If 2007 has proven one thing about gaming, it’s that it very much still has the power to surprise. Earlier in the year we had the genuinely unnerving and quite brilliant Bioshock, a narrative feast with a daring game at the core of it. And now, in the shape of Call Of Duty 4, we have a stunning – if short – first-person shooter that again takes risks and laps up the rewards as a result.
We’ve seen Call Of Duty many times before, of course, although last year’s tepid Call Of Duty 3 was a console-only affair. But this time the franchise has left its World War II roots behind, to instead underpin the game with a kicking, screaming, modern-day scenario. It’s a decision that results in an unnerving game, with the plot this time addressing a fictional scenario that involves terrorism, an unpredictable enemy and slap-bang-up-to-date set pieces. It also genuinely moves the franchise on, and practically leaves you salivating for a further instalment.
The actual core mechanic of the game, however, remains pretty much the same. You are still a solider (and you fill the shoes of two different characters throughout Call of Duty 4) in the midst of a series of ferocious battles and situations, only this time the weaponry is bleeding edge, the technology is ramped up and the battles take place across Russia and the Middle East.
It’s still, for most of the running time, a first-person shooter – although the astonishing helicopter sequences almost cry out for a game of their own – and one that relies quite heavily (although not as heavily as previously) on a script. This script and the subsequent levels have been designed to take away a little of the linear feel of previous Call of Duty games, while still channelling your gaming experience in certain directions. It also means you meet new characters and have the rug dramatically pulled from under your feet from time to time.
Under its new modern day umbrella, the game has been able to evolve in a few interesting ways. Firstly, there are very few places to hide. More powerful weapons mean that bullets can shoot through walls, and sitting and picking off enemies is likely to result in a barrage of munitions being triggered in your direction. Secondly, it kicks in some clever pacing, slowing the action down from time to time for you to sneak about, but never forgetting that you’re there for the action.
Technically, the AI this time around can’t go without mention. It’s just stunning. Mixed in with frighteningly authentic locations and injecting them with the frenetic action set pieces that the Call Of Duty series is renowned for, the game’s a complete adrenaline rush, keeping you so much on your toes that it simply can’t be good for your feet. It’s hard to think of a game in recent times that manages to create such a compelling atmosphere. The developers bill it as an action thriller. My life, they weren’t kidding.
There are some downsides to consider. The best moments are primarily weighted in the first two thirds of the game, for instance, while you’ll be seeing the end screen of the single-player campaign surprisingly quickly (still, there’s no cop-out ending this time). But salvation comes in the form of the superb multiplayer component, which simply has few equals.
Call Of Duty 4 continues to prolong a real purple patch for PC gaming. It’s compulsive to play, sometimes just astounding to watch, and manages to keep vital a franchise that’s up to its fourth chapter and still pulling surprises. Contrast that with the relatively dated feel of the Medal of Honor saga, and there’s little doubt as to which franchise’s next instalment we’re most eagerly awaiting.