The combat in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is as tense and exhilarating as war has ever appeared in art. A British soldier's gaze travels from the ammunition emerging from his side pouch to the G36C assault rifle in his hand as he crouches, reloading. A terrorist, shot in the leg and temporarily sprawled against a wooden crate, rolls onto his belly before raising his mini-Uzi with one hand and firing indiscriminately, condemnation bellowing from his bloody mouth.
But the game's level of detail works against it, too. Every flaw is a crack in the immersive facade. A fellow soldier crouches, his weight leaning forward with his combat boot firmly planted a few inches above the ground, hovering on the air. In another place, weeds growing outside a power plant all exhibit the same pattern of flowers atop their stems, blossoming in the same arrangement as through they were nothing more than digital stamps clicked across the landscape. And when I stand in the glare of a helicopter's spotlight, I cast no shadow on the same wall that my commanding officer was silhouetted against a few moments before.
When Modern Warfare succeeds it maintains a terse and intense pace by confronting me with waves of enemies who aim well with weapons that can kill with a single shot. But the combat serves nothing. The game's sequence of events is fractured between an American and a British soldier, spread across several periods of history. As the action jumps around, nothing emerges that is even worthy of a knock-off story from Tom Clancy. It's as though the game's designers figured out how to make a war, but have no cause for waging it.
THE GOOD: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is nearly complete in its roster of contemporary battle scenes. In addition to fighting on the ground with guns, I also target enemies while flying overhead, watching their bodies scatter like clods of dirt when the mortar shell erupts in a cloud next to them. The effects of radiation poisoning and the sight of a terrorist coup are witnessed firsthand, and during all of this, not a single real person gets hurt.
THE BAD: The single-player campaign is rather short and repetitive, suggesting that Call of Duty 4 is intended more for multiplayer combat. And while there is an abundance of camouflage and weaponry to skirmish with, most of the multiplayer maps provide a flat, two-pronged battlefield littered with arcs of cover points, which doesn't feel compelling in the era of Halo 3's all-around space combat.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a lavishly detailed but uninspired Bush-era combat sim, only this time there actually are weapons of mass destruction.