a review of Call Of Duty 4
a videogame developed by infinity ward
and published by activision
for Microsoft Windows, the macintosh operating system x, the microsoft xbox 360, the nintendo wii and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by tim rogers
If you imagine for a moment that all of the emails I got last year asking me the eternal question “Why don’t you have cancer?” didn’t exist, and then you also pretended that the overwhelming majority of emails asking me why I haven’t reviewed BioShock yet, when I’m going to review BioShock, or if there’s some reason I am blatantly ignoring BioShock also didn’t exist, that would leave me with a healthy stack of emails asking me when I was going to review Call of Duty 4, how much I loved Call of Duty 4, or if I was going to call Call of Duty 4 the “best game ever” or not. Well, to answer those three questions:
1. Right now!
2. A lot!
If you were to imagine for a moment that all the emails I got last week asking me the eternal question “Why don’t you have cancer?” didn’t exist, that would leave you with an overwhelming majority of emails asking me “Why don’t you die?”, and if you were to imagine that those emails didn’t exist, you’d have a pretty significant number of emails asking me “If BioShock isn’t a great game, what is?” To answer those two questions:
1. Let me ask my secretary!
2. Call of Duty 4!
The truth is, I didn’t really feel like reviewing Call of Duty 4 because it’s kind of too good. Also, because I wasn’t sure what the name of the game is — that “4” there is definitely raised. It is definitely an exponent. Am I supposed to call the game “Call of Duty To The Fourth Power”? How many powers do we have to put on our duty before it’s patriotic enough for Joe Sixpack and Jennifer Twoliter to enjoy on Memorial Day?
Anyway, the short version of this review is that I liked the game a lot, as much as I probably can like a game — even if I might never play it again.
The long version is this:
Unlike BioShock, Call of Duty 4 has everything: seamless atmosphere, a compelling narrative, focused play mechanics, and moments of actual cathartic power that take advantage of the whole package. More than just a crotch massage plugged into a television set, Call of Duty 4 boldly toes the bizarrely forbidden line between “videogame” and “entertainment”. It’s made by people who get it so ferociously that they might not even know that there’s an “it” they’re getting. It’s hard, it’s fast, it’s lean, it’s learned, and it’s a dynamo. Developers of big-budget action-adventure games: please, if you have any common sense, this is the one you’re supposed to study. It’s the first game of the rest of our lives.
I can’t say I’ve been the biggest fan of the series. Or even the smallest one, or even the most medium-sized one. I first encountered Call of Duty 4 at a demo station at Tokyo Game Show 2007, where my brother Brandon Sheffield (of Gamasutra) played through the first mission under the enthusiastic guidance of an Activision / Infinity Ward representative. The guy was telling us how it was: you’re infiltrating a tanker, trying to get some enemy intel. You have to kill the crew, get the intel, get out, and get on your chopper. See this, now? The ship is sinking. Look at the water effects. Notice how the boat is tipping. Brandon handled it all with grace; I guess, since his magazine and website carry advertisements, occasionally rely on videogame developers to write features, and are genuinely in the habit of being as polite as possible to as many people as possible at all times, he was used to having people explain what was plainly visible. I guess I’m used to it, to, what with the line of work I’m in (let’s not even get into it), though maybe I would have minded it a whole lot less had I been actually playing. From what I could tell, the action on the screen looked distinctly, nonchalantly amazing: here we were, invading a tanker on the ocean, and outside the immediate scope of soldiers with guns versus soldiers with guns, things were happening: the ship was sinking, and it looked like the ship was sinking. We here at Action Button Dot Net are people of refined tastes: we go whole days, sometimes, listening only to The Stone Roses’ song “Breaking Into Heaven” on loop for twenty-four straight hours. I don’t need anyone telling me that something that is stuff-hot is stuff-hot, though I guess if the Activision guy had just been repeatedly saying “This Game Is Shit Hot” in a text-to-speech voice for the duration of the play session, I would have purchased the game and reviewed it immediately, just to compliment their amazing PR.
