The call of the mild.
As hedonistic video game connoisseurs, we're skeptical that a gamer really can get "too much of a good thing." If you ask us, there's isn't nearly enough of this "good thing" in an industry dominated by plain, old things. And these days, nothing is plainer than a first-person shooter set in World War II.
Activision's new Call of Duty 2: Big Red One tries to be the exception with a high-quality, cinematic presentation and varied gameplay, not to mention some pretty sweet genes. Unfortunately, its bid for distinction in the field of combat is undermined by a short single-player campaign, clunky play mechanics and boring online content.
This is a shame, because developer Treyarch obviously put a lot of time and care into molding their single-player campaign into an entertaining, interactive war movie. The story follows a squad from the U. S. Army's notorious 1st Infantry Division, the oldest active division of the American armed forces. You play a faceless, voiceless private surrounded by an extremely likely cast of characters: Sergeant Hawkins (your no-nonsense commanding officer), Private Bloomfield (comic relief from the Bronx), Private Denley (the Southern idiot) and Private Kelly (the Ivy League idiot).
Instead of telling an overarching story, Big Red One tells every World War II story in the book, one after another. Between each, the characters gab convincingly while dodging mortar rounds, sometimes even telling other characters tall-tales based on events that you actually played through. Within each of the three campaigns (Africa, Sicily, and Normandy), the cinematic, brotherly chatter perfectly introduces and concludes the equally cinematic battle-sequences.
Although your anonymous private is the only unit under your control, you're always surrounded by your squad-mates and a handful of other expendable troops. These guys aren't battle smart – they stand out in the open, ignore enemies, and generally get in your way – but they're put to good use by directing you to wherever you should be going and, in following them, you are distracted from the fact that the game is completely linear.
They're assisted in this illusion by the frequent firefights. Around nearly every corner is a unit of enemy troops hunkered down, waiting to send you home in a box. To stay alive, you'll have to crouch behind cover and pick them off one by one, lobbing grenades if they cluster together. In some cases you can run in and wipe 'em all out Rambo style, but in most cases they'll kill you quickly if you show your face for too long, and they all pack a vicious melee attack.
The controls governing your battlefield behavior are straight out of Halo, except that you can crouch and lie prone as well as lean around corners. Otherwise, you run around, strafe, shoot with one button, chuck grenades with another and generally behave just like you do in every console FPS.
Such a ubiquitous set up quickly spells boredom in most games, but Treyarch does a great job mixing up the typical WWII shooter formula by having you man an assortment of heavy guns. You'll mow down troops with .50 caliber rifles, knock down planes with flak-cannons, blow up more planes as a gunner in a bomber, then drop bombs on installations as the bombardier.
All of these gameplay styles take the shooting gallery approach, giving you heavy firepower and sending swarms of enemies into your line of sight. The result is more than the sum of its parts – you'll move quickly from shooting Germans with a Tommy gun to blowing up tanks with a cannon to blowing up Germans with a tank, all while surrounded by cool-looking explosions and swooping planes. It ushers you through these sequences so quickly, you won't have any time to notice that none of it is original or even very interesting.
Sometimes, though, the game's staged nature backfires. You frequently have to step on exactly the right spot to trigger a cut-scene, and until you find it everyone will just stand around looking confused. Things get even worse when you're in the middle of a battle, and a waypoint directs you to a location, but nothing happens or changes when you get there. Everyone is running around screaming like they know what's going on, but you're left without a clue. You feel like an extra in a movie who forgot to read the script.
These little hiccups slightly mar your first tour of duty, but they make a second trip unbearable. You'll grow extremely impatient waiting for all the cut-scenes to pass, and the distractions that kept you from looking too carefully at any single gameplay element will no longer do their job. It's really just a one-time campaign.
Your only other option is to go online, but that's no bargain thanks to generally soulless 16-player Capture the Flag and Deathmatch modes. The limitations of the engine become immediately apparent as characters stutter and seams break. There're no split-screen or cooperative options for offline play; considering the presence of Battlefield II, Battlefront II and SOCOM 3, Big Red One just feels ages behind.
Big Red One's look is geared towards wowing you with crazy sights while guiding you down a fixed path. Everything is made to be seen in a certain light in the presence of certain set pieces, thus distracting you from the drab environmental textures, overly gray color palette and simplistic character models. That being said, the campaign feels extremely atmospheric, with thick black smoke rolling across your path, bombers swooping overhead, and Nazis getting tossed into the air all around you by booming explosions. The framerate never blisters, but it never chugs, either, and the sound effects add plenty of atmosphere and cinematic dazzle. The voice acting is superb as well, really aiding the immersion.
This goes for every version. The presentation is slightly cleaner on the Xbox and the Gamecube version can't go online, but considering the quality of online play, it's a very minor loss.
Perhaps the most irritating thing about World War II games is the fact that none of them are bad. If they were all terrible, people might stop buying them and publishers might find a new war to obsess over. Alas, there's always something to recommend in each one, and indeed that's the case with Call of Duty 2: Big Red One. This game's single-player campaign is a decent diversion and serves up a relatively well-produced version of the PC series. Unfortunately, what it lacks in replay value and online play leads to a solider a bit too thin for his britches. Will this war never end?