“When it comes to the top World War II shooter, that battle’s over. Now we’re on to the top shooter, period.”
—Thain Lyman, executive producer at Activision, the publisher of Call of Duty 2, in the April 2005 issue of PC Gamer
For most games, that’s bold talk; unrealistically bold, in fact. But for Call of Duty 2 it was what we all wanted to hear, I’m sure. It certainly has the pedigree for that kind of talk. The original CoD emerged when the WWII shooter-fest was in full swing. The Medal of Honor series had recently swept the FPS scene with a whole new world of visceral and intense experience. The WWII experience straddled the line between high-tech and no-tech, real-life heroism and gritty on-the-ground situational tactics, and I loved it. It was a great series (excluding that Pacific drivel). Then, 22 members of the team behind MoH broke off and showed us what a WWII shooter really looked like with CoD. I was a full-on MoH devotee right up until the demo for CoD was released. In the short time it took to play that demo, it ruined MoH for me completely. I bowed at the altar of Infinity Ward. This was a new world for action shooters. It was the Band of Brothers you could experience. In fact, I enjoyed it (the demo) so much I wrote about playing. I’ve included an excerpt below the fold.
Call of Duty is a WWII first person shooter made by some of the team that created Medal of Honor, which (up until recently) was the best WWII shooter (single player) ever, and one of the best FPSs ever. I downloaded the demo yesterday and played it about 25 times last night and this morning.
The sensation of battle is so well tuned, and the mechanics for play are just brilliant. The environments are so full of detail and little moments that make the world feel so genuine.
Imagine running through the ruins of St. Mere Eglise at night and looking up into the night sky to see paratroopers gently cascading down in the distance, with slow arcing lines of tracers from anti-aircraft guns (AAs), like tentacles, brushing the sky. Clouds light up as if with lightning as bomb blasts go off around the countryside. A plane slowly screams to the ground, in flames ahead of you. You can see the massive dual-spikes of AA muzzle-flare poking out from between houses, lighting up thier burned-out walls, throwing tracers at transport planes above.
Then one of your squad yells for you to take the left flank, as an MG-42 in a building opens up on your squad from the second floor. Mortars are falling, you’re still in the field, making your way to the fence, and one goes off next to you. Suddenly, the world is silent, you’re swimming in a slow-motion blur as you run forward, dazed. Then, sounds creep back in. You hear the scream of a bomb and a blast, the sounds of gunfire and shouts come rushing up at you as you regain your senses. You crouch behind a small fence that’s being chewed away, board by board, by a gunner on a halftrack down the road. One of your squadmates is down. You lay down prone and crawl under the fence, while you were out, your squad took out the gunner on the second floor. You start to stand, a gunner on the first floor appears.
Before you can even react to the gout of muzzle flare erupting to your right, your squad yells, and the wall around the gunner blooms with clouds of dust. Your squad’s tracers are scouring a circle around the window, as they coat the German gunner’s area with bullets. One of the eruptions is red, a puff of mist from the gunner’s helmet. He’s down. You switch from your M1 Carbine to your Thompson for heavy close-up damage, as you cut between two buildings, your squad running up to doors and filing in, covering each other.
A group of Germans pour out of a building behind some brush and you clear them all out, lifting your gun to your eye to improve your aim and get a better view as you lay into them. You reload, as your squad rushes into a building ahead, clearing the way for you to take out that gunner on the halftrack. As you enter, you barely have time to register the warm, rich light in the large room, with its lush wood floors and railings. You crawl under the windows on the far end of the room, as you flank right, popping up to tap the soldier in the head before he can swing his heavy gun around at you. One of your squadmates yells an encouraging word, and one man runs to the window, covering the opening as the rest of the men jump through the window, single file. You haven’t even made it to the first AA.