When I eventually played the game, it was after the fact; it was after every fact. Here’s what I knew, before I started playing Call of Duty 4:
1. Call of Duty and Medal of Honor are not related;
2. The previous Call of Duty games were all about World War II;
3. The first two Call of Duty games were developed by Infinity Ward;
4. The third Call of Duty game was not developed by Infinity Ward;
5. The fourth Call of Duty game was developed by Infinity Ward again;
6. The fourth Call of Duty game is not about World War II; it is set in modern times;
7. According to Wikipedia, “The Call of Duty Real-time Card Game was announced by card manufacturer Upper Deck”;
8. I’m pretty sure any card game is actually played in real-time;
9. I could be mistaken, because maybe the concept of time isn’t exactly “real” for people who spend their time playing collectible card games.
I very highly respect the idea of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, then, because Call of Duty is obviously a “strong enough” “intellectual property” to have a Real-time Card Game based on it, and messing with the formula (“the formula” being “World War II”) is a pretty bold move in this dead-horse-throttling industry we live in. Furthermore, I guess you could say my interest was piqued because World War II games have always managed to amazingly bore me. I don’t really get why: I find World War II a fascinating subject. Now that I think about it, I’ve never actually read a book about World War II on purpose, nor have I ever watched a movie about World War II because I had to, though I’ve heard a couple of people talk about World War II, and they seem to think it’s really interesting. There was a whole lot going on. Hitler was probably the last objectively evil human being history will allow; in a way, media — like newspapers, television, movies, and (hey!) videogames — spread the message of those terrible things that happened, of how even Russia and America were able to agree on something, and team up and just about literally save the world. I guess the games don’t do anything for me because — and call this a cop-out reason if you like — their graphics aren’t good enough. We’ve had decades of film dramatizations and Spielbergizations to go on, and the games just don’t look dead convincing enough. Modern War, though, hell, why not? After seeing that scene in “Fahrenheit 9/11” where an American hickboy explains that he listens to The Bloodhound Gang’s “The Roof is on Fire” while running over Iraqis in his M-1 Abrams battle tank, because “the roof is on fire” is a “metaphor”, because “Baghdad is also kinda on fire”, I figure, heck, go ahead and make a videogame out of this, already. There are moments when the events on the screen resemble things that happen in videogames — like when the AC-130 TV operator tells you that the friendlies are carrying IR beacons, so they’re glowing, so as to help you recognize who to not shoot. It strikes me that as much as games are training our kids how to join the military and/or murder civilian hookers, games (or, uh, software user interfaces in general) are teaching the military a thing or two. There was that DARPA prototype robo-tank recently, that operated by remote-control: the remote control was an Xbox 360 controller. I guess, if Call of Duty 4 had been made after the video footage of that DARPA prototype hit the internet, they would have had a perfect excuse to incorporate an Xbox 360 controller into the game and not be prickishly self-referential about it.
Call of Duty 4 is a videogame about modern-day US Marines and British SAS, taking part in small- and large-scale armed skirmishes in either some Middle-Eastern desert city or beneath the mauve-skied dawn of some rural Russian village. There’s a plot, though who the hell knows what’s going on, really? Games shouldn’t be about “narrative”; they should be about feeling like you’re an important (or at least active) part of some kind of important event. Ninety percent of the time, you’re taking orders from a man with lamb chops; your squad mates shout about tangos and charlies and bravos and tangos; sometimes, they’ll tell you that they’ve got lookout in front of this door frame, and that you are to go in and neutralize any threats (military speak for “blast anything breathing”); sometimes they scream that you need to run. Usually, whenever the latter happens, some cataclysmic event is occurring on the screen. That’s good — games should strive to, you know, have actual stuff happening. That’s the sort of thing “professional” reviewers should be able to commend: “The stuff happening on screen was interesting, and lovingly presented”. Instead, we just get people complimenting water effects: “Just looking at the water is very soothing. It’s so real it made me thirsty. –IGN.” Look higher, people!
Very early in the game, when you’re escaping a sinking ship, the level design offers you a multitude of choices which way to run. Your team is full of experienced, hard dudes, and they know where to go. So you follow them, and you get out alive. However, the game is sure to give you the choice to go some other route, though that will promptly get you killed. In the interest of science, I’ve put a controller in the hands of various friends, and not a single one of them has escaped from the tanker on the first try. At the end, they always go the wrong way, and Dreaded White Text tells them “You went the wrong way”. And that’s it. This seemed to frustrate many of my friends to no end, though I found it chaotically intriguing. I kind of wish the game had done more of that.
