Just under five years ago, a gaming behemoth was conceived. The Call of Duty franchise went from nothing more than average to practically exploding in your face. Call of Duty 4 brought about significant changes to the franchise – changes that were critically loved and helped to lay the bed-rock for what is currently one of, if not the biggest franchise in the history of the videogame industry. Countless sequels have been spawned since then, each one continuing to be scooped up in the millions by the fan-base, but it all comes back down to the foundations. Has Call of Duty 4 withstood the test of time? How does it compare to the games that have been released since then, brimming at the seams with content not offered back then? Very easily, as it stands.
After the mediocre reception that Call of Duty 3 received, especially after the popular reception of its predecessor, a complete change in setting, style and formula for CoD4 could’ve been a risky move to the series; it had every chance of bombing spectacularly and dropping the franchise into the abyss of forgotten tragedies. However, it did quite the opposite: it exploded. Players loved it, critics loved it, anybody who could control a controller seemed to love it. Endless hours were spent absorbing the well-crafted single-player campaign but even more were spent firing lead and explosive shrapnel into other players on the multiplayer. It changed up nearly everything that CoD3 had offered, replacing it with small and frenetic maps, quick reflex-dependent gameplay and an experience that was more fun than hindering. Call of Duty 4 was well loved for its single-player but its multiplayer offering is what kept the masses returning and even four years later, it still manages to out-perform its numerous successors.
One thing noticeable that’s clear now, perhaps more so than upon the game’s first release, is how ‘quiet’ it can be. Besides the obligatory gunfire happening at spots across the map, the sound of choppers and aircraft pounding you with missiles is not there. The killstreaks here are a simple 3-5-7 combination, the way that works better and is more balanced for all players rather than a select few. Later games have employed the use of a long list of select-able killstreaks, with the more destructive reserved for the higher kill-count, whereas CoD4 gives everyone the same streaks and the same equal opportunity at unlocking them. It’s better this way; killstreaks are meant to be a reward for good gameplay and not as a replacement for actually using your gun to kill the enemy. It’s refreshing to be able to escape the aircraft-controlled spaces of Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops and MW3 and return to a battlefield where the gun-play is more consequential rather than what helicopter you have patrolling the area.
It can be understood as to why later games see fit to employ a long list of killstreaks for you pick and choose from, as it offers some degree of customization between the players, but it does not make for a good sense of balance and equality among the players. Look at Modern Warfare 2, for example: anybody that racks up enough kills, through any method whether legitimate or otherwise, can unlock a ‘chopper gunner’, a controllable helicopter turret that has enough power to wipe out any enemy within seconds of targeting them, whether they even directly place the cursor over them or not. Go even further and you can unlock a nuclear missile that will detonate, killing everybody on the map and promptly end the game. The balance is just not there as it was with the 3-5-7 roster. A UAV can be dodged, an air-strike can be avoided and a simple helicopter can be taken down with a stream of bullets and rockets. CoD4 gives all players the same rewards available and also allows them to remove them from the battlefield with equal difficulty. Later games offer killstreaks as a replacement for gun-play whereas CoD4 rewards it.
If there is anything in a multiplayer that is going to stand against the test of time and emerge as playable even four years later, it would be the maps. Next to the gameplay system, the maps are absolutely crucial to maintaining a long life for the product and Call of Duty 4 has a very strong roster of them available. Anybody that has read the top 15 maps list I posted on my blog last week will be aware that my top two CoD maps come from this game. CoD4 offers something for everybody: if you like close, confined arenas where the action is barely a foot away, you have that. If you want a large map with more empty space than occupied, you have that too. Some of the map offerings aren’t perfect, such as Countdown or Bog, but then you have some of the best in the entire series, such as Crash and Downpour. It’s entirely a personal opinion but the map design has dwindled in recent installments, with the most recent entry (Modern Warfare 3) having a selection that contributes to a balance more tilted towards the side of dross than excellence. Even four years later the maps on CoD4 still offer ‘something’ to be experienced, whether it be immersion or nostalgia. There’s more variation here, more ‘height’ and an overall sense of more effort put into their creation.
