If Call of Duty took the World War II first-person shooter down the path of heavily scripted, audio-intensive battles the likes of which no one had ever played, Call of Duty 2 is a case study in the amplification of that same fierce intensity. Infinity Ward has approached World War II from the perspective of the average soldier doing nothing more than completing his given mission. And yet as a result of their renewed efforts, the LA-based developer has brought a piece of the war into the living room that's so intense, loud, and rocking, that I had to stop every so often just to calm my own nerves.
That's the thing about Call of Duty 2. There is no half-way point. One either dives in and becomes a full part of the war effort, or they get the hell out. Like its older brother, Infinity Ward's PC and Xbox 360 shooter creates thunderous walls of sound and graphic action that instantly engages the player to such a degree that for me, as a writer, it's difficult to pull far enough away from the experience to describe it accurately and with clarity.
Much like the original, Call of Duty 2 (COD 2) covers World War II across three interwoven campaigns featuring the Russians, the British, and the Americans in Stalingrad, Africa, and France, respectively. You're given four levels of difficulty to choose from and the ability to jump between campaigns and time periods. This extra little freedom plays a subtle part in the way the sequel has opened up and unleashed a slightly more freeform set of paths, compared to the more rigid original. One of the most impressive aspects of COD 2 is that despite containing scripts and linear paths, the game is so rigorous and demanding that I literally forgot I was being led through missions or that they were predominantly linear. The experience is so packed full of fighting, constant gunfire, and continual chatter from teammates and enemies that eight hours will flash by in an instant. To say COD2 is chaotic, fast-paced and gripping is to sell the game short.
While many early Xbox 360 games are simple high-resolution versions of their current gen brethren, COD 2 was created in tandem with the PC version. This means that both versions demonstrate a hefty amount of special effects, visual polish and no visual compromise. The game looks especially crisp in 1080 and 720, and the level of detail and crispness is undeniably different when compared to the same game in 480p. In the higher resolutions, the texture work is often excellent, and in any mode it's complemented by both fluid moving characters and great animation. You run into a blown-up building and the crumbling walls show granular detail. Your feet kick up dust. Scrapes, scratches, and holes aren't repeated from building to building. And the fidelity of each object, whether it is a broken desk, a destroyed tank, or a torn apart building, is crisp and sharp looking.
The smoke grenades are easily the most interesting visual effect in the game. They're slow to take affect but once in full bloom, they're dense, large, and fluid. Inside one, you will not be able to tell where you are, which direction you entered the billowing cloud, or who's your ally or enemy. When an enemy is finally close enough to determine - usually within a three-foot radius -- there is a split second before you must make a decision. Nazi soldiers will bludgeon you quickly if you're slow on the draw. The grenades are manageable out in the open, but if you mistakenly hurl one inside a building, good luck soldier. The sense of confusion and chaos of a smoke grenade outside is one thing, but inside a building, you feel helpless and blind.
With Call of Duty 2, like its predecessor, you're wowed by the amount of chaos that's whirring wildly about you, but when the cloud of smoke settles and you have a look around, the impeccable work that has gone into these backgrounds, environments, structures, and textures is remarkable. The game looks like it's running at a high framerate with dozens of characters on screen simultaneously without hiccups or major drops in frames. The Xbox 360 version is comparable to a high-end PC system running the game, and in some little cases -- like a lit landscape or a full-blown fighting sequence -- the Xbox 360 version looks superior. Call of Duty 2 is easily one of the best looking Xbox 360 games for launch.
It's amazing COD 2 is rated T. It's easily the grisliest T-rated game I've seen. There isn't much blood and there aren't guts splashing all over the place, but characters take physical damage from shots with force, and you will bear witness to the many animations of dying soldiers. Some try to slowly crawl away, while others will take their handgun and limply -- a la Tom Hands in Saving Private Ryan -- attempt to pull off a few last shots. If you're not careful, they'll tag you. Or they'll try to drag themselves to safety. There are little splashes of blood here and there, but the game is remarkably free of it.
While the visual components are quick, beautiful, and constant, the audio is brilliant on every level and, in many cases, it's even more powerful than the visuals. Just like the striking cacophony of voices, explosions and gunfire that set Call of Duty 1 apart from other games in the sub-genre, the sound in Call of Duty 2 comes through with striking force. Amongst all of the human chatter, the sounds of war come home with furious anger. Tanks blast walls into rubble right next to you, often delivering a blurry shellshock that whites out all noise for a few seconds. While in the midst of any given firefight that might include several dozen enemies firing from rifles and machine guns and throwing grenades at you, squad mates will bark out commands to flank, hide, or snipe. You must comply quickly to succeed, but most of all you must listen to everything to know what to do. Call of Duty 2 engages your eyes with force and motion, but Infinity Ward's game intelligently engages your mind with audio commands that engage you on a deeper level and that many games erroneously dismiss.
Mission progress is usually delivered through ally chatter, and the Russians, the British and the Americans all deliver their own distinct vernacular with verve and color. The Brits constantly refer to the Germans as Jerrys and are constantly yelling "Bastards!", while the Russians call them Fritz and talk about sending them home to their mothers. The Americans are just as colorful. On the other side, the Germans soldiers constantly yell out with a ferocity and intensity that's undeniable. They'll scream when you raid them, and they'll howl in pain when shot - or when they see a grenade they cannot avoid.
Speaking of blood, Infinity Ward has changed the health system to a Halo 2-style system -- health kit free. If you're hit, a red, blood-like film grows bolder and your breathing increases in volume. There is little HUD. Functionally, it works well. The health bar is invisible but regenerates when you remove yourself from the line of fire. But honestly, does it make any sense? No. You're not wearing Mjolnir armor. This is World War II we're talking about -- amidst Infinity Ward's attempt to create an atmosphere of realism and believability, this feature breaks up the immersion. While the new health regeneration system is perhaps more efficient, eliminating the need to grab health packs, it just doesn't make sense.
