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Call of Duty 4 Preview: Single-Player Campaign

It’s a good thing the team at Infinity Ward is comprised of honest-to-God gamers, because they were among the first to realize that the WWII shooter genre has been beaten to death. Twice. With Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the originators of the COD series are taking the franchise in an entirely new direction, one that’s based on modern weapons and often feels like a Tom Clancy game on steroids. Of course, the irony of Infinity Ward’s decision is that their original Call of Duty really helped usher in the WWII first-person shooter genre. But tradition be damned; Call of Duty 4 is set to change all of your preconceived notions about what a COD game should be. Except the intensity. COD4 has that in spades.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, like its Battlefield: Bad Company kin, is getting a single-player overhaul, with Infinity Ward spending much more time and resources ensuring that the campaign has a narrative thread that’s as compelling and politically charged as the Tom Clancy games, yet gameplay that’s as fast, furious and sweat-inducing as ever.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare screenshot

As in previous Call of Duty games, Call of Duty 4 has players assuming the role of soldiers in multiple armies, this time the U.S. Elite Forces and the British SAS. The United States plotline starts in the Middle East, where special forces are trying to do battle with a Middle Eastern warlord who’s managing what essentially amounts to an army of mercenaries. Meanwhile, the British forces are dealing with a Russian traditionalist who’s trying to return the country to the ways of a totalitarian regime. These plotlines naturally intertwine as the story progresses, but they also introduce two additional enemies, thereby completing a “four horsemen-like” international collaboration. The end war, and what players will spend the entire game trying to avoid, appears to be nothing less than a nuclear apocalypse, although Infinity Ward was reluctant to spill the beans about the complete narrative or last few levels.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare screenshot

We recently had the good fortune to play through two of the game’s levels, one in the early going of the British campaign, the other in a later stage of the U.S. plotline. The British mission, “Crew Expendable,” took place on a cargo ship near between Alaska and Russia in the Bering Strait. The objective of this mission was to secure sensitive intelligence and escape safely using any and all means necessary. Having rappelled from a helicopter down to the ship’s bridge, our four-person squad (three are AI-controlled) swiftly eliminated the treat of the captain and half-asleep security.

From there, we ran down to the crew’s quarters, killing one drunken foe and dispatching with two others while they slept. Always on the move, we then made our way through the ship’s bowels, using crates, boxes and pipes for cover as the enemy AI tried as desperately as its scripting would allow to foil our plans. We emerged victorious, of course, but only long enough to discover that the ship had been attacked by Russian MiGs and was sinking–fast.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare screenshot

As you can imagine, a level that takes place in the stormy Bering Sea requires plenty of eye candy to achieve the desired water-logged effect, and Crew Expendable features just that. From waves crashing into the stern and splashing onto the deck to rain streaming down containers, the weather effects in this level are simply remarkable. Couple that with great moonlight lighting and some of the most CG-looking (but real-time) animations we’ve ever seen in a game, and it truly felt like we were on a ship in a stormy sea frantically trying to secure the enemy’s manifest.

The second level we played, “The Bog,” was no visual slouch either, and it showed off many of the features that the game’s now-modern setting allows. The Bog takes place in a war-torn Middle Eastern town where the objective is to secure and defend an M1A2 Abrams tank, destroy a series of anti-aircraft guns, then signal for evacuation. All the while, players must make their way through a series of bombed-out apartment buildings and cover-strewn fields, all of which are full of well-equipped enemies. Fortunately, Modern Warfare’s move to the 21st Century has introduced the squad to the wonders of laser sights and night vision, both of which come in handy when lining up shots across a field or into a highway overpass from the safety of cover.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare screenshot

Activating night vision isn’t anything new; we’ve done it plenty of times in the Splinter Cell series. But in COD4, night vision acts as a vehicle to inundate you with effects that show just how intense the battlefield is. For instance, when using night vision, dozens of laser sights pop into view scanning the battlefield. Although it’s a simple effect, this illustrates the danger of the situation at hand, because you’re never quite sure if that laser headed your way is friendly or foe. Likewise, tracer fire, embers and explosions all become either apparent or blinding when in night vision, which ups the intensity that Infinity Ward is so adept at creating in its games.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare screenshot

In both levels, it’s apparent that Call of Duty 4 still relies heavily on checkpoints, but when you crank the difficulty up to hardened or veteran, you’ll come to appreciate the checkpoints’ assistance in bypassing some of the tough AI. The two levels we played also illustrated an improved AI system for your teammates, as the soldiers now actually use squad tactics, check corners and avoid walking mindlessly into gunfire. Of course, this improved AI for friendlies and foes alike requires a bit more tactical attention from players themselves. But for those of us who love the Rainbow Six series, this will be a most welcome change.

Still, as strong as Call of Duty 4 is shaping up to be in the gameplay department, the most immediately impressive aspect is by far its graphics. The PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions all look surprisingly similar, but that’s not due to one platform being the lead; Infinity Ward personally assured us that development occurred simultaneously on all three platforms, and that there wasn’t a base system. With that said, the console similarities end when it comes to textures, lighting and resolutions, because those three areas make the PlayStation 3 version definitely excel over the Xbox 360 SKU. Regardless, every console owner will proudly use Call of Duty 4 to showcase their high-definition TV, because COD4 is by far the best-looking console game you will see this year.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare screenshot

With an always-strong yet still-improving multiplayer component and a single-player plot that’s refreshingly compelling, Call of Duty 4 is officially one of our most anticipated games of 2007. Gamers heard the rumblings at E3 about COD4 blowing other shooters out of the water, and from what we recently played, those rumblings will soon become full-blown tremors. Infinity Ward is on track to once again deliver an incredible — and incredibly intense — first-person shooter. The only question that remains is how many sticks of antiperspirant gamers will burn through during the game’s 15-plus missions. No matter; we’ll buy two just in case.

Click here to check out pricing for Call of Duty 4.

— Jonas Allen

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