Deftly bringing an accomplished World War II franchise into the 21st century, “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare” splices the panic and pandemonium of anarchic firefights with the sophistication and scheming of a contemporary shooter.

Deftly bringing an accomplished World War II franchise into the 21st century, “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare” splices the panic and pandemonium of anarchic firefights with the sophistication and scheming of a contemporary shooter. Though it occasionally falls back on tired cliches and challenges that can be beat through pure luck, “Call of Duty 4” ultimately delivers what a contemporary action-shooter should be both in story and multiplayer aspect. Boffo sales look certain as “Halo 3” fans find that Master Chief finally has some well-deserved company.

Original “Call of Duty” debuted in 2003, and was widely hailed as one of the best World War II actioners ever, besting the storied “Medal of Honor” in many gamers’ minds. A well-received sequel followed, though reaction was more mixed to 2006’s “Call of Duty 3,” which was made by Treyarch. Just a year later, original developer Infinity Ward has returned and confidently put the franchise back in its vanguard position.

Complementing its contemporary military setting, “Call of Duty 4” trades in its “different chapters, unique stories” approach for a continuous narrative folded into three acts, encompassing a deposed Arabian leader, a shadowy Russian nationalist and a nuke — and suffice to say you don’t put a nuke in a game unless you intend to detonate it. The story snaps with twists and turns, including a brilliant stealth-driven flashback that takes place in a post-meltdown Chernobyl.

As in the first three “Call of Duty” games, players still alternate between different protagonists of differing nationality and geographic location, but like a frenetic episode of “24,” events now dovetail in a way that makes otherwise generic objectives seem genuinely urgent.

If the single player campaign has problems, it’s that too much progress still comes down to luck. Faced with overwhelming odds, missions that require players to break through waves of attackers amount to little more than running pell-mell, dying and repeating until serendipity kicks in. At other points, predictable “fish-barrel” sequences turn up, where the bad guys stupidly charge a machine gun like panicky sheep.

In one particularly frustrating mission midway through, players have to pull off a pivotal sniper shot while take into account wind speed with an at best capricious indicator, which can easily result in dozens of confusing tries.

But the most exciting aspect of “Call of Duty 4” is its online mode. Though rookie gamers will feel overwhelmed, the amount of customization will astound those who have done battle online before. Want to be a stealthy sniper who can shoot through walls? Pick the “UAV Jammer” perk to stay off radar along with the “Deep Impact” perk to augment shots through wood and plaster surfaces. Want to intercept enemy intel? Try “Eavesdrop,” which allows listening in on opponent chats. Coupled with hundreds of possible ranks and a dozen game modes, “Call of Duty 4’s” multiplayer format feels practically limitless.

Technical credits are solid, though not quite best-of-class. Spacious and well detailed maps model areas in the Middle East and Russia, and are filled with war wreckage and crafty enemies. Pitch perfect sound effects, such as the telltale ping of nearby grenades, make listening just as crucial to success as watching.

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Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Rated M. $60

Production

An Activision presentation of a game developed by Infinity Ward for the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Reviewed on PlayStation 3.
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