Reviewed: November 27, 2003
Released: October 29, 2003
I’ve played more FPS games in my gaming career than any other genre, so when a title sticks in my head and truly resonates through all other similar games that I play afterwards it must be something special. Medal of Honor: Allied Assault is one such game, a breathtaking mix of FPS action combined with story and military elements that brought a new perspective to military shooters. After all, will any of us ever forget recreating that famous beach assault from Saving Private Ryan?
The team responsible for Allied Assault has since branched out and formed their own development company. Infinity Ward was founded by 22 members of the Allied Assault team including all of the leads, so when Call of Duty was announced all eyes turned in their direction with great anticipation.
My first glimpse of Call of Duty was at a pre-E3 press event where Activision was literally “stealing the show” with a very early copy of the game. Naturally everyone was ogling the stunning visuals, but once you looked past the gritty and realistic graphics you started to notice some intricate squad tactics and AI. The underlying scripts were making these soldier act and react like real soldiers. They would take cover, work as a team, drag off injured comrades, and shout orders just like a real squad. That demo alone left a huge impression that stuck with me until I started playing the pre-release demos five months later and eventually the final game.
Call of Duty spans 24 exciting missions that cover two campaigns. After a quick trip through the obligatory boot camp training mission you are thrust into the role of a US Paratrooper of the infamous 101st. After a gentle landing you stow your chute and prepare for the adventure of a lifetime.
The first thing that struck me is just how cinematically real this game is. What I mean by this is that I have no first or even secondhand knowledge of what it was like to be in France (or Russia) during the war so all of my knowledge and visual references come from movies and TV. In that respect, Call of Duty manages to mirror just about everything I have envisioned that war to be.
I had recently just finished watching the Band of Brothers series (which I highly recommend as one of the best WWII dramas ever made). That show started with a similar sequence depicted the ill-fated insertion of the 101st. Call of Duty did an amazing job of recreating that experience, only this time I was in the movie. In fact, throughout the game I kept having visual flashbacks to many movies and signature sequences.
Those of you who have seen the 2001 movie, Enemy at the Gates will certainly recognize the opening movie and interactive first mission for the Russian campaign. Not only does this sequence surpass the beach invasion of MOH:AA, it was single-handedly the most exciting and intense moment of my 20-year gaming career. My hands were sweating, my knuckles were white and my eyes were glued to the screen in shock and fear as I was transported from my chair and thrust into the assault to retake Red Square.
The single player portion of Call of Duty is mostly that same experience only to a somewhat lesser degree. There are certainly more than its fair share of “wow moments” like when you hear the rumbling of a tank just before it smashes through the wall you were hiding behind forcing you to dive out of the way or the unmistakable whistle of incoming mortar or artillery fire just before the explosion and resulting plume of dirt and smoke.
The missions are all intricately crafted with multiple objectives that follow an ongoing story. Nothing seems contrived or put into the game for the sake of gameplay. After your insertion into France you must retake a German occupied town destroying several AA guns. The Germans are heavily entrenched into buildings making this a dangerous effort. Once you retake the town you must then defend it the following morning then move on to more exciting missions that include two of the best car chase sequences in gaming history. Sure, these missions are on “rails” but no matter how many times I find myself getting chased through town and cutoff by tanks or stuck in a dead end alley, or firing rockets from the back of a truck on a winding mountain road, the ride is totally immersive.
Speaking of “rails”, the missions are often linear, sometimes a bit too linear, but then again we are in the army now and are following orders that consist of completing an ever-changing checklist of objectives. You follow the gold star on your compass, perform the required task then move on to the next. There is seldom more than one way to complete a task and your squad seems to be following their own scripted agenda. Call of Duty begs for a rudimentary command interface, even if it is something as primitive as the bot commands in Unreal Tournament. Then again, my character wasn’t an officer or even in charge, so having me issue orders would be a bit presumptuous.
The AI, albeit heavily scripted, was surprisingly good. My men never seemed to get in my line of fire and they always worked as a team. I often used this to my advantage since they would draw enemy fire allowing me to take dangerous Rambo-like approaches to several encounters. I could easily flank enemy positions and shoot them in the back while they were engaged with my team. Not very sporting and probably a court-martial offense, but then again, its just a game.
Enemy AI is also quite good with soldiers taking cover and not just running like suicide robots into your line of fire. There were a few times where it seemed that both the enemy and my team would be so “focused” on their path-finding AI that they would walk right by each other then do this humorous double-take before swinging their rifle butts at each other.
The flow of Call of Duty is a bit unusual. Normally in games like these they start to drag near the end and you just want it to “be over”. Not so here. Call of Duty actually has its lull in the middle of the game then picks up the pace for the Russian campaign and maintains a revived energy until the very end. The story is also a bit jerky at times. You are given written intermissions between the levels, but you often find yourself in totally new and often unexplained circumstances. The jump to the Russian campaign took me totally off guard, and I think the game would have been better served if each of these campaigns had been selectable from the menu as unique entities rather than chained together.
Graphically, Call of Duty is in a league all its own. I was snapping off screenshots as fast as I was firing my weapon since nearly every moment in this game is a “Kodak moment”. Call of Duty presents one of the most realistic, dark, dirty, and dangerous gaming environments in FPS history. Walking into a bombed-out village or navigating the mountains of rubble surrounding Red Square is an experience that words and even still images cannot begin to communicate.
