New decorations on an old soldier.
With most current-gen systems featuring between one and two thousand World War II games, we were hoping the Xbox 360 would duck the blitzkrieg and take us boldly into brand new conflicts. For its staggering price and futuristic promises, we don't want World War II on our Xbox 360, we want World War X. But that's not how console launches work, and instead of the freshest of the fresh, we're forced to make do with the portiest of the ports.
And while a port of a PC World War II game isn't the sort of thing to make us wear combat boots to bed, at least Activision's Call of Duty 2 is a quality translation of a very good shooter. So cinematic it should come with popcorn, the game immerses you in exciting and intense confrontations with Nazis while everything – people, planes and buildings – explodes around you. The production values are unrivaled and the ambience is impressive, but we've still seen this flick a hundred times before.
That doesn't mean you should pass on the Milk Duds, though. This may come from the same cookie cutter as its predecessors, but it's got frosting and sprinkles like you wouldn't believe and is sure to sate your anti-anti-Semite sweet tooth.
You'll begin as a Russian soldier defending Stalingrad, then switch to a British officer in Africa, before baking the last of Germany's goods in Europe, American style. Each force has three big campaigns, between which are some bland news reels and little journal entries urging the story along. Not that it matters much - simple objectives here and there root your unhealthy obsession in something vaguely wholesome and heroic, like repairing telephone wires and destroying weapons caches, but ultimately, the entire point and plot is to kill Nazis.
So, we have to admit that Call of Duty 2 feels a little psychotic. A touch of morality or humanity – like your chatty squadmates in Brothers in Arms or even Call of Duty 2: Big Red One – would have gone a long way toward lightening the tone of this relentlessly, realistically violent game. I guess war is hell, but wars also have more rhyme and reason than just murdering the enemy in droves (uh, current conflict notwithstanding).
The Call of Duty games are famous for carrying players through Nazi haunted houses of such visceral thrills and dazzling effects, they forget they're moving along a track through a predetermined route. After running through bombed out buildings or bunkers, you inevitably come to open fields or train yards where Axis and Allied forces are embroiled in huge firefights. These pitched battles have always been a mainstay of the series, but now they're bigger than ever before. You and what seems like legions of your troops will attempt to travel from one end of a battleground to another, taking cover and thinning the German resistance in your way. If you hang back and snipe enough Nazis, your troops will eventually take ground by themselves, or you can charge up and secure a point after which your fellows will follow.
In just about every other Call of Duty game (including the PC version of Call of Duty 2), you can take cover, then lean out and snipe enemy troops…except this one. If you want to look around a corner in this version, you must actually leave cover. So while the firefights are bigger and more hectic than in other games, your control over them is actually reduced. This is bad enough when crouched, but when lying prone any movement requires you to momentarily put your gun away, which means your crosshairs disappear as well. By the time you shimmy out from behind a box, take your gun back out and aim, you could already be dead. This isn't a deal breaker – the game is still very playable – but it's a step in the wrong direction.
The remaining controls are basic. You move and aim with the sticks, shoot with one trigger, aim down your sights with another, toss smoke and frag grenades with the bumpers and crouch, lie prone, stand, melee attack, and reload with the face and stick buttons. The game plays a lot like Halo, except you can't dual wield.
You also have a Halo health system. If you take too much damage at once you'll die, otherwise all your health will regenerate. Of course, there's no shield meter in the bottom corner; instead, you'll know you're close to death when the screen starts flashing red and your guy starts breathing heavily.
When you aren't pressing the attack and advancing your territory, you're defending it, and this is where the game's weak A.I. really starts to drag its knuckles. The Nazis, for all their organization and proclaimed brilliance, can't launch an attack up a flight of stairs or through a doorway to save their lives. Oh, they'll pitch a grenade if they see you waiting for them, but if that fails (and it always does thanks to your handy grenade warning indicator), they're screwed.
Your mates seem much more capable, but that's probably because they have you climbing stairs and entering doorways for them. You're conspicuously on your own even though you're routinely surrounded by up to a dozen friendly soldiers. You can't give commands, yell warnings or otherwise influence the behavior of your allies in any way, shape or form. They're pretty good about warning you, though, and will call out if they spot a grenade or a sniper.
Aside from attacking and defending, Call of Duty 2 mixes in some unusual sequences and mini-games. You'll crawl through piping and assassinate hapless enemy soldiers, drive tanks, call in artillery strikes and even scale cliffs while bullets rain down around you. These sequences provide needed and refreshing breaks from the constant firefights, keeping the game well-paced and easy to enjoy.
Once you've played through the campaign missions, which should take a reasonable ten hours, your offline tour of duty will probably be over. Call of Duty 2 is playable a second time because, well, killing Nazis is endlessly fun and satisfying, but it isn't very challenging, and most of the immersive magic wears thin on a second trip. That's when Call of Duty 2's online play enters the fray. It lacks a lobby, which is a problem when the game keeps trying to put you in empty matches, but once you start up a game, it's pretty good.
Other than Deathmatches and Capture the Flag, the match types don't gel particularly well with many of the maps. In one, you're supposed to stand in your opponent's base for a set amount of time while you supposedly set up a bomb, except that you aren't actually standing in anything that looks like a base, just some random piece of war-ravaged earth the game decides belongs to the other team. It's far from exciting multiplayer content, and it doesn't help that games are limited to 8 players, but the fact that it looks good and runs smooth makes it better than any online content we've seen before in a Call of Duty game.
The graphics, on the other hand, are exciting. The environments are richly detailed with no noticeable repeating textures, motes of sand and snow float and flicker throughout, explosions look convincing, and the soldiers are practically photorealistic. On top of that, the framerate is solid and fast and the animations are incredibly varied, especially the death animations. These guys die like Shakespearean actors, dragging themselves across floors with their fingernails, taking last ditch shots at you, and then arching their backs dramatically upon expiring. Did we mention this game was rated T for Teen?
Well, we should, because this is actually one of the most violent, disturbing shooters on the market. From start to finish, the game is a million bloody, convincing death throes, one after the other. You'll almost feel sorry for the Nazis.
And they even scream in pain and let out realistic death rattles! It's hard to say Call of Duty 2 sounds as good as it looks, but it sure doesn't sound any worse. The guns, voices and music are all top notch. This game's presentation is terrific on the Xbox 360.
But instead of rising above the teeming masses of World War II games and declaring itself far superior, Call of Duty 2 seems content to chill with the proletariat. It delivers unbelievable graphics and more cathartic chaos than you can shoot a luger at, but has something of a dumb head on its shoulders, an overly simple control scheme and busies itself providing greater densities of the same old content without doing anything new. Here's hoping they make some significant changes, but keep the same cinematic feel and pacing, for World War III.