For the most part, though, actually playing Call of Duty 4 is entertaining in the most tenuous way. The game’s atmosphere works as hard as it can to simply make you feel like you’re a part of these big events. You get a very strong sense that you’re fighting with a team, probably because your teammates don’t ever say ****ed things to one another, or high-five one-another, and because they actually obtain a significant amount of the kills during a firefight. And some of the gunfights are tough; tough enough to make you wonder how real soldiers put up with this stuff without, you know, dying. I guess the absolute animal fear of death has something to do with it. However, eventually, Call of Duty 4 managed to win me over, and greatly; its expertly executed atmosphere, and very focused play mechanics didn’t get tiring even as I dropped countless nickels into the slot machine of the moment on some of the more brutal gunfights. I started to respect the level design on deeper levels: usually, you’re heading toward waypoints, sometimes while being pursued by bad guys, or sometimes while avoiding lookouts. Every once in a while, all hell breaks loose and there are maybe fifteen guys on the top of a hill, which has two staircases and a couple of dirt roads leading up it. There’s no set-in-stone way to win each momentary skirmish, though “thinking on your feet” is a really good place to start. Shades of Metal Gear Solid 3 start to leak in, eventually, as the game allows you to feel for yourself when you’re doing well or phoning it in: sometimes, a fight will end without you scoring more than four or five kills; you’ll feel like stuff for having let your dudes do all the work, and then you’ll notice that two of them died. This feeling runs weirdly parallel to the arcade-like action feel of dropping nickels into the slot machine, trying wild tactics, getting shot in the head, trying something crazier next time. There you go: Call of Duty 4 effortlessly manages equal parts dramatic catharsis and arcade action.
There’s a conscientious, well-played part midway through the game, where a soldier on point races up a staircase, only to be grabbed by a Middle-Eastern Individual of Opposing Political Views: if you manage to shoot the attacker, the game awards you with an Xbox Achievement for having saved the guy (who, I notice from the credits, is named after a member of the development team). This is clever, mostly, because in many games (even this one) Xbox Achievements tend to award the player for doing arbitrary things that he doesn’t have to do in order to succeed at the game. There’s a word that game designers throw around often: “Visual language”. Basically, how the game, visually, tells the player that he’s doing something right or wrong; “Achievements”, with their big, bombastic, bloated, banal on-screen explosion of Old-Navy-worthy graphic design, are, to me, at least, the exact opposite of satisfaction: killing the final boss of a game and seeing “Achievement Unlocked: The End!” elicits a VH1 Pop-Up Video sound effect in the middle of my head, and I get something like the inverse of an erection (we call it a “turtle”). Yes, “Achievements” are a fragment of the devil, in this “videogame industry”; you can’t even use the points to buy anything. I suspect that giving a player an achievement for, you know, ensuring that one of his comrades doesn’t die is Infinity Ward’s way of subverting the masses in as clever a way as possible. For one thing, looking out for your own is something someone in the military, fighting a war, is obligated to do. On the other hand, each of Call of Duty 4‘s tenuous little gun-versus-gun contests sees you walking the razor’s edge between life and death, and the life and death of your expendable squad-mates; the game is constantly telling the player with its visual language whether he is doing well or not. This game is whispering that we don’t need “Achievements”, really, if the game is expertly well-made.
TANGENT “RE: DEATH” BEGINS
I kind of wonder, a lot more than is probably healthy, about death in videogames. Call of Duty 4 brings up the question of death many times, as your guy is shot in the side of the head and you scream “Who shot me?” and your friend, who is half-drunk, says “Dude, in a real war, you’d never see the bullets coming, either.” Eventually, he goes from being half-drunk to fully drunk, and that makes his words all the more consideration-worthy: Man, what kinds of people actually go out and fight real wars? What the heck is wrong with these people? Politics aside, who is willing to die for anything, much less the concept of a country? And what’s with these kids playing these FPSes, anyway? What the hell are they thinking? Do they see these games as training exercises for the one day when they’ll get to wield an AK in the name of shooting ragheads from the back of a Hummer? I’m not going to pretend that these kids possess a single political atom in their bodies; I know the score: they just want to kill. What I can say, with serious scientific certainty, is that I once saw a YouTube video of I think it was Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter (boring game, by the way) where the first comment was “Awesome game” and the third comment accused the game of being for homosexuals because the graphics weren’t photo-realistic enough. I defecate you negative. I suppose this is why Call of Duty 4‘s Big Back-of-Box Quote is “The most PHOTO-REALISTIC video game WE’VE EVER SEEN.” (Game Informer.) I’m hardly even going to make fun of that quote; Activision PR did what they had to do.
