In 2002, a gaming company known as Infinity Ward was established. Among its ranks were three former employees of 2015, Inc.: Vince Zampella, Grant Collier, and Jason West – their most notable product during their tenure being the 2002 hit Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. The following year, Infinity Ward launched their debut game: Call of Duty. It too was a success with critics lauding the experience for providing a realistic take on first-person shooters set in the Second World War. The title’s biggest innovation, and part of what made it stand out from its contemporaries, was how it had the player assume the role of one soldier in a larger group as opposed to a lone wolf protagonist. This marked the beginning of a franchise, which included two more sequels that used the same setting as the first installment. Then, in 2007, Infinity Ward released the series’ fourth installment, surprising the gaming community by having the story take place in the modern age.
Playing the Game
Like its predecessors, Call of Duty 4 is a first-person shooter. As this series strives for a degree of realism, this is not a game in which you can carry an entire arsenal of weapons while breaking the land speed record on foot and absorbing entire clips of enemy gunfire. You can only carry two weapons at a time, and playing the game under the assumption that you have superhuman endurance will result in a quick, unceremonious death.
However, there are a few deviations from reality to be found in Call of Duty 4. The most notable of which ironically stems from the lack of a health meter; should you find yourself ambushed by your opposition’s salvo, the screen will produce a red tinge around the borders. This is your cue to take cover. After a few seconds of waiting, the screen will return to normal, allowing you to fight once more. You will die and have to start over from the last checkpoint if you continue to take damage while the screen is red. Moreover, although you are merely one member of a military unit, you only have to worry about the safety of your fellow squadmates when the plot demands it.
As the game is linear, you are not given much incentive to explore the maps other than to pick up the occasional bonus item (in the form of intel laptops), which will unlock the cheats menu upon completing the game. Otherwise, for most of the game, the only direction you can advance is forward. I believe a rule developers should follow when employing this design philosophy is that if you’re going to make your game a metaphorical rollercoaster, the experience should be as exciting as riding a real one. Want proof? Look no further than Call of Duty 4, for it is absolutely spot on when it comes to creating an action-oriented experience.
It’s more than just having excellent action sequences, though. One would think that a game where you fight nothing but human enemies would get monotonous, but it never does. This is mostly because the level design is top notch, and places you in many disparate situations so it never gets boring. Furthermore, alternate weapons are plentiful, meaning that should you get stuck with a firearm you can’t get the hang of, you don’t have to play too long before you find a new one. Because ammunition is also abundant, chances are slim that you’ll ever have to give up your preferred weapons.
The experience isn’t quite without its flaws, however. The worst aspect of this game is the presence of guard dogs. In older first-person shooters such as Wolfenstein 3D, dogs were a little more than minor annoyances, the gimmick behind them being that their speed could catch you off guard and shave off some of your health. Naturally, they would leave behind no ammunition upon killing them, so they were better dispatched with a melee weapon instead. Call of Duty 4, on the other hand, turns them into legitimate threats. In the event that you get accosted by a guard dog in this game, you better shoot it as it’s heading for you. If it pounces on you, you only have a brief second before it rips your throat out, killing you instantly. The problem is that the window is so short and occurs at such a specific time, it can be difficult to get the timing right even if you see it coming. A rule game developers should keep in mind regarding enemies with the ability to kill the player in one strike should be: never include them unless you can make dealing with them tolerable. They aren’t nearly as common as human enemies, but I could count the number of times I was able to successfully defend myself from them on one hand.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: The following section of this review will contain some unmarked spoilers. The biggest one is invisible, but skip to the conclusion if you have not played this game and wish to experience it blind.
It is the year 2011. Sergeant John “Soap” MacTavish has just joined a squadron in the Special Air Service (SAS) led by Captain Price. His first mission has them raiding an Estonian freighter in the Bering Strait after receiving word that a suspected nuclear package may be on board. The ship is then bombarded by enemy fast movers, but all of the squad members were able to escape with the shipping manifest. The document points to Khaled Al-Asad as the package’s owner.
Al-Asad had recently risen to notoriety after beginning a coup in a Middle Eastern country. This movement culminated with him personally executing President Yasir Al-Fulani, who was accused of supporting Western ideals. This act causes the United States to mobilize the 1st Force Recon, a battalion within the Marine Corps with the goal of capturing Al-Asad and bringing him to justice.
In the 2010s, the Call of Duty series began to build a reputation. It wasn’t a flattering one either – many critics accused the franchise of being a conduit for the more jingoistic members of the gaming community to live out their power fantasies in the name of proving their patriotic fervor. So prevalent was this perception that a German company known as Yager Development set out to thoroughly examine the premise of these games and show the world how such a mentality is not a healthy one. This is why anyone unfamiliar with Call of Duty 4 would be astonished if they ever gave it the time of day, for it comes across as a brutal deconstruction of the very subgenre it helped popularize.
The game’s narrative knows not the concept of subtlety; it will do whatever it can to hammer the point home that war truly is hell. Usually, I find this level of heavy-handedness annoying, especially because a vast majority of the time authors write like this, they fail to make a compelling point, but this was an instance where being subtle would have been counterproductive.
This is not a story where America saves the day from some group of foreign terrorists who hate Western values because they’re evil. This is a story where America’s efforts in fighting a war in the Middle East are rendered utterly pointless in an instant |by a single nuclear blast| in what will probably go down in video game history as one of the medium’s most shocking moments. At the same time, one could make a strong argument that their efforts made them come across as a little more than imperialistic fascists. Perhaps the citizens of the country were under the impression that such a drastic action was the only way to put an end to the destruction whether they drew this conclusion due to propaganda or because they legitimately believed it to begin with.
The shocking moments aren’t limited to the villains’ actions either; the protagonists also regularly engage in highly questionable acts. In the very first mission, members of the SAS are seen killing security team members in their sleep. In a later mission, you get to pick off terrorists from an AC-130, reducing human beings to dots on a computer screen.
Despite the moral ambiguity which runs rampant throughout this game, the main cast of Call of Duty 4 is likable and you’ll find yourself wanting to get help them triumph over whatever adversity they face. Although the antagonists have believable motives, seeing just how unfettered they are and what little regard they have for human life makes it clear that the world would be significantly worse should their plans succeed.
Drawing a Conclusion
The fourth Call of Duty installment is heralded in several gaming circles to be one of the finest first-person shooters ever made. Is this an accurate assessment? I believe it is. While it’s a little irritating how the game occasionally makes you fail through no fault of your own, those moments don’t occur often enough for them to ruin immersion. It has a sense of self-awareness the franchise lost at some point after publishers dictated that a new entry had to be created annually. With the occasional break for plot exposition, Call of Duty 4 is a nonstop thrill ride with surprisingly poignant moments. Coupled with great acting performances all around and a mature, well-written script, this game successfully gives whoever plays it a genuine wartime experience and all the horrors it entails. Even if you find the subgenre of modern military shooters unappealing, you should give this game a chance if you haven’t already; I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised once you do.
Final Score: 8/10