Call of Duty: United Offensive
The original Call of Duty (CoD) was a huge hit right out of the gate. A sequel, or at least an expansion pack, was clearly inevitable. Call of Duty: United Offensive (CoD:UO) takes the latter route, offering a bit more of the same with just a few additions to the basic game mechanics. The real question, in my mind at least, is whether the expansion pack manages to deliver the same high-quality experience at a reasonable price, so that's the question on which this review will focus.
CoD was a great looking game when it shipped, and surprisingly so given the aging Quake III Arena engine that powered it. In the visual department, CoD:UO delivers exactly what one expects from an expansion pack: a few graphical improvements here and there and some further optimization of the existing engine.
But, of course, things elsewhere have hardly remained constant. Games like DOOM 3 (D3), Far Cry (FC), etc. have since kicked graphical standards up several notches, so much so, in fact, that CoD:UO falls obviously short when compared with them. Nevertheless, the comment I made of CoD still obtains; i.e., the visuals are the most intensely gripping World War II (WWII) experience ever crafted, hands down.
If anything, the leap forward in video hardware has only improved on the original in the final analysis. I played the original game at 1024 x 768 x 32 bpp with 2x anti-aliasing (AA) and 4x anisotropic filtering (AF) on my old ATI Radeon 9700 Pro. In contrast, I was able to play CoD:UO at 1280 x 1024 x 32 bpp with 4x AA and 8x AF on my new BFG GeForce 6800 GT OC card. In all but the biggest battle scenes of the Russian Campaign, the game ran smoothly at those settings.
As one might expect, that makes for some incredible imagery, particularly given the large number of elements in any given scene. Watching platoons of German soldiers stream down the tree line at the Battle of the Bulge was pretty wild, and seeing enemy fighters come screaming at the B-17 I was defending in the skies over Rotterdam was great, but I don't think anything could have prepared me for the opening mission of the Russian campaign. Suffice it to say that CoD:UO delivers the best experience of any game of its kind, hands down.
The audio is largely indistinguishable from that in CoD; i.e., it's all great. The music is compelling, the sound effects are sharply distinguished and memorable, and the voice acting is truly top-notch. Further, the game's use of environmental audio is as flawless as one could hope. When artillery booms, flak explodes, guns fire, etc., the player feels like he's right in the middle of the action, and that's exactly what game audio is supposed to do. The voice acting maintains the same superbly high standards, so I've got nothing at all to complain about in the audio department.
I had only one complaint with the interface in CoD, namely, that the HUD seemed a bit distracting. I don't know why, but I no longer find it so. As such, I would have nothing but praise for the expansion were it not for the airplane graphic that appears during the British bomber mission. The airplane graphic replaces the compass, but it does so in a way that isn't nearly as helpful for finding the next objective.
Near the end of the mission the player must find and turn a particular crank, and I simply could not locate it. I failed the mission twice before I happened to catch it glowing out of the corner of my eye. It would have been nice to have better feedback from the HUD as to where it was. Aside from that lone complaint, though, the interface works just great.
As near as I can tell, the game has all the same mechanics from CoD with but three additions: sprinting, deployable guns, and vehicles in some of the multi-player modes. CoD:UO lets the player sprint briefly, which comes in quite handy when dashing for cover in the middle of enemy bombardment. It's a nice though minor change in the grand scheme. The deployable guns are few and far between, but there are a couple of neat sequences where the player can make good use of them. Suffice it to say that the game mechanics work as well or better than they did in CoD. Why mess with a classic?
Again no story. It's not much of a surprise, really, given that the drama is generated by the backdrop of WWII, but gamers who need a consistent story to be satisfied should take note of it. The game follows a few different characters in the various campaigns, but there's no larger continuity at all.
Here's where we get to the real meat of the review, and there are two things that simply must be said. First, the content maintains and surpasses the same high standard from the original game. The different environments are beautifully done, the level of detail is great, the maps are nicely done, and the campaign is generally well designed. If anything, CoD:UO manages to top CoD with the intensity of some of its sequences. I know I'm not going to forget that crazy opening jeep ride anytime soon.
Yet second, I think CoD:UO is actually worse than the original CoD in terms of its linearity and length. Maybe I'm simply becoming allergic to linear game play, but I couldn't escape the feeling that I was on a ride at Disneyland too much of the time. The linearity of the original bugged me, but the linearity of CoD:UO really bugged me. Of course that's a pretty subjective factor, so anyone who doesn't share my allergy should feel free to ignore this complaint.
The complaint that cannot be overlooked, however, is the unbelievably short game length. Where as I finished CoD in just over seven hours, I finished CoD:UO in a single night's play after a mere three hours! I realize it's an expansion pack, but it has been under development for quite a while and isn't exactly value-priced. I'm wholly opposed to the trend toward much smaller games, and CoD:UO is the very worst I've seen in that regard.
