WW2 has gotten a lot of attention in the last few years in the gaming space rivaling the kind of attention that SSI and Avalon Hill had garnered during the heyday of PCs in the latter half of the eighties and early nineties with their strategic offerings. Perhaps as a sign of the times, it was only a matter of time before it would get the FPS treatment with Id’s revisit of Castle Wolfenstein, 2015’s Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Gearbox’s Brothers in Arms, and Infinity Ward’s wildly successful Call of Duty. With Grey Matter’s addition to COD with United Offensive that expanded the game to include vehicles and several other gameplay tweaks, the COD franchise has established itself as one of the ‘big guns’ of gaming. Call of Duty 2 continues the offensive by bringing players back to the action that made the first a hit.
Call of Duty 2 is available on the PC and should not be confused with Call of Duty: The Big Red One on consoles. It is also a title for the Xbox 360.
Back to the Front
From the cinematic opening, COD2 once again takes players to the era of WW2, starting them out by placing them in the frozen boots of a Soviet soldier during the brief German assault outside Moscow before you are sent to Stalingrad. Other campaign missions become unlocked as you progress from one mission to the next, soon allowing you to jump to the British campaign in North Africa against the Afrika Corp and eventually join the Americans at Pointe du Hoc during D-Day. Despite the talk about a fourth campaign from previews, there isn’t one. There are only three major campaigns to play through. If you’ve played COD, then you know what to expect from the general gameplay. If you haven’t, be prepared for some of the most intense firefights that you’ll experience on a PC.
COD2 offers the same arcade-like FPS action that the first one had with several new changes to the gameplay formula.
Gone is the need to hunt down health packs, replaced now by a ‘health warning’ system that tells you when you are getting shot at until you take cover. Blood and shock will seep onto the screen with more ‘damage’ that you take until you put yourself behind cover. While hiding from the bullets whizzing by your head, you’ll ‘recover’ your health and be back in action before you know it. The mechanic is not new, having been seen to some extent with the regenerating shield system in Halo and then expanded on in the sequel. While catching as many bullets as I did doesn’t really make sense with the explanation provided with the game (I like to think of it as the game telling you that someone is gunning for you and you’d better get your head down behind cover), it worked to keep me in the game as I fought and retreated when needed. But while it may keep you in the game, it doesn’t make you invincible. You can still get shellshocked and killed if you ignore what the screen is telling you, your heart rate racing and your breath gasping for air as you come close to death (or from the fear of dying).
Grenades have also been given a few changes. As grenades land at your feet, an indicator tells you that a ‘nade is near leaving it to you to either take cover or take shrapnel. Enemy soldiers, depending on the difficulty you’ve set, will try to throw back the ‘nades you hurl at them. You can’t cook your ‘nades in the game, though, something that was added in COD with Grey Matter’s United Offensive.
The AI has also been improved, with both enemy and ally finding cover, leaning out from behind corners, charging when they can and lobbing grenades to blast you out while waiting for you. Most of your enemies and allies in the title won’t typically run blindly into firefights and will use many of the same moves that you are able to use. Some will lie prone, fall on one knee to fire off a few rounds, or try and bash you or the enemy to death if they get in close enough. They’ll also mantle over walls and low barriers just like you can to get at you, flank you, or help cover you as you head into battle.
Another new addition is the use of what the developers and their military advisors have called ‘portable concealement’ in the form of smoke grenades. Not just more great eye candy to enjoy, smoke actually does what it’s supposed to do. That MG42 giving you trouble? Throw some smoke into its line of fire and you’ll suddenly hear the ripping sound belched by the machine gun fall silent as the gunner has no idea where you are in that soup especially when their own friends are in there looking for you. MP40 wielding Wehrmacht soldiers will cautiously wade through the smoke and if you can see their shadows, they can probably see yours making for more than a few exciting moments. As explosions shook the ground around you, the sound of gunfire in the distance, and the ominous rumble of heavy armor off in the distance you wasn’t enough to get the blood going, trying to hunt enemies in this kind of concealement created its own intensity.
As for saves, a checkpoint system has been introduced removing the need for manual saves. Fortunately, the points at which the game makes its saves are well spaced so as not to be brutally frustrating to the point where you’d be repeating large sections of action just to get to where you need to be if you bit it as was the case with some of Far Cry‘s more difficult areas. The system was well balanced enough to keep the player in the game without being too frustrating.
Thunder and Lightning
The devastating explosions and tearing noise of mortars and machine guns will punish your speakers. In a marked improvement over the first game, the sounds were retooled with a lot of emphasis on making them as authentic as possible and it shows. The music by Graeme Revell will also work to keep your adrenaline flowing as well as punctuate those moments when you breath a sigh of relief as allies come to your rescue. Although many of the pieces come into play during the battles only at key moments such as when you rush a position or are forced to hold out against all odds against the enemy, the introductory themes and interludes between chapters still help to keep that epic feel going until the next battle.
