canuckeh's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Xbox 360) review

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The city of Warsville.

The 18-35 male is a valuable commodity. They have the kind of money that allows them to afford $500 consoles, and thus makes them the hot target for developers. They work part time jobs at your local supermarket and are usually in some form of debt in spite of their spending habits. In their free time, they enjoy multiple energy drinks, weed to ease the energy drink buzz, and UFC because there are fewer highs more sweet than a good ground and pound. And their hero? The soldier. The partially unknown soldier, in the sense that he doesn’t need an identity. The military man that goes into the line of duty and shoots terrorists, Russians and all things Un-American. Odds are, the natural habitat of the 18-35 male will have some kind of camouflage decal and some Todd McFarlane soldier action figures next to their Scarface or Bruce Lee poster. They love the name “Tom Clancy” not for his espionage thriller novels but his games about systematically gunning down the ethnic threat of the month.

So I bought Call of Duty 4 from a fellow 18-35 male recently. A game who’s very cover art features the unknown soldier. I’ve played the game when it first came out, back when Game Informer’s claim of this being “The most photo-realistic video game we’ve ever seen” actually belonged on the back of the box. The game was great back in November of 2007, but times change, and in particular the first person shooter genre, where a new, bigger and shinier entrant enters the gaming arena almost every month. So the test here will be if Modern Warfare 1 has longevity, if the game can hold against the rising demands of the 18-35 year old males that write for game websites. Like me.

The Modern Warfare universe is some kind of dreamland for people that think wars are cool; is in a civil war and an evil dictator has turned a Middle Eastern country into some kind of paradise for sociopaths. The introductory credits involve a lengthy cutscene where you drive along Warsville watching terrorists kill innocents, enemies and probably other terrorists along the way. Throughout the game, you’ll find bunches of nukes and Americans and Brits coming to the rescue, but the surprise here is how well-executed the story is done.

There’s no Master Chiefs or military supermen that parade across the countryside laughing about their kill counts. There’s an aura of  believability to the characters; one sequence that amused me was a mission where I was in an aircraft carrier and one pilot asked the other for clarification on what he meant by “a curved road”; it made me feel like I was surrounded by normal people in what could be an actual combat situation. At the same time, the game takes some surprising twists and turns, elevating itself above the usual “Great Americans killing foreigners” plotline that these games lean towards and into an intriguing thriller that could only work in a video game.

It also helps that the trademark famous people “war is bad (or at least ironic)” quotes that appeared when you die in previous CODs (the CODs tactfully made by Infinity Ward, anyways) return here to mock the 18-35 males who consider war to be glamorous. 

On the surface, Call of Duty 4 plays like X number of shooters. You go from one point in a level to another and you kill a lot of bad people along the way. The gameplay is as refined as a realistic shooter should be; iron sight aiming and covering your back are key to survival, and enemies will be quick to capitalize and send you face down into the ground and a war-is-bad Robert McNamara quote if you’re not evading the line of fire.  Unlike the recent Call of Duty: World at War, the game never feels like you’re simply fighting wave after wave of respawning enemy, rather there’s a logical sense of progression, of constantly pushing further into enemy territory. Not to mention the trademark Call of Duty “you are one man in a larger army, in the middle of hell” atmosphere is ever present. Your allies will be perfectly content to kill off the enemies (but depend on you to advance in the level). 

But really, the strongest aspect of Call of Duty 4 is just how incredibly varied each level is. It’s as if the game consistently thinks of new and unique scenarios for each mission.  Most shooters are content to mix up the action with frequent gun turret or flame thrower sequences (cheers to you, World At War, as I spit in your glass), killing the novelty of the respective gimmick. Here, certain sequences appear once and thus make their appearance level memorable. One moment you’re using night vision goggles while staring at dozens of laser-sights from your allies, the next you’re dressed in foliage and crawling through the bushes while enemy tanks drive by your prone avatar. Each mission stays in your memory and, when placed in a greater whole that is Call of Duty 4, makes the combined experience a stronger one. Really, I can’t think of another first person shooter where I’ve looked back on every single mission so fondly.

Well, except for the bonus “airplane VIP” mission that appears after the end credits. Some kind of explanation behind this mission would be a bit appreciated.  

The game is only about 5 hours long, but you’ll want to play through it again and again, on harder difficulties where your survival skills become crucial and you’ll become quite acquainted with those war liners.

I’m a bit less partial to the multiplayer, however. The core mechanics are sound; that each character has limited health gives deathmatches more of a cat-and-mouse feel than the superheroic-like combatants of the Haloverse. However, I hate perk-based multiplayer, and this is the game that started such a trend.

I know there’s an audience of 18-35 males that love the hell out of perk-based multiplayer, and clearly a big one too since this is still one of the most popular multiplayer games on Xbox Live. But I don’t like online shooters enough to want to play the same modes repeatedly in order to unlock content. I can’t give you an assessment of how the other online modes besides deathmatch play because I couldn’t be made to clock in the amount of time necessary to unlock them. Worse, the better weapons and character attributes only open up to higher classes, giving 18-35 males who pull all-nighters along with their can of Mountain Dew (who are already better than me at this kind of game) a bit of an unfair advantage.

Call me a girly man if you want for not being willing to cope with the “big boys.” I’ll simply say that the online function is just “not for me.” These perk-based modes are meant for the kind of 18-35 male who’s willing to play deathmatches all weekend at their dorm between Youtubed episodes of Robot Chicken.

But for me, it’s the campaign that makes Call of Duty 4 special. I have yet to play any other shooter, including the last actual Call of Duty game, that has such a well-constructed, varied and entertaining single-player mode, and its surprising that so many shooters that have since been released (as I glare straight into the red eyes of the armoured soldier on the Killzone 2 box) that captures the very same essence. And good luck to Infinity Ward, because I have no idea how they can possibly top this act with a sequel.

4 ½ stars.

I am indeed part of this demographic.

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