On a high-enough difficulty level, Call of Duty 4 recreates some of the dread of war. I honestly tend to avoid FPSes where you can’t see the bullets “because you can’t see the bullets in real life”, because this isn’t real life, it’s a game. Though as I’ve said above, it plays well as a game; you feel like you did something when you win, you know you messed up when you lose, no matter how many dozens of times you lose. And the presentation remains seamless.
Anyway. There’s a part where Call of Duty 4 does something shocking; I don’t really know how to explain it without spoiling it, so let’s just say that it steps back through the fourth wall for a moment. Yes, I’m saying it had been standing in front of the fourth wall for its entire running time until that moment, when it stepped back behind the fourth wall. The scene involves death — though not in a videogame-y, “Looney Tunes”-y, “if at first you don’t succeed” way, and not in a melodramatic movie way, either. It’s easy to say that “the character you’re controlling dies as a result of the narrative”, and it’s easy to look at that statement, as what it is, and nitpick away: well, in the game, you can die so many times, in the middle of so many inconsequential skirmishes, and then you just respawn almost immediately (after reading a nice little anti-war quote by some famous person whose pacifist attitude didn’t stop them from dying) and try again like nothing had ever happened.
How can narrative-related death be special at all in a piece of work in a medium where the player must die repeatedly? The answer to these question is, of course, “The death must be shocking, and awful”. It must be a huge sentence-ending punctuation mark, where previous deaths had been commas. It’s a tall order, though Call of Duty 4 pulls it off, and when it does, it leaves you feeling deeply sad, or deeply confused. Either way, it’s made its point, and it’s perhaps even more brilliant than even I’ve given it credit for: if you be a cranberry-juice-sipping, organic red onion connoisseur who’s forty-five seconds away from coining the phrase “Post-Kojima”, you will say, “Interesting”, and you will continue playing; if you be review-writer for a website with expanding advertisements for “NEW! Pepsi-Filled Doritos!” plastered all over your reviews, you will say, “The publisher sent me this for free!”, and you will keep playing; if you be an iron-pumping jock-face frat boy, you will say, “Gonna kill me them heckin’ rag heads, them heckin’ commie bastards!” and you will keep playing, to keep killing you them heckin’ rag heads, them heckin’ commie bastards.
Welcome to Post-Kojima: a world where game designers do quirky little abnormal things with their games and nobody complains.
We can only pretend to complain (which is something we excel at): after being shocked by “that scene”, I will never be shocked by it again, nor is it hardly possible for me to be shocked by anything resembling it.
And part of me wonders if they could have pulled it off so the Guy Who Dies can’t die a single “normal” “in-game” death before the Big Moment. In fact, if they’d managed to do this, I might have had to call Call of Duty 4 the best game of all-time. They’ve already orchestrated every stage of the game so that there are air-strikes, visible helicopters firing at enemies you’ll never see, and adverse weather conditions; why not go the extra (ten (thousand)) mile(s), and orchestrate it so that your guy can’t die? Oh man, I’m talking out my ass here, I know, though wouldn’t that be really cool? I’d like to say that you could have one friendly soldier “accidentally” take the hit for you every time an enemy checkmates you, though that would require there to be a lot of friendlies, in the case of the player being a total jerk and putting the controller down just to see what happens.
I guess the game’s heavy-handed treatment of friendly fire is compensation enough: namely, if you shoot and kill one of the “main” characters, the screen will sharply fade, and Dreaded White Text informs you “Friendly Fire Will Not Be Tolerated!” I got curious, after a while, and it turns out that — hey — the main characters don’t ever get mortally wounded by the enemy on their own. Interesting.
