Call of Duty
Well, I finally see what all the hype is about. I followed the development of Call of Duty (CoD) like many other gamers. I checked out the screenshots, watched the trailers—with a fair amount of awestruck glee I should add—and played the demos once they were available. Yet something about the demos didn't seem to live up to the hype I was seeing in the gaming press. PC Gamer seemed completely over the top in its praise of pre-release builds, for example, and it made me wonder whether I was missing something. After playing the final release I can say safely that I was, but I also think that the reviewers went a bit nutty.
CoD is a feast for the eyes, not because it's got the most super-duper, high-resolution, whiz-bang, this-interpolated, that-mapped technology going for it, but rather because it's got so much going on in every scene. The game is powered by the venerable Quake III Arena (Q3A) engine, and that's pretty obvious for those with eyes to see, but no other game based on that engine has rendered so much stuff! The environments are very convincing because of great modeling and wonderful texture work, which really convey the look of war-torn Europe. The animation quality is also generally good. It's impossible today even for super-high-end studios like Pixar to create truly convincing human motion, but CoD gets about halfway there and does it in real time.
One might expect this kind of beauty to require a monster system, yet CoD is the most eloquent testament to the longevity and scalability of the Q3A engine. I turned on all the graphical goodies, enabled 4x quality full-scene anti-aliasing and 16x quality anisotropic filtering, and saw framerate issues only once in the entire single-player campaign —in the positively insane firefight at the end of the very last mission—while playing at 1024 x 768 x 32 bpp. Granted, I've got an Athlon 3000 XP CPU, 1 GB of RAM, an ATI Radeon 9700 Pro video card, and a Creative Labs Audigy 2 Platinum sound card, but this game still features an amazing combination of performance and image quality. The only other game I've seen that achieves this kind of balance is BloodRayne (BR), but BR doesn't even begin to approach the same complexity of scenes as CoD.
Perhaps the best way I can describe the quality of CoD's visuals is to say that this game really makes me understand some of the things I've read about being in combat. The level of immersion is so intense that my stomach was actually in knots from the moment gunfire erupted in the first mission. After playing a mere couple of missions, I think I now understand why soldiers on the battlefield sometimes vomit, lose control of their bowels, etc. The visuals in CoD are the most intensely gripping WWII experience ever crafted, hands down.
Despite all this praise there remains one complaint to be made, and it's a complaint whose force I'm really starting to feel keenly: the violence of war is rendered cartoonish in a puerile way because of the complete lack of gore. Like the games in the Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (MoH:AA) series, CoD inspires great admiration for the courage and fortitude of the men who fought in World War II (WWII), but it does zero justice to those who were wounded or killed. When a friend or foe is peppered with bullets from all directions, he simply jerks around a little bit and then falls to the ground completely intact and largely blood-free. This trivializes the lives lost and prevents one from truly absorbing the mind-numbing horrors of war.
It is a great strength of Soldier of Fortune 2 (SoF2), BR, and various other games, that they depict the terrible results of violence more or less realistically. It is a crushing and glaring mistake that MoH:AA, Battlefield 1942 (BF1942), CoD, etc. do not. I realize that gore earns a game a mature rating and that this can diminish sales, but this is easily solved by the addition of violence settings. Given the ability to lock out the gory stuff, ala SoF2, there is no reason not to include it for those of us who want the full experience. I really hope somebody out there at least makes a more graphic blood mod; the game cries out for more, but even such a thing would really help.
The audio is every bit as good as the video or perhaps even better. Lots of today's games look great, and CoD is a standout despite its aging engine, but it's the game's audio that pumps up the immersion factor so high. When the sound of incoming mortars screams overhead you hit the deck, hard. When an enemy machine gun nest erupts into fire you scramble desperately for cover. You do learn to ignore the gunfire off in the distance sounds after a while—probably just like real soldiers do—but you will learn to react immediately to the sounds of the local environment.
Never before have the sounds of large battles been done so well, and that's saying a lot. The weapon sounds are not at all realistic, unlike those in Raven Shield (RS) and other such games, but they are nevertheless a treat for the ears. The music is also nicely done. The themes are as beautiful as those from MoH:AA, and they're well orchestrated, recorded, and implemented. They add much to the experience. In short, I've got no complaints about the audio.
The interface basics are all well done, as gamers have come to expect from Q3A-powered titles. The familiar key binding interface is simple to use, though the default bindings should work just fine for most players. Of particular note here are the multiple options for binding keys to change stances. It's nice to be able to bind keys to move up and down in addition to specific stances; that's a neat touch.
As is happily becoming more common, the game features a nice resume feature for the single player campaign, though it's not without its faults. I tend to quit playing after finishing a mission and unless I take the time to get into the next mission and quick save the resume feature will take me back to my quick save from the previous mission I just finished. It would be really nice if the resume feature were a bit smarter.
