Call of Duty 4 – Modern Warfare Single Player Quicky Review

So for the first time in ages I finished a proper, real game. I guess technically the last was Portal, but that wasn’t a full First Person Shooter, more of a puzzle game. I have a bad habit of collecting single player first person shooter games, starting them, getting a bit in and then just falling to boredom, laziness, or the call of leveling up and getting that new shiny gun or achievement in an online FPS like Battlefield 2 or 2142 or Team Fortress 2. So I was pretty surprised when I completed CoD4.

I got Call of Duty 4 a while ago (not long after the beta was released) and was sucked in right away. The beta I wasn’t impressed that much with, so imagine my surprise at how good I found the game. I’m sure there are a few spoilers about some of the niceties in there, and a couple of major spoilers I’ll hide as best I can. So if you dare, here’s a quick run down…

Note the dust in the air and the “feel” of the environment as me and my sniper buddy head to a high hide.

Overall Graphics
Gorgeous, plain and simple. On my one year old system (core 2 duo E6600 @ 2.4Ghz, 2G RAM and nVidia 7950) graphics at 1680×1050 at the recommended settings of high (I think) were silky smooth with the exception of a couple of minor stutters. As you can see from the screenshots (clicky clicky for full res) things look great. Maybe not as machine killingly great as Crysis and it’s bump mapped rocks and sand, but definitely not a slouch in the looks department. Also some use of things like field of view effect while you’re zoomed in is a nice “modern” looking touch without requiring you to shell out for the absolute latest wiz-bang system.
Models are also very nice as well, with the faces and gear very nicely done. Lots of work has gone into making them move nicely as well. They are still a ways from feeling like you’re in a movie, but there were a lot of times that characters did moves that really, really surprised me. I saw them doing things like:

  • sliding on their knees to get behind cover
  • doing “realistic” and movie like motions when being blasted by exploding vehicles or grenades
  • spraying machine gun fire over the top of their heads from behind cover (you’ll know what I mean when you see it)
  • when wounded they’ll try to throw a “death grenade” (my LAN Party friends who play Urban Terror know what this is) or try to get off a couple more shots with their pistol

Some of the mates chatting. Again notice the fog, atmosphere and completely modeled world.

Some of these moves are repeated throughout the gunfights, but it’s used diversely and sparingly enough that it goes very well to making firefights feel as real as I’ve seen before (at least as someone who has never been in a fight, much less a gunfight or the military). Non player models such as vehicles are done equally nicely.
Other nice touches are things like the “compressed air” effect when a grenade goes off.
Environment and Atmosphere
I’m going to move into the overall environment now, as that’s a natural extension of the graphics and models. Again, in a single word, “friggin’ fantastic”. The maps are huge, or at least, feel huge, and they have really managed to make you feel as a user that you’ve been dropped into the middle east, Russia, and others. Dust floats in the air, leaves and paper flutter around and grass and trees have tiny bits of movement, all of which helps to make the world more believable.
The first game I saw this in was Battlefield 2 which came out about the same time as (funnily enough) Call of Duty 3. For me BF2 won hands down because of among other things, a minor sway in the grass which really made the world feel less like molded plastic and more like a real place.
The game also has very nice coloring. One mission you end up in Chernobyl and the world has a “grey” feel, whereas in the mid-east missions you have an “mid-day bright blue and sandy” feel. It’s hard to describe, but trust me that it looks great.
Another thing that’s done really nicely is the interactivity with the world. While in a game like Half Life 2 everything was modelled after the real world and you could pick up things you would normally be able to pick up, move bottles, break wood boards, and so on. I don’t think that CoD4 goes as deep, but in firefights there is careful attention to make things shatter and fly around, cars can be blown up, wood chips fly, metal sparks…. it all just goes to make it feel more like you’re in the real world. Also you now can shoot through thin walls or thin protection. The enemies sometimes don’t seem to know this, but it’s another level of the feel of “real world” materials being used in the game.
Search for other screenshots or movies from the game and you’ll see what I mean.
One thing I’d have liked to see a bit more of is Non-Enemy NPCs. Even though you’re going to war torn areas, it’s hard to believe that the only people you meet while on the streets are people shooting at you, and traipsing through the woods you never meet one farmer that’s just going to ignore you and plow a field or something. Minor complaint though, I only thought of this after I finished the game.
Storyline and NPCs
The storyline here is fairly generic in my opinion. Blah blah crazy terrorist blah blah kill kill blah blah elite units from the British SAS and the US Marines blah blah. You know the drill. I don’t think it had more or less than the other CoD franchise where the story is just a good way of moving you from one beautifully detailed map and environment to another. Similarly you swap between a US Marine and a member of the British SAS and sometimes your path crosses. You are escorted as usual by NPCs who tell you what to do, where to go, set up story elements, and so on. If you’ve played any of the other CoD games you’re familiar with this. The other characters are fairly forgettable and don’t really develop much, though I have to admit at the end I was distressed to think that my squad leader bit it (don’t think he did, but he looked pretty beat up just before the credits rolled).

