Throughout the history of Xbox Live there have been several games that have been the most played at any given time, but no one had a doubt as to which would eventually become the undisputed champion. Nothing, it seemed, could top Halo 3. Now here we are, in the month of March, and Halo 3 is in an almost weekly battle for number one. Its competition is one of the top games of 2008, a title that was a guaranteed success, but which no one thought would become a viable contender against Bungie’s Goliath. That game, of course, is Call of Duty 4, and after just a couple of rounds of play you will see what the fuss is about.
Developer Infinity Ward has been making quality multiplayer games since the original Call of Duty – CoD 3 was made for multiplayer enhancements more than anything. This time they have outdone themselves by offering one of the most complete experiences on any platform. CoD 4 has everything Halo 3 has and more, and avoids many of its competitions most glaring issues. Infinity Ward hasn’t necessarily done anything innovative, but through sheer craft and hard work they have made a juggernaut.
At its heart, most of Call of Duty 4’s modes are reminiscent of the Battlefield games, but without useable vehicles. You can design a custom class featuring precise weapon layouts and “perks” that give your soldier various edges in combat. Kill streaks allow rewards such as radars and airstirkes. It is a devilishly good setup, thanks in part to its leveling system. Every player gets a level that determines his overall experience and skill but, unlike in Halo, it is used for more than matchmaking and cosmetic changes. Everything is determined by your level, be it your weapons and perks, or even what modes you can play. It may sound restricting, but it works out brilliantly. Even a complete rookie has access to powerful weapons like the M16 and AK-47, tools that a veteran will wield at times.
The strict damage modeling (where a few shots will kill) means that if you can get the jump on someone, you are going to win. Furthermore, there are a slew of challenges presented during battles that grant gobs of experience points. In Halo 3, a new player may have a tough time at first; battles are often a matter of jumping and strafing, then going in for a melee strike. If a player has poor accuracy or doesn’t understand the rules of melee combat (which Bungie is still attempting to make more fair), he isn’t going to fare well. In CoD 4, a few hours of play in Team Deathmatch (where friendly attacks can’t kill) spent taking defensive positions will net those same players enough experience (and experience points) to stand a chance in battle.
This is what makes Call of Duty 4 shine. The experience system is gradual and well paced, so by the time you unlock something like Hardcore Team Deathmatch (no HUD, no protection from any fire), you will be ready for it, and even a high level player can look forward to new toys to play with. Some may be put off by the fact that they don’t have complete control over modes and weapons right off the bat, but in my experience, many players will get hooked on basic Team Deathmatch alone. It works so well that you may not miss the other modes.
If you do however, be ready to take your pick. CoD 4 features the same modes that you will find in nearly every modern military shooter. Counterstrike’s bomb planting missions, Battlefield’s capture point based gameplay, and even classic Quake style Deathmatch can be enjoyed. If you try to explore everything the game offers, you may end up without a social life.
All of these options are fantastic, but what puts Call of Duty 4 over the edge is the sheer polish and thought that went into it. The controls are, as always, smooth and responsive on any platform. The graphics are as stunning and detailed as they are in the single player (and put Halo 3 to shame). Melee is simple: one shot one kill. The perk system allows deep customization for a given mode while staying balanced. Suffice it to say that combat is always intense and satisfying; everything feels perfect, and occasions where someone finds themselves the victim of a cheap or bizarre kill are few and far between. It isn’t rare to see someone with a low level place high in the rankings. Four plus months after release, this game feels fair and I don’t think I could say that about Halo 3, which was entrenched among veterans before the holiday season was over.
So is this the perfect multiplayer game? Nothing is really, and CoD 4’s shortcomings make it a complement to other offerings on Live. As nice as the tight, soldier to soldier combat is, there is no denying the fun of vehicles and the large maps of something like Halo. The lack of modes that are favored in Sci Fi shooters, like Capture the Flag, can be a sore point at times. And while much hard work was put into the game, a large portion of the maps are slightly retooled sections from single player levels, which you have not only seen before, but which may not be perfectly structured for multiplayer modes. Finally, the biggest caveat; play over Xbox Live will only support one player. This is where Halo can stand tall and laugh. Having four people on the same Xbox playing Halo off one Live account is a convenience that simply cannot be overstated.
However, when you realize just how many people play with one person to a console, this hangup is mitigated, and then it is simple to see how Call of Duty 4 has done so well. It offers an incredibly engaging experience, as well as a certain flavor that games from Bungie or Epic simply don’t strive for, minus the complete insanity of your average Battlefield players. Military shooters are a dime a dozen, but none can come close to Call of Duty’s overall offerings.