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This weekend I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a token to download and play the Call of Duty 4 beta thanks to the nice folks over at I’m a big fan of both the series and the “modern combat” genre and I was more than willing to dig in for the weekend and get my hands dirty with the beta. I’m glad to report that with a few minor areas of potential polish, CoD4 looks like it’s shaping up to be a serious multiplayer contender this holiday season.

Read on for the full review…

Leaving the fields of France and the WWII theme behind, Call of Duty 4 steps into the modern war theater with a barely fictional conflict between Coalition/Allied troops and an array of Russian/Ukrainian/Middle Eastern factions. The troops are appropriately clothed, outfitted and even authentic sounding in their radio commands and various battle cries.

The realism seems to have been an important design consideration for Infinity Ward, and the level of detail in every aspect of the game is simply stunning. Clothes, vehicles, grass and trees, everything has a very real, very tactile look to it. Where as I had previously considered Gears of War to be the defacto “textured” game for the Xbox 360, I believe CoD4 has taken it to the next level.

Available to play in the beta were three distinctly different maps, most likely chosen for their distinctive characteristics and very diverse styles of game play. This was a solid choice on the developer’s part and really shows off not only the power of the engine in different situations but the wide variety the player can expect in the final game.

The first map I was presented with was ‘Crash’. A middle eastern themed map with a downed transport helicopter in the center. While the idea is hardly original, the actual helicopter is almost a second thought on the map, almost providing it with a namesake and nothing else. Instead it’s a urban combat map with heavy Battlefield 2 flavor. Rooftops to scale and fire from, back alleys and side porches, dilapidated buildings, and all those elements we recognize from similar works in the same genre. What struck me right away when I was playing it for the first time is the lack of team specific areas. Respawn locations are completely sporadic and vary depending on the tide of battle. For example, a group of Marines engaged a group of enemies in the central building on the map, defeating the enemies inside. Those enemies, rather than respawning inside that building (as they normally would have), start off down the street, where the Marines originally came from. Now controlling that section of the map, the Marines in turn are shuffled around to another area for respawning. As key locations are taken by friend or foe, the spawn points move accordingly. It’s not uncommon to completely switch sides of the map, multiple times, in the course of a round.

I found this odd at the beginning, especially after coming from such titles as Battlefield 2, where there are distinct sides to a battlefield and the map is won or lost on defending/capturing the other side. The system Infinity Ward has implemented adds a great deal of depth to the game play. There isn’t a central plane where the battle takes place and everyone knows where it is. This is much more dynamic and free flowing. You’re constantly looking around, over your shoulder, behind cover, trying to find where the enemy is coming from or going to. It’s refreshing and what I consider to be a valuable addition to the game play.

Moving from urban warfare to lush country side, we move on to the map ‘Overgrown’, which appears to be the remains of a small Russian village. The streets are, well, overgrown with grass, weeds, vines and foliage and it’s here where snipers rule. There is intense house to house combat for those less inclined to go outside and it is certainly ferocious. Outside, almost certainly, there are snipers in the weeds and those are best combated with snipers of your own, or at the very least, a few well placed air strikes to smoke them out. There is also a deep river bed running through the middle of the level, one of the few spots without excessive ground cover. Quick sprints are the key to making it across. Along caught wondering around in the river bed is made short work of from any of the dozen or so over looking buildings and their various windows. UAV’s and radar play a large roll in this map since it’s one of the only ways to actually figure out where those shots that just ripped through you came from. That is, unless you pay close attention to “Death Cam”.

Yes, Death Cam. Each and every time you die, while you wait the 3-5 seconds to respawn, you’re treated to a replay of your last moments alive. Observant players can learn exactly who shot them and where the shots came from. Some players are already complaining that this gives the player who died a distinct advantage, but I tend to disagree. If you’re a good player you’ll quickly realize that this game is all amount movement. Staying in one place for too long is perhaps the most foolish thing you could do. Yes, there are stationary guns scattered throughout the levels, but after mowing down an entire platoon, it would probably be best to move, seeing as how the entire platoon now knows where you were hiding. The “hide in one place for the entire game” style of play, better known as “camping” is almost effectively eliminated in CoD4. Death Cam, rotating spawn points, if you stand still, you’re toast.

