Call of Duty
Some people are mad about role playing games, while others find themselves drawn to survival horror games. I’ve never been a fan of either but I am a longtime fan of first person shooters. FPSs have come a long way in their history, possibly more than any other genre. Traditionally, shooters have cast the player as a lone gunman, outnumbered and often out gunned. What follows is a Rambo-style adventure comprising of the slaughter of entire armies of robots, cloned henchmen, Nazis or whatever the developer has chosen. Sure, it’s fun, but in no way is it realistic. This especially applies to games based on historic events and in particular World War II games.
A concept thought up by Stephen Spielberg, the original Medal of Honor was released on the PlayStation in October 1999 and received critical acclaim. The game starred Lt. Patterson of the OSS, who fought alone against Nazis in a variety of missions. Despite the game being banned in Germany in 2000, EA pushed on with a sequel and the series was born. The fourth game, Medal of Honor: Frontline brought the player to the heart of the battlefield, but here is where the series fell apart. Each of your fellow warriors had a pre-destined fate and couldn’t help you. You weren’t part of a squad or team, you were a puppet in a poorly constructed movie. A year passed and members of the Medal of Honor team left to form a new development company. Infinity Ward was born and their first game sets out to right the wrongs of Medal of Honor. That game is Call of Duty.
In a war that changed the world, no one fought alone.
Call of Duty‘s tagline represents its aim completely; to highlight the camaraderie and teamwork displayed by the soldiers of World War II. Films like Saving Private Ryan and the series Band of Brothers draw attention to the way men fought and died together. Each man watched out for his buddy and each knew that their back was covered. Call of Duty attempts to be the best World War II shooter yet by replicating the environment and the people who fought in it.
The game cast you as three frontline infantrymen, an American airbourne soldier, a British paratrooper and a Russian conscript. The game switches between these storylines throughout, showing you the war from all sides (bar the Nazis of course). You fight almost every mission with fellow soldiers in a squad, assaulting positions together in Normandy, Stalingrad or wherever the game takes you. Your buddies are far from scripted puppets though. They take cover when necessary, put down covering fire and engage the enemy like any soldier would. Most importantly, they are competent warriors in their own right, not just cannon fodder as in Medal of Honor games. Each soldier acts intelligently and as part of the squad. It’s a joy to watch.
The Medal of Honor games were always very heavily scripted and linear, forcing you through a pre-set path. Infinity Ward have been more subtle in Call of Duty, still directing you through the proceedings using scripted events, but this time it’s less obvious. The game gives you the illusion of freedom, indicating where to go but not forcing you. Environments rarely have strict and obvious boundaries, but feel like they are part of a larger area altogether. An on-screen compass and your squad direct you, the instrument showing the general direction of your objective and your buddies indicating your immediate route. If you are heading the right way, your team will advance through the level, but if you are going astray, they will stop and take cover. Once back on the correct path, your movement will trigger them to continue on their mission. This ensures that you don’t get lost and that you’re not left behind by over-eager AI teammates. It’s subtle and well thought out, pointing you in the right direction, but not dragging you there.
Call of Duty‘s missions are really a series of set pieces which you travel between and take part in. It’s obvious that films such as Enemy at the Gates and Saving Private Ryan have been a huge influence and you’ll find yourself almost playing through the movies in some cases. Each set piece is designed to make the most of the game’s squad dynamic, visual and audio effects. You’ll find yourself in all sorts of scenarios, fighting with your fellow soldiers to overcome the enemy. From charging across Red Square to defending a drop zone in Normandy, they are brilliantly crafted and are deeply satisfying to play.
Although most of the action takes place on foot, there are a number of on-the-rails vehicle sections which you can play. A few see you in a car or truck acting as a gunner as a AI buddy drives through the countryside. It’s like Time Crisis but better; shooting up enemy lorries and motorbikes with rockets and machine guns, with a fellow squad member feeding you ammunition from captured stores. These sections flow freely from the regular on-foot missions, blending in with storyline like they should. There’s even one level which gives you control of a Soviet tank as you and your fellow tankers fight through the snowy countryside. These sections may be rare, but they offer variety when it’s most needed and are enjoyable breaks between the regular sections.
