World War II titles seem to be just about everywhere you look in practically every genre, which makes it sometimes hard to distinguish the good titles from the bad. When Call of Duty blasted its way onto the scene with its believable AI, visceral battle sequences and cinematic pacing, the game captured the hearts and trigger fingers of critics and fans alike. The expansion pack was an admirable extension of the combat, with new stories of heroism from the American, British and Russian sides. So you can just imagine how much pressure there must be on a true Sequel to 2003’s Game of the Year. Yet, if there was one franchise that could take these expectations, it’s the Call of Duty franchise, and Infinity Ward and Activision have teamed up to throw you into danger once again as players answer Call of Duty 2 for their PCs.
As a history fan, the one thing that I’ve always liked about the series is how personal it tries to make each campaign by introducing you to some common man who finds himself in the hell of war. This is most often the description that historians use to describe the combatants of this global conflict, and it adds a level of realism that other titles haven’t been able to capture. Like the previous titles in the series, the game doesn’t intersect the tales of the British, American or Russian soldiers, so you do get a sense of how overwhelming these battles must’ve been to these young men.
A nice feature that’s been made available to players happens to be the option to switch campaigns as soon as you unlock them due to your progress in other missions. Call of Duty specifically spaces out these unlockable moments along the Russian and British campaigns rationally (often after a major mission has been completed), so you can adequately leap between sides without feeling as though you’re interrupting the flow of the operation that you’re on. In this manner, you can get a taste of each conflict before fully finishing every sequence for each side.
Initially, you start off as a Russian private named Vasili I. Koslov, a new grunt being trained in the freezing outdoors of Moscow. Here you learn to fire your weapons, throw grenades and other fundamental weapon skills. However, the game also ramps the training up at the point of a gun, by literally throwing you into the defense of Moscow itself. You’ll have to fend off a quick offensive by German troops, and most of your instructions will come from your comrades in the heat of battle as bullets fly at your head. The Moscow mission also introduces you to the three new gameplay features that Call of Duty 2 implements: the addition of smoke grenades, the new grenade indicator and the new health system.
It’s pretty obvious that reducing your enemy’s ability to see yourself and your troops means you’ll be able to live much longer and potentially surprise them when you do attack. Troops in World War II knew this and often deployed smoke grenades to cover up infantry charges or mask the advance of armor to hide their intended tactic until it was too late for the enemy to respond. Call of Duty 2 provides you with the same tactical advantage thanks to the included smoke grenades. At the start of every mission you’re equipped with four fragmentation grenades and four smoke grenades (with the exception of one pitched battle in the American Campaign where you’re given more). Although you can deploy them at any time, they’re usually best saved for major onslaughts where you need secrecy. After a few seconds, a dense smoke cloud billows from the grenade, making it much easier to advance to the position you wanted to get to without worrying that you’re a sitting duck. It also ratchets up the tension as enemy troops will sometimes run into the smoke clouds also, forcing a shockingly unwelcome surprise.
Call of Duty 2 also redesigns damage on the battlefield this time around. You are no longer able to search for med packs or health kits to heal yourself when you take damage. In fact, there is no health bar or health indicator to refer to in the game. Instead, Call of Duty 2 takes a page from Halo, allowing your soldier to regenerate their health to full strength if they can duck out of the way of bullets or melee attacks for a few seconds. As your character takes damage, the corners of the screen slowly flash and fill with red until you succumb to your injuries. Your soldier will also start to pant and struggle to breathe as these wounds occur as an added audio cue that you’re in danger. For the most part, if you seek some refuge from the current danger you’re in for a few seconds, you’ll be able to shrug off most attacks, including machine gun fire.
You won’t, however, be able to avoid the explosive damage of grenades, which will still kill your character outright. However, Call of Duty 2 provides an additional bit of protection with a grenade indicator. Whenever a grenade is launched in your general direction, an icon pops up to let you know the relative direction of the explosive. As long as you stay away from the general vicinity (or have something that will blunt the force of the grenade) of that icon, you’ll be fine. The indicator lasts for about three seconds before the grenade goes off, which should give you enough time to recognize that a threat is near and make haste away from it. Considering the fast paced nature of some of the battles, you’ll be thankful for every bit of help that you can get.
Returning to the storylines, Private Koslov quickly leaves Moscow for the hellish defense of Stalingrad. While veterans of the Call of Duty series have probably become tired of Stalingrad by now, this is a much different experience this time around. You are no longer strapped for a weapon or ammunition, nor are you constantly pressed forward by a merciless Komissar on a battlefield with killzones. Instead, this time around you’re concentrating much more of your attention on destroying German headquarters, liberating train yards, and trench warfare. For instance, one mission has you walking through a tight pipeline in Stalingrad, sniping at enemies through holes blown through its metallic exterior and ducking for cover as well.
In fact, the building by building mechanic that you first experience in the Russian campaign is one that is experienced throughout the entire game, and works to put you on the edge of your seat. Many battles in World War II literally devolved into door to door, room to room fighting, where dug in soldiers literally held off waves of opposing troops for hours or even days at a time. Call of Duty hones in on this, balancing the ridiculous “infinite spawning enemy” tactic of first person shooters with realistic enemy placement to make clearing a building more believable. A big room might host 6 enemies, two in the corners facing a door, two behind a table and two hiding behind the door leading to the next room.
