Reviewed: November 7, 2005
Released: November 1, 2005
Call of Duty 2 has already shipped for the PC and is about to hit the Xbox 360 later this month, but for the rest of the console community we all get to play Call of Duty 2: Big Red One, which not only follows a new and very different story than the PC/360 version, in many ways it’s just a plain and simple “better game.”
Now, I’ve played all the Medal of Honor, Brothers in Arms, Conflict Desert Storm, and just about every other war game out there, so I feel rather confident in making the claim that Big Red One is by far the best “FPS war game” I have ever played on a console to date. Now, before you start firing off that retaliatory strike of hate mail, allow me to qualify that bold statement or at least dig a fox hole.
Call of Duty, as a franchise, does not pretend nor even tries to compete with the more strategic games like Brothers in Arms where you can pause and plan and order your men around. This is a first-person shooter that takes place during WWII (note the quotes above). It’s designed around fast and frantic warfare, usually on foot, that totally immerses you in the hell of war.
The Big Red One takes the Call of Duty franchise to a new level of historic relevance by following one man in one infantry division through three countries. After the obligatory teaser opening (which also serves as your tutorial) you flashback to the beginning of your military career in Africa as you go up against Rommel and his infamous tank division, then it’s off to Italy for some of the most visually stunning levels in any Call of Duty game yet. And finally, you’ll head off to storm those beaches of Normandy once again, but this time in a totally new way. Your tour, and the game ends after a trek across France ending at the German border.
By focusing on Big Red One Fighting 1st Infantry Division, and even more so, on one soldier, the entire game takes on a much more personal feel. You really get the sense of camaraderie between you and your men, so when somebody takes a bullet and the music swells you really FEEL it. There are only five or six guys you’ll ever socialize with in the cutscenes, but every friendly soldier has a name and rank over their character.
I typically shy away from FPS games on the console but Big Red One has perfected the genre and the gameplay. Control has never been smoother and shooting never so precise. The left trigger aims down the barrel or through the scope depending on the weapon. This slows down your movement but gives you increased accuracy. You can also fire from the hip with relative ease and perhaps unrealistic accuracy.
The game has been tweaked for the console. While the PC version avoids the use of med kits the console version is full of them, satchels, bags, small canisters, and you will need to keep an eye on that health bar in the bottom corner. Another thing the console version does to make the game easier than the PC is eliminate friendly fire entirely. At close range you cannot even pull the trigger if you are aiming at one of your men, and if they happen to cross your line of fire during combat they won’t take any damage. Some soldiers will die during combat, but key characters only die when the script says they can, and often in great cinematic and emotional style.
There are dozens of authentic WWII weapons that look and act like the real thing. You might look like Rambo lugging around that MG42, but that sucker packs a kick that makes it highly unreliable unless you first mount it to the ground with the left trigger. Similarly, rifles offer greater accuracy at long range but at the expense of a reduced clip, while the MP40 offers a perfect mix of ammo, range, and accuracy.
You’ll always start off with two weapons, usually a rifle and a machine gun, but once you get into the thick of enemy territory you will have to pick and choose your arms carefully depending on the targets and the weapons they are using. After all, their ammo is about to become your ammo and the Thompson clip isn’t going to fit in an MP40. And there is always the temptation to carry around the Springfield rifle with sniper scope or a bazooka just in case a tank rumbles around the corner.
Call of Duty has always been a linear type of game and Big Red One doesn’t change that, but at least they explain it by making you a mere private who must follow orders, which are linear by their very nature. What the game does do on several occasions is give you multiple objectives and lets you determine the order in which to complete them. You might have to blow up some 88’s or take out several machine gun nests around town or blow up some tanks.
The story seems pretty slim but the designers do sneak in some recurring plot points including a full-circle event that opens and ends the entire game. Early on in Africa you get to take a “joy ride” in a tank; a seemingly innocent event that lets you blow up a few enemy tanks in the desert, but in one of the final levels you actually capture a German Panzer, and you, being the only one with “tank experience”, gets to drive this new ride across several miles of snow-covered battlefield and even blow up a train.
The strongest story elements are told with authentic black and white Military Channel footage that really give this game an historic flair. I have to admit, I learned quite a bit about WWII that I never knew before. I’ve been playing WWII games clear back since Wolfenstein 3D and I’ve never even heard of the Big Red One until now, and some of the places and events and tactics I got to explore in this game were a first.
The levels are huge and divided up into multiple objectives, waypoints, and targets that are constantly evolving as you play through the scripted sequences. The gold stars on the compass always point you in the general direction of your next objective, but the path to that objective is fraught with untold danger and intense action.
The various missions, even when they go beyond country borders, all blend together for a seamless and progressive experience. One mission might have you taking possession of a town while the next has you defending it as the Germans try to take it back. You might be driving a tank in one mission then working the quad-cannons of the halftrack shooting down enemy planes on another.
The vehicle missions come in two types; tanks that you can drive and shoot, and jeeps and halftracks where somebody else drives and you shoot. Of course the biggest and best ride of the game is when you take over multiple gunner positions and even the bombardier slot in a classic bombing run.
Those of you that played the United Offensive expansion pack for the PC game last year will already know what to expect. For the rest of you, get ready for some of the best turret gameplay in video game history as you run from front to back and back to the front of a massive bomber while keeping enemy fighters from shooting you down. And the bombing run sequence is flawless and accurately recreated where the pilot actually turns control of the bomber over to you to line-up the attack runs on ships and land targets.