Also in the plus column are the mission loading screens. They give me something to do while I'm waiting for the game to load, and some of them make for interesting reading in addition to being useful. It would be even better if the game could load the mission in the background during the briefing, but maybe that's asking a bit too much of today's technology. Maybe someday.
My one remaining comment on the interface is a minor complaint: the heads-up display (HUD) is a bit distracting for my taste. From left to right you've got a compass, stance indicator, health indicator, and ammo display. I realize that's not a huge amount of stuff, but because the game's visuals are so amazing it would be really nice to have a no-HUD option. That compass distracts from the action, and it would be nice to take screenshots without the clutter at the bottom. Like I said, though, this is a minor complaint.
The game mechanics represent a slight evolution from those in MoH:AA. The developers clearly wanted to leverage the strength of their past work yet move forward on several fronts. The results on the whole are somewhat mixed. On the one hand, the addition of a shell-shock mechanism is as disconcerting as it is powerful. When one is too near a large blast the display takes on a slow-motion, dreamlike quality while a high-pitched ringing fills the player's ears. True, it does make the game more difficult at certain points, but it also helps one develop a healthy respect for enemy tanks, mortars, etc.
Yet on the other hand, the no-doors-to-open policy is a bit confused. I understand the general idea: the developers didn't want the player to have to waste his time running around checking every door to see if it would open or not. They're to be applauded for their intentions but some of the scripted moments contradict the spirit of that policy, requiring the player to get close enough to doors, walls, etc. so that some important sequence can be triggered. In the Russian campaign, for example, I didn't have a clue I was supposed to walk toward a blank wall in taking Red Square until I ventured near it by accident. It was only when I got close enough that a scripted explosion was triggered, blasting a hole in the wall and showing me the way I was supposed to go.
Also problematic is the machine-gunner-bait sequence in the very first Russian mission. I tried to survive the run to that first truck about 30+ times, trying every imaginable variation in movement, timing, routes, etc. But no matter what I did the machine gunners above shot me down every time in a matter of seconds. I eventually gave up in disgust and used the cheat codes to get past the irritating sequence. In short, it seemed like the timing of the game mechanics were off badly at that point.
Such troubles are relatively easy to overlook, though, because the rest of the game works and works well. The objectives are matched nicely to the situations, there are a ton of great scripted moments, and it's all a lot of fun. There are a few problems here and there, but they make up a small fraction of the game.
Maybe I'm becoming jaded, but I grow bored with the lack of story telling in WWII themed games. There is a certain narrative structure at work in CoD to be sure, for each of the first three campaigns centers around a character moving through a series of different missions. But this doesn't qualify as a story in any meaningful sense because there are no characters about whom you'll give a rip—not even the one you're playing! This might be intentional and realistic, insofar as it probably doesn't pay to get too attached to the guys around you in the middle of a war, but it does little to make the player care deeply about what has happened or what comes next. Developers can do much better than CoD in terms of story elements. I did find the end-game cinematic quite touching, but that was surely the game's only emotional high point.
I'll get the obvious off my chest right from the start: CoD sets a new standard for interesting, densely-scripted action sequences. The US and British campaigns, as good as they were, really felt like a warmup for the main event: the Russain campaign. Despite having seen the movies and trailers released in advance of the game, nothing prepared me for crossing the river in those boats while under fire from enemy aircraft. Having to run directly into the fray with nothing but a single clip of ammunition in my hand was even worse. I'm glad the Russian soldiers, so many of whom died in the meat-grinder land battles in Europe, are getting such recognition for their bravery.
The AI is also quite a stand out among first-person shooter games. I particularly like the way that the troops move intelligently. CoD isn't like any other first-person shooter (FPS) game released to date in this respect, insofar as friends and foes choose their stances well and use cover constantly. Other games set during World War II (WWII) have had decent movement, but no other game has featured intelligent movement like this. Games like Return to Castle Wolfenstein, MoH:AA, and BF1942 feature infantry that march stupidly to their doom by comparison. The only real down side to the AI is that one's squadmates do sometimes get in the way, preventing a hasty retreat at important moments, but that's a relatively minor complaint.
On the whole, the content in CoD is absolutely top notch. All of the environments are beautifully diverse and interesting, the various weapons are a joy to use, and the mission objectives are varied enough that the game remains fun from start to finish. I even found myself enjoying the two-gun limit, as it made me be a bit more conscious about the specifics of each firearm I was carrying. That's a great way to focus the player's attention on his inventory without making it overly painful or unrealistic.
Yet there remain two respects in which CoD stumbles: (1) its completely linear nature, and (2) its length. I said in my review of MoH:AA that both non-linear and linear gameplay remain valid for first-person shooter games. It's been almost two years since I wrote that, however, and I think many gamers—myself included—are starting to find the latter a bit tiresome. Yes, CoD has the most awesome you're-right-in-the-middle-of-a-war-movie vibe, but the side effect of having zero choices about how to accomplish the mission objectives is pretty stale on the eve of 2004.
