Why is it that WWII shooters attract more flak than a B-17 on a bombing run over Berlin? It's okay to have eleven thousand bouncing plumber games, or a few hundred gnarly-dude skateboarding titles, but mention WWII and suddenly words like repetitive, overdone and boring are the order of the day. Yet if sales are anything to go by, not to mention Xbox Live popularity, gamers just can't get enough of the era. Can the latest Call Of Duty trooper prove that there's still plenty to be excited about in the genre?
The answer is not an easy one. Call of Duty 3 is a tale of two very distinct halves. On one hand there's the solid, yet stale, single-player game. It's this half of the title that is set to reinforce the idea that Nazi-busting is as out of fashion as Hitler's dainty little moustache. Yet for 360 owners who aren't afraid to take their M1 Carbine online, the multiplayer game is worth the asking price alone.
A one-man war
Playing Call of Duty 3 offline is a very familiar experience
a little too familiar perhaps. The developer, Treyarch, has adhered firmly to a very formulaic COD recipe. This recipe has been built up over the history of the franchise's success, and it seems Treyarch is afraid to deviate from it.
Multiple, interweaving storylines? Check. Over-the-top set pieces with the occasional scripted piece of eye candy? Check. Endless waves of mindless, respawning enemies? Check. Invincible squad mates with the intelligence of a carrot? Check.
It all leads to an experience that feels like a high-tech shooting gallery. At first you'll be so overwhelmed by the epic scope and beauty of the battles that you won't notice how scripted, how regimented, everything is. As the screenshots attest, this is the best looking Call of Duty, nay, WWII game, we've seen. From the grip on their boots to the camouflage ribbon adorning their helmets, your comrades are blessed with all the bump-mapped goodness the 360 can exude. Thankfully, this hasn't resulted in the varnished sheen common in earlier next-gen games.
Levels stretch off into the hazy distance, with astoundingly realistic environments providing the perfect spawn-points for cookie cutter enemies. Alongside the series' renowned smoke effects, which are more billowy and ethereal than ever, COD can now also lay claim to the finest grass and vegetation effects seen in a game. The engine pounds through this visual extravaganza like a Sherman tank ploughing through a French townhouse, with nary a shudder or hiccup.
So, yes, it's a very pretty shooting gallery - but that's as far as it goes. The enemy AI, or lack of it, is very noticeable. It's fun to joke that the Nazis were a pack of mindless drones, but it's not so much fun when there's no satisfaction in outthinking these automatons.
Enemy troops rarely advance or flank, preferring instead to stick to the precise spot their level designer gods deemed to be their dying place. Once killed, an identical, brain-dead Nazi rushes from their spawn point to fill the exact same spot. A couple of times our enemies withdrew from us, but it felt as if this was triggered by us hitting an invisible tripwire, not because they'd figured out that Uncle Sam was going to ruin their fascist fantasy of grey uniforms for all. These scenes usually continue indefinitely until the player moves forward to an invisible trigger point. Cue friendly soldiers moving forwards with you, and a new set of Nazi targets popping up in the distance.
A lot of fuss was made about the new action scenes in the lead up to Call of Duty 3. You've seen the videos of the character wrestling with a Nazi, or using thumbsticks to row a boat across a river. While the promo videos of these looked cool, the end result is a Daley Thompson Decathlon joystick-wobbler disguised in army greens. These sections don't add anything to the game; luckily they're not too prolonged or frequent to really hurt the game either. If you ever study Game Design 101, and need to refer to an ill-conceived gameplay mechanic that could have been dropped, feel free to reference these action sequences.
That's basically all there is to the single-player game, with the occasional driving or turret section thrown in to spice things up. Don't be mistaken though - there are still exciting times to be had, thanks to the sheer spectacle of it all. When you're crouched behind a dead cow, MG-42 rounds smacking into the dirt around you, friend and foe in every direction, it's easy to overlook the scripted feel. It's even enjoyable enough that we look past its unforgiving checkpoint system, as well as a few glitches and bugs.
If we were look only at the single-player, Call of Duty 3 is an enjoyable, gorgeous, yet aging creature, sitting firmly in 7.5/10 territory. WWII buffs will probably get a kick out of it, but compared to current shooters such as Rainbow 6 and Gears of War, the key gameplay mechanics are starting to get a bit creaky. But to only examine this facet would be to ignore the most exciting half of Call of Duty 3
The better half
Call of Duty 2 established itself as one of the top online games on Xbox Live. Call of Duty 3 looks set to lob a potato masher down its predecessor's gullet, blowing it away in terms of popularity. It is that good.
