Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Ever-grinning infinity ward president Grant Collier has put on his serious face. "Folks thought it would be Vietnam or Iraq, but nobody thought it would be a fictional conflict," he explains while revealing a snazzy T-shirt printed with a smart Call Of Duty 4 logo on the front and a battle scene on the back. "There's sensitivity about the subject matter, but we don't want people to misunderstand what we're doing - it's absolutely not about the war in Iraq..." As with Call Of Duty and Call Of Duty 2. PC has been invited to publisher Activision's UK HQ for the exclusive first look at the new Infinity Ward shooter - this time Call Of Duty 4: Modem Warfare. Ne're just about to find out the closely-guarded secret setting of the new game, and you could say that we're a teensy bit excited.
"We really wanted to craft an enemy that would give the Western powers a stand-up fight," continues Collier. "COD for us is two sides with different advantages pitted against each other, but very evenly matched. A lot of the modern battles are very one-sided, so one team comes in and f***ing annihilates the other guy, then it's just insurgencies and mopping up - stuff that really isn't Call Of Duty and doesn't make for a fun game."
Back In The USSR
We settle down in the presentation room in front of a large hi-definition TV, displaying a pre-Alpha splash screen of the brand new Call Of Duty. So what is the 'Modern Warfare' in the game's title? Collier explains that they've created their own conflict, focusing on a main bad guy - a Russian ultra-nationalist called Zakhaev, who wants to bring back the Soviet Union in the style of his idol, the ruthless genocidal Stalin. These are actions that would obviously have Boris Yeltsin turning in his recently-dug grave. Zakhaev is being backed by a significant group of dodgy Russian businessmen, mafia and military, so has a lot of meaty hardware at his disposal, which he promptly uses to start a civil war in his mother country. However, Zakhaev knows that the other world powers will eventually get involved in his little conflict, so he hatches a scheme to occupy the attack dog of the West, the USA.
Lure Of The Desert
"Everyone knows the Americans are a sucker for a conflict in the Middle East," says Collier, "so Zakhaev uses a buddy called Al-Asad to fund a coup in this nondescript Middle Eastern country. It's a trap, so the Americans get tied down and Zakhaev is ecstatic." Meanwhile, the good ol' British, in the form of the SAS special forces, have been keeping tabs on Zakhaev for a long time, since the days when he was an arms dealer. They're in Russia undercover trying to find him, while gathering more intel by working with loyalist Russians to try and convince the US that the war in the Middle East is just a distraction. So, the Yanks send the Marines' elite division, called Force Recon, to track down Al-Asad -eventually leading to the two storylines interweaving and meeting up in Russia. You ultimately have to track down and stop Zakhaev, Al-Asad and their two close associates (known collectively as 'The Four Horsemen') before the world is plunged into a catastrophic global conflict where nukes are involved.
"COD4 takes place over 30 days, and we really want it to play out like an episode of 24 - we're working with TV writers who understand how to get a strong, episodic storyline going," says Collier. "We're able to have continuous characters throughout the game while being able to change locations. In previous games we changed locations through the various campaigns, but you lost contact with all the characters from that storyline. And besides Price and McGregor, do you really remember any of the characters from Call Of Duty? No. Our goal is for you to really get to know these characters, to have an attachment to them, and at the end of the game, remember them."
As with other Call Of Duty games, the first level begins with training - this time in an SAS warehouse filled with a plywood ship, as Price (yes, lie's back) yells instructions, teaching you how to aim down the sights and so on. However, Grant Collier starts the action with the first proper mission, as you and your three-man SAS team rappel from a helicopter onto a ship at night, in rough seas, with a horde of angry ultranationalist Russians looking for a fight.
Sea Legs Required
The scene is one of a constantly swaying ship in a storm, with rain and sea spray lashing the deck, as you machine-gun your way past enemies and through some containers to gain access inside. Lightning flashes and briefly lights up the action, as you witness your support helicopter hover down and send a volley of mini-gun fire through the windows of the bridge above, killing everyone inside in a shower of bullets and glass.
You're kept constantly updated over voice-comms, and make your way to a ship door as your Al team-mates kick it in and storm inside, allowing you to systematically take enemies down -including those asleep in their bunks. Shoot a pipe and gas leaks from the bullet holes, while enemies recoil and fall realistically down stairs or slump against other moving objects - Call Of Duty 4 has a fully-realised proprietary physics system. If you're shot, the screen begins to turn red and if it's bad, you hear your heart beating, which as in COD2, signals that it's time to find cover and drop back from the action until your health returns to normal. Yes, this is the Call Of Duty we know and love, but it's much faster, with more realistic animation and liquidsmooth visuals whizzing past at a solid 60-frames-per-second.
There's a brief lull in the chaotic action, and I ask Collier if this new Call Of Duty is a bona fide PC shooter despite the multi-format release? "Yes -there are things you have to do across all platforms, but we want to be the best shooter on PC and all formats. There are a number of advantages on the PC side - you're going to have mouse/keyboard, dedicated servers, higher player count and the visual quality is much better on high-end systems." Were Infinity Ward aware that PC gamers were annoyed when Call Of Duty 3 make it to PC?
''We know people were aggrieved, but COD3 wasn't made by us - it was a console developer who made a console game. COD4 is being released two years from the finish of COD2, as COD2 was two years from COD. If a game comes out every year, it isn't going to be as amazing."
