There are times when you get the impression that the designer of a game is not very good at his or her job. Perhaps he's played his own game so much that he's got it memorized, and therefore, things that don't make sense to a new player make perfect sense to him. Or perhaps she thinks that by designing certain instances a certain way, the challenge will make the game more fun for a player, when instead, all it does is enrage and frustrate the player.
I don't know if that is true for Call of Duty 4 on the Nintendo DS. I'd like to think the former, as it perhaps ascribes less of a pretense in competency on the hapless designer, as well as being something I've seen before (most notably playing a certain Nintendo DS game at E3 this year); or maybe it's even something completely different, such as the designer being a cruel, sick person who enjoys watching people waste their money on a game that seems only designed to encourage you to throw your not-cheap DS through the nearest window.
When I first started playing Call of Duty 4, I enjoyed it. It took a bit of adjustment to get used to the controls. By default, the left shoulder button fires your weapon, you move using the directional pad and the stylus does the rest — from looking around, to changing your weapon or reloading, to picking up new weapons and handling minigames for bombs.
The top screen shows what you see from a first-person point of view. It also has your ammo counter and will flash up a little hand icon when you can pick something up. The bottom screen typically shows a minimap of the area, with friendlies in blue and enemies in red. When you have to arm or disarm a bomb, it'll be in that screen, too.
At first it seems like a pretty nifty interface. Later, it gets frustrating. For instance, you'll be trying to reload your weapon and instead will zoom in (aim down the sights) or accidentally aim off into space somewhere.
The plot is similar to the other Call of Duty 4 titles. The SAS is going after a Russian with nukes; the U.S. Marines go after an unnamed Middle Eastern country that is suffering a coup. The two storylines converge, but really, it doesn't matter to you. You're running around shooting a bunch of guys that either wear head scarves or vague uniforms and all who use the same weapons.
The graphics are fairly muddled; they're not particularly good, everyone looks alike and the only weapons you can tell apart from a distance typically is the AK and everything else, since the AK is rendered with the "wood" look to it. While shooting it out with enemies, they can sometimes be seen and not hit, or you'll hit invisible cover, or you can shoot them through cover — it's not consistent at all.
The AI doesn't help that. Your men are only vaguely competent. They'll run right by enemies that are in the open, taking hits, just to fall over and die. Both sides will throw grenades that bounce right back to them. Both sides will shoot and shoot and shoot at walls, fences, whatever. Your men will wait for you to initiate anything, and other times, they'll just disappear without a trace.
Weapons lack any kind of oomph — even with a headshot, it can often take four or so shots from an M4 to drop an enemy. The Uzi or Mac-10 or whatever the submachine gun is supposed to be is even punier. The worst thing it does is make your screen flash red — since you don't have a health counter (instead, the screen will pulse red when you're near death) — making you wonder if you're actually taking significant damage or just being annoyed. (Usually, it's the latter.) Grenades fly all over the place, but I've never had one kill me — they will kill enemies, sometimes, and watching them all do the same death animation at the same time can be funny.
The rocket-propelled grenades cracked me up. More than once I watched RPG rounds fly straight through me as I dispatched their wielders. It appears that they can only kill who the designers designate.
On the other hand, you'll have certain areas that are instant death to you, and the only way you know that may or may not be a word of warning from your buddies. One part apparently has something — I've still never figured out what — that'll kill you if you don't move out of the way. It took me over half a dozen tries to figure out I just needed to dart into a side passage. It was only then that I heard the "take cover!" yell.
Even melee can be instant death. The enemy will spawn and respawn and spawn again in the same place, one at a time, running right at you the same way each time, so you might have about five seconds between one-man waves to shoot at someone else — turn back too late, and that enemy will automatically kill you with a melee attack.
And like other Call of Duty games, occasionally there will be a scripted time when you and an enemy fight for your gun. The game really doesn't explain well what to do there, so if you have the misfortune of playing it, I'll tell you the easiest way to do it — turn the DS on the side and just run the stylus up and down the whole thing repeatedly. It'll take at least 45, 60 seconds.
That is, of course, assuming you don't get stuck somewhere. Once I got stuck because whatever kind of transition that was supposed to take place didn't, and so I ran around like an idiot for a while with nothing to do. Finally, I quit and came back, and magically, I was where I needed to be.
Another time, when retrieving a suitcase nuke, my buddy picked it up and immediately died — leaving me stuck with nothing to do. Again, I had to quit and try again, and with the checkpoint save system, that meant I was a ways back — much like another point in which my man kept running out in front of me and falling over dead, failing the objective with no indication to me what I was supposed to do.
In fact, that happens a lot — even if you're paying close attention, something will happen, and you'll realize that you have no idea what it is that the designers think you should do at that point.
However, this is better than when dealing with the minigames. When you plant a bomb, you have to line up a series of wires to reach four points on the side of a square, and when you do, it gives you numbers to type in. The practice one at the beginning of the game was rather difficult for me, but I quickly found it pretty easy.
On the other hand, disarming bombs sucks. It's timed, and you have to trace wires. However, the bottom screen doesn't always pick up when you've started tracing, so you can find yourself blowm up while frantically wailing with the stylus, trying to get the game to acknowledge your taps.
And back to the plot — gah. "Get this. Now this. AND NOW THIS. OK. Now go here. Now go here. Oh noes, our truck blew up. Go here. Do this." It's very repetitive and is mostly an excuse to keep you running around, shooting through waves of identical enemies. Overall, it's not that bad, but when it feels like every five minutes is an excuse to get you out of your vehicle and go through a tedious house clearing after house clearing (what, am I the only competent soldier here? Oh, yes, I am ...) you just want to say "you know what, my carpal tunnel can better be accomplished elsewhere ...
In short, I went into the game with the happy expectation of a fun first-person shooter, and I came out extremely disappointed. The designers tried too hard to bring in too much stuff from the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3/PC version and got too cute on a number of sections. It's extremely repetitive, it's boring graphically and audibly, and the lapses in AI and game design will either make you cry or enrage you.
Honestly, I can't think of any reason to recommend this game unless you're so desperate for a first person shooter on the DS that you absolutely positively are sure you can stand dealing with such a poorly designed game.