Many gaming critics moan about the lack of innovation in the gaming industry, ourselves included. But after seeing Call of Duty 4: Modern Combat (COD4) in action, we've realised that games don't always need to innovate to entertain. You see, this game stays very true to earlier games in the series. It doesn't feel the need to reinvent the wheel. It's still a festival ride of military action, leading the player through heavily scripted scenes, comprised of more action than ten Black Hawk Down films combined. It remains a relatively linear process, allowing the designers to finely craft the experience to deliver the most explosive battles yet seen in a video game. And, just like its predecessors, we can say that even though we've only witnessed a mere twenty minute hands-off demo, it's one of the most exciting first person shooters we've ever seen.
Where COD4 differs most from its predecessors is its setting. Kiss goodbye to your Nazi friends, as COD4 hauls the game into the 21st century - this time you'll be facing off against Russian Ultra-nationalists trying to resurrect the ghost of Communism, alongside plotting Middle Eastern collaborators. When facing off against the Russkis in Europe you'll play as a British SAS trooper, while the Middle Eastern fight sees you inhabiting the boots of a Force Recon US Marine.
You've probably already seen the COD4 clip that was shown at the Microsoft E3 Press Conference (if not, head over here and get ready to do battle in the radioactive streets of Chernobyl). So we're going to take you on a wild ride through a handful of levels that weren't shown during the event, and which we were lucky enough to see during today's demonstration.
The first mission had the rather dull name of Bog A - thankfully there was nothing dull about what we witnessed. The level kicked off with a squad of US Marines standing on a highway, heading in to the heart of a Middle Eastern suburb to rescue a trapped M1A1 Abrams tank.
The loading screen flashed up satellite imagery of the level before zooming into the battle. To the right of the squad stood a multi-story building, teeming with enemies. The flash of their rifle fire and tracers lit up the night sky as our squad took cover behind the hulking car wrecks that littered the road. As our fellow soldiers scrabbled behind cover, we noticed one of the most impressive new effects in the game - character animation. The bosses at Infinity Ward need to give their animators and engine programmers a fat bonus cheque, as the animation is second to none. We can't recall any other game where the running, sliding, even stumbling, of the characters looked so real.
The ensuing firefight also showed off the amazing weapon effects, both visually and aurally. The Call of Duty sound guys have always been renowned for their awesome sound effects, and COD4 is no exception. The meaty bite of US M4 rifle contrasted perfectly with the harsh AK fire that our enemies were laying down, while bullets zinged and pinged all around. Clouds of dust erupted from the streaking tracer fire, while RPGs left lingering smoke trails to slowly dissipate in the still night air.
After clearing out the building, we entered into the darkened hallways, flicking on our night-vision goggles to get a clearer picture of the threat within. Doing so allowed us to see the infra-red targeting lasers that were emitted from every friendly rifle in the area. Judging by the number of laser beams penetrating the air, we had dozens of friendlies covering the windows. As we rounded a corner, a hostile grappled with one of our squadmates. Waiting for the right moment, he was soon put down with a double shot to the face. This up close kill revealed even more impressive death animations, which appear to be a mixture of rag-doll and hand-crafted animations.
An obligatory mounted gun section proved to be a fun distraction for a short while, and the order over the radio to "Shoot them through the walls" revealed that full bullet penetration has been modeled in the game. Different bullet types will penetrate different surfaces at differing rates. That's a lot of differents in one sentence, but it's a very cool feature that is played on heavily in the game. Even a brick wall won't stop the bullets from a heavy machine gun, so taking cover won't guarantee your safety. Or your enemy's, for that matter. And yes, this feature also carries over into multiplayer.
As we progressed through the level, red flares lit up the night sky and the surrounding area in a nice shade of deep red. Not quite as nicely as a couple of Javelin missiles though, which flew a very exaggerated, very high trajectory, taking out tanks via their thin top armour.
The level concluded with an all-out battle in a large abandoned lot, US soldiers hunkering down around the bogged tank. Wave after wave of enemies attacked from a tree line, but not for long. As we placed an IR beacon, two Cobra attack choppers zoomed in overhead, decimating the hostile hideout with rocket fire.
Helicopters play a huge role in the game - as they should. Watch any 6 o'clock news story covering the conflict in Iraq, and it's obvious how much Western soldiers rely on these aerial mounts. The next level hammered home this fact, as we flew into the first Middle Eastern mission with ten Black Hawks visible outside our chopper's door. The squadron flew low and fast over a detailed Middle Eastern city, constructed at a level of detail that makes GRAW 2's scenery look decidedly average. Yet it maintained the rock solid 60 frames per second frame rate that gives the game such a silky smooth look.
As we rappelled from the chopper, our wingmen chopped up the ground with sporadic chain-gun fire. The military accuracy of the game was highlighted when we saw friendlies cordoning off the search area with barbed wire, keeping the bad guys away from the building we were due to hit. As four separate squads lined up on each corner of the target structure, our pulses began to race, anticipating the firestorm that was to come. Sadly, our demo of this level ended at this point, and we were taken to see the final level on show.
Once again, rappelling from choppers initiated the action, but the level couldn't have been more different than the hazy heatwave of the Middle Eastern scene. This time we were part of a raiding party landing on the pitching deck of a ship at sea, in the middle of a furious storm. As we landed on the deck, with water pouring off every surface and gorgeous lightning effects strobing across the scene, we made our way inside the control deck.
Several close range battles ensued as we ran deep into the bowels of the ship. Our friendlies operated like a well-oiled military machine, clearing the rooms using the precise tactics employed by real soldiers. As if dozens of enemies weren't hard enough to deal with, we soon had to contend with the fact that the ship was beginning to sink. The entire level started rolling all over the place, leaving us to frantically retrace our steps to the deck. One Superman-sized leap later and we'd safely scrambled into the back of a waiting chopper. Our demo had sadly concluded, but we were so impressed by what we'd seen that we sat through the next demo all over again.
This very brief taste of has only left us wanting more. Even in its pre-alpha state, COD4 has more polish than most finished first person shooters. It's one of the finest shooters we've seen at E3, and the wait for its release is going to be grueling. Thankfully 360 owners will have a multiplayer beta to look forward to next month, helping to make the wait bearable. From what we've seen, COD4 doesn't screw with the foundations that the earlier Call of Duty games established, and to be frank, it's so much fun we don't give a damn. Stay tuned over the next few weeks for a couple of exclusive COD4 stories, revealing more about this hotly anticipated title.
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