ever overpowering the action on-screen.
The online multiplayer is both fun and addicting. Infinity Ward has really nailed the fine line between tactical and arcade shooters, and it makes for one hell of a multiplayer experience. The RPG elements that have been added this time around are handled perfectly, as anyone who played the beta can attest. You can unlock ?perks,? special skills such as deeper bullet penetration, more health, or, my personal favorite, Last Stand, in which your character, when shot, falls to the ground and has a chance to seek immediate revenge by pulling out his sidearm and firing a few final bullets. These are a great addition to the online FPS formula, and make every game encounter unpredictable. The best part is that ?experience? is gained by simply playing the game online. You get points for kills, and based on your standing at the end of matches, as well as for completing specific ?challenges,? usually of the ?get 100 kills with gun X? variety. It?s a very rewarding system. You could probably spend the rest of your natural life unlocking all the weapons, abilities, and completing challenges, if you saw fit. There is also a split-screen mode, something that should be included in every FPS release, but no co-op, which would?ve been a good addition.
Call of Duty 4 is one of the best FPS releases of the year, which is saying a lot, considering the veritable avalanche of triple-A shooters this year. It?s a testament to the power that first-person interactive storytelling can possess. Do yourself a favor and pick it up, as it might just redefine how a videogame can affect a player?s worldview.
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