Either way, game-y deaths included, Call of Duty 4 is all “visual language”. If you “die”, the game visually tells you that you messed up, and then it visually tells you that you’re alive again. Visual language is about more than color saturation and camera angles, though. For example, I’ve seen enough military movies to know, at least, that when the guy leading me stops in place and raises his hand, that means I should stop moving forward and crouch down on the ground, or that when all the guys in front of me run up and take cover behind a low wall, I should pop into place wherever there’s room. How novel, then, that Call of Duty 4 makes these common-sense reactions the correct thing to do game-wise whenever it seems right to do them. Meanwhile, other war FPSes, like Brothers in Arms, have game-like representations for things like suppressing fire: shoot enough at a distant enemy, and the aiming circle turns red, indicating that the enemy is suppressed. In Call of Duty 4, the game doesn’t tell you when your tactics are working. They just work — or they don’t. It’s hardly even a videogame, anymore, once you’ve plunged into it. It’s mostly “entertainment”. Mostly.
Call of Duty 4‘s instruction manual is eight pages long, six if you subtract the table of contents and the blank “NOTES” page (on which I drew a picture of a thumbs-up). No character in this game ever says anything about playing the game; no one voice actor was asked to speak actual words about in-game weapons, or name a single button on the videogame controller in your hands. The people represented in this game know what they’re doing; they’re soldiers; moreover, they’re serious soldiers, serious enough to literally say “target neutralized” immediately after shooting a dog. So when you’re in a city that has been deserted, soaking in the silent awe of what might have previously been a community center of some sort, your characters are free to say things like, “Fifty thousand people used to live here.” That’s the “narrative” “emerging”; they’re not even talking about the mission — possibly because the mission is the same as it ever is: move forward, follow orders, shoot anyone who would shoot you, throw grenades when prudent. If someone says jump, don’t even ask how high — just jump as high as you can. It’ll either be high enough, or you’ll be dead. That’s all the “game” there is to Call of Duty 4: now get out there and experience Modern Warfare.
I suppose this is where Call of Duty 4 wins versus something like BioShock — and it wins quite triumphantly, and instantly (by default, almost): because it’s easy to explain. Though its narrative does indeed hide things from the player, and though it does make many (successful, virtuoso) attempts to surprise the player, it never lies; it never feels cheap. In something like BioShock, you’ve got this fantastic, imaginative underwater world, and with something that loopy, the game designers also have a huge responsibility to explain everything, and they feel a crushing pressure to dazzle the player: no body renders a computer-animated dragon if they’re not going to make that dragon breate fire. Game designers tend to (“tend to”, yes) not quite always be Tolstoy, or even Dostoyevsky, so in cases like BioShock, we end up with “Your dude was being mind-controlled by a dude with a mind-control plasmid lol”; that still doesn’t answer the question of why things like mind-control psychic powers are available from vending machines in your game world; that still doesn’t change the fact that the game’s proudest moment is ridiculous: it shows you a Defenseless Little Girl and expects you to scream “art!” because the game offers you the “moral choice” to kill or not kill the Defenseless Little Girl, like killing little girls was something normal, non-evil people might occasionally do, et cetera.
In Call of Duty 4, story-wise and game-wise, there is nothing to explain: we’re fighting a war. We’re shooting these guys because if they saw us they’d shoot us. There’s no pandering and moping about how war is bad, because, quite frankly, this game makes war look hellish, and kind of sad, which I guess is the undeniable reality of war, anyway; when you weigh my “overall impression” of this game, the impact of the representation of the somewhat depressing (in a horrific way) nature of war and the satisfying snap of the combat are about 50-50. Like BioShock, this is a game that is essentially all mood; though the playable experience disappears so completely into that mood that when the game throws us a heavily post-Kojima “mission” where we “play” as a captive powerful man, waiting to be executed, or where we operate the guns of an AC-130 gunship, scorching faceless foes, witlessly staring through a videogame within a videogame, it’s more than interesting: it’s fantastic, moving, surprising, and, most impressively, it’s absolutely effortless. Hardly any “ingenuity” went into the crafting of this experience, and I say that with the utmost respect. Rather, Call of Duty 4 was seemingly constructed like that other great Russian invention, the rollercoaster: you get some graph paper and a straightedge, you decide, right here and right now, how tall that first hill is going to be, and the rest of the hills just build themselves.
