You can't help but experience universally positive feelings of pure gaming joy the first time you boot up the Call of Duty 4 multiplayer beta, currently playing out across Xbox Live. Within those first precious moments of gameplay, all doubts you may have had about the game's innovations - not least its shift in time away from World War II - quickly dissipate. The Call of Duty DNA is self-evident, and certainly in my opinion, it's clear that the game offers a substantial leap over anything we've seen before on a console first person shooter.
Certainly in terms of its visuals, it doesn't put a foot wrong. In fact, I've lovingly prepared a voluminous screenshot gallery for you right here. While lacking some of the detail and precision of the Unreal Engine-powered shooters out there, it still looks fantastic, with some subtle, yet utterly sublime lighting and blurring effects. Best of all, the code lives up to developer Infinity Ward's claims that it never runs at anything less than 60 frames per second. This alone elevates Call of Duty 4 beyond many of its competitors - with gameplay as intense as what's on offer here, you never feel short-changed by the shortcomings of the console or the graphical engine. It feels solid, it feels real; gameplay feels fast and smooth - arcade-like if you will.
In terms of the multiplayer content offered up in the beta, the key to Call of Duty 4's appeal is the sheer amount of customisation on offer. There are a handful of default classes on offer - soldier types each equipped with their own primary and secondary weaponry and special extra kit. There's the expected range of snipers, spec ops, demolition, heavy gunner and assault troops but once you've progressed a little into the game you're free to mix up the kit on offer, creating up to five of your own custom classes. Each class also has three different 'perk' slots - additional upgrades you can tailor to your own combat style. Perks include the basic abilities like running faster or being able to take more damage. Equipment to unlock includes grenade launcher add-ons, rocket launchers, and remote-detonation C4. But as you level-up, more exotic skills are unlocked. Last Stand for example, allows you to pull out a pistol and fire back at your killer as you breathe your last. Or alternatively, shoot yourself in the head to deprive your opponent of score.
Levelling-up is crucial to the Call of Duty 4 multiplayer mode. The more battles you take part in, the more experience (XP) you gain. Each rank has a certain XP threshold, and once you pass it, more weapons and perks are added to the range available for your custom classes. Right now, in the beta, ranking up is something of a double-edged sword. Yes, it's very cool indeed to keep fighting as who knows what cool new additions will become available when you make your next rank. But on the other hand, just about everyone playing now has already achieved the game's maximum rank (11, though the final game offers a huge 55!) and newcomers are at a severe disadvantage up against those with far superior weapons and better perks. With the final game offering so many more extra ranks and associated goodies, you can't help but wonder how any newcomer is going to fare. Perhaps the single-player mode also offers up some XP so can at least progress through the ranks via that route.
Certainly, there are a few tricks Infinity Ward has appeared to have missed in helping out the multiplayer beta's newbies. The experienced gamers have no doubt carefully arranged their five custom classes by now, but it's a process of trial and error - a process not helped by the fact that you need to quit out of a session in order to swap around your equipment lists for each custom class. Experimentation is the key to getting things just right, and it's annoying that you can't swap equipment about before respawning.
Getting into the game is simplicity itself though, thanks to the matchmaking system which plays out in a very similar manner to Halo 3's. Just choose the game type you want (Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Tactical and Objective) and the code takes care of all the rest for you - usually without the interminable delay that plagued the Halo 3 beta version. Quick and easy for sure, but I hope the final game allows you some control over the search parameters.
Lag, in particular is absolutely critical in this game. Ironically it's one of Call of Duty 4's coolest features that highlights just how crucial it is. The KillCam pops up each time you're offed, showing you the first person viewpoint of your killer, and how he took you out. On the one hand, it's supremely educational, and entertaining enough to stop you hammering away at the Respawn button. On the other hand, it's often amazing to see how history played out so very differently to how you perceived it. While you may recall firing back repeatedly at your assailant before being gunned down, the replay may not show it all. In short, your opponent bested you only because he had a better ping than you. It's an issue that goes way back to the dawn of internet gaming of course, but never before have you had it rubbed in your face quite as blatantly as this. There is a lag indicator in-game, but crucially you don't get to see it until the session has begun.
The Magic of CoD4
But when you find yourself in a well-matched game with players operating with a similar level of latency and like levels of rank, you can't help but get caught up in the magic. The action feels very realistic, the guns feel like instruments of instant death. There are no prolonged shootouts here - a gunshot wound to the head will kill any one, and a rapid volley of gunfire drops your opponent quickly and cleanly (unless your personal ping says otherwise). You can also shoot through walls too - no longer does ducking behind a convenient piece of scenery give you total invulnerability. Now the material you're hiding behind and its thickness, combined with the power of the gun being fired at you make all the difference. It all adds up to Call of Duty 4 being a shooter you'll find yourself playing far more cautiously, more intelligently, than its competitors.
Doing so helps to offer up some bonus rewards offered up for staying alive, for being a successful killer. String together some frags and extra options are gradually revealed - starting with the ability to send up a UAV to get enemy positions marked on your radar, moving on to unleashing an airstrike and culminating in getting your own helicopter gunship. While you're still vulnerable to rocket strikes and gunfire, swooping about in your chopper and machine-gunning down all opponents with impunity is superb fun.
Minor irritations side, the Call of Duty 4 multiplayer beta works on just about every level. It beautifully showcases the excellent graphics engine and it gives you enough in the way of levels, gameplay, weaponry and toys to make you want more. And knowing just how sussed this game is from a technical perspective raises the anticipation level for the single-player mode too, especially considering how accomplished Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 2 was for the solo gamer. So, to put it frankly, the November 5 worldwide launch can't come quick enough, and in the meantime, keep an eye-out for European beta registration details at the official site. It's a demo you really won't want to miss.