One of my fondest memories of Call of Duty 4 involves sniping across the length of road in Crossfire, attempting to dodge other incoming sniper pellets and failing miserably (most of the time). It doesn’t sound like much but back then, it was rather exhilarating and made the map much better than what it should have been. Crossfire was a sniper’s map primarily and trying to fit in with that expectation was fun whether I was killed considerably more times than I was killing or not. Unfortunately, being out-gunned by snipers on Crossfire these days is more likely to irritate me than give me enjoyment but it was for those nostalgic memories that making an attempt at recapturing that feeling was as fun as actually succeeding. Call of Duty 4 holds a lot of memories for me; I hadn’t even been on Xbox Live for a year when it released and it was a massive wave of fun, excitement and difference from the competition. I don’t get those excited feelings all these years on but it’s nice to remember them when playing the game.
It’s possible, maybe probable, that one of the reasons as to why Call of Duty 4 was such a success is because of how it ‘changed the game’. It completely dispensed with the old and came back with the new. It captured my, and others’, attention and it still does, to a certain degree, four years later. Playing CoD4 was unfamiliar back at the time and it was a refreshing change of scenery and pace. Back then, Infinity Ward were more capable of creating a game with passion and effort rather than with the dollar signs floating above the brand name. Modern Warfare 2 was a step back and MW3 even more so. The unfamiliarity has dissipated; the franchise can no longer rely on that to carry it forward in sales and critical success. What drives the series to sales by the million today is a mix of a fan-base who are blinded by hope of change and players who don’t care much for the game’s lack of creativity and unbalancing issues and just want to shoot, kill and maim players with the Call of Duty logo hovering in front of them. The series is incredibly popular but don’t mistake that for quality as you’ll be sorely disappointed.
Call of Duty still has the potential to reinvent and recapture the attentions of those it’s either still failed to entice or those who withstood the temptation. The fan-base is millions-strong, who would surely pick up a new CoD game whether it was more of the same or a completely new change of direction. What is holding the franchise back is the publisher’s, and the developer’s, refusal to move away from the tried-and-tested formula they’ve enjoyed for years and attempt something different. The potential to bring back that feeling of unfamiliarity and reinvent the series is there, and the fan-base also exists for it to be accepted, but the stagnation of those in charge will continue to hinder the series for the foreseeable future. The upcoming Black Ops 2 looks as though it may offer something quite different, with a future-ish setting at hand, but ultimately it will be more of the same again. Activision will, once again, see the inevitable success it will enjoy and see no reason to change what is already raking them billions of dollars in profit. It makes sense from a business perspective but from the view of a typical gamer, all one can see is laziness and greed masquerading as creativity.
It’s not simple to mention a Call of Duty game these days without mentioning the failures of the series as it continues to grow but besides the above, I will try! It sounds as though I am making CoD4 out to be a perfect game and whilst it may come closer to that mythical standard than its future successors, it is by no means capable of reaching it. The game had its issues: an unbalanced perk system (juggernaut, 3x frag, martyrdom, among others), lack of host migration (one of the best things implemented in later years) and others that I cannot think of so quickly. In fact, one could argue that CoD4 has the most irritating, maybe unbalanced, perk system in the franchise’s history. Anybody that played the game copiously will remember the sheer annoyance at killing somebody and then being killed by a grenade that inexplicably popped out of their pocket with the pin detached, or not even being able to kill anybody at all as they’re wielding the abomination known as Juggernaut. It’s these things that help to tarnish the game’s insistence on making everybody equals and although later games may still have a frustrating perk system, none can quite compare to that of CoD4’s. Four years later and it’s still as annoying as it was back then. Some things may change but others don’t, unfortunately.
If there is anything more clear now than back then, it would be that less is definitely more. Later games would have us believe it is the other way around, that the more we have, the better things will be, but CoD4 brings the truth of the matter back home. Less killstreaks means for a better, more balanced, playing field dominated by the skill with a gun rather than the skill with bringing choppers forward to do your work for you. Less clutter on the maps means for an overall more enjoyable experience. Less claustrophobic action means for the chance to pause for breath, rather than run out of it and become frustrated as a result. Call of Duty 4 gives you less tools to work with and yet still manages to give you more to experience than later games. Less is more, each and every time, and if you’re in any doubt of that, pop CoD4 in and see for yourself.
So, does the Call of Duty 4 multiplayer stand the test of time? Yes. Does it still remain possibly the best game in the franchise to date? Absolutely. Is it still as enjoyable four years later? Most definitely. Most games would become stale, old and tiring four years after their initial release and yet CoD4 remains almost as enticing and compelling as it did back in 2007. A game that can remain this way so long after its conception deserves recognition for that achievement alone. As future CoD games will be released, each trying to offer something new yet failing in the process, people will fondly remember Call of Duty 4 for the things it managed to achieve and rightly so, too.