It does so many hilariously right things, like condition you to believe that every single dog you’re ever going to encounter is going to be some one-hit-killing uber-difficult enemy monsterfreak, and then it’ll suddenly throw you a part in the middle of an extended stealth segment where you have a silenced sniper rifle and there’s a downright frightening-looking wild dog hovering around a carcass nearby. You can shoot the dog and not attract any attention, though your superior says we should just navigate around the dog. It turns out, even if the dog sees you, all he does is look at you and growl. That’s pretty fantastic: here we have evidence that the world of this game actually does contain some kind of semblance of life. All it takes is one little spark. I remember the very elementary example from Dragon Quest VII: of all the dozens of cities and all the thousands of citizens in those cities, in one little town, there’s a bar, and at that bar, there’s a woman wearing a red dress, sitting alone. If you talk to the girl, she says she’s perfectly fine and she doesn’t need your company. If you talk to a man on the other side of the bar, he says, “What’s the deal with that woman in the red dress, drinking alone?” A woman in a red dress and a man wondering why she’s alone: that’s all it takes, really, to make your “entertainment software virtual field map” into a “simulated world”.
Seriously, some of the stuff in here — the ecstatically brief “final boss” comes sharply to mind — makes Hideo Kojima look like a rank amateur. We can forgive — and even love — Kojima, at the end of the day, for being something of a prankster prodding at the videogame medium just to see what kind of noises it makes, though I’m pretty sure, as he is only one man, he’d be at a loss if asked to make a game that actually, really, literally approaches the craftsmanship of, say, a Scorsese film; the people behind Call of Duty 4, on the other hand, though I have reason to believe they have studied Metal Gear, Shadow of the Colossus, and many other important games, might not be “influenced” by any of them so much as they just have a rock-solid grip on common sense. Common sense, above all else, is usually the essential ingredient in being good at anything. For a game designer, common sense involves knowing that “experience” is more important than “narrative”, that “narrative” need only be the birds in the sky (or the helicopters raging by, guns blazing).
It’s like, rather than write down a million ideas for what kind of violent psychic powers our undersea-dwelling philosophers and artists might have been able to buy from a vending machine, this is a game where missions are conceived as “Yeah, you’re going to snipe some guy, then you’re going to run away from dudes who try to blow up the hotel you’re using as a sniper base; you’re going to run about a kilometer away, there’s going to be an abandoned swimming pool, and then you’re going to hold a position while you wait for your evacuation chopper to get there. Your partner is wounded, so when the chopper gets there, you have to pick him up and carry him into the chopper.” It might not mean everything to gamers or even game-designers these days, though the fact that you actually manipulate your character all the way into the chopper, and can then aim your gun out the back and shoot at the ground as you take off is pretty crucial.
One thing that kind of got me was the mission where you play a flashback; in a lesser game, I guess it works, because who gives a stuff, really, about where Spider-Man was last Friday, as long as stuff exploded? In this game, a regular virtuoso piece when it comes to impressing us with the impact and the, uh, presence of the present, when it asks me to play something in the past, and I make a mistake in that flashback, and a message on the screen tells me “Your actions got [so and so] killed”, I think, so what? Isn’t someone supposed to be just telling this story to a bunch of marines in some god-forsaken rat-hole in western Russia right now? If he messes up in his storytelling, or forgets a detail, says “So there were some guys on the left, and I, uhh, went to the left–I mean, the right–” does that erase his former commanding officer from existence, and alter future events?
On the other hand, when the situation comes to a head and I’m aiming a sniper rifle for an extended period of time, listening to very technical explanations of how wind speed affects bullet path from my superior, I’m thinking, in my Real Life Head over here, “Well, wait, isn’t this guy I’m aiming at still alive in the present?” And suddenly, there you go — that’s kind of an interesting feeling.
