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Enjoyable, but the formula is getting a little stale.
on April 9, 2009
Way back in the day, I was a fan of the Medal of Honour series of games, particularly the Allied Assault series. Back in 2002 this was cutting-edge stuff, with its depiction of the D-Day landings and its mix of realism with solid gameplay. There were limits to what the game could do, however. Due to engine and technical limitations, it wasn't possible to create 'open' levels, so the player was carefully herded where the designers wanted him to go, giving rise to an odd situation where American soldiers fighting across an open field would find their route determined by impassable wire fences. But this was a minor complaint in 2002 given the quality of the visuals and the intensity of the action.
Some of the Allied Assault team broke off in 2002 to form a new company, Infinity Ward, specifically to address issues like this and ramp up the intensity of the war simulation experience. In late 2003 they launched their own take on the concept, Call of Duty, which went on to eclipse its forebear in critical acclaim. Call of Duty 2 carried on this fine tradition. However, both games still felt limited. CoD2 improved things by sometimes allowing a choice of several different paths to an objective, but there was still none of the freedom being offered that would really benefit the game, and the ingredients were feeling a little stale.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare seeks to update the experience by switching to a near-future setting depicting a Middle-Eastern warlord and a mental Russian agent teaming up to launch a nuclear attack on the United States and 'reclaim' both their countries for Team Crazy. The typically intense CoD combat experience is once again on offer here, and it has to be said that when they are on form, Infinity Ward can't be beaten for offering combat experiences which offer a solid approximation of the chaos of real combat (or so I'm informed by people I know in the army). The problem is that Infinity Ward are so focused on recreating that feeling of insane carnage that they sacrifice a lot of other elements, leading to frustrating gameplay.
I mentioned earlier that in 2002 it simply wasn't possible to have an open gameworld with multiple paths to an objective and also maintain a high visual quality. These days this isn't even remotely an issue any more, as Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, a game with superior graphics to CoD4, demonstrated, giving you the run of the streets of Mexico City and allowing you your own choice of tactics, approaches, use of cover and weapons and the calling in of support as needed. In CoD4 suddenly being stuck in a closely-regulated 'on a rails' shooter is annoying and frustrating. Engaged in a close-quarters alley gun battle, I hit upon the idea of using a side-alley to flank the enemy, only to be met by a wall of impassable tyres. Great.
Worse was to come, however. The game encourages you to keep up the advance whenever possible, presumably because of the creators' desire to focus on intense combat. This results in slightly ridiculous situations where your entire team is exchanging fire with enemy forces on the other side of a courtyard. In any sane military in the world, you would clear the area of all visible opponents and then move in and mop up the survivors. You can't do that in CoD4 as the enemy's ranks are constantly replenished. You can't actually make a dent in the enemy numbers until you move forward to the next objective. Yup, this military simulator game basically demands that you charge into enemy gunfire and engage them at pointblank range. The uses of cover and making the most of range and numbers, among the most basic concepts of modern warfare, are actually discouraged.
On the plus side, this is a slickly-produced game, with great music, impressive graphics and instinctive controls. Mission briefings are nicely-realised and make full use of satellite maps. The in-game banter is sometimes funny, although it doesn't stray far from the usual macho cliches. The designers are also clearly enormous fans of Aliens, employing music that is very similar to Horner's score for that movie, naming at least one character after an Aliens one and quoting dialogue from the movie several times. It's also good to see the Brits and Russians get a look-in as well as the Americans (although you only get to control the British SAS platoon and an American Marine Corps contingent, not the Russian loyalist forces). There's also a great but all-too-brief level where you get to play the gunner on a Lockheed AC-130 gunship.
The game's highlight is an unexpected flashback mission which takes place in Chernobyl, with just you and another sniper having to sneak past the heavily fortified perimeter in order to assassinate an enemy dignitary. This a very tense, well-designed mission depicting the ruined city in a very atmospheric manner, culminating in an absolutely insane stand-off with half the Russian army where, for once, the enemy's vast numbers actually made sense. And whilst I normally don't rate multiplayer as part of a single-player game (since, as studies continuously show, three-quarters or more of gamers usually never take their games online, unless it's an online-only game, of course), the multiplayer action in CoD4 is solid, since it generally does feature more open levels and of course doesn't have infinite waves of enemy forces.
Call of Duty 4 (***) is a decent, if extremely short (which cost it half a star) action FPS, but I think Infinity Ward really need to reassess what they are trying to do with this series. Continuing to sell it as a warfare simulator when they won't encourage or even allow the use of real military tactics is disingenuous, and the series is now being overtaken and leap-frogged by other games that work much better. As it stands, the series is in danger of becoming stale and predictable.