Call of Duty 2 is a heavily scripted first-person shooter that throws approachability out the window in favor of more stylized moment to moment wow scenes. These mostly work throughout the course of this meticulously planned title, but sometimes the feverish pacing and ridiculous sense of urgency all the well-meaning events create fall victim to a few old trappings.
We believe that subject matter is of great importance in videogames and it seems that World War II in particular is being overused. While competing franchises are all vying for the most authentic and feature complete WWII crown, few have applied serious effort when it comes to telling actual stories. The War has, until now, been reserved to create a series of dramatic and familiar events players could participate in, but the connections between these events and the people that partook in them have thus far been unrecognized (again, this is in most cases).
To remedy this, the newly merged studio that was once Treyarch and Gray Matter has attempted to create a more personable Call of Duty. To this end, the developers have focused exclusively on the unbelievable journey of America's famed 'Fighting First' infantry division, the Big Red One.
The focus gives Big Red One a good amount of appreciable consistency. Missions logically progress and are tied together via map screens that trace the route of the player's company. But even with a few 40s styled propaganda highlight reels designed to segue gamers into new theaters of war, there is no real sense of why the army is attacking certain places, how it plans to win, or even what that victory might accomplish. And so we must look to the soldiers of these actions on a more personal level to get some motivation to power us through the sequenced missions.
Ubisoft's Brothers in Arms might draw a more obvious comparison to HBO's acclaimed Band of Brothers miniseries, but Call of Duty 2 is the game that enlists many of that show's talent to portray its soldiers. The actors are also used to provide some remarkable motion captured animation sequences to make in-game cutscenes more believable. And yet their roles take a backseat to the more conventional focus on the war itself. In this way, Call of Duty feels remarkably like every other WWII themed shooter in recent memory and it's a real shame, too. With such a talented cast and such a lively group of protagonists, the bigger Treyarch should have worked to develop the real relationships between these soldiers, especially since, according even to their own behind the scenes footage, all of the soldiers fought for the guy next to them and nothing else. Why then is that not represented?
This lack of a compelling narrative coupled with no real explanation of the benefits of success and the consequences of failure diminishes the drive to complete missions, and yet the game is still thrilling thanks only to the development team's uncanny ability to captivate with an endless stream of exhilarating sequences.
Though Big Red One spreads its action across Africa, Sicily and Central Europe, the Italian missions are the most interesting. Troina, Operation Husky and Piano Lupo are truly amazing. Each begins with a specific type of combat and then ends over 20 minutes later in a place that feels dozens of miles away. Every one of these rides is utterly exhausting and filled with an unprecedented amount of scripted conflicts that use explosive set pieces, lively backgrounds, believable AI and lots of incredible audio and visual effects to heighten the impression of war.
Most of the game also transitions remarkably well from open field combat to trench warfare to frantic raids to chopped shootouts behind broken pieces of cover, but the experienced is hurt by a few nagging funnels that force players into unwanted stationary shooting segments (like manning a turret for far too long, or playing gunner in a bomber and downing the umpteenth enemy). These fits of boredom really don't melt into the otherwise outstanding game too well. Playing them is especially tiring since the usually furious gameplay prevalent throughout the rest of Call of Duty comes to a rather abrupt stop when segments of the sort begin.
But don't let the odd turret portion and a neglected storyline dissuade you from leaping into the fray and partaking in one of the most structured and nicely directed shooters on currently available consoles. Even if approachability is not present in any form, Call of Duty offers a terrific control scheme, tight shooting mechanics, and a dazzling array of lights and sounds that strip away the typically omnipresent sensation of 'gaming' and create a product that feels more like a film than an FPS. This feeling will be better for Xbox users, who will experience a crisper, smoother, more overblown visual style than the PS2 and GCN gamers will. But those players won't be at any serious disadvantage, despite a lack of progressive scan and some framerate issues.
In terms of multiplayer, differences between the nonexistent Gamecube version, the workable PS2 game and the polished Xbox product are more evident. On Xbox and PS2, Big Red One supports 16 players as well as Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and Domination game types across about a dozen maps. Map rotation can be set, as can a few other similarly no-brain options, but the game itself is quite basic. We also found performance, especially in 16-player PS2 servers, to dramatically change during a match. Sometimes lag caused a great deal of inexplicable glitches such as characters sticking in certain animation routines while others flew about the map, and still more seemed absolutely impervious until they spontaneously died 15 seconds after the fact. But problems of the sort were not as apparent on the Xbox game and when they did happen on PS2, they usually corrected themselves in due time.
Bugs of the sort not withstanding, the base game types still aren't very original, and the inability to earn points based on class or track the records of a group of players shows that the multiplayer mode is more of an obligated inclusion than a real attempt to topple online gaming. With that in mind, the basic gameplay is still enjoyable in team scenarios thanks to open maps that feature impressive amounts of defensive and offensive possibilities, but still focus the action into a few critical chokepoints, letting coordinated teams that can properly set their gunners and snipers to support the more lightly equipped assault units win.
Again, understand that the multiplayer component is not Call of Duty's biggest draw, and so many of the fights often fall into basic spurts of shooting that don't do well to exhibit any of the singleplayer game's major strengths (all the scripting and frantic action accentuated by superb audio and visual effects).
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