Last week, Inifinity Ward posted a pre-release demo of Call of Duty 2 on their site, which was a surprise to me since there seemed to be no preceding announcements. This was probably motivated by the recent release of the Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood demo, and the release of Valve’s Day of Defeat: Source and is more of an effort to maintain their presence in the gaming media and gamers’ heads, particularly since they’re investing very substantial efforts in a genre (WWII games) that many people are growing weary of…or so they say.
Without a doubt, I’ll be buying CoD 2. The graphics are sharp, the gameplay is solid, the enemies are compellingly scripted (in terms of A.I.) and, as always, Infinity Ward has created what looks like the next step in WWII games, and perhaps more. However, the demo didn’t wow me in the ways I thought it would, even though I’m still replaying it after a dozen times through.
The demo is a quick slice of the British campaign in Egypt, specifically a mission to eliminate German artillery along the coast in El Daba in 1942. The demo is, unfortunately a woefully brief taste of something greater. However, it has left me thirsting for more, so in that sense, they’ve achieved their goal. The ironic thing about the demo is that it contains many of the elements the Infinity Ward specifically set out to change from the first Call of Duty: the heavy reliance on scripting, the linearity of the levels, and the not-so-tactical enemy A.I. Part of this is the setup of El Daba (narrow streets and entrenched enemy positions, close-quarters indoor combat, etc.), but if they wanted to blow me away with the new features, they fell a bit short. I had to actively look for them to notice how differently the enemies react. However, once you see it, you realize that in a less linear setup, the enemies will probably be much more engaging and challenging.
The graphics prowess isn’t really flexed until you’re in the thick of things, though the graphics are clearly dramatically updated. The most striking thing for me was as my unit moved towards its destination, a large walled city appeared beneath dogfighting planes in the distance. From its interior, explosions and plumes of smoke can be seen. I assumed we’d pass by this set piece in the distance to a nearby desert-based conflict. In CoD, many scenes contained these set pieces that created a sense of place and put you in the context of a larger conflict. But as I watched, I realized that the road leads up to the gate, and our small convoy headed straight into the city. I immediately knew this would be a different experience. But the graphics are probably the least surprising difference from the previous games to this one.
The first differences I noticed were: no life meter, a grenade indicator, and the use of smoke as concealment (not as cover, which provides physical protection as well as concealment), three elements that skew the game in your favor. You can see the indicator and the smoke here. It’s much easier to avoid grenades and to get through a level without dying, as long as you’re smart enough to use cover intelligently and carefully and allow your health to recharge, a lot like Halo, actually. I played the game on Easy, then Regular, then Hardened and wasn’t really challenged until then. I play games to have fun, not to gain a sense of self-worth, so I pick skill levels that provide a challenge, not a Herculean task. Normally, I play games at the easiest skill level, then gradually move up. In the CoD 2 demo, Easy was waaaay too easy for me. Plus, the A.I. is a bit stunted from what I understand of the programming, so you won’t see the really interesting tactics until you push the skill level up. That’s when the health system will feel a bit more necessary, as well.
The upside to the new health system is that battles are more focused on the moment, and survival using sound tactics. It prevents the game from becoming a health pack management problem, rather than a WWII shooter. Instead, a red, veiny (yes, veiny) throb appears and you begin to breath heavily. If you don’t find cover or ignore the warning (I think the warning is a bit much, actually), you will die pretty much immediately (with a nice screen blur). The downside of this system is that you end up feeling a bit invulnerable on the lower skill levels, and it cuts out the medical aspect of war and, arguably, does an indirect disservice to medics, who often provided the medical care. I hope they pay them some tribute in the full game.
But this elimination of the health meter is part of what appears to be a larger move on Infinity Ward’s part to eliminate as much extraneous visual clutter as possible. The ammo info even fades back until you use a weapon or hit reload. Immersion and immediacy seem to be the goals here, and the choices they make serve as a strong lesson in keeping H.U.D. elements in their place. Too many developers use the H.U.D. to make up for some visual shortcoming in their game, rather than keeping it to the periphery, both visually and mentally. I am a fan of the trimmed-down visual design decision, even if I’m still on the fence about the health system.
As I mentioned before, the El Daba level is very linear and most non-linear paths are minor or so ridiculous (Plunge into an MG-42 in a frontal assault! Then die!) that the game didn’t feel fundamentally restructured as Infinity Ward promised. Their new design concept is based on giving you multiple objectives then letting you approach them as you see fit, because the enemy A.I. is now smart enough to adapt to your varied approach. This also allows them to trim out canned sequences and sleight-of-hand enemy placement tricks and replace them with tactically sound enemies in realistic situations. However, CoD 2 is still a dramatic and cinematic experience, so scripted elements are still used to accent the experience and keep you aware of your place in the larger conflict, which has always been something Infinity Ward does well.
In spite of any small misgivings I have about the demo, I have a feeling that CoD 2 might do to CoD what CoD did to the Medal of Honor series: make it seem so rudimentary and simplistic that I won’t be able to enjoy it any more. There are so many elements that have been added and refined (soldiers yelling out actual context-specific tactical commands, unit cohesion, smoke grenades) and I’m sure they’ll add a great deal of depth over the course of the full game. I’m really looking forward to the 18th.