It is 2005. In an isolated Californian cube farm, Activision rediscovers a small band of abandoned games developers known as Infinity Ward, that's convinced that World War II shooters are still going strong. After some persuasion, much therapy and having been shown screenshots of Rainbow Six Vegas, Battlefield 2: Modern Combat and Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2, Infinity Ward is convinced to admit that the long war is over (for the time being at least). While Treyarch continue work on Call of Duty 3, Infinity Ward embark on a new, thoroughly modern shooter to blow away the WWII cobwebs with a nuclear wind and usher in a new era for the much-loved but conflict-restricted Call of Duty franchise.
Freedom from the historical battlefield has in turn meant greater freedom from the incumbent sensitivity. Modern Warfare pulls no punches throughout its 24-style story of stolen nuclear material, international terrorism, manhunts, torture and execution.
And don't expect some of these darker themes to be limited to enemy action. It's a slick thriller that far outstrips the sometimes-clumsy cutscenes and dismal voice acting that often tied together the disparate action strands of Call of Duty past.
Although you know straight away that this is a Call of Duty game.
The scale, lighting and texture-enhanced graphics still bear the hallmarks of the series, as do the classic COD controls (left trigger zoom, press thumbstick to steady etc.) Specific unpulled punches that fly straight at the nose and bring tears to the eyes would spoil the plot (and that there is a plot worthy of spoiling speaks volumes for this release), so suffice to say that in Modern Warfare things can and often do go very wrong, sometimes whole hard-fought missions ending in bitter disappointment, demanding new leads and opening up fresh objectives.
It's a treacherous game of fast tidal changes, often sweeping the player off his feet, not just with plot twists, but also with sudden changes in objective that immediately affect gameplay. A stealthy village infiltration will suddenly "go loud" and before you know it you're calling in Cobra strikes on weapon barns, blowing up churches and setting off batteries of claymores in the village high street as you desperately clear each house in search of a captured contact with information vital to the continued existence of 41 million citizens of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. And then the enemy react, their own air support whupping in to deliver strikes and ground troops. Your infiltration-turned-assault has been set on its head and the mission becomes a desperate battle for survival as you retreat house by house with your squad, counting the seconds until the arrival of your exfiltration gunship.
And it's not just the gripping plot and rolling gameplay that keeps you on your toes. Alternating between SAS, the US Marine Corps (USMC) and later joint missions, with a 15-year flashback sniper mission at Chernobyl thrown in to great effect, the brilliantly judged pace of COD4 owes much to the changing locales. With the SAS mostly following nuclear leads through Russia and the USMC battling to maintain stability and track Most Wanted in the Middle East, there's always a fresh environment or new take on an existing setting.
The game starts (after the best interactive cut-scene ever!) on a massive cargo vessel wallowing through a wintry storm in mid ocean. Unlike many other shooter levels set on ships, this one really moves with the swells, waves crashing on deck and corridors lurching as your SAS team works into its heart.