Another notable addition to the sound design is the ‘battle chatter’ that the developers have added not only to make your friends on the battlefield more lively, but also more useful as they call out the locations of the enemy ahead of you or advise you to take cover. From the DVD walkthrough that comes with the Collector’s Edition, it was stated that over 25,000 lines were recorded and in a nod to the much improved AI found in the game, each of your allies along with the enemy are aware of where they are on the game map at any time allowing them to yell out context sensitive statements. The voice acting in general was very well done although some lines do get overused, however, such as anything containing “fascist” while playing as the Soviets. It would have been nice to have heard some Russian in the background as well, but for the most part, your Soviet comrades’ spoken parts in accented English were just fine. As part of the presentation, they have also included sound clips such as an excerpt of Ike’s speech to the troops on D-Day along with part of Ronald Reagan’s speech at Pointe du Hoc during the 40th anniversary of D-Day which were great surprises.
The graphics themselves show a dramatic improvement over the first Call of Duty with both soldiers and scenery sporting a high degree of detailed eye candy, although some clipping is still an issue with the occasional weapon poking through the walls. Interiors in the game are filled with furniture, rubble, twisted wreckage, and many other props and detailed textures to help bring the battlefields that you will find yourself in to life. Vehicles look great, most of the individual soldiers look good, and the venues that the player will be fighting through whether it is somewhere out on the sunlit sands of North Africa or the frozen streets of Stalingrad definitely make the game feel as if it spans the entire European theater.
But the special effects are where a lot of the title’s graphical overhaul really shines. Smoke and dust affect visibility in a realistic way with an improved particle system, with silhouettes and shadows moving about within these clouds making you wonder if they’re the good guys or the bad guys. Fire and explosions look great everywhere you turn creating fields of death that you will eventually be prodded to cross over. The feeling that you’re in an action film based out on the war front of WW2 is definitely created in-game. Some of this comes at a price, though, especially where smoke and other effects are concerned, pushing my poor 9600 Pro to its limits at resolutions of 1280×1024 with most of the effects set to high.
As far as historical accuracy was concerned, Infinity Ward did their homework, although some changes were made to likely keep the game accessible to players of all levels which history buffs might nitpick. For example, one in-game battle demonstrated the weakness of the British tanks versus their German counterparts, allowing you to try and mimic the tactics used to destroy the few panzers that Rommel had left to him with flanking maneuvers as you tried to hit them from the rear or the sides where the armor was thinner. The Pointe du Hoc mission on the American side had also followed the events of the actual encounter pretty closely as described in an interview with 1st Sergeant Len Lomell on the Collector’s DVD.
As for the level design, much has been said about the non-linearity of some of the missions and to some extent the freedom that this offers players in tackling their objectives is true. However, a majority of the missions still follow a fairly linear progression with only a few offering you the opportunity to branch out in different routes to take out a set of objectives in whatever order you feel you should. In an interesting change from the first COD, some of the missions will require you to backtrack to different spots of the map to hold positions or to tackle new objectives that suddenly come up behind you. The maps can be particularly huge which helps to open up many of these opportunities. In one particular mission during the British campaign in North Africa, you have to hold a town against the Afrika Corp’s attempts to retake it, going from one trench to another across a wide front as you hold off for reinforcements.
As missions unlock, you can also jump into the other campaigns (such as the British and, eventually, the American one). Keep in mind, though, that if you jump to another mission in another campaign, you will lose your progress in the mission that you were in. Being able to jump from one campaign to another was an interesting choice to allow players but not a very exciting one. It just offers more of a chance to experience other battles if you’ve gotten tired of ice and snow in Soviet Russia than as something that can affect the fortunes of your unit or your character.
Haven’t We Been Here Before?
The American and the British campaigns were given the royal treatment with entirely new battles offered up to players, but the Soviets have gotten the short end of the stick with more Stalingrad. While you get to participate in a brief skirmish some twenty miles outside of Moscow, an opportunity is missed to take part in the counterattack that Stalin launches with his reinforcements from Siberia thrown against the frozen Wehrmacht. The missions in Stalingrad were different enough to be fun, but it was a somewhat of a letdown to see an opportunity to take the player to other battles that the Red Army had participated in limited to only this one. Stalingrad was a pivotal battle, yes, but there were many others that helped to whittle away the strength of the Nazi war machine. It would have been interesting to see what the designers could have come up with as a scenario that could have taken the player to the early days of Operation Barbarossa to survive the opening blitzkrieg, or Zhukov’s initial charge into Berlin. Or perhaps mixing it up with some covert action, using silenced stens or a fake uniform and papers to get behind enemy lines before wreaking some serious havoc as was experienced all the way back in MOH: Allied Assault.
The presentation between chapters is also something that could have used some polish, something that the Medal of Honor series did well. Small, historical vignettes with footage courtesy of the Military Channel help set up the stage for each campaign, but not for much else. MOH: Allied Assault took this to an additional step by creating mock operation rooms for menus and presenting the film in a sort of briefing room atmosphere. The menus and clips in COD2, even with the live face shots of soldiers in the campaign screen, still seem to be tacked on in comparison.