Character design is flawless with excellent models, detailed textures for the uniforms and realistic faces that convey a surprising amount of emotion. On the lengthy suicide boat ride at the beginning of the Russian campaign you can look back at the other soldiers cowering and quaking in the bottom of the boat as planes zoom overhead and incoming fire sends geysers spraying into the air. When one panicked young man can’t take it anymore and leaps overboard the officers declare him a “traitor” and open fire into the water.
There is a good mix of day and night missions and the missions that take place in the dark are especially thrilling when the sky lights up with flashes of AA fire and burning buildings and explosions cast a warm but dangerous orange glow on the surroundings. Walking into a burned-out building you can actually see the pulsing embers glow in the ceiling, walls and floorboards.
There is a wealth of special effects including particle effects, volumetric fogging and smoke, and one of the best “dazed and confused” effects ever seen on the PC. If you find yourself too close to a major explosion you are knocked to the ground and the screen does this “freeze” thing where the image sticks then streaks or smears as you move around. It’s a popular trick used in movies to put the viewer in the combat boots of the soldier but this is the first time I have seen it in a game. Combined with the muffled loss of hearing and a realistic ringing in your ears, you literally are “shell-shocked”.
All of this visual goodness comes at a price. The modest minimum specs for this game will let you play it at low resolutions at minimal detail but to truly enjoy this game as it was meant to be played you are going to need a serious gaming rig in the 2 GHz range with a killer video card and some next-gen audio. My Athlon 2800+ with FX5900 video and Audigy 2 ZS offered a flawless gameplay experience at 1600x1200, but I did have to back it down to 1280x1024 for online play.
The soundtrack for Call of Duty is the obligatory military themes that are gratuitously used to evoke the appropriate emotional and even a patriotic response. The somber opening number that plays against black and white “newsreel” style footage combined with enhanced replays from the actual game will leave a lump in your throat.
Once you being the game the music takes a realistic backseat to the sounds of war. Every weapon, whether it be a pistol or a tank, a machinegun or an flak cannon, sounds incredibly real and incredibly loud. This is a game that you will want to crank up and rattle the windows with. Interspersed with the gunfire and explosions you will hear your men barking orders, yelling for help, or often, just screaming in pain. It’s very intense and often quite horrific to see explosions send your comrades burning bodies flying through the air.
Call of Duty is a feast for the ears. This is one of the first games to make use of 7.1 surround and is reason enough to rush out and purchase a new SoundBlaster Audigy 2 ZS. I wouldn’t be surprised to see these products bundled together as they compliment each other perfectly.
Nothing can prepare you for hearing all of the subtle layers of war; gunfire, shouting, air raid sirens, explosions, airplane engines, crackling fire, ricocheting bullets, the satisfying click of a fresh magazine being inserted into your MP40, all intricately overlaid and channeled into the perfect surround sound experience. If you are playing this game on anything less than a 5.1 system you just aren’t playing this game. That’s how important sound is to this title.
The single-player campaign clocks in at about 10-12 hours on the normal difficulty mode. Tackling the Veteran mode not only increases the accuracy and fortitude of the enemy, it also eliminates the health pick-ups. You have to complete each mission with a single health bar. Brutal! And even though the game is arguably short (frankly, 10-12 hours seems to be the new standard so I’ve stopped complaining and just come to terms with it), it’s hard to play Call of Duty for extended periods of time. It just become emotionally and physically draining, like trying to watch the Band of Brothers mini-series in one or two sittings.
Call of Duty has an incredible online component that offers the traditional deathmatch, team deathmatch and other expected modes. Then you get the innovative Behind Enemy Lines mode that puts a few Allies in enemy territory against overwhelming Axis forces. When an Ally is killed they become an Axis player. Scores are based on how long you can remain an Ally and how many Axis soldiers you can kill as an Ally.
Of course there is the obligatory Search and Destroy mode ripped right from the design docs of Counter-Strike and Retrieval where you must seek out an item then get it safely back to the target location. These are challenging games that are generally 2-3 minutes long. If you die you become a spectator for the remainder of the mission, so at least you don’t have to wait too long.
One of my favorite elements is the Kill Cam that shows your death from the eyes of the killer. Not only does this show you what you did wrong it can often give you some insight on strategic positions to take the next round. It’s also a strong deterrent against “campers”.
Performance is impressive if you have a broadband, but I pity those trying to play on dial-up. My DSL connection allowed me to partake in games of up to 20 people and you would swear it was a local game. There were no warping players or framerate issues anywhere. This is some solid network code.
Call of Duty is first and foremost a first-person shooter, and despite its attempts to make you think there is some sophisticated tactics involved you quickly realize the game is comprised of clever scripted events and key locations that trigger those events to give you the illusion of a much more dynamic experience than is really there. The trick works the first and even the second time you play through a mission, but you quickly realize your men are doing the same thing in the same way each time through.
Even so, Call of Duty is an amazing ride no matter how many times you play it and the online multiplayer is going to be stealing a lot of thunder from games like Counterstrike and Rainbow Six. This is the online game of 2003 with a single player experience that will be talked about and used to measure all future FPS military games for a long time to come.