Call of Duty rudely throws you into a world of h**, with scant preparation and little chance to warm your cold feet before introducing you to the sheer bedlam of the battlefield. After a brief training session, you are bailing out over n** occupied Normandy just prior to the D-Day landings. These paradrops were notoriously dangerous and chaotic, as portrayed by John Wayne and co in the Longest Day, and in Call of Duty it is no different. You land in the heart of enemy territory, with only your gun and a compass, but quickly find yourself amassing a small army to rush the Germany defences. The sky is thick with tracer fire, smoke and the gently falling bodies of Allied soldiers, both dead and alive. In no time at all, you are in the thick of the action, with bodies, bullets and bombs being blasted from all sides. Welcome to war.
The game is set during the Second World War, but jumps about the time frame a lot. You start with the D-Day landings of 1944, but by the end of the game you are back with the Russians in Stalingrad in 1942, before finishing with the Soviets again in the final push for Berlin. It is a classic first-person shooter action extravaganza, based on the Quake III engine, and most of the fighting is face to face. However, there are a few vehicle missions, including a superb car chase with a beat up old Citroen, where you pick off passing Germans, as you speed by, leaning out of the window so far you think you’re going to fall out. With a reasonably old engine, the graphics are a little rough, technically, but in design terms they are as good as anything you will see this year. The missions last about ten hours, which is fairly short, but in addition you have some excellent multiplayer action, with such heavily populated servers, you won’t have any difficulty in finding a game.
The scenes all look excruciatingly authentic, from the adverts and propaganda posters, down the pock marked buildings and rusty old voitures. Everything looks as though someone took the time to visit the actual locations, photograph everything, and then combine that with contemporary photographs of wartime France, to produce environments that recreate just the right look. All the soldiers in the game act differently, move differently, look different, and even have different facial features and individual facial movements. The attention to detail is stunning, right down to the effects of shell-shock when you get a mortar round landing nearby. Put this all together, with ricochet flashes, tracer fire, distant mortars pounding, screaming aircraft, sirens and soldiers shouting orders and warnings in English and German, and you find yourself enveloped in a truly convincing battle scenario. One that is utterly captivating.
There isn’t really a plot to Call of Duty, it is more of a sequence of vaguely related, but brilliantly presented, action scenes. Each mission seems designed to give you a taste of something different; a car chase, trench warfare, sniping, a tank battle. It borrows heavily, and somewhat shamelessly, from a number of significant World War 2 movies, like The Longest Day and Enemy at the Gates, as well as references to great movies like The Guns of Navarone and 633 Squadron. The opening scenes even feature the infamous “cricket” clicker from The Longest Day, although you don’t get to use one, and the first scene from the Russian missions is so strikingly similar to the opening scenes of Enemy at the Gates that it no doubt has copyright lawyers at Paramount pulling their hair out. Still, this game gives you the opportunity to partake in those wonderfully evocative and breathtaking opening scenes of Enemy at the Gates, and recreates the mood brilliantly, and for that we should be truly thankful.
Not all the missions are fantastic, though. Some are a little tired, and can often seem heavily scripted. One is so obviously static, that the tanks you are ordered to destroy, sit there, not even firing at anything, while you line up your shot, when they could easily finish off you and your entire platoon. Everything is very linear, and although you can wander about the maps to your heart’s content, there is only one way through, and the game will wait for you to complete your mission that one single way. I also felt that the game didn’t quite make use of its excellent AI enough, and gave too many missions that you were to complete on your own. I found the most enjoyable, and convincing, parts of Call of Duty, were where you were fighting fierce and entrenched battles with fellow soldiers, watching them duck in and out of doorways, rush machine gun emplacements, and snipe enemies around corners of buildings. Thus, the many missions that you had to tackle single-handedly were a let-down, in comparison.
Movement can sometimes be problematic. Getting stuck on your own soldiers when trying to squeeze through a tight passageway to reach a vital objective, or take out a nuisance n**, can be very frustrating, as can getting stuck in tight corners when a grenade is dropped on your head. Some of the walls seem surprisingly difficult to climb over. Walls that you can fire over while standing up, that can be no higher than your solar plexus, prove impossible for your highly trained soldier to negotiate. Driving tanks, however, is very simple, although a little odd, being positioned on top of the tank, rather than inside from the driver’s perspective. Everything just folds under the tanks tracks, including entire trees. Aiming and firing with tanks is easy too, perhaps too easy. You just point and fire, and don’t need to take trajectory into account. Aiming the machine gun isn’t even necessary, as it just fires itself. This makes for great action, but takes from the realism and challenge a little too much.
The multiplayer action is gripping, and as fast and frantic as you might expect from a Quake III engine. The fighting takes place on maps taken straight from the single player game, and they work surprisingly well, without any modifications necessary. The net code runs extremely smoothly, and I didn’t notice any choppiness or lag at all, even on home-made servers. There are some excellent innovations too, on top of the engine, in particular the death cam, which allows you to re-live the last five seconds of your life from the perspective of your killer. This is great for spotting potential cheats, as well as for teaching you how not to stand in a window with your head exposed, like it had arrows pointing at it and a big neon “kill me” sign above it. There do appear to be cheats in Call of Duty, however, and this is perhaps a problem of using an older engine that the hackers have been abusing for a while. Watching the death cam showed me a few players who had a mysterious ability to follow the movements of players behind walls.
The death cam also showed me the power of the sniper rifle, which seems to have few penalties in the game, and can even be carried in addition to a*ault rifles. Not that many of the numerous people who took me out with a sniper rifle seemed to care for a*ault weapons, as they happily charged across open spaces and through buildings, using the sniper rifle as if it was an MP40. The relative ease with which people kill with this weapon is borne out by the number of servers that ban snipers from the game. The sniper issue also highlights another negative to the multiplayer game, that being the lack of classes. Instead of medics, engineers and grunts, you just select a weapon and go with it. You can even change the weapon after you have started the game. This takes away from the depth and breadth of the multiplayer component, but as far as pure action is concerned, there is little that matches Call of Duty, certainly not in this year’s releases.
Call of Duty is without doubt one of the best games I have played all year, and is without any significant fault. Everything in the game, from the opening scenes to the end credits is just superb. The missions are a little short, but very sweet, and the multiplayer action more than m
akes up for any brevity. Even without multiplayer, Call of Duty was such an enjoyable romp, that I would happily run through the whole thing again. The game is a World War II action feast, and will delight anyone whose right-hand hasn’t croaked through over use. Even for players who don’t always enjoy shooters, the way the scenes play out, it is worth the money just to play through on greenhorn difficulty, to see how much detail and effort the developers have put into every aspect of the design. Overall, a cracking game and a must for everyone’s Christmas shopping list this year.