Oh my.

I have to say, I was originally disposed to not to like Call of Duty 4. While I appreciate that the developers at Infinity Ward wanted to move beyond the World War II genre, I felt that they should have gone with a different brand, or perhaps just have called it "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare" to more clearly differentiate it from the earlier WWII-era shooters, which are personal favorites. Plus the game looked an awful lot like the Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter titles (see my reviews of GRAW and GRAW 2), and I wasn't sure we needed another one of those.

Wrong again. Call of Duty 4 is an eye-opening experience, demonstrating that the good folks at Infinity Ward do indeed know what they're doing. In fact, Call of Duty 4 might just be the best game released this year. Yeah, I really think it is.

It's certainly quite a bit better than Halo 3, despite all of the hoopla and hype that surrounded that title at launch. And it's better than Gears of War, my choice for the best game of 2006. The multiplayer component in COD4 is about a million times better, in fact, and the COD4 single player campaign is both believable and engrossing. I haven't been this pumped about a game since, well, Call of Duty 2.

That's no coincidence, of course, as the same group of developers was responsible for both. (Call of Duty 3 was made by Treyarch, which explains the bugs that dogged what should have been an exemplary title.) And if you're into shooters, as I am, you simply need to get this game. Forget Halo 3. Forget Bioshock. This is the real deal.

Single player

In the single player campaign, you alternate between newcomers to the British SAS and American Marines Corp., respectively, as a modern-era conflict unfolds. The storyline, essentially, involves Middle Eastern terrorists and nuclear bombs in the former Soviet Union, so the game is both timely and dramatic. It's also quite realistic, as you move seamlessly through the story arc, back and forth between the two characters.

Those familiar with previous Call of Duty games should have no problems jumping right in as the control scheme is exactly what you expect by now. There are some differences, however: You can use the Xbox 360 controller's dial pad to perform certain actions--like call in helicopter strikes--and you're almost always working as a member of a team. If you found games like Rainbow Six: Vegas, GRAW, and GRAW 2 to be a bit much, however, fear not: You never actually lead any teams or control non-player characters: In this game, you're the raw recruit, learning the ropes in the worst possible conditions.

Indeed, this leads to some of the best moments in the game, including the absolutely classic All Ghillied Up level, where you and a more experienced comrade head stealthily through enemy territory wearing "ghilly" suits, special brush-coverage camouflage that makes you particularly hard to see. In a stunning moment, you must crawl through long grass while an enemy squad walks by in staggered formation, looking for you. This fantastic level is also notable for other reasons: It's a rare example of stealth over overt combat in a full-on shooter, and you'll find the level much easier to complete if you sneak by enemies rather than try and take any of them down. The first time I completed the game, on Normal, I took the latter option and found the second half of this level to be quite difficult because I had unknowingly alerted the enemy to our presence. But I'm in the process of playing through the game again now on Veteran, the hardest difficulty level, and this time I chose stealth all the way: Amazingly, the second half of the level was a cakewalk, and none of the problems I had the first time around were present. Brilliant: A game that doesn't make things harder simply by throwing more bad guys at you.

The only downside to being a recruit is that you're almost never able to take the lead, and that includes doing such simple things as opening doors. And while the AI is better than ever, your buddies still have an annoying habit of walking into your gunfire while you're engaged with the enemy. This is a problem that dogs all games like this, of course.

Once you do complete the COD4 single player campaign, you unlock some Arcade Mode challenges, which essentially allow you to replay parts of single player for points. Interesting, and not a little bit unlike the Instant Action options in F.E.A.R.

Multiplayer

As with its two Xbox 360-based predecessors, Call of Duty 4 includes an excellent multiplayer component. This time around, Infinity Ward has pulled out all the stops and really rethought how a multiplayer shooter can work. Consider this all-too-familiar occurrence in virtually every other multiplayer shooter there is: You're hammering away at an opponent, chipping down his health, when suddenly one of your so-called teammates (or another opponent in a non-team game) swoops in, takes one shot, and makes the kill. For this, you receive nothing, while the kill stealer gets a point. Unfair? You bet.

COD4's first innovation is to undo that broken system. In this game, each kill is worth at least 10 points, not one. If you contribute to a kill, but don't actually make the final kill, you'll still get some credit for the assist: 2 points. The guy who actually makes the kill gets the full 10. Nice!

COD4 also one-ups any of the experience-based shooters you may have seen by allowing you to gain experience as you play, move up through the ranks, and pick from various capabilities as you go. Some of these capabilities, called perks, include such things as new weapons, weapon add-ons like scopes and grips, and so on. The more you play, the better you get, and the better your online character gets. You can view other player's custom perks settings when they kill you in multiplayer, via the apr?s-kill Deathcam view.

From there, much of COD4 multiplayer will seem familiar. There are 16 maps and all the expected game types. Absolutely first class.

If I have a quibble with COD4, and believe me, it's a stretch to find anything seriously wrong with this game, it would be that it doesn't include any cooperative play modes. While many recent games--like Halo 3 and Gears of War--now offer cooperative play modes, where you and a friend can complete the single player experience together, COD 4 is decidedly old school in this regard: You can either play through the campaign by yourself or play against others online.

COD 4 also lacks any multiplayer achievements. When COD2 first shipped two years ago with just single player achievements, I felt like it was just early in the Xbox 360 life cycle and maybe the game's developers just weren't clear on how to adequately dole out achievements. Now, in late 2007, there's no excuse: At least half of the game's achievements should be related to multiplayer in some way. It's a curious omission. Again, not a deal breaker, but it is curious.

Final thoughts

While I hope that Activision isn't going to ignore World War II going forward, Call of Duty 4 suggests that this format can work well within a variety of scenarios, and I'd love to see future Call of Duty games address other conflicts, real or imagined. As a standalone single player campaign, Call of Duty 4 can teach a lot of other games how it's done, and the multiplayer component is absolutely first rate as well. Few games get this balance just right, with some (like Halo 3) leaning too much on multiplayer and others (notably Gears of War) offering stellar single player, but horrifically bad multiplayer. That Call of Duty 4 does both so well so effortlessly, in such glitch-free fashion, is simply astonishing. This is the best game I've played all year, and if you're as into shooters as I am, you'll think so too. Highly recommended.