To say we were sceptical about the ability for the game to support 24 players is an understatement. Saying that "Hitler wasn't a very nice man" is probably less of an understatement. Throw jeeps, tanks and motorcycles into the netcode mix, and we were sure this game was going to be laggier than playing Battlefield 2 over a 28.8k dial-up modem.
Imagine our surprise then when we jumped into our first online game, only to find that it was running absolutely seamlessly. We're talking smoother than a power-sanded baby's butt. Vehicles screamed through the levels, with characters manning external machine guns, while two teams of twelve stormed forward to their inevitable deaths. Not once did we see characters teleporting, stuttering, or any of the other glitches that lag causes. Even the fine, lag-sensitive art of sniping is possible - in fact, the scout is now one of our favourite classes. After playing online for five days now, we're still pinching ourselves to see if it's not just a dream.
Then we realised we were playing on an American server.
This just does not happen for Australian Xbox Live players. 24 players, on a server half way around the world, and it works. Somehow Treyarch is allowing our Australian bullets to lodge in American guts the split-second we hit the fire button. Either that, or they've got some very talented developers working on their networking code. Every so often we died in a situation where lag was a factor, but these rare instances are hidden rather well.
Thanks to this magical netcode, it makes a vast number of servers playable for Aussies, making it easier than ever to find a game. We can't understate how important this is for Xbox Live players who aren't lucky enough to live in one of the major gaming regions such as the US or Europe. It should ensure that this game has a truly global reach, allowing gamers to blow each other to shreds no matter where they may live.
Right now the game's server browser is quite unreliable - connection measurements are inaccurate, making it difficult to judge how close you are to the server. But even worse is when it stops allowing connections altogether, making it impossible to join a game in progress. Thankfully this only occurred to us around 20% of the time, and it's something that patching will surely fix.
We've established that the netcode is absolutely superior to anything we've seen on Xbox Live before - but what good is netcode without some bollocks-bulging gameplay to back it up? Absolutely no good, that's what. Thank Himmler, then, that the gameplay is also up to scratch.
Borrowing not a leaf out of Battlefield 1942's book, but an entire chapter or two, hasn't hurt Call of Duty 3. Like Battlefield, there are different player classes, each with different strengths, weapons and special abilities. In these early post-launch days, it doesn't seem as if any class is totally dominating; each has a place in the ever-changing battleground. Each class feels very different, helping to add variety to the online experience. Getting bored with sniping? Why don't you cut down the waves of incoming enemy with the heavy .30 calibre machine gun, then? Sick of saving your selfish team mates when playing as a medic? Bust out that bazooka and ruin the Tiger crew's day.
Another nod to BF is the inclusion of vehicles, though there are only a handful per level. We absolutely love the way characters are animated to mount the vehicle correctly, instead of just teleporting inside ala Battlefield. The sense of balance seen in the character classes also extends to vehicles; they're not the invulnerable killing machines they could so easily have been. For example, while tanks are quite deadly, they're very vulnerable to the art of "mantling". Provided you've got a grenade, sneak up behind the tank, hold x and watch your trooper jam a grenade through the crew hatch. Boom - one dead tank and one very grateful team.
The jaw dropping visuals of the single-player are present in all their glory in the multiplayer game. The gorgeous grass and vegetation effects aren't just superficial eye candy this time though; hiding within their leafy confines is a very useful tactic.
Even the level design is worth raving about; there's plenty of variety, they all look equally authentic and they're all balanced.
The new game mode, War, will feel right at home to anybody who has played Battlefield's Conquest mode. It's practically identical. A series of flags must be captured in sequential order, leading to a tug of war of carnage and death between the two teams. If there's anything we can complain about, it's that in-game promotions don't feel quite as important as they could have. The longer you play on a server, the better your special abilities. Sadly, as soon as you disconnect and join another game, it's back to the rank of potato peeler.
Xbox Live owners looking for more depth than the Gears of War chainsaw-fest, or for more action than the slower pace of Rainbow Six Vegas, should really check out this one. We'd go so far as to place our bets that, at least until Halo 3 is released, Call of Duty 3 is going to be the most popular game on Xbox Live.
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