I picked up Call of Duty 4 for the 360 late last week. After loading the game I proceeded straight for the online multiplayer — single player be damned. The first game was a write-off as I was figuring out the controls and the classes and the interface (not that I did horrible mind you! Figuring out the controls is easy if you are experienced with console first person shooters.) By the second game I was all set, racking up kills and assists and grinning through it all. The multiplayer gameplay in CoD4 is amongst the best ever on a console. It’s visceral, intense, varied and flexible. Only Halo 3 trumps it for variety and flexibility, with all the wonderful stat tracking, saved films and Forge features; but with the actual in-game action, CoD4 wins. That’s my hyperbole.
Now for the negatives. Call of Duty 4 falls into that completely irksome habit of unlockable content in a multiplayer game. In some ways it’s there to ease you into the game, making it more accessible since it doesn’t overwhelm you with options from the start. Granted, the default weapons generally pack enough of a punch so you’re not completely handicapped but there’s nothing more frustrating than running into a gun fight and using your gun’s basic irons sights to aim at an opponent only to be shot dead and upon viewing the “death cam” seeing that you got shot through a super-advanced scope by some guy with “extra bullet damage” perks installed.
Ideally the match-making would mitigate this kind of unevenness but it comes across as broken. Unless people are playing with friends there’s absolutely no reason why someone with the lowly rank of private (1) should be in the same game against someone three star general (50-something), yet I’ve seen this very situation multiple times already. That’s one thing that Halo 3 does very well.
The other problem is that this kind of positive feedback system exists on the battlefield too. When you get three kills in a row you are given the ability to launch a UAV, which gives your team radar for half a minute. This is very useful as it shows your entire team where every opponent (generally) is on a map. When you get five kills in a row, you are given the ability to call in one airstrike. With seven you can call in a support chopper. This breaks the balance considerably when in the hands of a good team since their good play will be rewarded with greater capability to continue playing well, the very definition of positive feedback.
It takes one person scoring a three kill streak early in a game to change the whole balance of that battle. A radar lets you ambush people better; a successful ambush nets you an airstrike; a good airstrike will often net you one or two kills; that instantly brings in a chopper; and before the other teams knows what the hell just hit them, they find themselves deep in the hole. The momentum swings such a streak can create are exciting, but in the hands of a good team these bonuses can be exploited to create a non-stop barrage from which there is little escape. Nothing is more frustrating than spending an entire match stumbling around in the dark with no radar while a symphony of “Enemy has launched a UAV” and “Enemy airstrike inbound” warnings spill out of your speakers. It’s not a game breaker by any means but it’d be nice if there was some kind of counter to it, maybe by making these abilities class based perks rather than free for everyone.
Still, being on the giving end of one of those whoopings is satisfying as hell!
Oh, and there’s a single player game there too. Whatever.