There are certain situations (like when you’re sneaking around, your cover gets blown, and the enemies open fire on you) wherein your character will literally be completely helpless, and in those situations, the game does not wrest controls from your hands; instead, it lets you feel what it’s like to die because you made a mistake. Compare this to platform games like Super Mario Galaxy, where you sometimes float down into a bottomless pit, helpless, in control, yet not in control, because you made a mistake. The feeling of helplessness is far more pronounced, far more obnoxious, and, weirdly, far more forgivable in Call of Duty 4, because the said helpless situations literally always involve your dude, you gun, your grenades, and some other dudes with guns and grenades. There are no bottomless pits, bottomless for the sake of being “something that can kill you”. It’s quite deceptively impressive how effectively the game communicates to you that you can’t solve all situations with a gun or grenades — either in real life, or even in this game, where your actions are limited to shooting, throwing grenades, and moving. Yes, sometimes “Moving” is the solution to your problems. So it is that all situations in Call of Duty 4 can and will be solved by shooting, throwing grenades, running away, hiding, or some combination thereof. Well, sometimes, you have to break a dog’s neck, though it’s as much a quick-time event as not a quick-time event: the button used to kill them is always, after all, the same button as a regular melee attack. The game does not ask you — even once — to throw a lightning bolt at a pool of water in which an enemy is standing, or use a key to open a door.
I guess if I had to nitpick something, it would be that sometimes the loading times are too short to read the bountiful anti-war quotes displayed on screen whenever you die.
Okay, no, I thought of another one: in this world of Modern Warfare, there exist doors that simply will not open no matter how many times you shoot them with an Uzi or stab them with your combat knife. No, these doors will only open when your commanding officer walks up to them and deems them fit to be opened. I can’t really call this a fault of the game, because,
1. How would my character know where to go, really? He’s just a grunt; he doesn’t have the intel.
2. Poking around at random doors is not listed as one of his orders.
3. 99% of the time, the game is very good about giving the player orders, and telling him where to go, and where to be.
4. If you play the game like a good soldier and not like a jerk, you should be able to make everything look pretty smooth.
I’ve said, before, that games can perhaps never be “art” because I seriously can’t think of a single game that some jerk can’t just pick up and immediately tilt the right analog stick to one side, cackling as the camera spins in circles — or some equivalent action. I was disappointed quite ferociously when I tried to show a particular friend the first stage of Stranglehold, a game that, if played correctly, looks really cool (though still not as cool as an actual John Woo movie); he immediately identified how silly it looks when the protagonist slides back and forth across a countertop. We here at Action Button Dot Net collectively say: Fuck that guy. I’m guaranteeing you, game developers: if you make a game that aspires to “art” if played all the way through, adjusting the camera a minimal amount of times and performing only the necessary actions, we will gladly attempt to play the game that way. Because, I mean, why not? I don’t see anyone else making that particular promise. I might as well make it.
Is Call of Duty 4 art if played perfectly, pristinely, quickly, and efficiently? If you never die, if you never get shot, is Call of Duty 4 as emotionally affecting as Saving Private Ryan? (Here we refrain from asking whether or not “Saving Private Ryan” is art.) The answer to this question is — surprise! — that that’s a ****ed question: if you’re good enough at the game to not die or not get hit, then you’re probably not having “fun”; if you’re just watching someone else play, you’re more prone to ask questions like “why are there numbers on the screen?” “what does ‘checkpoint reached’ mean?” or “why does the camera almost never show anyone’s face?” In-game death, sometimes of the meaningless, un-telegraphed variety, motivates the player to be more observant; surviving the same challenge on a subsequent attempt makes him feel accomplished, or even entertained. So, in asking the question of how we can make a game that entertains the player without requiring the player to perform perfectly, we end up back at that boring question of how we can motivate the player to do better without making his on-screen avatar realistically die and then come right back to life.
For now, maybe just tweaking the respawn presentation is all we need. Just make the screen fade to black really quick, and then fade back up. Maybe make every checkpoint occur immediately after a memorable line of dialog: no one will be able to complain about hearing a particular line over and over again, because that would mean revealing when and where you died multiple times. “Looks like Christmas is coming three times this year — for the second time today!” you hear, just as you respawn, and you think, “Oh — I’m back here”.
I’m picking this nit really, really hard, right here, because it’s all I have; maybe you’ve come to realize that that’s the nature of this website. Call of Duty 4‘s singleplayer mode is a focused, tight game, of a voraciously consumable, short running time, with minimal filler or nonsense. It strokes the player’s ego sometimes, sure, with all the Tangoes and Charlies being bandied about, though hey, we might as well just chalk that up to etiquette: the player isn’t lying to himself; he’s admitting that he’s obviously the type of person to sit in his underwear in the dark in the dead of night controlling a pretend soldier in a pretend war. Might as well be nice to him. The play mechanics disappear almost completely into the structure and flow of the campaign, et cetera et cetera — so why can’t I turn off all the HUD elements? Much as I like that Einstein quote about how World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones, why can’t I turn those quotes off? What if I don’t want to know precisely how many bullets are left in my clip, or whenever the game has just saved itself?
