I was finally able to get in a good-sized Call of Duty 4 session recently, playing through the conclusion of the Chernobyl mission. I haven't touched multiplayer yet (since I'm not reviewing the game in a professional capacity, I probably never will), but the single-player campaign does so many things so well that I've got to talk about them somewhere. And since the statute of limitations on this game has presumably expired, we're going deep into spoiler territory.
I had played just one game in the series before, Call of Duty 2. My predominant memory of that game is of an aural fusillade, a non-stop barrage of rifle shots, mortar rounds, and battle cries. I am pleased that this aspect of the game has not changed in Modern Warfare. For all the praise the game has justifiably earned for its visuals, the audio is what distinguishes it. Even running down a barren Middle Eastern street, you hear stray bullets chipping at nearby buildings. The tension never lets up. During battle scenes, the sound gets me so keyed up that I tend to run around in a panic, disregarding my objectives and simply trying to locate some safe haven where I can make the gunfire stop. Some games make you feel like the baddest man alive. Most of the time, Call of Duty makes you feel like a small, expendable piece of a very large war machine.
But the detours the game takes can be fascinating, not only for the rhythm and flow they lend to the narrative, but for the perspective they grant to the ground-level action that comprises most of the gameplay. In one memorable sequence, your squad radios an AC-130 gunship for escort. Suddenly, you're whisked away from the ground and placed behind the plane's sights. The display is now a cold, grainy black and white. The friendly troops can be identified only by a flashing beacon that's difficult to discern, and if you fire on them you lose. Instead, you have to blast your howitzer and vulcan cannons at all the other tiny figures scurrying across the landscape. And when you nail somebody with one of those big shells, they turn into a white splotch. If it were rendered in full color, the gore might seem gratuitous -- even funny. Through the cold lens of the big ship's sights, it's disquieting.
Another quieter sequence is the Chernobyl level. It's a flashback, taking place about fifteen years before the main story arc. In it, you play as one of a two-man British sniper team working to prevent the illegal sale of nuclear materials to a known terrorist. For long stretches, this sequence is as silent as the rest of the game is loud. You follow your commanding officer, Captain MacMillan, as he dashes across fields and hides in shadows, only occasionally picking off essential targets. This level contains two masterful set pieces in which you never fire a shot. First, you lie in a field as what seems like an entire company of troops, plus armor, passes by right over you. In the other, you crawl under a line of trucks through a mass of enemies, then dash from car to car in an environment where your camouflage is not only useless, but a beacon. Even the behind-home-plate view of Captain MacMillan's taint as you wriggle across the dirt can't defuse the tension.
There is one other surprising and somber moment in Call of Duty 4 that I can't quite get my head around. Over the course of the game, you play as a few different characters, but mostly as an SAS operative named McTavish and a US Marine named Paul Jackson. The Marine portions of the game take place in a lightly fictionalized Middle Eastern country. In one astonishing in-game cutscene, a nuclear bomb detonates and crashes your chopper. Shocking enough that such an event would be included in the game, instead of allowing you to defuse it just in the nick of time.
Then a very strange thing happens. A new level begins, and you start in the back of the downed chopper. You crawl out into the apocalyptic ruins of the city you've already spent a couple of hours fighting in. Any second, I expected my character to pick up a discarded rifle and stand up. After all, this is a scene that's been repeated through countless games (including twice in Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2, if I recall). Instead, you make it a little ways out of the chopper, just enough to see a crimson mushroom cloud lingering over the horizon, and then you... die.
Sgt. Paul Jackson isn't developed as a character -- like, at all -- so his death didn't hit me on a personal level. Not the way it would if, say, Gordon Freeman were to bite the dust, suddenly and for good. Even so, I wondered why the developers would do such a thing. It just seemed cruel. These things aren't supposed to happen in a video game, but they happen in wars all the time. And what makes Call of Duty 4 so special is that Infinity Ward managed to create a thrilling game about war without making war seem fun.
Some time ago, the US Army released a game called America's Army to help them pick up new recruits. If those kids played Call of Duty instead, they'd probably make a run for Canada.