"When you see a guy running around in his urban camo with a camo weapon, you're gonna know that guy is a real badass." These are the words of Grant Collier, Infinity Ward president and the man in charge of ditching the successful WWII setting of the Call of Duty series and leading the fourth game into a terrifying near-future setting, already occupied by Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon.
There are no antique firearms here, just high-tech assault rifles, thermal goggles and enough pocket-size explosives to kill a planet. The custom camo that Grant talks about is an unlockable extra, which along with the custom gamertags, will let you know that you're dealing with a professional killer and one who's likely to snipe you from 200ft without breaking a sweat.
The brilliant bonus of the Call of Duty series has always been the great multiplayer mode in addition to the single-player game and Infinity Ward realises that it's picked up an increasingly skilled fan-base along the way. "We're really focusing on getting novice players into Call of Duty - a lot of people think that it's just for the hardcore," says Collier. "There's a lot of new people that want to get in but they're overwhelmed with all the options and we're trying to take care of that." The main method of welcoming new players is keeping things simple, until lessons are learned. "When someone starts off, they'll have just a few guns and, as they get kills, they'll unlock the rest of the weapons," Collier explains, before admitting that there's plenty for the trigger-happy veterans, gasping to get to grips with the new world of Call of Duty.
"For the hardcore, there's unlockable extra skins that they can have for the weapons and custom gamertags." Aware that there's an increasing base of online ninjas who stalk Xbox Live and log an incredible amount of playtime, he stresses that downloads and levels are now a modern-day necessity. "For the gamers that don't have jobs, and burn through the game, we'll add extra levels and downloadable content too." The multiplayer development team is actually the same team that worked on the first and second instalments of the series. "The multiplayer team has been working on the game since day one and they had multiplayer up and running within three months," says Collier.
Set across the US, the Middle-East and Russia, Call of Duty 4 isn't afraid of touching on contemporary political points which references to everything from the war in Iraq to aeroplane-based terrorism (watch the trailer on EGTV and you'll see a team storm a 747). "We want the game to play out like an entire series of 24," says Collier as he introduces a night mission which sees a barely visible wet terrain observed through thermal goggles, streaks of white sniper light scanning for targets. The panicked vocals, sheer amount of activity and no-holds barred combat make the single-player game alone a frightening prospect.
In multiplayer, things will be much worse but when asked whether Call of Duty 4 will bring together the warring factions of bespectacled PC clans and trash-talking Xbox Live users, Collier says no. "We've explored the option of Xbox Live players playing with PC players and we're not really interested in doing it," he says. "We really like the fact that on Xbox 360, you've got a stable platform, so you don't have to have a Quad Core PC with 5GB of RAM to compete." Questioned about the differences between platforms in terms of online play, Collier says the PC will have more online options. "There will be small differences between each of the platforms - on PC you can have dedicated servers that are on a fast pipe where you'll get more players. With player counts, there's 32 on PC and between 12 and 16 on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3."
Watching the action on Xbox 360, Infinity Ward has created the best-looking Xbox 360 FPS yet, and -until we see hard evidence that Halo 3 looks much better than the recent beta - it's going to turn heads. The characters themselves look incredible with worn facial expressions, glinting weapons and shadows so realistic that weapons even cast shadows on the texture-rich limbs of soldiers. "Players didn't really remember anyone from the other games, apart from Price," says Collier. Inevitably then, the push to make soldiers more recognisable has led to Price returning to the SAS and Delta teams. Moonlighter.
Where Call of Duty 4 differs from Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon, however, is in the stylish, cinematic execution of each level. One minute you're stealthing around a Metal Gear-style boat in a storm, the next you're in the Middle-East, picking off enemies through the thick desert haze. There's realism but a sense of fun - take cover against a brick wall and it will rapidly crumble when enemy fire pins you down, forcing a move to the next hiding place. All the weapons in the game are real, too, and it's refreshing to blow walls apart with a shotgun - the unashamed gun-porn ethic of Black can be found alive and well in Call of Duty 4. Every shot, reload and click of an empty chamber sounds perfect. At a time when Halo 3 is fighting the intergalactic space-war single-handed, Infinity Ward has seen Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon and realised that they're not so much easy targets as sitting ducks in the world of big-name FPS games.