Next up is one of the first US missions, which begins with an obvious homage to the 'Ride Of The Valkyries' helicopter attack from Apocalypse Now, with a dozen or so Black Hawks flying in over a very detailed Middle Eastern town, as ground-to-air missiles roar up from ground level, snaking smoky trails behind them. You hastily rappel down into the dusty urban sprawl with the other troops - some of your fellows begin constructing barbed wire defences, while you commence intense street-to-street fighting, throwing the new flashbang grenades into rooms and clearing them of stunned enemies.
"Our art director Richard Kriegler has really helped improve the quality of the artwork across the board. One example is when he asked the programmers to create a feu post-processing effect engine, so he can now take sliders and change the time of day or the lighting to create different moods. So in these hot, dusty levels, it looks really washed out and desaturated, such as in films like Saving Private Ryan" The US Marines' Force Recon squads are larger than the four-man teams you have in the SAS levels, and rather than being used for quick infiltration and clandestine missions, they storm in guns-blazing and lay down the law. As liefore, Al soldiers point the way towards objectives, and yon have multiple paths through the levels, but Collier asserts that COD4 isn't a 'sandbox' game.
"We get knocked unfairly for being too linear - we spent a lot of time in COD2 trying to open it up. With our save system, it goes back 10-15 seconds before you die rather than at the start of the level - if we did the latter, you'd see how much choice you get during levels, but we don't want to punish the player. We want to keep it moving forwards so you feel like you're playing a movie. "We do spend a lot of time crafting the cinematic moments because they can be seen from multiple directions - we never know where the player is going to be looking. So we have to really pack in the eye candy and you should feel the intensity...''
Streets Of Rage
On to another Middle Eastern level, and this time yon and the Force Recon squad have to rescue an Ml Al Abrams tank and work alongside it through the tight streets. The action gets more chaotic when the tank rolls over a car, crushing it in real-time, and you enter an area teeming with Al-Asad's soldiers, armed to the teeth with automatic weapons, grenades and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades, not copies of Diablo).
Explosions now have a physical shock wave - walls collapse sending rubble and dust particles into the air and vehicles can be shot to pieces and will blow up if damaged enough. You can now pick up grenades that have been thrown at you and chuck them back as well, with access to tear gas and flashbangs as well as smoke and frag grenades. The ballistics and impact of every weapon have been accurately modelled too, allowing you to use, say, a heavy machine gun to shoot through walls and ceilings to kill bad guys.
War Is Pretty
Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare has really improved visually, as you would expect for any new next-gen game, so you'll lie seeing realistic foliage in the Russian levels, gorgeous rippling water, birds and butterflies flying around. If the beautiful terrain wasn't populated with mad Commie terrorists trying to kill you with rocket launchers, you'd believe it was a sneak-peak at a new Elder Scrolls game. Also, to aid your immersion, Infinity Ward have gone further by reducing the amount of HUD information than in other Call Of Duty games - they've got rid of the mini-map in single-player, and information on weapon choice pops up then fades away quickly. In the final level we got to look at, your character and the Force Recon soldiers go into an area deep in Al-Asad territory to find a crashed helicopter, at night, in hugely dangerous, boggy wasteland littered with war debris and derelict buildings. As with all the levels, it begins with a satellite view of the terrain, which then zooms in quickly to show the battle landscape at eye level, like a military Google Earth.
Amid the intense fighting, Collier demonstrates the night-vision goggles that give you a bright green-eyed view of the ensuing chaos, allowing you to spot targets easily in the darkness. "We've created new technology to emulate what the human eye sees, so we've looked through real night vision, filmed through night vision, compared the two and then modified it. We've found that eyes and cameras are very different. Also, there's a depth of field system, so when you're staring at someone down a sight, they're in fine detail, but in peripheral vision, you don't really have them full focus. We don't want people to notice, we just want it to feel natural.''
Collier also shows the same dark building interiors without night vision, to show how another subtle visual effect is used to further convince the player that what you're seeing is real. When people move about in low-level light, the human eye can actually pick that up, unless it's pitch black. Rim lighting is a faint outline of the characters in the darkness, so people can have fun in dark levels, without having to crank up the gamma settings on their monitor." To finish, we're shown one of the most impressive first-person shooter weapons I've ever seen - a massive rocket launcher that, when picked up, allows you to electronically tag your distant target using the weapon's HUD, then unleash a truly devastating explosion that rocks the environment and kills any living matter within the radius of the fire storm.
Call Of Duty is back. Modern Warfare looks and feels like a Call Of Duty game, but in today's world, complete with blinding pace, terrifying weaponry and state-of-the-art technology. "You've got that intelligent squad surrounding you, you've got intense firefights where you might get pinned down or you might get flanked,'' adds Collier. "We really want the player to teeter back and forth between feeling like you're crushing these guys, to feeling like, Oh my god, I'm so f***ed'!''
The pacing will also be much more varied than Call Of Duty 2, where the action was ramped up to 11 for most of the levels. "You'll be in Russia doing some spy-type stuff in camouflage suits, then you'll head to the Middle East with squad warfare supported by helicopters, then become a gunner on an attack helicopter, then back to Russia protecting a defector from Zakhaev. COD4 even has back-story missions where you go back 15 years in time for a Hilander-style flashback.
With exciting multiplayer modes already well on the way and a singleplayer campaign that follows the same characters through big trademark action set-pieces in different locations, we're excited. Team this with realistic lighting, Al, weapon ballistics, true physics, mo-cap animation and more gear such as tear gas and thermal goggles, and COD4: Modern Warfare could condemn other shooter franchises stuck in WWII to the history books.
Download Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode