Reviewed: November 8, 2006
Released: November 7, 2006
Last November while Xbox 360 owners were basking in the glow of their new consoles and playing the epic hit, Call of Duty 2, those with lesser systems were also enjoying their own spin on the franchise. Call of Duty 2: Big Red One might not have had all the graphical perks of the 360 but it excelled in gameplay and pure fun, and in my opinion is still the best Call of Duty game ever made.
I was understandable excited when I learned that the designers for that game, Treyarch, had taken over the Call of Duty franchise and were developing for all the new next-gen systems as well as extending the branch of good faith to those with last-gen tech.
Call of Duty 3, has arrived and it’s prepared to blow you away with some explosive gameplay, ultra-realistic graphics, incredible sound, and a few twists, like Battle Actions, that actually help evolve the franchise. Combine all this with some nicely executed multiplayer supporting up to 24 players in teams and head-to-head and you have the leading contender for Game of the Year.
Call of Duty 3 breaks new ground in several areas, both technically, and from a design perspective. Unlike last year’s game where you bounced around from campaign to campaign, country to country, you now play a single campaign, the 1944 Normandy Breakout, one of the most crucial and brutal battles of WWII. Along with the US and British troops, Call of Duty 3 also introduces us to the Canadians and the Polish who also play vital roles in this campaign.
The game consists of 14 chronologically ordered missions that are played from the perspective of each nationality, giving you a rare look at how these men actually coordinated their efforts and supported the actions of the others.
The level of historical accuracy is like nothing you have seen or experience. Treyarch has gone the extra mile to make every location and every event as close to the actual experience it was based on. Lt. Col. Hank Keirsey, the chief consultant responsible for making sure your Call of Duty experience is the closest thing to real battle, actually went to Buffalo, NY and interviewed surviving Polish soldiers, and many of their stories and heroic actions have been integrated right into the gameplay. As a bonus, you can also watch these interviews on a bonus disc in the collector’s edition of Call of Duty 3.
The game avoids getting too personal by not telling the story of any one soldier, but that doesn’t mean Call of Duty 3 is not cinematic. In fact, this is easily the most cinematic Call of Duty ever made. From the open movie to the closing credits, you will NEVER see a load screen. Using some clever data streaming technology, the designers will already have a gorgeous cinematic prepared when one mission ends, and while it plays out the next mission will be loading.
Aside from the screen temporarily shrinking to letterbox proportions for these movies, you would never know it was happening. It’s totally seamless and totally immersive. It’s also slightly “dangerous” because it doesn’t provide any natural stopping points. You might just find yourself playing this game a lot longer than you realize.
Easily, the best feature or design element of Call of Duty 3 is the level of sheer insanity going on at all times. Unlike any Call of Duty title before it, the battlefield is alive with activity. There is one moment early in the game that demonstrates this. Just after your transport truck gets hit and flips over you must run to a wall and get boosted over. All of this happens from an unsteady handheld camera perspective, almost like VR. As you (and the camera) rise above the wall you see this sprawling hillside with crumbling ruins and what looks like hundreds of men yelling and charging up this hill. It’s like something from a movie but in about five seconds you’ll be one of those men, and you won’t just be watching.
This is just the first of countless “wow moments” in Call of Duty 3. It’s also one of my favorite levels to load up and just watch somebody else play to observe their reaction. There are so many cool levels and parts of levels in this game, but I don’t dare spoil any of the surprises that wait for you. Many of them, like getting ambushed by an enemy soldier and having to do melee combat with the trigger buttons aren’t even scripted so you never know when they might pop up.
For those of you who had a tough time beating Call of Duty 2 on Veteran mode (yes, my hand is raised too) you will be either sad or glad to know that the AI has definitely been stepped up a notch and the new Hard skill level is now the equivalent to last year’s Veteran mode, and this year’s Veteran mode is, well, let’s just say morally devastating. I was playing on Normal mode to get through the game for this review and there were numerous times when I just “knew” I would already be dead on Veteran. It will be with bittersweet determination when I start my Veteran replay of Call of Duty 3.
Mission structure has been radically redesigned. While Call of Duty 2 offered a few missions where you had multiple objectives and could tackle them in the order of your choosing, almost every mission in Call of Duty 3 features mission branching requiring special tactics for each path you might take. This gives the game a more open feel with greater replay potential.
Call of Duty 3 is going to “get in your face” with their new Battle Actions, an all-new close-quarters battle system that allows players to fight hand-to-hand, improvise explosive devices, disarm traps and perform other battlefield actions that require rapid reflexes to survive. These “moments” are scattered throughout the game, some predictable and others, not so much.
It’s a clever system that works well with the triggers and analog sticks and even some button presses. It very much reminded me of the QTE (quick time events) in games like Shenmue and God of War. You’ll be playing along as normal and then you’ll need to set a C4 charge which requires two button presses with a swirling of the analog stick between them. Or you might need to crank open a steam vent (also swirling the stick) or vigorously row a boat (half swirls of the stick) across a river under explosive fire.
Driving missions are back with three levels that allow you to drive vehicles like jeeps and tanks. Sadly, there is no bomber mission, but you will get to jump out of a plane in a mission called Night Drop, but there is no freefall and no chute steering. You get to look around for about ten seconds before you crash into a tree. There is one fun mission early in the game where you get to ride on the back of a tank and use your binoculars to call out enemy locations as you move through town.
If you have ever felt like a coward for turning and running away when that grenade indicator appeared on the screen, while simultaneously cursing the enemies ability to throw your own grenades right back at you, now is the time for rejoicing. Call of Duty 3 finally allows you to pick-up and throw enemy grenades back at them. Payback at last! Just watch for the grenade in a fist icon and don’t blow your arm off trying it.