Kudos to the design team for actually surprising me with the Omaha Beach invasion. I’ve stormed that beach so many times I can swap war stories with the guys at the veterans home, but in Big Red One they actually took me out of that all-too familiar landing craft and put me on the big boat where I got to sight targets with my binoculars and blow up enemy installations.
The best part of Big Red One is the unrelenting tension and fear for your life. You’ll be racing through the woods in the back of a jeep firing at pursuing German trucks when the jeep crashes and you and your men have to take refuge in some crumbling ruins near a river and fight off hordes of Germans. Or you might be running through the woods while distant artillery fire is kicking up huge plumes of dirt and smoke, ripping trees in half amongst showers of splinters, all the while the screen is shaking and you are fighting to stay calm and in control.
The Big Red One has some incredible visuals that totally immerse you in WWII. I have never seen this much ambient motion in a game. The very first level, before you take 50 steps down the lane, a fighter plane spirals in over your head and crashes over your right shoulder. But if you look at the wreckage you might miss the hundreds of soldiers streaming down the hillside over your left shoulder in an epic scene that can only be compared to something in a Peter Jackson, Lord of the Rings movie. Just seeing those hundreds of troops and hearing their war cries as they rush headlong into a city under fire was breathtaking and that’s in the first 60-seconds of gameplay.
Throughout the rest of the game there are all sorts of subtle touches that keep the world alive. Planes are frequently flying overhead, sometimes very high and other times low and even engaging each other in combat. You will often see hundreds of soldiers on far off hillsides engaged in battle, and while you will never get to fight these soldiers, it gives the entire war a much larger feel than your own personal battles.
The various countries are recreated with stunning accuracy and you can really tell the designers went to these places and scoped them out fully. My favorite country was Italy, partly because I had never played that scenario in a WWII game, but mainly for the scenery, the quaint villages, the gothic architecture, and the countryside in general with rolling hills and stonewalls. There were orange trees and even large fields of crops set ablaze where you could almost feel the heat. One scripted moment that stood out for me was when an enemy plane made a bombing run at my men and me and took out a set of ancient stone columns that came crumbling down like the Roman Coliseum in a disaster movie.
Character animation is amazing and the details on the character models are so subtle and realistic you’ll want to zoom in and stare. The primary characters are given a bit more detail than some of the rest with hairstyles, glasses, and even helmets that bounce on their heads independent of character motion. The enemy soldiers are always dressed for the country and climate and it’s all very historically accurate and obviously researched to perfection.
The mission briefings are delivered during the in-game cinematics that are created entirely with game engine graphics for seamless blending of movie and game. In fact, the only way you can tell the movie is taking over is when the screen narrows to letterbox, and while you cannot move; you can still rotate the camera and look around.
As with any Call of Duty title, the Big Red One feature a stirring soundtrack during the menus that drops out during gameplay until just the right moment when you need some emotional impact. If watching the Sarge take a bullet in the chest doesn’t bring a tear to your eye the music that kicks in immediately afterwards will.
Sound effects are rock solid with every gun used in the game fired for real and recorded for the game. The Battle Chatter system introduced on the PC version last month is included in a limited fashion, but nonetheless, just as accurate and beneficial. Hearing your men calling out enemy locations is crucial, especially when you are in a tank or manning a turret and your field of vision and rate of rotation is drastically reduced.
One of the coolest effects is when you are near a large blast and you are thrown to the ground (in the prone position) and the screen gets fuzzy and the sound gets all muffled. You can barely hear voices and gunfire and then it all slowly starts to return to normal in a whooshing effect effect like you are exiting a bullet-time mode from an action game.
The entire audio experience is presented in a rich and dynamic Dolby Digital surround scape that puts you smack in the middle of some of the biggest and scariest battle in history. Bullets will whiz by from all directions, and when those enemy planes scream by overhead it will be hard not to instinctively duck. Don't even get me started on the low-frequency effects of tank engines, artillery fire, and thunderous explosions that caused multiple objects to vibrate off shelves in my game room.
There is an entire menu of unlockable bonus content, mostly graphics, pre-production artwork, weapons and soldier profiles, etc. You don’t have to do anything special to unlock these items other than simply finishing the game. The solo campaign took me about 16 hours to complete on the default difficulty level.
The real boost to the value is the kick ass multiplayer experience that supports up to 16 soldiers online or with a system link. With standard modes like Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, CTF, and Domination, and more than a dozen nicely detailed maps that can be customized for your own preferred rotation, there are countless hours of warfare waiting for you after you have driven back the Nazi horde.
A limited Collector's Edition of Call of Duty 2: Big Red One is also now available for $59.99. The Collector's Edition includes additional content on the game DVD, featuring interviews with actual members of the Big Red One Fighting 1st Infantry Division, commentaries, a special making of the game feature, bonus footage and more.
For those deciding on whether to get this game or wait for the Xbox 360 version; first off, they are two very different games that go to different locations and tell different stories. But the proof is in the playing and just for kicks I took Big Red One to a local retailer and had it playing side-by-side with the COD2 demo in the Xbox 360. Big Red One was the decisive winner in crowd attraction and positive comments with several players noting the game looked “much more realistic” than the ultra sharp and ultra sterile Xbox 360 graphics.
Gritty realism aside, no other game has ever grabbed me from the opening level and captivated my interest from start to finish like Call of Duty 2: Big Red One. I literally played this game until I was too tired to play anymore, went to bed, got up, and played it some more. There was one night where I even dreamed I was playing the game.
If you are looking to play one of the most engaging, educational, and entertaining games of the year...yes the YEAR...then Big Red One needs to be in your permanent Xbox collection. It's a ride you won't soon forget and you might just get a whole new appreciation for what a few thousand men did for this country sixty years ago.