Why am I going on so much about anything but CoD 2? Because it’s important to understand how much expectation and previous experience was attending this game’s release. Hell, Infinity Ward invented down-the-sights aiming and the shell-shock effect on their way to making a convincing WWII shooter. CoD promised WWII and delivered with realism, brilliant art direction, rock-solid shooter mechanics and brilliant use of scripted events. With CoD 2, Infinity Ward promised even more: less reliance on scripted events, non-linear missions, normal-mapped textures, self-directed squad A.I., immersion in WWII combat that exceeded CoD. And that’s exactly what they delivered. But now that it’s a few years later, and the rest of the world has seen what CoD did and has been releasing games, is that enough?
The simplest answer is that if you loved CoD and want more, CoD 2 will hit you right in that sweet spot again and again. Infinity Ward are now the masters of the form (WWII shooters). Period. But look for something beyond that, and you may be let down. CoD 2 takes the legacy of the original (and its expansions) and doesn’t fix anything that wasn’t broken. However, this game’s greatest strengths are also its greatest weaknesses.
Call of Duty 2 has two goals. The first is to give you a sense of the incredible adversity and intensity that Russian, British, and American soldiers experienced fighting in WWII. The second is to drop you directly into their shoes at the moment of combat and not let up until you’ve completed your objectives. Anything that distracts from these goals was cut from the game. Again, CoD 2 focuses on the soldier’s experience in the WWII ETO through combat. The Allies all fought very hard to bring down the Germans, and Infinity Ward wants to put you in that position. CoD 2 delivers great heart-pounding, earth-shaking, and dynamic battles with Germans trying to outflank you, rout you, and defeat you.
In this sense, CoD 2 is probably the best war shooter out there, period. You will hit the battlefield with squads of friendlies against squads of the enemy. The sense of a battle in the context of a raging war is hard to rival. I admit I haven’t played Quake IV yet, and they’re shooting for the same feeling, but I have a suspicion that CoD 2 hits it more squarely on the head. Much of this comes from the crazy amount of research that Infinity Ward has done not only into WWII, but also into the realities of infantry combat.
Because one of the goals with CoD 2 was to take CoD‘s scripted and linear strengths and make them dynamic and fluid (thus increasing re-playability and tactical depth), a few fundamental changes were made to the formula of the original. This promise was partially delivered on. When the game fails to deliver, it plays like CoD , and when it succeeds, it creates an intense experience that plays out differently every time. It’s easy to get annoyed and dismissive of Infinity Ward for not delivering this throughout the entirety of the game, but they were very clear about their desire to keep the experience fun for the player above all else. Apparently, some levels lacked punch and entertainment when they didn’t funnel you down a pre-set path. I respect this commitment to the experience and it certainly is fun the first few times through, but some levels, such as the El Daba level, used for the demo begin to feel repetitive and canned compared to the stunning success of levels like the re-taking of Toujane, which deliver really fun dynamic tactical combat. The Germans become a living organism that responds to your movements and adapts to your tactics. Like real soldiers, they are vulnerable during movement and formidable once they dig in. It’s a real thrill and pushes you to make measured combat decisions and question the wisdom of plowing ahead into another squad before dealing with the one in front of you. Of course, this added realism and complexity creates a more formidable enemy and less forgiving game mechanic. Accordingly, Infinity Ward has added to your arsenal of tactics and streamlined certain aspects of the game to allow you to stay immersed in the intensity without getting cut up and blown apart constantly without warning.
