Tuesday 7 February 2012

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

I can churn these out faster when there's less to talk about.

Hey it's 2007 smash hit Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The stuff dreams are made of... if you have really low aspirations in life. You've collectively given Activision billions in exchange for this one, so how does it fare just a few years down the line?

Well I'd answer that question, but first, I'm off to my local GP, because I am clearly unwell. You see, I don't like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and according to the wider gaming public, that qualifies as some sort of health defect that needs urgent attention. Can't have people forming their own opinions - they need to be rented from big publishers these days.

I've been trekking through the land of Xbox 360 "classics" for over a year and a half now, trying to get my bearings on the side of the video game industry I've neglected for half a decade. The results are becoming increasingly clear - few of these top-rated, best-selling games are ever quite as good as my neighbour three doors down said they were. Now that either means he's wrong (spoilers: he is), or I'm wrong, but I don't think something so highly rated is supposed to cause this type of split in opinion. Something is definitely amiss.

Call of Duty 4 was a game tipped to astound me. I ventured from my CoD-free life into Call of Duty 3 not too long ago and found myself unexpectedly entertained despite its flaws. But CoD3 isn't a pure-bred - it wasn't developed by Infinity Ward like the rest of the series, and was more like a console experiment than something set for greatness. My impression is that perhaps Call of Duty 3 wouldn't need to exist if CoD2 wasn't considered "old" by 2006, so it's likely the runt of the litter, even if it still became a tasty pig in the end.

It's not fair to pan the entirety of Call of Duty 4, but it's it's a perfectly reasonable stance to say that it's not as good as CoD3 (and because CoD2 is apparently better than CoD3, and Modern Warfares 2 and 3 are supposedly worse than CoD4, we're on a steady state of decline). Aside from more variety in its scenery, I'm unable to point out any features which justify Call of Duty 4's higher review scores, other than... perhaps, "not being set in World War II". Though I certainly wouldn't align myself with the camp which says the game is flat-out awful, I just don't see the magic others have apparently witnessed.

If you were to tally all the improvements Call of Duty 4 makes over its predecessor, the list would be remarkably short. One of the perks I noticed is a lack of floating corpses, so I suppose that suggests CoD4's highlights simply include fewer bugs in the engine. Others might say CoD4 actually falls backwards due to a lack of vehicle sections, a staple in mainstream FPS games since 2003. I'm not sure if I care about that feature, but it's certainly odd that it's missing.

Personally I think CoD4 is PR-driven - designed by a committee at Activision, rather than by talented developers who know what they're doing. It's little surprise Infinity Ward were ready to jump ship half way through Modern Warfare 3's development - CoD4 (and its sequels) only seem to exist to make easy money. This one lacks the heart and soul you might find in its predecessors - it doesn't seem as if anyone had fun producing it and it's a feeling that seeps through the cracks throughout the experience.

I think Infinity Ward were starting to become tired of Call of Duty by the fourth iteration. The surprise success of this one likely spurred them on to create a few more, but it's clear they were running out of ideas, hence likely why we're not in World War II anymore. It's perhaps better not to treat this as a sequel, as the only thing it has in common with its predecessors is a similar game engine. As it deals with "modern warfare" nobody is actually being "called" for "duty" in this one - fighting in the world's armed services is a completely optional choice these days - the call doesn't really have to be answered.

Of course, if you wanted to be pedantic, you could argue that the game isn't particularly "modern" either. The middle east seems perfectly happy to liberate itself from state oppression these days - the time of illegal American (and British) intervention is over (Iraq was so 2004!). But even if you're to argue the game pre-dates Arab Springs, the majority of the story is based on a feud with crazy Russian militants, so it's essentially a Cold War fantasy - a conflict which was finished when I left the womb more than two decades ago.

And if you wanted to go the whole mile, you could argue that it's not so much a "war" as it is an "extended operation" of sorts - the majority of the time takes place under cover and in discrete. I can only imagine it's part of the "war on terror", except as the latter half of the game is kept secret from the general public, I'm not sure who was "terrified". One mission actually takes place fifteen years in the past before the battle had begun, so nuts to that subtitle I suppose.

The story of Call of Duty 4 is said to be a fantastic piece of writing realised in video game form, but I can't say I agree. With the exception of where they placed the nuclear bomb, I found the whole thing fairly predictable. The Americans being culled in favour of the British is neat, but not quite as neat as say, playing as the Iranians, or the Azerbaijanis, or even the Russians, all of whom are painted as the enemy in this one just because they're "different". It's not a particularly "modern" way of thinking and I'm fairly sure the basic plot has been done many times before.

Of course, it's worth noting that just like its predecessor, CoD4 is a little too scared to actually explain the conflict in significant detail, so I suppose it's not something to take seriously. Never does it specify an exact country in the millions of square miles the "MIDDLE EAST" region covers. You need to know your geography to realise it is indeed Iran where you're fighting (controversial!), and my ignorance of the region means even I'm not completely confident where the borders lie. You go after a man called "Al-Assad" who ends up being a pawn for crazy Russian terrorists with nuclear weapons. Eerily similar to the developments in Syria at the time of writing, though we haven't found secret uranium plants in Damascus yet.

