It's your duty, soldier, to please that booty!
I really can’t stand war games. As a sub-genre of the first-person shooter, war games have milked the Greatest Generation for all it’s worth, making us storm Omaha Beach at least once a year. Shooting Nazis is fun, sure, but eventually it becomes cliché. I’m also genetically predisposed to sucking at FPS games. If you stuck me in front of an Xbox 360 with a monkey who has never played Halo 3 before, the monkey would win nine times out of ten. If it’s not called “Metroid Prime," I am horrible at it.
Having said that, you can only imagine my shock (and awe!) when I became completely enraptured in Activision’s Call of Duty 4, which is making its rounds on the more modern consoles. I didn’t play it on the PlayStation 3, 360, or PC, mind you, but I just sat, enthralled, watching my friend play on his PS3. I hoped that CoD4 would show up on the Wii (seems like a good fit), but alas, such is not the case. So when I received a copy of CoD4 for the Nintendo DS, I was surprised and excited, but also a little concerned. If Activision passed on the Wii for hardware reasons (and I don’t blame them), then how would the DS game handle?
Ladies and germs, Call of Duty 4 on the DS is absolutely incredible. It is a nonstop thrill ride that literally does not stop until the credits roll. Just like the military forces it strives to evoke, CoD4 is fast, efficient, and responsive. It is, without a doubt, one of the best DS games I’ve had the pleasure of playing.
The plot centers around stopping a Middle East extremist named Al-Asad, who may have Weapons of Mass Destruction. Al-Asad may have financial ties to a businessman in Russia, who is attempting to bring communism back into fashion. You play as American and British troops in both areas, switching back and forth between protagonists, and each “storyline" takes place at the same time. The Brits are trying to find the Russian backer while the Yanks are going after Al-Asad. The plot is told through slideshow cutscenes which occur between missions. While not especially engrossing, the slides get the job done. Interestingly, most missions find you fighting in parallel to the console teams. That is, while the PS3 squad might be infiltrating a tanker’s belly to find a nuclear bomb, the DS version has your squad providing cover on the deck while disarming missiles. It’s like watching the same movie from two different perspectives. This is a very cool dynamic, especially if you’ve experienced both the console and DS versions of the game.
Most of the gameplay is wrought through an interface lifted directly from Metroid Prime: Hunters, another DS FPS I really liked. The stylus navigates the Touch Screen (which also serves as a map) in order to aim on the upper screen, the R Button fires your gun, and double-tapping X or B lets you run and crouch, respectively. The Touch Screen also has icons for your main and secondary weapons, and grenades. Instead of jumping, double-tapping the Touch Screen switches your view to ADS mode (aiming down the sight) which, in theory, gives you a more accurate shot (more on that later). You can exchange your currently-equipped weapon for a gun lying on the ground by tapping a hand icon, and you can occasionally call in air strikes by tapping a binocular icon. By tapping your currently-equipped weapon, you can reload it. A few bomb-defusing sequences have you hacking security codes and defusing bombs. The latter task, while under a beeping timer, has a real sense of urgency to it.
While the controls are, for the most part, incredibly tight, there are some areas that could use improvement. ADS mode brings up a 2D “frame" which does little more than obstruct your view of the enemy, and it’s not noticeably more accurate than firing from the hip. Part of the problem is that you’ll want to use ADS mode for long shots, but the enemies tend to pixel out at a distance, so it’s not always clear what you’re shooting at. Also, ADS is activated by double-tapping the Touch Screen, but due to the constraints of the Touch Screen’s size, you’ll often be removing the stylus and putting it back down, and the game will sometimes register a double-tap, bringing up ADS when you don’t want it. This doesn’t really adversely affect the gameplay, but it’s a slight flaw nonetheless. Actually, if you want to be more accurate, just crouch. Also, ADS sensitivity can be turned down from the options menu.
Thankfully, there are enough gun types around any given area that you never need to worry too much about not hitting enemies. The FPS areas range from the wide-open spaces of a ruined Middle Eastern city the confined quarters of a luxurious mansion in Mother Russia. There are some areas where finding cover becomes a priority, but thankfully your enemies rarely run after you. If you’re hurt, just backtrack a little and rest. The FPS gameplay is engaging and exciting, and its fast pace is almost exactly like the tone set by CoD4’s big console brothers. Although I wish there were a few more spots for air strikes, the gunplay is second to none. These sections only become tedious in the last few missions, when your guard is constantly up, and enemies fill the halls. But even then, you adrenaline is pumping.
And then you’ve got the uber-awesome missions. You know, like the one where you’re the gunner on a helicopter, spraying Arab militia from here to kingdom come. And the coolest mission on the console versions is back in full force here—you’re manning a 105 mm cannon, firing it with wild abandon at enemy troops while your boys on the ground scout out enemy encampments.
The graphics are fantastic considering the hardware this game is running on. Enemies animate fairly smoothly—the game looks noticeably better than N64 games like Goldeneye and Perfect Dark, and without the slowdown that crippled the latter. Although there are no real lighting effects to speak of, the overall color palette is light enough that you won’t have trouble seeing enemies, especially since your map’s sonar often detects them (as red dots) before you’re shot to hell. Some sequences, like the opening gunner mission, boggle the mind with their technical skill. You’d expect some chugging or environmental popup while zipping through a canyon, firing on enemy troops while helicopters fly overhead, but nope! It all looks absolutely beautiful, all the time.
Adding to the impressive specs is a boatload of spoken dialog. To get the most out of the game, in fact, you’ll want the volume turned up all the way, as objectives are often given to you over the speakers rather than in a text box. During the critical air support missions in particular, a good ear is an absolute necessity. There’s no noticeable musical score (aside from a few critical missions), but you’ll be too busy paying attention to gunshots, vehicle noise, and your commanding officer to care. My only complaint with the sound is that many of your fellow military officers sound like high schoolers, not the rough-and-tumble Marines you keep hearing about.
I’m sad to report that CoD4 on the DS has no online multiplayer. There is both single and multi-card play, although the available game types are a bit lacking (deathmatch AND team deathmatch? Who’da thunk it?). And unlike Metroid Prime: Hunters, there is no stat tracking. The lack of Wi-Fi play really hurts CoD4, and limits its lastability, but I can’t really knock the solo effort.
But the game’s biggest strength is in how well it establishes the tone and feeling of the console CoD4 games. The fast pace, mission structure, and gameplay are all distinctly Call of Duty, and everything performs beautifully. In addition to that, CoD4 on the DS is just a damn good game and will keep you entertained for quite some time.