Why not at least provide more than one way to make it through some of the buildings? I'm sure it's because of various limitations, AI and otherwise, but it really disrupts the you're-right-in-the-action feel when the developer's hand is so obviously pushing you down the one and only one route you can travel from point A to point B. There's so little thought involved that it detracts significantly from the feeling that you're really there in the middle of a war, which is obviously the impression the developers wanted to give.
Which brings me to the second complaint: the game is far too short. I deliberately forced myself not to play CoD for more than an hour or so each night. My theory was that if I forced myself to stop playing after a set amount of time or number of missions I could drag out the game and make it feel longer than it really is. Though it did help, it didn't convince me that CoD was more than about seven hours of play total. Seriously, I finished the US campaign the very first night I played after about ninety minutes. After that, I restricted myself to playing for a maximum of an hour every few days, but it just didn't help that much. Yes, CoD provides a very intense experience, but that experience is very brief.
Maybe this is a problem inherent in the nature of the genre. After all, the fact that the game is so densely scripted compared to other games means that developers must expend far more effort to develop even short missions. And yet because such densely scripted games are so completely linear, this only exacerbates the situation by killing much of the game's replay value. You could play through Deus Ex about a half dozen times, for example, and still not have mined all the possibilities. But after you've played through CoD once you've pretty much seen it all. Thus, the game's linearity and dense scripting conspire to make the game unbearably short in my view.
Fortunately, CoD isn't a one-trick, single-player-only pony like Max Payne or other such games. When you've finished the single-player campaign, you still have a lot to look forward to in the multi-player arena. Prior to finishing CoD's single-player game, I was spending a lot of time on multi-player RS, Tribes 2 (T2), and BF1942 in roughly that order. I don't know what it is about RS, but I am absolutely addicted to its realistic, team-survival mode of play. There's just something about that game that keeps drawing me back.
Because of that fact I've been quite surprised at the degree to which I've enjoyed playing multi-player CoD. It shouldn't be surprising that the network code is close to perfect. The games I've played have featured extremely smooth play with only occasional lag, and that seemed related more to lots of players joining at the same moment than anything else. The voice chat options could perhaps stand to be enhanced a bit, but they're pretty good as they are. What's more, the killcam is an absolute gem, doing much to solve the age-old game balance issues with well-concealed snipers.
As far as the game modes are concerned, even straight-up Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are enhanced by the killcam, weapon selection options, and general game mechanics. CoD isn't quite as fast paced as the Quake series of games, but it strikes a much nicer balance in my view. The player has some time to think about tactics, and running and gunning will usually get you killed pretty quickly, much as in the single-player game. I probably favor team deathmatch of the two, but I have nothing but good things to say about both modes.
Where CoD really distinguishes itself as a multi-player game, however, is through its Retrieval (RE), Search and Destroy (S&D), and Behind Enemy Lines (BEL) modes. RE reminds me of a single-flag capture-the-flag (CTF) mode in which both teams fight to drag the objective back to their own bases. It sounds pretty simple, but it can be a lot of fun with the variety of tactics the various maps provide.
In contrast, S&D is a pretty straight Counterstrike-style mode where one team is supposed to blow up something that the other team is tasked with protecting. Even though I'm not a big fan of Counterstrike (CS) the game mode itself is fundamentally solid, and it works pretty well in CoD. I like the various maps well enough, and I like the overall S&D game mechanics a lot better than I like CS. The wanker-to-player ratio is also much lower in CoD than in CS, a fact which shouldn't be overlooked.
Finally we come to the most bizarre of the modes: BEL. I don't know what the developers were smoking, but BEL makes for some seriously chaotic gaming. The basic premise has an interesting twist: the Axis always outnumbers the Allies by a significant margin, but it's the Allies who regenerate health and get points based on how long they can stay alive. The reason it's so nutty is that an Axis player who kills an Allied player immediately switches sides with him! Frankly, I found it confusing as all get out just trying to keep it straight at whom I should be shooting.
Suffice it to say that all of the game modes are good fun. I'm a little surprised at the lack of a traditional CTF mode, but this isn't a fatal omission. The RE, S&D, and BEL modes are all more than interesting enough in their own right to make up for the lack. The one aspect in which CoD's multi-player seems kind of weak, at least when compared to other games today, is that it lacks any sort of vehicles. Maybe I'm becoming jaded, but after playing so much T2, BF1942, etc. I've grown accustomed to having vehicles on the ground and in the air to make things all the more interesting.
In short summary: if you can get CoD on the cheap, then it's a no-brainer buy for any gamer who even remotely enjoys shooter games. Through a very special deal I got the game for $25, and at that price it's worth every penny. With as good as CoD is, I just can't recommend buying it at the full $50 price because of its length. Yes, the multi-player aspect does help make up for that, but the single-player game is clearly the centerpiece of CoD. If you can't find it cheap then wait a while; the price will surely go down eventually, and CoD is a game you really shouldn't miss.
Reviewed by Phileosophos