Test System: Windows Vista Premium, A64 3200+, 2GB DDR-3200 RAM, AMD/ATi x1950xt 256MB, ASRock 939Dual-SATA2
Sweat runs slowly down my head as I sprint down the cratered highway, my attention solely focused on reaching the next point of cover. Suddenly, bullets slam into one of my squad-mates like angry lead bees, whizzing through the air next to my head; I feel warm blood splatter onto my face as his scream ends in a sickening gurgling noise: blood has filled his esophageal tract. He falls heavily onto the dry cracked earth below our boots.
"Grenade!" yells a voice right by my ear, and the men in my squad scatter like dust in the wind, finding cover just moments before shrapnel shards tear through the car we had been hiding behind. Three RPG-7 rockets streak through the air, leaving winding smoke trails in their wake. I look up just in time to see the fourth projectile flying straight towards my chest. Half a curse leaves my lips, and then...darkness.
At this point, you might be asking yourself: what the hell does this have to do with anything? And, for that matter, how can a dead man tell tales? Rest assured, readers, I have not died and gone to heaven, though it may have felt that way for some after they heard the news that the demo for the highly anticipated Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare had been released. Going into the demo, my expectations were fairly low, having listened to many user complaints of being "disappointed" and "underwhelmed." And although, after playing the demo now for about one hour, I can see from where the complaints stem, I can say without any reservation that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
After the obligatory intro movies for Activision and Infinity Ward, we are treated with a nice little promo "trailer," if you will, of the game: multiple shots of in gamey footage and cinematics cobbled together into a collage with some back-story and music added in. The demo is single player only, so we're given options at the main menu to either play the game or adjust controls and game settings. Unfortunately, there is no option to load, but given the relative brevity of the material, I would say it's not too much of a hindrance, especially with fairly convenient in-game autosaves.
After a fairly slick loading screen reminiscent of a military satellite feed, we are dropped in medias res, playing as Sgt. Paul Jackson of the United States Marine Corps. Although a small touch, I liked how after the loading finished, the game zooms in onto the 2D satellite picture and transitions seamlessly into the 3D environment. Very little of the plot is given in the demo, though if you pay close attention, you can piece together that some rebel/terrorist leader with a middle-eastern sounding name is making his last stand in a city in Saudi Arabia, and that US forces are moving in for the capture or the kill. Unfortunately, an M1A1 Abrams tank somehow becomes immobilized during the assault and is under heavy attack by hordes of rebels, and it is up to your column of elite marines to save the day.
We move through a burned out and battered town, completing objectives given by commanding officer Lt. Vasquez; it's standard FPS fare as far as objectives go, with a mix of clear the area, defend the position, place the explosive, and place the beacon. Nothing we haven't seen before, though that's not to say it wasn't fun attempting to complete the objectives. How the tank manages to survive for the half-hour or so until your squad reaches it and why the terrorists decide to start using RPG rounds only after your squad arrives, however, is another article for another day. Moving on!
First and foremost, I like the graphics. It's a solid upgrade from CoD2 with more detailed textures and models and what seems like better lighting effects. While the engine is still DX9 based, it's certainly no slouch and compares favorably with the DX9 modes in games like MOH: Airborne and Rainbow Six: Vegas. Of course, having never owned a DX10 card, I won't pretend I have the authority to compare DX10 modes with CoD4's engine.
Secondly, the new bullet penetration feature is definitely a nice addition. If you haven't heard by now, Call of Duty 4 is one of the few games I've seen so far to feature realistic bullet mechanics. Remember those good old days when you would empty an entire clip at a wooden fence only to have the guy hiding behind pop up and cap one in your head? No? I just suck at video games? Okay, fair enough, but, more to the point, you can actually shoot through barriers now! Amazing! The new engine looks at bullet characters and surface characteristics to determine whether a bullet will be able to penetrate, and how much the bullet's velocity will be slowed if the projectile does make it through a wall. Trust me, it's immensely satisfying to peg a guy hiding behind a thin metal sheet with your M14 while he thinks he's safe behind cover.
I guess I should probably mention the UI at this point: it's nothing spectacular but it doesn't really get in the way at all either. On the bottom of the screen is a small compass with a marker to show you where your next objective is, and to the right of the compass is a bar showing your ammo and grenades. Very simple, fairly effective (though the compass did end up confusing me at some points since the marker failed to point at my main objective), and unobtrusive. Pressing tab overlays a darkened screen with your objectives and a small mini-map showing friends, hostiles, and objective points.
And, although I could go on, this is supposed to be a concise preview, so I'll sum up by saying that Call of Duty still has it when it comes to recreating the pure frenetic, chaotic atmosphere of combat. As evidenced by my brief narrative above, the game really does put you right onto the battlefield, and even with my meager 2 speaker setup, I felt immersed into the world. Guns feel satisfyingly "meaty" (proper recoil and good usage of bass on the sound effects; please, no sexual jokes here...fine, you may make one), enemies seem intelligent with proper duck and cover tactics (one nice touch is that immobilized enemies will continue trying to shoot you with their pistol if you fail to kill them), and I think the best thing you can say about the game is that it's got all the undiluted style and goodness of Call of Duty 1 and 2.
Of course, at certain moments, the demo feels too much like CoD2, as if the designers simply slapped a few new textures and sound effects onto the game and decided the market it as a new entry in the franchise. Of course I wasn't expecting the gameplay to be radically different (don't fix what's not broken), but, somehow, I couldn't help but feel that I had already done everything before in another life (or, more precisely, another game). The demo is relatively short as well, but I don't think that's a major negative factor since it gives you enough material to taste what I hope the real game will feel like.
Overall, the demo is very nicely put together, and successfully recaptures a lot of what made the original game a huge success: cinematic feel and immersive gameplay. The demo is impressively polished, and I don't doubt that this will follow into the actual game. Since this is a demo, I'll refrain from putting down a score, but, suffice it to say, it has two thumbs up from me.