If you can buy into the new health system (and most people will), you'll really enjoy the deeply layered set of missions. For the most part, they replicate the inch-by-inch reclaiming of territory by the three Allied factions. This means that nearly every level your squad and you take over a location step by step, clearing it of enemies, tanks, half-tracks. The missions are fluid and multi-tiered; they keep you moving at all times, something that the AI works to do well, and they're complex. In North Africa I cleared underground tunnels and piloted fast-moving but vastly inferior English tanks as we fought Germany's Desert Fox. In another section, I spotted tanks on rooftops outside the town perimeter and had them blown to hell. In the Russian levels I withstood an onslaught of German troops that poured through their own smoke grenades to take a building, and we held the bastards back. Elsewhere, I withstood enemy tank attacks and planted sticky bombs to their treads. Then I watched as my allies hurled a grenade into the cockpit only to see the enemies scrambling to get out before exploding inside. As an American I become part of the wave of soldiers that climbed the sheer cliff wall at Point Du Hoc and fought back the Germans from the beach.
In all honestly, the missions themselves are often very familiar in structure and can even be a little run of the mill. But, the way in which the AI acts makes all the difference in the world. It reacts to your positioning on every level. You'll hear captains commending German soldiers to take cover, flank, throw grenades, and snipe, and they'll do it all with efficiency and unusual effectiveness. The enemy hurls perfectly aimed grenades at you. They take cover regularly and they'll stay down if they see you pressing the left trigger to aim. The do all sorts of cool things: They hide well, bludgeon you if you get too close, and they occasionally flank you. But the enemy is not perfect. I've seen it pour into small rural openings, bottlenecked at certain points, and then receive a beating. I've seen enemies stand in one place for far too long, and unwillingly move when I shot them to pieces. The four difficulty settings is a smart move for Infinity Ward, and many players will need to start on medium or even easy at first. I started on normal and moved up to hardened (the third setting), but if I had begun on that setting my experience would have been frustrating and slow.
The missions are lengthy. The earlier ones line up mission objectives in order, so there is no choice. You follow the expertly designed corridors from one to the next. But deeper into the game you'll receive orders to fulfill several objectives in any order you want, opening up the play field and design more than the first Call of Duty. Because the levels are so intense and well populated with intelligently placed enemies, you'll hardly notice how little freedom you have, but after playing several levels, you will want it, and Infinity Ward gives it to you, even if sparsely.
While there were several times when I wanted to command my teammates, Infinity Ward chose not to create a squad-based shooter. I'm sure they discussed it at end, and the design works extremely well without it, but there were several instances where I felt the need to send my team to flank, lay down suppressive fire, or to send out a scout. Occasionally, I wanted them to get the hell out of the way in narrow corridors, like when a grenade would drop at my feet. Still, the same-side AI is surprisingly good at its job. Non-interactive squad mates will do a good deal of legwork on their own. With the exception of running into too many live grenades, these soldiers stick by you, opening fire and calling out targets and enemy grenades. They do such a good job of following along with your progress that they'll position themselves and wait apparently forever if they get a little too far ahead.
Infinity Ward has honed to a science the perfect WWII mission scenario. The rhythm usually includes a brief set up of action that leads into enemy territory, often leads up to "defend this location while waiting for reinforcements," section, and follows with one last burst of enemy activity before it ends. When the cavalry finally does come in, the music swells and the screen fades to black. Call of Duty 2 nails this style
The action continues without a skipping a beat from the single-player campaign straight into the multiplayer levels. The developer has kept the Xbox Live player numbers down a little lower than we would have liked, with eight players simultaneously playing on Xbox Live, but we figure that given the game's great looks and smart design, more than eight players might ruin the framerate, rhythm or multiplayer maps in some way. But for those who love System Link parties, a surprising 16 players can vie on a local area network. For those who have played the first COD, the sequel brings back a handful of the old maps for a total of 13. You'll also get two new weapons in multiplayer, the PPS42 and the M1897 Trench Gun, the latter of which is great in close warfare, but logically terrible in medium or long-range fighting. They levels are pretty, varied, and have a decent sense of verticality, with second story buildings, mortal craters, and trenches providing leverage and quick hiding ground.
Making use of the Xbox 360's multiple processors, Infinity Ward also dug into deep with four-player split-screen goodness. There is no co-op mode, but 2-4 can hop onto a MP game, though I recommend having at least three players. The maps are medium to large in size, and of all the gameplay modes - Headquarters, Search and Destroy, CTF, Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch - only Headquarters is really viable with less than three players. I played on both LANs and on Xbox Live, and the difference is minimal. Headquarters Search and Destroy Mode are objective-based, with icons showing up on the map to indicate where you need to go. In HQ mode, each side must attempt to establish a base. When their HQ is enabled, your team members can't re-spawn when they die, and you must destroy their HQ object to bring your people back to life. If everyone on your team dies, it's over buddy. You'll also get one point for every second that your HQ is up, with the winner also determined by who gets the highest score, but primarily by who survives. Search and Destroy is pretty self-descriptive. You have to get to an object, such as a giant gun, and blow it up. The defender can defuse the bomb, or they can also win by killing your team before you plant the explosive.
This should be a big, lively Xbox Live multiplayer experience. The team games especially are ripe for riveting hours and hours of constant fun, given their variety of design, multi-tiered surfaces, and just the right amount of ammo. In one level with a barn and farm houses, I played an awesome CTF game that was particularly fun when we hurled grenades into the opposing team's barn to capture their flag - and to prevent campers with shotguns. These maps aren't linear like the single-player games, so the wide open design enables you to play differently.
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