COD2 continues to provide some of the most dramatic battles to be found on the PC, many of the battles that you take part in brutal, action packed and fast paced firefights. The problem is that COD2 is still the same arcade-like FPS experience that its predecessor was which isn’t a bad thing…but it certainly doesn’t bring anything really new to the table. For the most part, you go from one battle to the next, gunning your way across a landscape of corpses as you follow verbal signposts to the next objective. Despite trying to veer as much from scripting as possible, the game still makes use of quite a bit of it leading to some awkward moments when you don’t ‘hit your mark’ when someone on the screen starts talking towards the general direction of where you should be, as one example. Others include waiting for the ‘boot guy’ to come in and kick doors or gates open, or when you careen through a street at the top of an armored car through a shooting gallery of bad guys on rooftops, making progress at one point once you take care of enough of the panzerfaust toting soldiers. The flak gun minigame is also back in one mission, allowing you to heroically shoot down Luftwaffe pilots that seem to love making a beeline just for you.
But despite the good looking levels, the bombastic sounds, and the action movie style gameplay and objectives, the single player experience must eventually come to an end and in COD2‘s case, it comes too soon. You can always jack up the difficulty level if you’re finding it to be too much of a walkthrough, but shooter veterans can probably expect only eight to ten hours with the single player campaign. Finishing the game is also a mixed bag, with a summary film vignette at the end finishing the war for you after you fight that final battle. It was almost anti-climactic given that we were given Stalingrad all over again and not another encounter at Berlin.
Although the single player aspect of the game may be a short lived experience depending on how difficult you want to make it, the greatest draw for many players may be in the multiplayer chaos that lives up to its predecessor and then some. Multiplayer has also been given a facelift with a few maps from the first title returning, retooled and refurbished, along with a large variety of other maps making use of the new campaigns. Gametypes include Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Headquarters, and Search & Destroy. Conspicuously missing is the Domination and the Base Assault gametype, introduced in COD: United Offensive along with vehicles leaving me to guess that an expansion pack featuring them will eventually make it out the door just like the last time.
There are also a few things that previous COD players from United Offensive may also notice missing such as the ability to sprint as the title goes back to COD‘s original multiplayer configuration before the expansion pack/patches. Cooking grenades is also no longer an option. Mods are already coming out, though, bringing sprinting back by the time of this review and I’m sure more will be on the way to bring the multiplayer experience back to the benchmark brought to players with United Offensive.
Despite the missing features that more than a few players may have wanted to see return, the multiplayer experience in COD2 is just as exciting as the first and there are no shortage of servers out there. Some even go as high as fifty players, ensuring that the fights online are just as chaotic…or even moreso…as they were in the single player campaigns.
The Collector’s Edition of the game includes two DVDs: the game DVD and the extras DVD. The eXtras contains two mission walkthroughs for the title as the developers talk about what worked, what didn’t, and what kind of processes they had followed as they built the missions. There’s a ‘behind the scenes’ interview that covers some of the things that went on during the development of COD2 such as the technical hurdles that they were faced with along with Microsoft’s request to have them make it a launch title for the 360. There is also an art gallery that shows some of the concept work for the title included. It’s an interesting collection of developer interviews, but as far as the game design background is concerned there wasn’t a whole lot that felt covered compared to the in-game commentary in Chronicles of Riddick or the extensive walkthrough found in the Collector’s Edition of F.E.A.R..
The DVD also includes an interview with 1st Sergeant Leonard G. Lomell, surviving veteran of WW2 and the Army Ranger who, along with Staff Sergeant Jack Kuhn, are credited with the destruction of the 155mm artillery guns at Pointe du Hoc providing an intimate look at the battle as it was reproduced in COD2. For WW2 buffs or for anyone in general that want to know more about this particular piece of history, the interview is a great addition. The COD2 mission based off of these events does a good job in reproducing this particular event. Even when you find the guns, you can hear the German gun crews…oblivious to your presence…talking in the distance while you follow in Lomell’s footsteps in quietly planting thermite charges to disable the weapons as your partner covers you.
The Final Round
What COD2‘s single player experience does best is provide the player with a lot of exciting scenes and battles that they can suddenly find themselves in the middle of whether it’s hunting tanks in the streets of Stalingrad or crossing the top of the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc against fanatical German resistance. The experience was still a lot of fun and as a fan of the first one, I enjoyed it although I was still hoping to see more done to make it more than a run ‘n gun shooter…especially given the overall length of the single player. More of the same isn’t necessarily a bad thing but players looking for a bit more than the usual may feel a little disappointed especially at the length of some of the missions. Multiplayer was also hit with a sense of ‘been here, done that’ especially given its backtracking after Grey Matter’s United Offensive additions, but it will probably be the strongest draw for the title for many looking for it.
When all is said and done, COD2 continues to offer a blistering action experience on the PCs as you play through several of WW2’s most harrowing moments. Players that have already gone through COD and are looking for more of the same thing will undoubtedly find much to like here, especially with the new British and American campaign missions. For those that haven’t, COD2 still offers a lot of action and excitement to keep shooter fans happy as it continues to do what COD does best.
– World 1-1