Call of Duty IIOctober 25, 2005 - Being the little brother of one of the most highly acclaimed shooters of 2003 is not necessarily an enviable position. While it means a certain degree of easy sales, you have a lot to live up to. However, Activision and company were careful not to crank the Hype-O-Meter up too high, choosing instead to talk about the game in small doses; an interview here, a batch of screenshots there. When I got the 6-CD package amid a flurry of other shooters coming out in the same time frame, my initial reaction was mild. Then I began the install, the music swelled, and all those fuzzily warm memories of ricocheting bullets and constant explosions came back like long-lost friends. Call of Duty, it's been a while. We're glad to have you back.
Many of you who grabbed the single-player demo noted that the game didn't run all that great. All I can tell you is that the retail version appears to have been optimized. Textures look great, and there's lots of shiny stuff going on. Normal mapping is fairly subtle, except for a few elderly character models who look like they're bathed in a sheen of sweat. It's not quite on par with FEAR, but I think even the hardcore shooter fan will find little to complain about. Most importantly: I saw little sign of cutting corners for multi-platform development (as the game is also coming out on the 360). I'm pleased to report that everything looks quite sharp.
One of the other things I noticed is that CoD isn't as oppressively scripted as the first installment. You'll typically only have one path to one objective, but the game often breaks things up by putting you in a battlefield and giving you a batch of locations you have to reach, typically to kill people or blow something up. And in these situations, you can choose what order you want to go in. There are still the dreaded minefields painted into areas that diverge from where the level designers want you to go, and objects piled up just so at key junctions, funneling you down one arbitrary path.
You'll have plenty of other gauntlets to deal with, a gameplay loop that Infinity Ward has honed to a science -- almost to a fault, in fact. The tempo almost always leads up to "defend this location while waiting for reinforcements," complete with a timer that, while helpful, does reduce immersion, in my opinion. Then the cavalry comes in, the music swells emotionally, and someone says something dramatic. It's still an effective device, but it does get a little exhausting at times. The climactic mission of each campaign doesn't have the nearly cartoonish difficulty and scope of United Offensive, instead choosing to emphasize a lower-key but nevertheless crucial engagement, like Brothers in Arms did. You'll still go through some famous locations, like Stalingrad and the American landing at Normandy, but the bulk of your effort will be in securing key locations and gradually pushing back the German offensive. CoD still often meets and sometimes exceeds the grandeur of the original, but it does so typically by pitting you against an amazing number of enemies, rather than letting the historic scenery and cinematic music do a lot of the legwork.
But for a script-oriented game, the enemy AI is pretty darned impressive, especially with their grenades. They might catch themselves in the face every once in a while, but hey, who doesn't? The overwhelming majority of the time, they'll be menacing you with "potato mashers" flung expertly at your location, forcing you to back up, potentially into their line of sight. Your cohorts don't do a consistently good job of getting out of the way, but they're constantly and subtly replaced, which is another element you make like or dislike. Personally, I thought, "The more, the merrier," but I could see how the constant refill of meat shields will feel a little artificial. Believe me, though, there will be times when you be extremely grateful for every extra hand.
If it wasn't for the grenade indicator popping up every time a German decided to turn me into soldier salad, I would have been toast more times than I can count. Yes, another potentially immersion-breaking artifice, but also a life saver. Especially when you have more than one of them coming at you. The enemy will also progressively retreat, stay behind cover, run from grenades (which you can't cook, unfortunately), aim effectively, savage you with melee attacks when you get too close, and generally provide a challenging opponent who's nearly as good at the game as you are. If the terrain is wide open enough, they might even flank you, although it's typically not an option. But they will toss the mashers at you just when you think you've gotten comfortable behind that wall. They won't really use the smoke grenades that much, but you certainly will, because there are a lot of guns, people, and other problems sitting between you and victory; a little extra battlefield haze goes a long way.
Fortunately, this dynamic isn't as useful in multiplayer, because the damage model is pretty steep. Unless you're on a large map with few people, you'll get popped before you can regenerate. Snipers can get one-shot kills, and other weapons can as well, if you aim for the head. In addition to deathmatch, team deathmatch, and CTF, you'll also get an HQ Mode and a Search and Destroy Mode. The last two are objective-based, with icons showing up on the map indicating where you need to go. In HQ mode, each side must attempt to establish their base. When their HQ is enabled, your team members can't respawn when they die, and you must destroy their HQ object to bring those folks back to life. If everyone on your team dies, it's game over. 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 a object, typically an 88 gun or the like, and blow it up. The defender can defuse the bomb, or they can also win by killing your team before you plant the explosive.
All in all, the weapons feel pretty well balanced, and the gameplay should be familiar to those who played the original Call of Duty. It doesn't outdo the single-player portion (nor did we expect it to), but it serves as a fine complement that should extend the life of the game. It has 13 maps, including three remakes from the original game, up to 32 players per server, VOIP chat, and two weapons not available in single-player. The levels I played felt generally balanced towards the maximum, and most of them are wide-open and multi-tiered. Campers will have a tough time finding a place to roost.
Call of Duty is part of a proud, if tired, subgenre of shooters, and once again it manages to rise above the weariness of the material to find something not only fresh but visceral and immediate. It looks great, it sounds awesome, and it provides both meaty single-player and multiplayer.
However, I find implementing regenerating health to be a little troublesome. It allows you to experience a kind of combat only a mythical super-soldier could withstand, and in so doing, propels the game from gritty authenticity to John Woo fantasy. It's difficult to feel like you're really there when you continue to move unabated after taking several MP44 rounds to the chest. Maybe I've just become to accustomed to the necessary fiction of health packs, but this doesn't feel like an honest alternative. Perhaps Call of Duty did fall sway to the evils of multi-platform development after all in implementing a Master Chief-like health system -- but without the science fiction context to go along with it. In the long run, it's up to the gamer to decide whether he can she can dig it. If you do, there's a really fun game to be found. It's just not as fun as it might have been.