Version tested: Xbox 360
A change is as good as a rest, so they say. In Infinity Ward's case, a change must have been absolutely essential for its own collective sanity, having worked solidly on World War II shooters for longer than can be strictly healthy.
The fruit of this welcome shift in direction brings us bang up to date with by far its most engrossing, varied and ambitious offering yet. Modern Warfare is the product of a confident developer; one which knows what it's good at, but evidently giddy with the chance to try out different things.
In common with its previous efforts, it's a game that understands the power of maximum cinematic intensity, but also knows when to turn the dial down and bring in the kind of cloying on-the-edge tension more readily associated with Ghost Recon or even that lost classic Hidden & Dangerous. As a consequence, it's by far the most well rounded Call of Duty game, with an exciting yet coherent blend of gameplay styles.
In common with most modern day war games, Call of Duty 4 picks at the scab of the West's ongoing insecurities for an excuse to shoot an awful lot of people in the face. Deranged 'Ultranationalist' Russian hatches evil plan to destroy FREEDOM? Check. Access to an illicit nuclear arsenal? Check. Based in the lawless Middle East? Check. A sympathetic, faceless nationalist army ready to do his bidding for no logical reason? Check. Dozens of nuclear weapons heading for the East Coast of the United States unless you don't do something to stop the 'Four Horsemen' of this demented apocalypse? Check.
Although, once again, told through the eyes of the Americans and the Brits, the interwoven storyline builds a greater sense of character (and therefore purpose) than many war games manage.
As you might expect, the dismantling of entrenched terrorist cells with evil plans of mass destruction requires a) very best soldiers and b) lots of high powered weaponry. So, from the Brit side you'll follow the events of the hilariously gobby British 22nd SAS Regiment, as well as various "Ooorah"-spouting personnel in the United States Marine Corps 1st Force Recon. None of that is especially important once you're embroiled in the nuances of each mission, but as a means of framing each mission in presentational terms, it's quite engaging, even light-hearted at the most unexpected moments. And, for once, the Brits don't have cut glass accents, favouring the more comedic potential of the kind of propa' geezers you're likely to get the wrong side of if you spill their pint.
If previous Call of Duty games could be criticised for anything it was their tendency to start off amazingly well, and then settle into a continuously intense but monotone groove for the most part. And while Modern Warfare does indeed have the obligatory stunning opening level (in this case set on board a ship), the level of consistency throughout all three 'acts' is nothing short of staggering. Rather than merely breaking up the action with the old on-rails fallback, there are all manner of intriguing scenarios to deal with, from spectacular flybys, manic car-chase set-pieces, and tense sniper-based stealth, to fighting all-or-nothing battles against the clock. Infinity Ward has long been admired for its cinematic action, but Modern Warfare takes it far further in that direction - for the good, in my opinion. Very little of the game feels tacked on in the name of variety, and for that you have to hand it to them.
Penning the script
For the most part, of course, you won't be able to ignore some of the bits that don't quite work - such as the fact that your squad is clearly indestructible for the sake of the story. You'll also quickly notice that your basic role in the game is to pick off a certain amount of respawning enemies so that the tightly scripted action can move forwards. Down tools, and your usually reliable team mates will simply ignore certain key targets until you nail them - so you can't just rely on their efforts to get you through.
But while the core combat remains largely within the same framework of where it has always been, you'll notice certain AI improvements, such as a tendency for your AI buddies to take up cover far more convincingly than before, along with other nice touches, such as the way they'll react intelligently to dangerous situations. They won't just stand there gormless while a grenade goes off in their face, for example, but will flee and take up better cover, or - better still - lob it back at the disbelieving enemy. Other little things help make it a better spectacle, like the slick way they'll move to one side if you decide you want a cover point - nothing essentially game changing, but nice little tweaks that you'll appreciate.
Technically, things have moved on a bundle, too, with some wonderful levels (the deserted, depressing depiction of Chernobyl a particular highlight) and a great deal of environmental variety helping to make it an enjoyable game to play through. As you might expect, Modern Warfare has a bullet point list of fancy dynamic lighting effects, real world shadows, depth of field, yadda, yadda, but as boring as these things sound, the game looks absolutely lovely. Admittedly, certain things don't look that great close up (such as vegetation), and you have to say that the geometry's stubborn resistance to damage is a touch old school, but in terms of atmospheric effects it deserves nothing but high praise. As ever, the particle effects are staggering, with some of the best smoke and explosions ever seen in a game, and aligned with superb lighting, excellent attention to detail and convincing, fluid character models, Infinity Ward has built on everything it was already renowned for.