Some missions end with you picked up and taken away via chopper.

Now for the real meat…. it looked great, but what was playing it really like? Here goes.
Health System
As with CoD3, CoD4 uses the “when you’re hurt really bad you have red on the screen and need to get to cover” system which is both good and bad. I’m really used to having a health meter to deal with, and this game felt a bit like cheating where I could just run back and hide behind cover to recover from a hail of enemy gunfire. It does help to move the story along though, and you’re not dealing with things like backtracking for the health pack you saw half the level ago that you have to get to because you’re down to 2% life left.
Save Game System
Similar to the health system I’m not used to the checkpoint based savegame system (think Far Cry). I really didn’t think I’d like it… in fact, I was pretty sure I’d hate it. Turns out that it actually worked really well. The checkpoints are set up nicely spaced out, and generally not too far apart. Other than in a few frustrating areas I never felt the need to hit the quicksave key to let me survive a particularly perilous area, which is a testament to the game designers level design and game flow.
There was one area however, a mission where you have 11 minutes to get to something through a bunch of corridors filled with enemies where I would play down to a certain area, get killed, and start back at when the 11 minute countdown started. This happened a couple of times and then the next time I noticed that it did a checkpoint save midway into the corridors, in an area I know I passed before but had to go back to the start when I died. Not sure if this was a glitch, or a helping hand if the game detects you getting your ass kicked too much.
I’m not going to put the HUD into my complaints section because I think it’s supposed to work like this. Sometime your stats, bullets, weapons, etc, show and sometimes they don’t. They seemed to show in firefights (but sometimes I noticed them not there in what I thought was an “action” section). Again, not sure if this is to give you a situational awareness so that if you’re sitting in the back of a chopper riding out of a hot zone you really don’t care how many rounds are in the mag, but if you’re in the middle of a firefight you do. The HUD isn’t overly invasive and follows standard to the other CoD games with compass and objective indicators, crouch/prone/standing, etc etc.
Cut Scenes
One of the coolest things they managed to do was make me pay attention on the level loading screens. A voice over and cool video shots play as the level loads, but more often than not that “level loading sequence” will end with a zoom in to say, a map or say wire frame helicopter, then a ever so slight stutter (as you know you’re jumping from cut scene into game engine), and then the view “slides” into your point of view and you’re playing the game. This makes the transition much nicer. The only downside is that sometimes it’s nice to not have to start hitting keys or listening immediately if you want to grab a drink while the level loads. Minor complaint again.
Outside of the large level loading cut scenes there is some use of cinematic type moments while playing. For example at one point you’re involved in a chopper crash where you are given a blank screen for a bit, audio slowly comes up, then you get some blurred vision and very restricted movement from an odd point of view, as if you were dragging yourself from the wreck. This type of thing is used a couple of times as well and quite effectively I think.
When the CoD4 folks said they were going to “go deep” with this one, they were right. The variety of mission is great. No, not just “you’re an SAS”, “now you’re a marine”, but there are missions when you’re gunning from a chopper, a “in the back of a truck shooting at trucks coming up behind and beside you” mission that CoD 1 and 2 players will recognize and a couple of others I won’t say right out loud to not spoil the surprise (highlight next paragraph to find out though).
Three of the funnest missions I found were one when you’re a gunner in a C130 giving fire support to ground troops with the plane’s hugeguns, one where you get to man an enormous 50cal sniper rifle, and the “sniper” area where you don’t fire a shot and at one point have to hide on the ground and not get stepped on by a large squad of enemies and vehicles who are walking right over where you are. That was pretty intense.
The environments also range from missile silos to wooded areas, old Russia, middle east cities, a sinking ship, all beautifully done. Overall the flow of the game is the same shooter-on-rails that the other CoD games are, with you having what feels like huge environments to explore, but the game doing a good job of directing you through a set path through the level.

Sniper mission with a really big gun.

I think my complaints are mostly superficial. A couple of areas I found really frustrating to get through. The feel of shooter-on-rails sucked a few times, exploring abandoned buildings would be nice to do without having matressess strategically piled to force you to the next room. I’m not a big fan of “do this in X minutes” so I didn’t have much fun with those, but they ended well, not sure if it was my skill finally getting through to the end with a couple of minutes to spare or the game adjusting somehow. Oh well. The HUD info fluxing in and out was a bit odd, but as I said I think that’s intentional. A bit longer would be nice too. I honestly don’t have a clue how much time I spent on this, but it felt like the game ended pretty suddenly. Maybe this is good though, as if it’d had gone on for another act I may have gotten bored with it.
Final Thoughts
I think my impressions of the game have been pretty obvious. If you’re a fan of the CoD games and have a half decent gaming rig, get this game. The level of immersion and gorgeous environments really make it come alive wonderfully. Also when you’re done, watch the credits all the way through, there’s a nice little something in there. Way to go all around!

Cutting down into a ventilation system was great to watch the NPC models.