Thursday 9 April 2009

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Way back in the day, I was a fan of the Medal of Honour series of games, particularly the Allied Assault series of PC games. Back in 2002 this was cutting-edge stuff, with its depiction of the D-Day landings and its mix of realism with solid gameplay. There were limits to what the game could do, however. Due to engine and technical limitations, it wasn't possible to create 'open' levels, so the player was carefully herded where the designers wanted him to go, giving rise to an odd situation where American soldiers fighting across an open field would find their route determined by impassable wire fences. But this was a minor complaint in 2002 given the quality of the visuals and the intensity of the action.

Some of the Allied Assault team broke off in 2002 to form a new company, Infinity Ward, specifically to address issues like this and ramp up the intensity of the war simulation experience. In late 2003 they launched their own take on the concept, Call of Duty, which went on to eclipse its forebear in critical acclaim and allowed the player to control American, Russian and British soldiers, switching between them as necessary. Call of Duty 2 carried on this fine tradition. However, both games still felt very limited. CoD2 improved things by sometimes allowing a choice of several different paths to an objective, but there was still none of the freedom being offered that would really benefit the game, and the ingredients were feeling a little stale.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (CoD3 was a console-only affair) seeks to update the experience by switching to a near-future setting depicting a Middle-Eastern warlord and a mental Russian agent teaming up to launch a nuclear attack on the United States and 'reclaim' both their countries for Team Crazy. The typically intense CoD combat experience is once again on offer here, and it has to be said that when they are on form, Infinity Ward can't be beaten for offering combat experiences which offer a solid approximation of the chaos of real combat (or so I'm informed by people I know in the army). The problem is that Infinity Ward are so focused on recreating that feeling of insane carnage that they sacrifice a lot of other elements, leading to frustrating gameplay.

I mentioned earlier that in 2002 it simply wasn't possible to have an open gameworld with multiple paths to an objective and also maintain a high visual quality. These days - or at least in late 2007 when this game came out, this wasn't even remotely still an issue any more, as Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, a game with superior graphics to CoD4, demonstrated, giving you the run of the streets of Mexico City and allowing you your own choice of tactics, approaches, use of cover and weapons and the calling in of support as needed. In CoD4 suddenly being stuck in a closely-regulated 'on a rails' shooter is annoying and frustrating. Engaged in a close-quarters alley gun battle, I hit upon the idea of using a side-alley to flank the enemy, only to be met by a wall of impassable tyres. Your only option to progress is to advance into a hail of enemy fire and overwhelm them at close range. Great.

Worse was to come, however. The game encourages you to keep up the advance whenever possible, presumably because of the creators' desire to focus on intense combat. This results in slightly ridiculous situations where your entire team is exchanging fire with enemy forces on the other side of a courtyard. In any sane military in the world, you would clear the area of all visible opponents and then move in and mop up the survivors. You can't do that in CoD4 as the enemy's ranks are constantly replenished. You can't actually make a dent in the enemy numbers until you move forward to the next objective. Yup, this military simulator game basically demands that you charge into enemy gunfire and engage them at pointblank range. The uses of cover and making the most of range and numbers, among the most basic concepts of modern warfare, are actually discouraged.

On the plus side, this is one hell of a slickly-produced game, with great music, impressive (and very well-scaled for PCs) graphics and instinctive controls. Mission briefings are nicely-realised and make full use of satellite maps. The in-game banter is sometimes funny, although it doesn't stray far from the usual macho cliches. The designers are also clearly enormous fans of Aliens, employing music that is very similar to Horner's score for that movie, naming at least one character after an Aliens one and quoting dialogue from the movie several times. This was all pleasing to my inner nerd and helped calm my rage after another stand-off that would have lasted until the end of time if I hadn't charged an enemy machine gun nest as the only possible way of making progress. It's also good to see the Brits and Russians get a look-in as well as the Americans (although you only get to control the British SAS platoon and an American Marine Corps contingent, not the Russian loyalist forces). There's also a great but all-too-brief level where you get to play the gunner on a Lockheed AC-130 gunship.

The game's highlight is an unexpected flashback mission which takes place in Chernobyl, with just you and another sniper having to sneak past the heavily fortified perimeter in order to assassinate an enemy dignitary. This a very tense, well-designed mission depicting the ruined city in a very atmospheric manner, culminating in an absolutely insane stand-off with half the Russian army where, for once, the enemy's vast numbers actually made sense. And whilst I normally don't rate multiplayer as part of a single-player game (since, as studies continuously show, three-quarters or more of gamers usually never take their games online, unless it's an online-only game, of course), the multiplayer action in CoD4 is solid, since it generally does feature more open levels and of course doesn't have infinite waves of enemy forces.

Call of Duty 4 (***) is a decent, if extremely short (which cost it half a star) action FPS, but I think Infinity Ward really need to reassess what they are trying to do with this series. Continuing to sell it as a warfare simulator when they won't encourage or even allow the use of real military tactics is disingenuous, and the series is now being overtaken and leap-frogged by other games that work much better. As it stands, the series is in danger of becoming stale and predictable.

The game is available now on PC (UK, USA), X-Box 360 (UK, USA) and PS3 (UK, USA).


Longasc said...

Thanks for a review that makes sense. Reading many other reviews (just take a look at Metacritic) makes one wonder what people were smoking while reviewing this game. You are so right about the linear and very short levels. In the end I would have been better off to watch a movie or read a book.

R0CKY said...

"I mentioned earlier that in 2002 it simply wasn't possible to have an open gameworld with multiple paths to an objective and also maintain a high visual quality. These days - or at least in late 2007 when this game came out, this wasn't even remotely still an issue any more, as Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, a game with superior graphics to CoD4, demonstrated, giving you the run of the streets of Mexico City and allowing you your own choice of tactics, approaches, use of cover and weapons and the calling in of support as needed."