The first big change is the addition of a Halo-style health system, but without a visible meter. In an effort to increase the immersion, when you get hit, a visual indicator shows which direction the damage is coming from, and as the damage increases, your breath becomes audible, your heartbeat pounds in your ears, and your vision gets blurry and red. If you don’t get out of harm’s way and into cover to recuperate, you will die. This is probably one of the more contentious decisions the developers made with this series. On one hand, it eliminates the need to sprinkle health boxes across a level and balance their distribution with the combat (which would be hard, considering it’s more dynamic now), it increases the sense of immersion, and it prevents backtracking to find health boxes. On the other hand, it allows some very unrealistic moments, where you take a brutal pounding from an MG-42, hide behind a wall, then come out shooting again just fine. I have a feeling more and more games will go in this direction because it simplifies the job of play balancing and resource distribution, and for CoD 2 I think it was the right choice. In my demo review, I pointed out that this could do a disservice to the medics who played a very important role in the war, by eliminating the need for medical attention. It would appear they were aware of this, as the medics are given an in-game cinematic tribute during the Pointe du Hoc sequence. I also noticed that they placed a green health box from the first game in one of the bunkers, in a little tongue-in-cheek moment.
The second change is interface related as well. The enemy now uses grenades much more liberally and realistically, but the problem is that in a videogame it’s often very hard to notice that a grenade’s even been thrown. As a result, a grenade indicator has been added. I originally thought this might ruin the grenade mechanic entirely, but in reality it enhances it. Just because you’re aware of the grenade doesn’t mean that it won’t force you to move and expose yourself to enemy fire. Also, just because you know it’s around, doesn’t mean you can get out of the way in time. Additionally, the enemy is pretty good about punishing you for throwing your grenades at them too obviously and not laying down some suppressing fire. If they can, they’ll toss it back at you with a shortened fuse, blowing up before the indicator even has a chance to appear or bursting in mid-air. It adds a nice layer of strategy to the use of grenades. Also, the enemy can be distracted or pinned down so grenades don’t end up being used purely for herding enemies. It’s very satisfying to see four Nazis flung into the air from behind cover after a successful throw. Just be careful, because if you prove to be too much trouble from your dug-in position, a whole fire team will throw grenades at you to get you to move. Few things inspire fear like four or five grenades landing around you. Unfortunately, you can’t grab grenades and lob them back, but your squad mates can.
The third change is the addition of concealment in the form of smoke grenades. The dynamic nature of the battle means that you’ll often find one or more of your flanks exposed, or you’ll need to charge across an exposed area that’s been targeted by the enemy. Smoke grenades can turn these kill zones to your advantage, or at least dampen the threat, by blanketing the area with dense grey smoke. The particle system in CoD2 is very robust and a battlefield can become entirely filled with smoke, which allows your squad to charge on an entrenched squad, gun emplacement, bunker, or even a tank. Of course, this also works for the enemy, so when you’re defending a position, you’ll know what it’s like to hear the yells of a charging platoon bearing down on you from within the rolling smoke, revealing themselves less than 10 meters from your position. The suspense alone can cause you to unload wildly into the smoke. It’s a great game mechanic and I hope more games employ this feature in the future.
In keeping with the ’maximizing immersion’ theme, the heads up display (HUD) has also been pared down. Occasionally I find myself wanting it available, but not often. And it’s nice to have a cleaner screen that allows more of the scenery and action to show through. Info like ammo counts and missions only pop up when necessary. If you look over the screenshots you’ll see the HUD in various states.
As I mentioned, the A.I. has been updated to provide a more responsive and dynamic enemy. CoD 2 delivers here in spades. While the A.I. isn’t the most devious I’ve seen, they provide an engaging foe that goes well beyond the standard and keeps the game fresh. The friendlies still disregard grenades a bit too much for my taste, but that’s more than made up for with another great addition: context-sensitive battlefield chatter. According to Infinity Ward, they’ve recorded more voice data for this game alone than all of the data for CoD combined (another reason to love DVD games). Both friendlies and enemies will call out enemy locations, communicate combat conditions, spot grenades, and even taunt the enemy. It’s specific enough that windows will be called out, buildings identified by color, and even phone polls will be specified. The effect is great and it keeps the lively energy of battle going, particularly when you’re hidden behind cover and recuperating and you can hear the battle unfolding around you. The sense of fighting as part of a squad is enhanced immensely. This aspect of the game is a huge success, but I’m not sure how often we’ll see it, considering the sheer number of lines required for something like this to work. And, furthering their love of Band of Brothers, if you watch the extras DVD, you’ll notice a few of the cast members recording lines for the game. Pretty great stuff.
