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For some reason, who knows why--Saving Private Ryan, Greatest Generation Fever, Zombie Fatigue?,World War II has become the first-person shooter setting du jour, and of all the WWII shooters thus far released, Call of Duty's single-player game is by far the best. The gameplay is fast and furious, the missions cinematic and intense, and the graphics, while squeezed out of the creaky Quake III engine, still do a good job of evoking a gritty battlefield atmosphere. But the game also has a few flaws, and, unfairly or not, flaws tend to stand out starkly in a game as otherwise excellent as this one. First, while in many of its missions the game tries (and usually succeeds) in giving the player a feeling that they are actually fighting on a big, outdoor, and chaotic battlefield, an unfortunately significant number of missions (and almost all the British ones) are not much more than the standard corridor-and-room mazes we've all played through so many times before. Again, I've gunned through a million of these pedestrian maps without much complaint, but when one of these dullards immediately follows a frantic and intense outdoor shootout against hordes of Nazi troopers and tanks for possession of a vital bridge, you tend notice that the sugar's gone missing from the table.
But I could have even overlooked the slacker missions if not for one irrefutable and damning fact: Call of Duty is far, far, too short. I played through it in less than eight hours. I mean, they were eight great hours, but so were my first two marriages. While some of my colleagues in the fifth estate have excused the game's brevity by invoking its intensity?, that's just lame. Since Call of Duty's single-player is pretty heavily scripted and its multi-player just OK (it's not gonna make you forget BF 1942, that's for sure) there is not a lot of replay value here, unless you plan on hanging on to the game while you wait for the inevitable expansion pack,which will be, what, four hours long? So enjoy your eight to twelve hours of intensity, and afterwards try not to think about all the other stuff you could have done with fifty bucks.
But enough griping,for now. The fact is that Call of Duty, when it works, is an absolutely sublime experience. It is quite intentionally cinematic, shamelessly recreating scenes from such recent films as Band of Brothers and Enemy at the Gates. During these missions, when you feel like you're just a small part of a sweeping and desperate battle raging around you, the game is really quite unique. I've never played a game that captures the feel of Hollywood's version World War II like Call of Duty. It really is like being in a war movie, and the game's relentlessly fast pace,at times it plays almost like Serious Sam vs. the SS,makes for some very breathless gaming. Throw in the best, loudest, and scariest sound effects in any WWII shooter yet, as well as some very nice stun effects, and you've got a game that is capable of giving you an intense adrenaline rush while at the same time totally disorienting you. And there are Nazis, too.
The game consists of three campaigns, the American, British, and Russian, along with an extra end of war? mission for each of the campaigns at the game's end. The missions for each campaign are loosely tied together, and the player will fight through each of them using the infantry weapons of each nation. Though players will from time to time be able to use such weapons as Panzerfausts, anti-tank guns, anti-aircraft guns or heavy machine guns, most of the time they will be limited to a rifle (scoped or unscoped), a submachine gun, a pistol, and grenades. The weapons are fairly realistically modeled; for example, the U.S. Thompson submachine gun has major stopping power, but a small clip and lousy accuracy. The German MP-40 is an all-around solid SMG, and the Russian PPsh-41 has a big clip but needs a lot of hits to bring down an enemy. Controls are of the standard WASD variety, and you can also use your right mouse button to aim down the barrel? of your weapon, which slows you down but greatly increases accuracy.
Each campaign has its own distinct flavor. As the Americans, you'll drop into Normandy as a pathfinder for the 101st Airborne on D-Day, fight your way into St. Mere Eglise, and try to hold it against Axis tank and infantry until reinforced. Some of these missions take place during the night, and Infinity Ward does a great job of portraying the confusion and claustrophobia of night combat. The campaign even includes a wacky car ride behind enemy lines, during which you'll hang out you window pot-shoting pursuing Nazis. After fighting your way inland, you'll clear out enemy artillery positions a la Band of Brothers. Up to this point, the game is utterly awesome. But for some reason, as the campaign progresses it swerves from its big canvas? point of view, and the missions begin to focus on you and a small band of intrepid comrades? who do stuff like work your way through enemy chateaux to liberate captured commandos. You know, I've already played Rainbow Six. I had never played--before the first missions of Call of Duty--any game that quite captured the scope, action, and confusion of the WWII battlefield. More of that, please.
Overall, the British campaign is pretty mediocre. This is unfortunate, because it starts with a couple of missions centered upon the defense of Pegasus Bridge by glider troops. These scenarios gave me some of the best gaming moments I've ever had as I scrambled around, desperately holding off German infantry and armor until reinforcements arrived. It was great, and then the British campaign, like the American campaign, sort of forgot what it had done right and started throwing missions at me where I had to fight through corridors against either space demons or Nazis on either the Tirpitz or the planet Zog, I forget which.
The Russian campaign is the best of the bunch, and what really makes the game. It begins as you, a Soviet conscript, cross the Volga on a flimsy barge crammed with comrades to fight in the battle of Stalingrad. You start the campaign unarmed, and must somehow survive German rifle, artillery, and Stuka attacks, all the while avoiding your own commissars. The campaign pretty much maintains this level of intensity throughout, and even gives you the opportunity of drive and fight in a T-34 tank. Don't expect a heavy-duty tank sim, but it is a lot of fun.
The game's graphics aren't exactly cutting edge--as one would expect from a game employing the Quake III engine--but they are expertly done. The illuminations from Wirbelwind AA guns firing into the night sky are superb, and some of the game's levels are just terrific. At times, I just sort of hunkered down my character during gameplay, just to watch the cinematic goings-on around me. While character animations and facial expressions are fairly wooden, it didn't really bother me; this isn't an RPG, after all, and the game's large levels and scope tends to make one overlook the smaller graphic details. The game's sound is great. You can tell who's in the next room by the sound of their weapon, and as you fight across the game's levels you'll often be rocked by explosions that will literally knock your character off his feet.
Enemy AI is pretty good, at times very good; German soldiers will hide behind cover (sometimes even patiently), throw grenades to flush you out, and typically make the right (if not the smartest) move. Friendly AI can be a bit more problematic. In some scenarios, you'll be joined by friendly troops,however, they have an odd habit of ignoring nearby enemy troops, sometimes walking right past them. Even worse, the enemy will sometimes ignore them as well. This means that you can follow a couple of friendly characters into a room, only to find that a German submachine gunner was standing right next to them, apparently waiting for your appearance before beginning his war.
Multiplayer is tight; I got excellent pings every time I played, which is probably to be expected from a Quake III-based game. The multiplayer modes, however, were not very inspiring, especially after all the hours I've put into BF 1942, my personal multiplayer fave.
Overall, Call of Duty is an excellent game that falls just short of five stars due to its brevity and its sometimes quotidian missions. When everything works, this is one of the best games I've ever played; it just doesn't work quite often enough.
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