Having played collectible card games since the original printing of Magic - taking my dishwasher's tips across the street to Dragon Tails to secure boosters for the coveted Arabian Nights - seeing Gabriel take up the pastime has warmed (but not thawed) my black heart. It's always a portion of myself I've bridled in his presence, kept hidden, suppressed may be the word. To have him take it up so freely makes me wonder which perversion of mine he'll take up next.
When he started talking about his "Firestarter" deck, whose dancing fires were stoked by a mysterious device known as "The Holon Engine," I began to worry. The dangers of Netdecking are fairly substantial when it comes to friendly play, a corrosive force that turns friendly pick-up games into ostentatious displays of wealth on par with rap videos. If you're playing in a competitive venue, building on prior art and making loads of precision purchases is probably your only recourse. But if you're just playing at lunch, let me be clear: you are consorting with devils.
I took time over the weekend to hit the level cap in Call of Duty 4, and then just to be sure that I understood what was going on I played for several more hours. I'm not the most skilled player you will encounter, with a roughly equal number of kills and deaths, but I prefer to think of my work in an assassinative context - the removal of key players at key moments. Please let me have this.
In the absence of the game's deeply integrated progression scheme, Infinity Ward would merely have created one of the best shooters available today. It would have staunch proponents, and they would be right to praise it. Is there a substance within cream that can rise to the top of itself? This substance has been discovered. As a distillation of the Infantry FPS, this is right down to it. This is brutal, unrepentant, bathtub fucking hooch. It is tight and smooth, it is lethal. Unrelenting in its intensity, your first rounds - indeed, your first few levels - will be spent without the succor of CoD4's rich rewards for continued play. But you'll see them on the killcam, every time you go down: this one has increased health, of course that would help. This one does more damage. This one, after he's killed, pulls his sidearm and takes a few final shots. This one's shots retain more of their damage after they pass through a wall.
You earn these for leveling up, with the experience you gain for every kill, for every round. You also earn experience for Challenges, which are (collectively) "awesome things that you did." I completed X-Ray challenges last night for killing people behind walls, which dished up bonus XP - this is displayed with exultant audio and video cues at the very moment of success. Killing while crouched, killing while prone, taking down an enemy helicopter, this is all gravy. There are challenges specific to your weapon, as well: for kills and headshots with that firearm, you travel down an upgrade path unique to that weapon that reveals sights, camouflage patterns, and other tools to customize your equipment.
Watching videos of multiplayer play online, you'll get the impression that it looks better than it does. It looks fantastic, don't get me wrong, but it's not completely photorealistic. What it does have is an extremely reliable framerate and excellent level design, so that during the experience of play these fantastic visuals are transmuted into something sublime. Here's what I mean: if a friend is over, and they are watching you play, they'll be able to detect flaws here and there. Level geometry isn't especially fanciful, and blown paper or leaves look a little strange. But for the player, movement is just right, player models are just right, and the environments are right so that moment to moment everything gels.
As I said on Friday, to bring this thing into the house of Halo is pretty ballsy - but it'll carve out its proper due. On the Playstation 3, what force could stand against it? I have a high opinion of Haze, but I've never played it - that's based mostly on my gut. Call of Duty 4 will fall hard on that system, like shrieking artillery.