The designers have taken a new look at the achievement point system on the Xbox 360 and figured out a way to keep you from getting all 1000 points too quickly. For starters, out of the 26 objectives, about half of the points are now earned through multiplayer battles, and the points you do earn in solo play aren’t merely for completing missions. No, that would be too easy.
Now you must do insane actions like complete a mission using only melee attacks, or trying to get hit less than 30 times or finishing a mission using less than 300 bullets. Or how about throwing back five grenades or finishing a level using only “enemy” weapons that you pick up from the battlefield.
Multiplayer has been vastly improved with support for up to 24 players. You now pick from one of seven “kits” allowing you to play as a Rifleman, Light or Heavy Assault, Medic, Scout, Support, or Anti-Armor. This will dictate not only your initial weapons loadout, but also your tactics during the game. Of course, you can always switch kits prior to spawning after an untimely death.
There are 9 multiplayer maps that range in size based on the game mode you are playing. Available modes include; CTF, Single flag CTF, Headquarters, Battle, Team Battle, and the all-new War mode, which is insanely fun and quite addictive.
In War you are given five “capture points” and the first team to capture and hold all five points wins the war. Each point is represented by a circle that slowly fills up with the team’s colors, and if you lose a point you must retreat to the previous flag and start from there. It ends up being a fantastic struggle, not unlike a game of tug-of-war, only with guns and tanks.
From a gameplay perspective, everything you loved about Call of Duty 2 is back and better than ever with plenty of new tactical tricks to learn and exploit. The ability to return grenades and the close-quarters battle system, and other engaging battle actions all combine to put you in the throes of war like no other game before it.
Everything about Call of Duty 3 has been taken up a notch. The graphics are quite literally the best you have ever seen on the Xbox 360. From the water (wow, just look at that water) to the smoke, to the new enhanced foliage and deformable grass, everything is now totally realistic. Rain falls and soldiers’ uniforms will acquire a slick sheen to them, as they get wet. Smoke, dirt, and dust have all been enhanced and look and act more realistically. Fire and particularly the heat vapors are awesome. One trip through the orange pulsating foundry air will have you sweating.
The architecture is now much more realistic and the interiors of buildings feature a lot more detail. There is also environmental physics (destructible cover) that not only provides a unique approach to planning your attacks, it can also change the battlefield in real-time. That wall might provide a good hiding spot until a grenade or tank cannon blasts it into rubble.
One of the most stunning levels for me was in the first half of the game where you storm a train yard and then you enter this abandoned office building where all the walls are made of windows. So you are looking through maybe three or four walls and you can just make out an enemy, and they can just see you. Once bullets start flying there is glass shattering and you really have no cover unless you duck below the windowsill. And if a grenade happens to go off…well, let’s just say the resulting glass shower is impressive.
This area also prompted one of the few moments in the game where I actually yelled aloud. I was just to the side of a window and slid over to look through to recon the next room and an enemy soldier on the other side did the exact same thing. We were literally nose-to-nose with a pane of glass between us. Fortunately, I was a bit quicker on the trigger, but it’s these visual moments that really leave their mark.
Call of Duty 3 is going to blow away any and all possible competition this holiday season. It is a visual masterpiece that only serves to show how much potential the Xbox 360 has lurking side for the designers who know how to exploit it.
Battle Chatter, that fantastic speech system that really sold the war experience in Call of Duty 2, is back, bigger and better than ever with more speech, hand gestures, and even a new multiplayer component where, in your dying breath you will scream out a warning to any comrades within earshot.
There is some truly excellent dialogue that shows the quickly formed bonds of men during wartime. After my third time of getting knocked down by explosions and getting carried to safety, I had to laugh when my new buddy actually said something about it. You’ll fall out of the sky and join with total strangers who accept you and make you part of their mission. The foreign accents are excellent and the script is very well written.
As always, Call of Duty 3 comes with a stirring soundtrack that includes battle-ready music for the menus and real-time scoring for the gameplay that cues to the action. It will be deathly silent as you creep through the cricket laced forest at night but once the sky lights up orange and the AA guns go off, your sub-woofer is in for the ride of its life. If my 15” woofer had moved any more air the National Weather Service would have had to given it a name and a category number.
Expect a solid 12-15 run on the Normal skill setting and unless you are a member of the Treyarch game test team I’d reserve a solid month or more to finish this game on Hard or Veteran. The good news is that you’ll be loving every second you spend with this game, even when you die. Call of Duty 3 continues the use of intelligent checkpoints and you can hard save those checkpoints at your discretion and resume the campaign when you return from R&R.
The multiplayer is extremely fun with enough modes and online competition already out there to keep you active for the next year. Thankfully the achievement points are geared to make you want to spend time in this part of the game, not that you really need the inducement, but at least you have your carrot on the stick if you need it.
As much as Call of Duty 2 defined the Xbox 360 as a launch title, you simply can’t imagine what Treyarch has done with the franchise until you see it in action. They have really mastered the technical horsepower of the 360 and advanced the series in every single way. The action is unbelievably intense and the historical material is researched and presented in a way that borders on being educational.
The best thing I can say about Call of Duty 3 is that after playing I actually felt like I had been through a war. There were moments when I would catch myself physically ducking or leaning my body as I tried to look around a corner. I started to appreciate the men in my unit and a sense of loss when somebody was lost. Signing up and going off to war might not be for everybody, but playing this game will certainly make you respect those who did and those who still do.