Post that is a GRAW forum and you'd get lynched. GRAW gave very little in the way of tactical options for approaches, you'd have to go BACK to the original Ghost Recon for that.

I am afraid I'd also argue on the graphics comparison too, COD4 is an awesome engine with great graphics, GRAW is good, not great.

And that's coming from the biggest GR fan out there :op

Adam Whitehead said...

As I had to make clear to someone else when they posted this complaint, the version of GRAW I am referring to is the PC one, which has full controls and set-up for tactical deployment and orders. My understanding is that the console version does not.

The PC version has other problems (like crippling graphics bugs that makes the last third of the game unplayable) and I probably would score it the same as or less than CoD4, but the actual game itself when it works is very strong indeed.

Of course, the two are trying to be different things: GRAW a slower-paced tactical game based on giving orders and using teamwork intelligently, and CoD4 is a brainless blaster. Perhaps complaining about CoD4 not being something it isn't entirely fair. The problem with that is if you stack CoD4 up against all the other linear shooters of recent years it is outclassed by pretty much all of them (Far Cry, Half-Life 2, FEAR, BioShock, even Doom 3).

Anonymous said...

You really need to work on your review skills.

You appear to have reviewed COD4 as a single player game when in fact the COD franchise has become more and more a multi player game with a tacked on SP.

the fact COD4 has become the weapon of choice for competitive MP says it.

If you are going to beat a dead cat (COD 4 is 2 years old) then at least beat the whole cat, reviewing half the game, and the least developed half of the game at that says a lot about the reviewer and his motives

Anonymous said...

Its also hilarious you say the series has been over taken by many titles when not one has managed to surpass the 2007 COD4 and the game still manages to top concurrent user tables on the likes of XBL , PSN and platforms like steam and xfire

Adam Whitehead said...

CoD4 is not a multiplayer-only game. If it was Left 4 Dead or Team Fortress 2 or World of WarCraft, than the multiplayer element would be reviewed as an integeral part of the game.

CoD4 is a single-player game with a popular multiplayer component. That does not change the fact that it is marketed and released as a single-player game with a series of single-player missions with NPCs, voice-acting and cut scenes.

Valve undertook a study last year that showed 75%+ of more of gamers never took their single-player games online. All the games available on Steam at the time, including CoD4, were covered in this survey. As such, the multiplayer experience must be reviewed as a secondary element at best. When those statistics change, the multiplayer element will have to be more strongly factored into the reviewing equation.

Anonymous said...

You didn't take the MP element into account at all,

also COD 4 stats courtesy of Infinity Ward

10'000'000 unique users have played COD4 online , thats over 75% of all sales,

of those on all platforms who are connected tot he internet (15 million unique users) 53.5% of them have never beat the game on any difficulty.

of those 53.5% 3 million accounts have never even got by the tutorial mission.

those stats prove beyond any doubt that COD4 as much a MP game as it is single player, if not more.

COD took a change of direction with 4 the campaign was short but the meat and bones of the game was the critically acclaimed and massively popular online component.

for you to completely dismiss this and infact ignore it in your review says a lot.

Review the game..but review it all

Anonymous said...

Edit :

I think you need to get with the times , take a look at some of the freely available MP users stats floating around

for example 5.5 million minutes were logged by xfire users on MP call of duty 4 today so far , with and average of 17million minutes per day being logged per day for the last 175 days

Xfire is seeing 170k unique users per day (take into account the PC version only sold some 1 million units)

this is a 3rd part app that user have to download and have running in the back ground so we know actual numbers are much higher.

Even if we only take the Xfire numbers, to have nealry 1/5th of a 2 year old games user base logging 17million minutes of game time daily, 18 months after its release , and take into account the XBL and PSN stats from the previous post and come back and tell me the MP is a small niche part of the content and not worth reviewing.

Adam Whitehead said...

Interesting. So you are saying that the reason the SP part of the game is so weak is because they shifted emphasis to the multiplayer side of things and let the development of SP slide?

Maybe I should incorporate that into the review.

Anonymous said...

Well many would argue there is nothing wrong with the Single player portion, it was tightly scripted, well paced had the best mission of any FPS in recent memory ( ghillies in the mist) and had a really quite decent ending . On the flip side it suffered the common problem of average AI and weighed in at a lowly 6-8 hours game play (which albeit short is pretty much average for this generation of games)

My issue was with you dismissing the MP portion in its entirety , you didn't even deem it important enough to warrant a mention in your review .

Your review is full of the " i didnt like it so wont review it from a neutral perspective " common amongst your fellow bloggers , if you don't like it that's fine , but review the game on its merits and failures ALL of them, not just the " i dont like this therefore its a poor *** game.

Everyone has their opinion mate, yours are usually well thought out and well presented, this review isn't to your usual standard

Anonymous said...

In fact your whole review suffers from " i thought i was playing one thing, but got another, this sucks"

Call of Duty had never ever been marketed as a warfare simulator ( i believe you are looking for armed assault or operation flashpoint) its always been about the big bangs, the heavily scripted scenes and short but punchy campaigns

SO again i accuse you of marking the game down not because its a bad game, but because you personally don't like it, and you're not professional enough to get by that and give the game a proper review.

Back onto the MP argument : IW has not changed massive direction with putting large focus onto MP, Call of Duty 2, for many a year was the most played online PC game by concurrent users and time played.

The COD series ( with the horrible console ports by Treyarch for the ps2 aside)has for the most part always been about short , punchy heavily scripted campaigns , and popular MP.