The audio in general, as with the original, is great. The guns sound different from their predecessors, as Infinity Ward re-recorded most of the effects. But all of it is excellent. I had some trouble with the EAX sound settings, but that may have more to do with my sound card than their programming…or let’s just give them the benefit of the doubt.
Graphics-wise, CoD 2 is in step with modern gaming, using dynamic shadowing, particle effects, and normal mapping throughout the game. The upside is a more convincing and textured world. The downside to this is that normal mapping often results in really well-shadowed people who look a bit plastic or environment surfaces that look too smooth and clean. Also the uniforms often have a wrinkly just-from-the-washing-machine look to them that only really works during the levels featuring water. But overall, the graphics are solid. There were one or two moments where textures seemed to go awry, but that only happened once or twice. The art direction for CoD 2 is superb, as I expected. Some of the French towns are utterly haunting in their quiet ruin with the moonlight or muted sunlight streaming through them. The American and British campaigns both have dawn/dusk missions with gorgeous sunrises/sets and nighttime scenes with cool full moon light. Also, the weather system kicks in very nicely with rain and snow and adds a lot to the experience. Plus, the addition of blurring and blooming when bullets buzz by and bombs go off adds a new depth of immersion to the experience. It’s official, by the way, Infinity Ward is the king of the bombed-out city. Visually, their level design is nothing short of stunning and they really get you into the buildings and incorporate them into the levels’ mechanics. They easily rival Valve’s opus, Half-LIfe 2 for creating convincing wartime cities with texture and variety.
So, most of this sounds like gushing, but it’s not that simple. As I said, CoD 2 does two things to the detriment of all else. CoD 2 isn’t without a story, it’s just that the story is pretty much “it’s WWII and you’re in it, look how amazing and intense it all was.” Story-driven shooter gameplay has come so far forward in the intervening years from CoD to CoD 2, that if you’re getting comfortable with games like Half-Life 2, F.E.A.R., and others, you may find CoD 2 to be more of an adrenaline injection than a rich experience. And some of the gaming review sites are saying as much, too. I think that sells CoD 2‘s story short. The characters get personality and depth from more subtle mechanics, and the story really is about the mission, not the personal interactions. However, CoD 2 jumps from Russian, to Brit, to American without much fanfare, using the war as the assumed thread that connects them. Personally, I don’t think they needed to add more than they did, and probably couldn’t have. But like I said, storytelling is becoming a much more integral part of gaming now and Infinity Ward would do well to take note.
The only other flaws, in my opinion, come from some of the non-infantry gameplay. There’s a flak gun sequence where you shoot down some Messerschmitts in a somewhat ludicrous manner. They really should’ve cut that. Also, the armored division sequences were fun enough, but I’ve never found them very challenging or deep and they just don’t deliver the way the rest of the game does. I say: make a shooter, stick to a shooter.
I got the Collector’s Edition which comes with an extras DVD full of good content. The interviews with the former Ranger and the developers interview are all good (not a thinly veiled advertisement for how great the game is, as with F.E.A.R.). And the walk-through commentaries were a lot of fun. They created literally every element in the game, so there’s no shortage of things for them to discuss. I only wish they did it for more than two levels. Plus, the disc is viewable on a standard DVD player, which is nice.
Overall, CoD 2 is a great game, but it’s not the revelation that the original was. However, you should absolutely buy it and play it because it’s great fun, some of the best and most intense FPS gaming around, and it’s a very strong piece of AAA game development in every way. Also, because they’ve added a nice menu to select exactly which sequences you want to play, you can jump to the best missions easily and take advantage of the more dynamic and very re-playable level designs. Now grab your rifle and show those Germans who they’re dealing with!