Review: 'Call of Duty 4' One of Best Games of Year

"Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare," the latest in the celebrated series of first-person shooters, has some pretty big shoes to fill.

The fact that it must compete with the much-hyped "Halo 3" and "BioShock" doesn't make things any easier.

But "Call of Duty 4" ($59.99 for Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC) has one major advantage: It does everything right.

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First, the graphics are awesome. As in, my jaw hung open in awe when I first saw the beautifully rendered images on a high-definition TV. It still looks like a video game, but sometimes not by much.

As the name implies, for the latest edition "Call of Duty" was moved into the present day, breathing new life into what had been a World War II franchise until now.

Accordingly, the weaponry and story have been updated. I won't give too much away, but it involves a shadowy Russian arms dealer, coups in nameless Middle Eastern countries and wayward nuclear weapons.

The story is nastier than in previous installments, with stark reminders that the good guys don't always ride off into the sunset.

The single-player campaign is shorter than other games of its kind -- I stomped through it in about 8 hours. But it was so action-packed, I didn't feel cheated at all.

While the single-player campaign is certainly no snooze, where this game really shines is multiplayer mode. Players have an impressive selection of guns, all simulations of real-life firearms. As you gather experience, you unlock new sights, scopes and weapons.

I soon favored the powerful 650-round-per-minute Soviet-made RPD light machine gun. But it was so heavy it slowed my movement. I learned I could do similar damage with the more portable M4 carbine assault rifle.

You can also dispatch enemies silently with your knife. That's better than a gun when you need stealth.

Players also are armed with grenades, the regular kind as well as smoke and "flash-bang" stun grenades. When you are hit with a stun grenade, your screen fills with a blinding light and a deafening whine, often until your enemy brings swift, merciless death. Nice.

One of the game's cleverer wrinkles is allowing players to select three "perks" -- special weapons or abilities. This forces the player to make some tough choices: Extra health or extra weapons damage? Claymore mines or rocket-propelled grenades?

The answer often will depend on the map and game type being played. One popular option is "martyrdom" -- your dying character as his final act drops a live grenade to punish nearby enemies.

The action happens on about a dozen maps ranging from an abandoned farm to a hard-luck Middle Eastern town to a ruined apartment complex on the outskirts of Chernobyl.

There are hiding places and great lines of sight everywhere, although a few of the maps are so large, you may wander around for a while before finding the enemy. Rack up a few kills in a row, and you can call in airstrikes and chopper attacks on your adversaries.

Despite all these strong features, what impressed me the most about "Call of Duty 4" is its apparent ability to distort time. When I finally looked up from one recent evening multiplayer session, I was shocked to see it was 4 a.m. I don't know if that says more about the game or me.

Four stars out of four.