One of the other adjustments made in Call of Duty 2 is the sense of limited non-linearity. That might sound confusing, but it reality it isn’t. It’s pretty obvious that most shooters direct you towards certain areas based on scripted outcomes that they want the player to experience. To define boundaries, there might be a locked door, obstacles such as crates, collapsed doorways, or, in the case of Call of Duty, minefields placed to warn off rampant exploration. However, Call of Duty also establishes multiple objectives that need to be achieved to successfully complete a mission, all of which can be taken in any order that the player chooses. This amount of extended freedom lets players decide what’s best or easiest for them to complete before they move onto the next challenge in a mission, and it feels more realistic in a war context.
The British campaign centers on the Desert Rats and their fight against Rommel’s Afrika Korps in El Alamein, Egypt and Tunisia, before their deployment to Caen, France. As John Davis, one of the Desert Rats, you’ll find yourself clearing bunkers, defending small towns in the vast expanses of the desert against huge waves of Nazis and destroying minefields. There’s also a sidestep for the British missions as you’re introduced to a tank Commander, David Welsh, who takes on some of the Panzer Korps in Libya, before you return to Davis’ missions. As for the Americans, there’s the inevitable D-Day sequence, but instead of Normandy, you’re a bit farther down the beach, landing at Pointe Du Hoc. As Army Ranger Bill Taylor, you’re tasked with climbing a sheer cliff face and taking out 155mm guns, clearing villages and taking Hill 400 before moving onto Germany. The Ranger story is particularly fascinating because many of these soldiers lost their entire company as they assaulted an objective that turned out to be completely inaccurate. Additionally, because of the nature of their climb, many of the rangers scaled the cliffs of Pointe Du Hoc with their bare fingers and their knives, carving handholds when they could avoid the bodies of their squadmates from above and incoming fire.
Call of Duty 2 has been redesigned from the ground up with a new visual engine, which demonstrates extremely sharp details for many features of the game. You’ll be able to read the model number when you look down the sight of your guns, pick out texture differences between stone and sand in trenches, and even notice dirt specks on the faces of your squadmates (I’m talking to you McGregor). This level of detail is scattered throughout the entire game, so you’ll be able to notice the heightened focus on indoor and outdoor environments, as well as the destruction wrought by bombs within partially destroyed structures. This is supported by great war footage thanks to the Military Channel. The Call of Duty series has always been good at rendering particle effects from grenades and explosions, and Call of Duty 2 is no exception, with special attention paid to smoke grenades. The one hit that may come up is that Call of Duty 2 will stress even the beefiest machine, and you may detect a few frame hitches here and there. Many of the sound effects from the previous titles come through sharply, with many of the explosive effects, muting from shell shock and ricochets coming through your speakers extremely well. This is one of those games that you really want a great speaker system for, particularly because listening to the sounds of war and the screams of your fellow squadmates, either crying out in pain or directing you towards some incoming danger, really sounds great.
The multiplayer is just as solid as the original, with many of the modes returning. Capture the Flag, Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch return along with Search and Destroy. Up to 32 players can play on any one of the 13 included maps, some of which have been redone from the original title. There’s also a new gameplay mode known as Headquarters, where one team sets up a base at a capture point. As long as that team holds onto the base, they receive points, while the opposing side tries to overrun and destroy the base.
In fact, the cries of your teammates are just as solid at previous titles, with one lone exception – the AI is much stronger this time around. Not only will you come to depend on their instructions to target incoming threats, such as mortar teams trying to shell your position, but these soldiers are more accurate than before. You’ll discover a number of times where they’ll pick off a couple of enemies that you’re about to take out, making it much easier to focus on more dangerous opponents. The one hiccup still comes in how the AI soldiers on your side don’t seem to have the grenade indicator, so they’ll often run onto grenades absentmindedly only to be blown skyward.
That leads me to my second issue, which is that while the inclusion of the grenade indicator and the regenerating health makes the game somewhat easier than it needs to be. For instance, previous Call of Duty games meant that you had to keep some kind of running tally as to the nearest first aid kit in case you got dinged up badly in mission. Similarly, you didn’t necessarily know when grenades would be launched, so if you got hit with one, it was because you weren’t careful enough. For some reason, your characters are now superhuman in their soaking of bullet wounds. I can’t count the number of times I blindly charged a bunker or a group of soldiers with my gun blazing without fear that I’d be killed. Additionally, with the indicator of the grenades, I rarely needed to worry about blowing up. This is not only unrealistic, but it can cut down on the strategy that you need to use. Combine this with the removal of the ability to “cook” grenades and you’ll notice just how strange this fighting situation is. Plus, considering that it’ll take you about 10 hours to go through the game, even on the highest difficulty level (thanks to the regeneration ability), the game is much easier than before.
While the most apparent subtle changes are probably the most controversial tweaks to the Call of Duty formula, it doesn’t overturn the fact that this is a worthy successor to the franchise. The fast paced action is still the centerpiece of the game, and the action is engaging enough to capture even the most jaded first person shooter vet who’s probably tired of the numerous WWII titles that’ve been released. If you have the machine that can run the game and the tolerance for the regeneration mechanic, you’ll have a great shooter on your hands.