Call of Duty isn’t completely realistic – you won’t die if hit once and German tanks are crippled by a single anti-armour rocket – but the environment, equipment and characters are authentic. Infinity Ward have made a definite effort to make the game accurate, but not to the point where it spoils the gameplay. Take the Pegasus Bridge level as an example. You and your squad are flown into Normandy by glider to capture Pegasus Bridge and wait for reinforcements. The glider in the game lands in exactly the same place as the real plane landed 59 years ago. I’m lucky enough to have been to the real Pegasus Bridge in France, and I can tell you that Call of Duty‘s recreation of the site is a notably good one when compared with the actual location. They say that ‘the devil’s in the detail’ and here it really pays off. Call of Duty doesn’t feel like a Hollywood film, it feels more like the actual events.
The game’s graphics help enormously to back this authentic feel up, with realistic animations, accomplished textures, the ability to show many characters on screen and some clever special effects. The first level in which you play a Russian starts on a barge packed with fellow conscripts. There are at least 40 characters, all with individual facial expressions and animations. Your comrades look anxious and afraid as their commanders tell them that retreat is not an option, that deserters will be shot. As you proceed, the river is bombed by German planes, with other ships exploding in dramatic orange fireballs. As you reach land, you step ashore onto a pier and the ship behind you is hit by a shell. Thrown to the ground, the visuals blur to convey confusion and a loss of the senses, along with a dulling of the game’s audio. Later on in the level, an artillery barrage rains down on nearby enemies, resulting in huge towers of dirt being thrown up into the air, your viewpoint shaking to mirror the utter overpowering of the event. Medal of Honor‘s presentation was always top-notch and Call of Duty follows this with a simple but attractive menu system and some cool introductions to the three separate campaigns.
The game’s audio works with the visuals to produce these effects, each element complimenting the other perfectly. Sound is distinctly directional even through stereo speakers and each weapon has an individual tone. After a while, you’re learn to listen before you go into combat. Recognising the sound of a MG42 machine gun or the clunk of a grenade on the floor can be critical if you want to survive. You pick all this up sub-conscientiously as you go on, learning by doing. Voice acting is excellent and there isn’t too much repetition at all. The game’s audio is good in its own right, but what it does best is to combine with the graphics, making Call of Duty an assault on the senses.
As for hardware requirements, Call of Duty is typical of any game in the genre. The minimum requirements set by the developers are surprisingly low and we wouldn’t recommend you picking the game up if you just meet the minimum spec. The game should run comfortably on a 1.5Ghz, 256MB RAM machine though as long as you put the settings up too high. The game automatically sets the options to the most suitable for your system when you start, which is a nice little feature.
It’ll probably take you a couple of days to play through the singleplayer on the easiest difficulty, after which you’ll probably want to play through some of the levels a few times again. To prolong the lifespan, there are a total of four difficulty levels as well as a separate multiplayer mode. There are twelve multiplayer maps which can be played online or over a network with up to around 50 players in each. The gameplay is fast and furious, especially on the larger engagements. Multiplayer doesn’t feel like a tacked on feature, it’s more like an extension of the singleplayer. Mods are also catered for, with functions built into the game that allow easy swapping between the original and a custom game. Call of Duty‘s lifespan isn’t enormous, but it’s a hell of a lot greater than similar games in the genre.
Call of Duty is what Medal of Honor should have been. It combines the gameplay elements with the visuals and audio perfectly to recreate squad level engagements in which much of the war was fought. Your fellow soldiers are intelligent and competent in what they do and the story guides you through the beautifully crafted set pieces that the game is made up of. Multiplayer backs up the multiple difficulty levels, making for a solid lifespan, while the graphics and sound combine well to deliver an all-round authentic experience. For FPS fans like myself, this is something we’ve been waiting a long time for; a near-perfect WWII title that does complete justice to the men who fought in the conflict.