These days, World War II action titles boil down to two separate camps: those where the characters are scripted to think intelligently and those where they’re scripted to look intelligent. Call of Duty falls clearly in the latter camp.
The most curious thing about Call of Duty is the fact that no part of the entire corpus is actually revolutionary, save for a few special effects. You are on board vehicles in some sequences (Operation Flashpoint). You are manning turrets and fixed gun emplacements (Battlefield 1942 and various others). You take part in squad operations (again, many others). The game features tanks, planes and ships (Hidden and Dangerous). And of course, like Medal of Honor, there are plenty of dramatic moments, Alamo situations and heroic charges.
But if you were to really press me to explain what was best about Call of Duty, it would be the diversity of all those elements (all of the above are included) and how there is never a dull moment in the game.
One of the ways Call of Duty does this is to hurl you into the fury of battle with compatriots and comrades – quite literally for the latter as you’ll be fighting on the American, British and Russian fronts in Europe. The primary antagonists are all Germans with authentic German speech, although this game is much less chatty than say No One Lives Forever or the recent Hidden and Dangerous 2. The Allies speak accented English, which was a bit of a disappointment vis-à-vis the Russians. I wouldn’t have mind hearing Soviet slogans in the mother tongue.
Call of Duty goes with the two gun inventory made popular by Bungie’s Halo. That means for the most part of the game, you’ll get one scoped/unscoped rifle and one submachine gun, or two of each category. To survive on all but the easiest levels, you’ll find yourself pillaging enemy stockpiles to get re-supplied though. I didn’t think I’d go through 500 or so bullets in one sequence but if you want to really participate in the game, lay down cover fire for your squad, you’ll expend a lot more than one shot per kraut. And on the Russian levels, you’re lucky to even find yourself equipped with a weapon of any kind. There are options for sidearms and explosive projectiles. But since there are rarely any pistol ammunition available, using your sidearm is pretty much your last resort.
Believe me -- you’ll face a lot of last resorts where quick save will be your favorite friend. When the Germans advance, they come at a clip pace and I’m not talking about a dozen jumping out of a truck, I’m talking about flanking armor and dozens of entire platoons coming at your position from all sides. It’s impossible to hide in a corner and snipe them all off. Under mortar, machine gun and tank fire, I think even the most hardened veterans of action shooters will find a challenge in this game. And the thing is, it’s fun to work through them, because none of them are frustratingly impossible.
Many people will ask if you had such a hard time surviving, how in the world will your bonehead squad members survive? They will because Call of Duty, like a good movie screenwriter, will keep some characters alive permanently. It’s in your best interest to keep as many alive as possible, though, since that results in fewer Germans aiming their sights at you. (Yes, I’m a pupil of Machiavelli). In some instances, everyone around you does die, but the chaos of war will send you reinforcements. It was pretty realistic as a Russian soldier to stumble upon lost privates in the ruins of Stalingrad trying to make their way to the general staff headquarters.
Another useful Machiavellian reason to keep your Call of Duty pals around is for suppressing fire. Your enemy opponents will react to suppressing fire, so if you put enough rounds into a machine gun nest, you won’t face withering machine gun fire.
Speaking of movie references, Call of Duty takes quite a few cues from other franchises. One mission involves taking German artillery positions in Normandy on the side of Americans. I was reminded of a similar episode in the Band of Brother series. The first mission of the Stalingrad set has you crossing the Volga towards the ruined city while being strafed by Stuka dive bombers. Much of the sequence is taken entirely from Enemy at the Gates. The first man takes the rifle and shoots, the second man picks up the rifle when the first man falls and fires the rifle. I was the second person and I cursed behind every rock and hollowed out car I hid behind as I made my way up to the ruined city. Similar to the movie’s story of Vassily Zaitsev, you blossom from an unarmed private into a sniper.
Call of Duty is able to strike a balance between Hollywood heroics and realism pretty well. The weapons have a more arcade feeling to them. You can take quite a few shots before going down. And the MG42s in the game never overheat or reload (to my dismay).
These anomalies are balanced by some fantastic audio effects that’ll keep your head down, literally and figuratively speaking. If bullets don’t scare you, the ricochets will. Mortar attacks create a devastating thunder and if something happens to explode near you, the developers have worked in the effect of having your ears shot and your vision blurred.
The multiplayer aspects of Call of Duty are able to capitalize on these effects. Unfortunately, the gameplay goes little beyond what was produced in Medal of Honor – the usual assortment of deathmatch and team competitive modes. A co-operative mode or some set attack/defend missions would have been a great addition. When id Software had to get two developers to work on Wolfenstein (single and multiplayer), that showed how much engineering a solid multiplayer component needs. It seems a little ambitious for a single product. But if Halo could do it, why couldn’t Call of Duty?
I applaud the publishers and developers for keeping Call of Duty as faithful to the source material as possible. I think this is the first game in a long awhile to feature Nazi emblems. Rewriting history to fit current political preferences is not my idea of artwork. Just look at the folly the revisionists found themselves in when they suggested removing the World Trade Center from all New York based films. Ridiculous.
Ultimately, Call of Duty is a riveting action piece from start to finish. The nature of these games tends to make them poor candidates for replay. After all, once the surprises are done and over with, the sheer thrill isn’t there anymore. But Call of Duty is one of those film-like experiences that you’ll never mind going through again and again. It is more cinematic than its counterparts simply because at every juncture, the developers overload your sight and auditory senses to put you into the battle. With a de-emphasis on the lone commando versus the world theme, that battle becomes very real indeed.