This anti-camping style of play lends itself well to the CoD controls, which seem to have taken more than a few ques from their CoD2 ancestors. The controls are easy to use, intuitive and require very little explaining for a seasoned FPS vet. For the novice, it’s a system that nearly every FPS has some version of, so you might as well spend the time figuring it out since you certainly won’t be getting away from it. That said, I do have to compliment them of the “smooth” nature of the controls. Everything is very liquid and sensitive. The “twitch” reaction, PC gamer type players will have no problem with this system and neither will the more smooth movement Halo players. It’s a very happy middle ground.

The final level available in the beta ‘Vacant’ is a run down building, a deserted Russian office according to the description, 90% of which is indoor, room to room fighting. This map reminded me instantly of HL2. The S.A.S troops on one team are wearing gas masks which make them look like guards from City 17. The map also features an overcast, but very bright sky which washes out all the colors on the map into a very gritty industrial look. This is also a testimony to the lighting engine. As you exit the indoor areas out into the alleys surrounding the building, you in-game eyes adjust to the change in light and what is a first glance an extremely bright outdoor scene, darkens down to acceptable levels. It’s a very neat effect that adds just that small amount of additional realism to the game. Things like that, the heat distortion coming off the gun barrel, the smoke particles from smoke grenades, all achieve a level of realism that is unlike any console game I’ve ever seen.

To round out the beta we’ve also been treated to a taste of the ‘Perks’ system that the developers have put in place. Here I think, it where the biggest improvements in the genre have been made. In Battlefield 2, you had a series of achievements, ranks and unlocks that came with those ranks. The margins were far apart. You had to jump thousands of points to reach the next level. Climbing the ranks took years and your reward for each step was only a marginally improved weapon. Rainbow Six: Vegas has a rank and unlock system as well, although not quite as ridiculous in it’s requirements for advancement, it’s rewards were even more pathetic. Who wants to be an Elite player who’s only remaining unlock is pink cammo? The “perks” set in place by the CoD team are much more subtle. They add genuine value to the game but don’t change it drastically enough to be detrimental to other players. For example, the “Extreme Conditioning” perk allows you to sprint slightly faster/further than someone without it. The “Bomb Squad” perk allows you to see enemy C4 and Trip Mines. “Sleight of Hand” gives you slightly faster reloading. My favorite so far has to be “The Last Stand” which, when equiped gives you a few seconds after “being killed” to, from the ground, squeeze off a few last rounds with your pistol. It’s incredibly satisfying to be laying on the ground, about to die, and know that you just got the guy that got you.

Another great addition to the mix is the “create a class” feature. In addition to the regular Assault, Sniper, etc, classes is the option to create your own and fine tune your player. You want a sniper who has all the extras of a demolition guy (C4, rockets, etc), done. You want a sneaky, stealthy assault guy who can run fast, done. It’s a very interesting mix-and-match system and it adds a good deal of depth to the game play. Not only are you trying to achieve better equipment, but you’re also trying to better yourself.

All this, and it doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg in points to get there. Each kill is worth 10 points instead of the normal 1. Each headshot is worth 20. Ranks are relatively close together (100-250 points so far). I started playing on Saturday and by Monday afternoon I was level 11 and had unlocked all the beta contained. So, by comparison to other games, the advancement requirement curve is relatively low. You can jump into the game and have unlocked a large portion of it right away. There are plenty of goodies in the higher ranks to keep you coming back for more, but the playing field gets level real quick.

Wrapping up, there are a few things worth mentioning that could use a bit of improvement. While the graphics are top notch, the sounds seem to have been lifted directly from previous CoD incarnations. I’m hoping they’re merely a place holder for the real sounds in the retail version of the game. Also, the HUD is a bit confusing in it’s layout. With no description included in the beta, you’re left to wonder where exactly the health bar is, what are the two non-labeled bars at the bottom of the screen, and why on earth there are large icons for your perks when you can’t actively “engage” them?

Those annoyances are minor however. I had a great deal of fun playing the beta and will continue to do so until the retail game comes out in November. It has surpassed Rainbow Six: Vegas as my Xbox 360 multiplayer game of choice. It has a great feel and I’m sure I’ll have many intense fire fights to come.