Call of Duty 4, like other games in the series, follows a variety of people, including an American who dies and a British chap called "Soap". The former has you literally go through the game shooting anyone with a turban before cheering as you bomb their homes, while the latter takes a behind-the-scenes approach like a poor man's James Bond. If I'm honest, it feels as if CoD4 was always intended to follow this British crew, but I suppose there's only so many missions you can set in western Russia before people realise it's not so up-to-date after all.

Though you never see a Polish tank division, at one point you're forced to man a turret attached to a plane, flattening entire towns in the hopes of fighting evil. And of course there's the mission I already outlined in which you crawl around in the dirt of 1992 avoiding... "radiation". Some of this is clever from a technical standpoint, but generally it's all fairly disposable and has little bearing on the overall plot. But nice to get acquainted with other tasteless characters I suppose.

CoD4 is best split in two, because that way I can say the game is reasonably fun. Unfortunately a decision was made to litter the horrible parts in the first half of the game - a loud, tedious and confusing experience where you run across desert towns getting to grips with all the stupid features that will cause you to die. Cars explode! Watch out for grenades! Flashbangs! That guy's an enemy, didn't you know!?

Thankfully the second half is a bit more forgiving, and more in-line with Call of Duty 3. Crossing abandoned villages in the afternoon and shooting people in the head, just like old times. The two halves are split by a "shocking" nuclear explosion which wipes out millions of people, including one of the two lead characters, but not before he pointlessly staggers out of his crashed plane in a dramatic and soul-searching death scene. I found it hilarious, personally. I'd been calling for them all to die from the minute I started and was pleasantly surprised to see the game take on board my advice.

It's really difficult to care for the main cast of characters. The Americans are trigger happy idiots who frankly deserve to die, whereas the British are all monotone cockneys who are complacent in torture. It paints neither country in a good light and as a result, I sided with the terrorists for a good chunk of the game, trying to put a bullet through the head of Captain bloody Price and his good friend "Gaz". Sadly one of the new features of CoD4 is a system that attempts to stop your gun from firing if a friendly is in the way - thanks for that.

It was only when the focus shifted to even more tedious Russian gangsters that I finally switched to Soap's team. Captain Price might like to demonstrate his marvellous skills in blocking doors, but I felt this was better than tired cliches and dodgy accents. I also admire the pun in which "Soap" cleans up the situation. That sort of game design reminds me of myself.

In true Call of Duty fashion half of the time I couldn't distinguish between sides, so friendly fire is a common occurrence regardless of your views on Mr. Price's facial hair. The AI doesn't appear to have improved since the last game, and you're still tasked with shooting the same three enemy models across a dozen levels. It's identical to Call of Duty 3 bar a few minor changes here and there that you could likely live without, but on the plus side, you're not just confined to France this time. The experience is far more polished, but I'd be lying if I said the budget was used wisely. After all, they paid one of their voice actors to rap about the game and its developers at the end. We needed that!

What I mainly dislike about Call of Duty 4 is that much of the entertainment value is lost in its quest for "realism". The special effects are intrusive, literally blinding your vision and causing you to take the campaign incredibly slowly. I want to be the empowered super-human capable of taking on a dozen computer drones at once - duck and cover was never really my thing regardless of whether that's how its done in the real military. I don't want to work as a "team" - none of these people are pleasant and were they not restricted by checkpoints, they would quite happily complete the game for you. It's the wrong way to go about things - war on its own isn't fun, and it's up to the video game developers to bend the rules to make it so.

The music is forgettable. Regardless of how many awards it may have won, or the million-piece orchestras used to construct it, I do not remember any of the tunes in CoD4, which merely leads me to believe they weren't very good. Characters still blurt out stupid things but it's a bit nicer on the ears this time - can't understand why everyone says "LZ" instead of "landing zone" and I certainly don't approve of America's views on floor plans, but whatever - it's passable, let's move on.

Likewise there are marginal improvements to the graphics but nothing that sets CoD4 apart from the rest. It neither pushes the hardware to its limits nor neglects standards - it's just acceptable, nothing more. The artists did their job, and though it is undoubtedly better looking than Call of Duty 3, it seems about on-par with other games of this nature. Rez is a work of art because it still looks fantastic ten years down the line - CoD4 looked dated by the time its sequel rolled out. It was never a battle it was likely to win.

And this is the thing about Call of Duty 4 - the whole game is "acceptable". It's playable and can entertain,  mostly achieves what it set out to do and is very much a Call of Duty game set in the late 1980s. But it's not revolutionary. It's not extraordinary. It doesn't bend the fabric of space and time - it's just a slightly above average shooter with a large fanbase. There are few reasons not to buy a copy, but even fewer to justify it being the second coming of Christ. My theory is that a lot of the acclaim hangs on multiplayer, but crawling around in your local sewage system is probably more fun with friends.

At the end of the day, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare can't be classed as a bad game, but I'd be reluctant to say it was a fantastic one either. I imagine there are gems in the Call of Duty series, but I don't think CoD4 is one of them. I'd say pick up CoD3, though you might have more luck listening to someone who has been exposed to more than two Call of Duty games.

1 comment:

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RiR-E-9Om6I&feature=plcp