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.
As usual, the audio doesn't disappoint, either, with a typically grandiose Harry Gregson-Williams score, roaring gun effects, massive explosions and a wonderful use of surround effects. If you've got the gear, this is one game you'll want to crank up the volume to - just make sure the neighbours are out. A special mention to the voice casting, too - with some of the most memorable character acting in a war game to date, and allied to that, the excellent between-mission briefing sequences add a touch of modern style to an already slick looking game.
In terms of how the game actually feels, Modern Warfare deserves a special mention for the ever-useful aim-assist system, which adds a level of intuitiveness to pad-based targeting. By simply tapping the left trigger near an enemy, it effectively 'snaps' the reticule to them, meaning you can instantly see an enemy, and basically juggle the two triggers, auto aiming with one, and firing short bursts with the other - allowing you to 'shoot from the hip' far more effectively. If such cheating devices offend you, there is the option to turn it off, so don't worry. Alternatively, just aim down the barrel by holding down the left trigger, but in the white heat of some of the game's insanity, that's not always an option. Overall, the controls feel spot on.
Elsewhere, there are a few minor niggles to note - certainly checkpointing is a bit of a black art in Modern Warfare - with the game mostly very efficient at storing regular progress, but then failing when you need it most. For example, in time sensitive missions, it has a hugely frustrating tendency to go AWOL, often kicking in only after you've failed a large number of times. Whether this is a deliberate design decision it's not clear, but it's not helpful to have something so fundamental taken away when you need it most. Another little moan is the way tracer fire appears to penetrate solid material yet causes you no damage - confusing to say the least, as you don't every really seem to be able to tell what is dangerous and what is just friendly fire. As much as it's cool to be able to penetrate objects that were previously deemed as cover, it does throw up a few odd technical hitches that look odd to say the least. Also, is the ability to take endless amounts of damage to your body and recover every time really the best way to handle health? We really are nitpicking now. Moving on.
Gamerscore whores need not apply
In terms of its long-term appeal, there are a number of things that make Modern Warfare stand-out. For a start, the majority of the Achievement points only come from playing it at Veteran level, while finishing the main campaign unlocks a score-based Arcade mode that has its own leaderboard. And, of course, the expansive, experience-based multiplayer mode (up to 4 players split-screen, 18 players online or up to 24 via System Link) is certain to be a huge draw for many - especially in the light of an already successful beta and how strong previous iterations were. Needless to say, with the game not even on the shelves at the time of writing, it hasn't been possible to put it through its paces in any meaningful sense, so we'll aim to report back on this side of the game early next week when we've had a chance to play it with, you know, actual human beings.
In the meantime, you can expect a vast array of game modes (Free For All, Team Deathmatch, Team Objective, Team Tactical, Search and Destroy, Headquarters, Domination, Sabotage, Team Hardcore, Old School, Oldcore, and Ground War) to suit all tastes. The game will offer five preset classes (Assault, Special Ops, Light Machine Gunner, Demolitions and Sniper) with the lure of a Create-A-Class option once you've ranked up a touch - but much more about all of that next week.
For now, all you really need to know is this a huge return to form for the Call of Duty series, and for war-based FPS titles in general. Even without the vastly impressive multiplayer elements, Modern Warfare would be worth buying for its outstanding single-player campaign. It succeeds not only for being consistently spectacular, but for the way it has been crafted into something that keeps you engaged right to the very end.
9 / 10