Nov 5, 2007
[Editor's Note, Nov 9, 2007: We've changed this game's score from the original 9 up to a 10. The reason is simple: the more we play the game, especially against real people online, the more we grow to love it and the less we mind its few faults. It's still not perfect or even particularly evolved from the first three CoD games, but it's nonetheless one of the most finely-tuned, expertly crafted games we've ever played, and we would be wrong not to give it our highest recommendation.]
It’s funny how much has stayed the same from the WWII-based CoDs, given how much real war has changed in the last 60 years. With Modern Warfare, as usual, you spend most of your time ducking behind crates, barrels and pillars while shots thwack into the scenery around you, your CO screams orders and the grenade icon pops up to inform you that your cover is about to be covered in Soap. Your name is Soap, by the way, except when it’s Jackson.
Jackson is a US Marine, and Soap is a British SAS soldier under the command of the exuberantly mustachioed Captain Price, who is inexplicably alive, the same age and the same rank as he was 60 years earlier in the first two CoD games.
Working for a hairy old man slightly spoils the cool-factor of your new high-tech equipment: flashbangs, nightvision and silencers. But these things do mark CoD4 as a stealthier, more predatory game. You’re usually in control of the situation, rather than drowning in the chaos, and that feels good. Even better when you hit the melee button: instead of inelegantly bonking foes with your gun, you now draw a knife, lunge forward and fatally stab them in one swift, quiet stroke.
The climax is an extraordinary pair of missions playing as a sniper in Chernobyl, under the careful instruction of Scot-in-a-bush Captain MacMillan. You’re both wearing ghillie suits, you see - camouflage that essentially involves gluing a shrubbery to your head. This enables the two of you to race through an incredible sort of extreme-stealth assault course, dashing and ducking thrillingly close to ridiculous numbers of heavily armed hostiles without being detected. Lying in the tall grass and watching as a few men, then a squadron, then an army with tanks crest the hill towards you and nearly step on your fingers - it’s just magnificent.
But between these there’s still an awful lot of popping out from behind a crate to shoot someone when they pop out from behind theirs. It’s a fine mechanic, but the game sometimes rubs your face in its staged nature. Since you’re unable to open even unlocked doors, you’re always waiting for your AI comrades to let you progress. That’s silly enough in itself, but sometimes the only way to make them do this is to “clear” an area - keep killing enemies until new ones stop replacing them. Other times there’s a never-ending stream, and the only way to progress is to sprint past them to some invisible trigger that tells the AI you’re done here. Trying to work out which the game wants forces you to think of it in these artificial terms, and breaks the immersion.
If you don’t much care about plot or context - and that’s a perfectly valid mindset - CoD4 is a thrilling and dramatic ride. Every other mission features a magnificent setpiece or iconic sight: a fleet of helicopters cruising in over the coast of "the Middle East"; a lattice of infra-red beams cutting up the green sky when you flick your nightvision on in a city skirmish; and the bloody sniper massacre beneath the rusting Ferris wheel at Pripyat - firmly CoD4’s Pegasus Bridge moment.