The content could also use a bit of polish in a couple of places. I'd say 95% of the game is well designed, but that other 5% has a number of irritating problems. For example, there's a sequence where one must hold off the Germans, keeping them from getting into the house the player is holding. The problem is that the scripting is so repetitive that after every single tank shows up, a squad of Germans somehow manages to get through the kitchen to nail the player as he's returning from the front porch. Nevermind that there was a guy guarding there seconds before, and will be again mere seconds after; somehow that enemy squad sneaks through every time.
There's also a problem with one of the driving sequences such that the enemy has a small squad guarding the entrance to a tunnel. You pretty much have one and only one chance to take out the one bad guy carrying a Panzerfaust; otherwise, you die. Period. He'll blow the truck to hell every time, taking you with it. Eventually I gave up trying to shoot him and managed to take him down with a grenade after half a dozen or so reloads. But how much fun is that?!
Then there's the occasional insipid move on the part of the AI. I couldn't believe it. I got to a point in the game where the squad leader tells me to get into the side car on a motorcycle. I was pretty geeked about that, so I started walking around it only to get run over by the rest of my squadmates who had commandeered the other vehicle! At various points in the game I was run down by AI-powered "allies" driving cars, tanks, and pretty much every other kind of vehicle you can imagine. With friends like that, who needs enemies?!
The multi-player aspect of the original CoD was a surprisingly good time. I probably didn't play more than 20 - 30 hours of it when all was said and done, but that's largely because I grew a bit tired with the whole feel of the game. When it comes to WWII multi-player, I'm definitely more of a Battlefield 1942 (BF1942) fan than anything else. It's not that CoD's multi-player was bad, it's just that I usually enjoyed the nature of BF1942 even more.
No doubt, the developers had evening that score squarely in mind when they developed the multi-player modes for CoD:UO. After patching, the original game had quite a few different modes to keep one busy. Players could choose from deathmatch, team deathmatch, headquarters, behind enemy lines, retrieval, and search & destroy, though only a couple of those modes seemed to develop a large on-line following in my experience. CoD:UO keeps all of those modes and adds three new ones: domination, capture the flag, and base assault.
Domination is a bit like the conquest mode of BF1942 but without the ticket counts to worry about. The point to the game is to control all of the zones on the map, thus dominating the battle field. Teams capture zones by holding a given control point long enough to raise their flag. Once a team captures all the zones, they win. This can make for some pretty neat play, without the worries of keeping an eye on the ticket count ala BF1942. I like it.
Capture the flag (CTF) is the same old game we've all played a bazillion times before, and yet somehow we can't quite get enough of it. CoD:UO does it about as well as any other such game, though it does feel a bit odd to me playing CTF in the ruined cities of Europe. Maybe I've just played so much Unreal Tournament 2004 that I can't help but expect futuristic settings and over-the-top weapons. Who knows.
Finally, base assault is an interesting new mode, which essentially pits defenders versus an offensive force with superior firepower. The defenders have to hold three bases against enemy assault. They're dug in pretty well, so attacking isn't a simple task, but the offensive force has seriously heavy weapons to breach the base. Once the base defenses are breached, the offensive force must move in and blow it up with explosives, which renders it unavailable as a spawn location. It's a pretty neat game mode, though the games I've played have seemed pretty lopsided to date. Maybe that's because few people know how to play it yet.
Perhaps best of all, though, is the addition of vehicles to the multi-player aspect. Like I said, the developers seem to have had BF1942 in their sights, although the vehicle selection in CoD:UO is far more limited. Still, the selection of tanks, jeeps, and so forth, does bring a new and fun element to the game. It's just as much fun to roll over infantry in a tank as it's ever been.
Also new to the series is an interesting multi-player mechanic that rewards team play. As players rack up more points, they earn battlefield promotions and move up in rank. Moving up in rank means more grenades, binoculars, satchel charges, and eventually the ability to call down air strikes. To my knowledge, CoD:UO is the first game of its kind to provide such meaningful and positive feedback for team players, and I heartily applaud the developers for adding it. It's a really neat idea.
Despite the criminal shortness of the single-player aspect, CoD:UO nevertheless scores pretty high on the ol' fun meter. The scope of the scenarios is huge compared to the original CoD, which I thought was pretty darned impressive at the time. But like I said, nothing prepared me for the Russian campaign. I was absolutely blown away by the massive scale of operations, the ambient details, and the sheer numbers of troops and vehicles on the battlefield. The other campaigns are good, but the Russian campaign is positively amazing. I'm pretty confident I'll be playing through the single-player campaign at least a few more times; it's that good.
Beyond that, the new multi-player modes do quite a bit to pump new life into the game. I really didn't get a ton of playing hours out of the original, but the expansion actually does make me want to get back into it. I still prefer BF1942's style of play, in no small part because of the even greater scale and the addition of air and sea power, but CoD:UO does have the market cornered when it comes to down and dirty man to man fighting.
So, in the final analysis, anyone who bought CoD and enjoyed it should probably pick up the expansion pack as well. The only way it wouldn't be worth your while is if (1) you know you won't get anything out of the multi-player aspect, and (2) you were really peeved by the length of the single-player campaign in the original game. I wish the single-player campaign were longer, but the fun factor is high enough that anyone who doesn't meet both of those conditions will get his money's worth.
Reviewed by Phileosophos