Actually, I’m playing this online, multiplayer, right now (review of Call of Duty 4 multiplayer: fun!), and I’ve just noticed that my gun doesn’t bob up and down realistically when I move while crouched. Yes! That’s another significant complaint right there!
A less significant complaint is that I’m not quite sure what “throw back” means, even after beating the game — am I picking a grenade up off the ground and then throwing it back at the enemy? If so, why does the grenade just manage to suddenly appear in my hand? There’s no bend-over-and-grab animation. It’s a little confusing.
Also, I suppose I could mention that the textures on some of the surfaces are pretty low-resolution, though I reckon nobody would learn anything from my pointing that out. They obviously chose the lower textures so they could concentrate on performance, et cetera.
Many of my friends had trouble with the dreaded “Ferris Wheel” mission, so I guess that’s worth pointing out: there’s a Ferris wheel. You have one guy sniping enemy dudes from a grassy hill. The game gives you thirty seconds to plant some mines and C4 before going to hide in the shadows. You shoot some dudes, then shoot some more dudes, then you get a checkpoint; then a load of dudes comes in. The thing is, the C4 is really handy for the load of dudes; however, if you already placed the C4 in a not-perfect place, you’re hecked. I’ve polled my Gmail chat list, and something like one-third of the people I know who played this game gave up entirely at that mission. That kind of sucks; I reloaded my save, gladly played the run-up to the Ferris Wheel again, and planted C4 on the cars, so as to bomb the guys as they slid down the helicopter ropes. It did pretty good!
I really don’t know what else to say about this game; having just mentioned helicopters and ropes in the preceding paragraph, I am thinking about Choplifter, and wishing that Infinity Ward would make something of a Choplifter reboot / remake for next-generation consoles. Call it Call of Duty: Chopper. Let me fly a helicopter, rescuing dudes from the heat of battle, or dropping dudes off. Ascend or descend with L1 and R1; drop bombs with the L trigger, and firemachine guns with the R trigger. Let me use a badass rope ladder to rescue dudes if the “landing zone” (that’s “LZ” from now on) is “too hot”. There could be an online multiplayer mode, only it’d be more like Rock Band, because people would be forced to cooperate — you’ve got one guy flying the chopper, the other aiming the machine gun, and, uhh, I’m sure the pilot could handle the bombs and ladder himself, actually. So yeah — two-player co-op isn’t too bad! Your army would be ideally competing with another army, with their own two-man chopper team. You could build a pretty great game out of piloting a helicopter, with clever enough level design, like those Strike games EA made forever ago. What do you say, Infinity Ward? Pay me $100,000 a year and I’ll come over there and design the triumphant return of helicopter games for you. I’ll lease a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution — a red one — not six minutes after getting off the plane, just so I can drive over to your office and design a game about a helicopter. I’m not even kidding. I’ll design it all day and all night. Helicopters, man. They’re the next big thing, I’m not even kidding.
To sum up: Call of Duty 4 is a tight-as-hell game with seamless atmosphere, a compelling narrative that’s more about the Hollywoodian moment-to-moment nature of its experience than about any straightforward plot, and moments of actual cathartic power that take advantage of the whole package. Though the multiplayer is fun, I might never play through the singleplayer campaign again, much as I will fondly remember it as a thrilling piece of work and recommend it to friends and game designers for the next several years. No, dear readers, it’s not the “Best Game Ever” — and I won’t dare say that I could think of a better game (even though I can: I mean, just make a Zelda game with the focus and attention to detail of something like Call of Duty 4; I say this as a person who feels pretty much zero emotion when I hear the word “Zelda”, so take it or leave it) — and I still like Gears of War a tiny bit better, just because of the sheer ridiculousness of it. Much as I love Gears, though, I recognize that it’s not for everyone, so I wholeheartedly, hereby, allow the people of the world to like Call of Duty 4. And if you’re a game developer, please: this is the one (well, this and Portal) that you should rip off.