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Price: $59.99
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Developer: Infinity Ward
Publisher: Activision
ESRB: Mature
Website: Take ‘em out

With Call of Duty 3 Treyarch tried to make a CoD game. Now that Infinity Ward has stepped back into the development picture, the war shooter has risen above the din. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare refines the classic WWII experience, sets it in modern day, and delivers a riveting gaming event. The changes go beyond a re-skinning of the classic franchise. Call of Duty 4 showcases exactly how a series can remain true to itself and be as fresh as the original.

What you need to know is that the game is relatively short, but that time is used to the fullest extent. From start to finish there is barely a moment to take a breath, you will constantly be in a battle for your – and the world’s – very survival. The collective campaign formula has been thrown out in favor of a single narrative. You’ll still play in two separate parts of the same war – as a British SAS soldier and a US Marine – but this time you follow the story of the respective character to their conclusion. The feeling of being in battle with your brothers is an intricate part of the experience.

Call of Duty 4 will place you in events that can be a bit harrowing, and IW has designed a transition between campaigns that never takes you out of the experience. There are no mission logs or static load screens. Instead an overhead map shows your location and then zooms down to throw you right in the action, or to detail weaponry and vehicles you’re about to encounter. It’s a slick presentation that works to keep the player engaged at all times. Which is important, because the relentless pace of the game can tire you out.

Control works as you’ve always loved in the series, and most of the weaponry is simply a modernized version of what we’ve been playing with. A few memorable moments pop up which feature modern weapons. At one point you are high up in an AC130 gunship, reigning fire on enemies below. The experience is invigorating, and is one of the rare respites from intense ground battle. You’ll also use a high-powered sniper rifle where you’ll have to take wind, weather, and the coriolis effect into account. Other than snippets like this, the game plays like the Call of Duty we all know and love.

While the multiplayer is where most players will want to spend their time, missing out on the fantastic campaign would be a travesty. Moving through the grass with your captain as you try to break through enemy lines unseen is an unrivaled experience in any FPS. And unless you’re completely heartless, COD4 has moments that will get to you. No one is being hit over the head with propaganda about the tragedy of war. Instead the story focuses on you as a part of a squad, and through the hell you’ll start to like the snarky bastards who save your ass.

Then there was multiplayer. IW has crafted an online experience that is barely a half-step behind Halo 3, but that slight stumble is quite a problem. Like traditional shooters you are at a distinct disadvantage when you do not know the maps or weaponry, but Call of Duty 4 purposely pits new players against near impossible odds. The experience and ranking system is implemented seamlessly to offer an expansive online game. Everything about it drives the player to learn and adapt to the new perks and weapons that can be obtained. The issue is that for some reason any hint of a proper matchmaking system has been thrown out the window.

Traditional online FPS games take time to get used to while you are decimated by far more knowledgeable players. In COD4 the pain is compounded by the incessant matching of new players with vastly more experience ones, who also happen to have the best gadgets and extras. Joining a match with a rank of 8 only to see the entire party comprised of 35+ players means you had better be happy with 8 kills and 14 deaths, because no matter how skilled you are, a “Double Tap” is going to ruin your night.

Here’s the thing though. The unfair match setups offer you a chance to test yourself, if you’re willing to accept a heavy handicap. You’ll quickly realize that a dead enemy isn’t down until you’ve put a bullet in his writhing corpse, lest they rise up using the “Last Stand” Perk to take you with them. Being outgunned, and outmatched, means that new players should utilize the various pieces of cover that have been placed on the 16 different maps that ship with the game. The most important thing for new recruits is to remember that grenades are your best assets in the early stages.

The multiplayer experience gets Meta with challenges that can be completed to acquire new gear. Get 25 kills with your M16 assault rifle and gain access to the red dot sight. Each weapon has it’s own set of challenges that allow players to personalize their own setup, and rather than get frustrated at the extreme amount of bleeding you’ll be doing, you just have to play one more match to get the ACOG Scope.

Call of Duty 4 on Xbox 360 delivers a visual and aural presentation that is virtually unrivaled. Listening to the sputter of gunfire and explosions all around you can’t help but be impressed with the passion the developer put into the title. Stunning moments abound in the campaign, including one that has you stumbling around a city looking off into the distance at a horrific sight. You owe it to yourself to put Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare on your holiday wish list.

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