In recent years, it's become in vogue to cover games using terms closely associated with the world of film. Still, the comparison doesn’t always sit as neatly as a pressed shirt. The differences are apparent on even a cursory examination. The chief difference is that it is often difficult to strike an emotional cord, to wow a player with more than the colors and textures of a virtual explosion. As critics are found of saying, videogames are all about violence, while films present the opportunity for something more. So imagine my surprise when a shooter, littered with gunfire and explosions, hit my 360 packing more dramatic moments than a lot of Hollywood’s darlings. Suddenly, the comparisons seem a bit more valid. Developer Infinity Ward’s latest title Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, is proof positive of the validity of a cinematic experience in your hands. It is one of those rare titles that's more than the sum of its parts.
COD4 will take your breath away in more ways than one. Like many AAA titles that hit consoles at the end of 2007, the visuals are not just gorgeous, but at times become truly astounding. It hits all the right notes of the FPS genre, providing seriously intense, gut retching action. In a flashback mission, you take control of a sniper deep behind enemy lines with no one to rely on but the words and wisdom of your commanding officer. The pacing of this level is amazing as it begins as a cold and calculating sniper mission, but ends in a guns-blazing battle for your life. It's made me long for an Infinity Ward developed sniper title.
Even with all the gleeful action chiseled down to pure shooter perfection, what'll really suck the air out of your lungs are the grand story moments. From the horror of the first person execution opening to the heroism and sacrifice of the bittersweet ending, there are plenty of moments that stick with you long after the end credits roll. An awesome headshot or a great grenade throw will fade from memory, but the intensity of these story moments will remain. Such moments aren’t always driven by the fidelity of the graphics either. One of the most tense and satisfying missions takes place on an AC130 gunship, in stark contrast to the high definition graphics of all the other missions. Providing cover for advancing troops, you man the guns wiping out tiny white tangos to clear an escape route for the men below. It’s straight out of CNN and every war video you’ve seen taken from aircraft far above the Earth. It is both immensely cool and eerily realistic all at once. It will not soon be forgotten.
The execution isn’t quite flawless though, because with such a guided, directed experience it’s easy to shatter the illusion. For instance, there are many times when flanking your enemy is instinctual, but simply cannot be done. The level design is such that you are funneled in a particular direction, with your movements and view guided. With this tight level design pushing you forward in a predetermined direction, there are some serious chokepoints in many levels. As a veteran FPS gamer, I can handle some tough gunfights, but there are far too many points of infinite enemy respawns that won't stop until you pass some invisible wall in the environment. Nothing takes you out of the moment more than gunning down enemies that keep running to take the same post, particularly if you prefer to sit back and take out your foes from afar.
The levels and gameplay are fairly varied, so boredom won’t be a factor. Of course, if you’ve already taken down all the terrorists you can stomach, there is plenty of multiplayer action to partake in, with plenty of options to go along with it. This is hands down the most robust console multiplayer experience this side of Halo 3. It features a persistent character level progression, and the more levels you gain, the more perks, weapons and equipment you unlock. The perks are particularly interesting, as they can give your character a wide range of varying abilities from supplying you with more health to increasing weapon damage. Mixing and matching these abilities to fit your unique playing style adds some real depth to the multiplayer experience.
Getting yourself on the killing streak without dying can help even the balance by providing some devastating temporary abilities. Three kills will only net you a UAV, giving you some temporary radar but longer streaks significantly up the ante. Reach five kills and you’ll be able to call in an air strike, and manage to hit seven and you can call in an attack helicopter to rip your foes to shreds.
While it might not have the emotional resonance of the single player campaign, the multiplayer has the potential for more sheer thrills and the depth to last for the long haul. There’s a reason it's defeated Halo for the top spot on the Live charts. It's simply that good.