December 20, 2007

Commentary: Call of Duty 4

I was a huge fan of Call of Duty 2. It was so intense and immersive that I couldn't play it for more than an hour at a time. The method of displaying health with no visible statistics, effects like shell-shock, and the constant yelling and action all served to keep me engaged in the experience of fighting WWII rather than the experience of pushing buttons and manipulating numbers.

For Call of Duty 4, I decided that I wanted the most authentic, immersive experience I could muster. So I closed the blinds, locked the door, turned off the lights, put on my headphones, and jacked into the world of CoD4 for about 6 hours one night and played straight through. It was intense.

CoD4 ups the ante for the series by placing more emphasis on developing characters and cinematic storytelling. What's remarkable is that it does so while enhancing the immersion instead of sacrificing it (as is often done with cut scenes, freezing user controls, etc.). The best trick that CoD4 has up its sleeve is its method of moving the user's camera while leaving limited control to the player. While I was consciously aware the it was the game that was making my character's head turn, it felt like I had control, so I was able to see what I needed to see without breaking immersion.

Four scenes were especially excellent and memorable: the opening pre-credits mission (the team chatter and the leap at the end especially), the sequence as the displaced foreign president (a creative way of delivering necessary exposition, and defying expectations too!), the final sequence as the US soldier (especially the way movement is governed), and the final sequence as the British soldier (best game ending ever). All of them, with the possible exception of the second, used first-person interactivity to improve an architected dramatic scene.

The sequence in which the player acts as a gunner from a circling plane also deserves special mention. It was a ton of fun, but it ruined my treasured immersion by including lots of repetitious dialogue. This could have been easily remedied by just, say, tripling the number of lines recorded.

The gameplay is excellent, but not as pristine as the storytelling, and so it served as the biggest weak spot of the game. Some parts felt frustrating, repetitive, or just odd, but I'm not sure if a Call of Duty game, with its fluid combat and checkpoint-based progression, can ever escape those occasional flaws.

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