Version tested: Xbox 360
It's strange to think that a game which came out six years ago is now considered a retro release, but that's the situation Call of Duty finds itself in for this celebratory digital airing of the first game in the series. Showered with slobbery kisses back in 2003, and squashed under a ton of Game of the Year awards, it arrives in 2009 looking surprisingly outdated for a game so young - though no less entertaining for its premature ageing.
What's most apparent is how little the Call of Duty series has actually changed over its five subsequent iterations. Almost every element is already in place here, from the fondness for bombastic set-pieces to the rather pompous quotes propping up the loading screens. This is not a game of great narrative depth or insight, only really a few beats away from the daft run-and-gun action of Wolfenstein, so these snatches of war-related wisdom from Churchill, Hemingway and Voltaire seem even more incongruous.
There are three tales, following US, British and Soviet forces, but these play out one after another rather than being shuffled up like later titles in the series. As always, these stories are little more than an excuse to drop you into short, sharp encounters with numerous enemies. It's lighter on the first-person situational gimmickry than we're now used to - there are no sections where you have to shoot enemies with a crossbow while riding on a jet-ski inside a blimp that's crashing into a volcano, for instance.
But it's easy to see why it so bowled people over six years ago. An early car chase is exhilarating (if hampered by the way your soldier can still rotate through a complete circle while leaning out of the window - perhaps he's just a torso on a turntable) while story sections use the first-person view to put you in high-concept scenarios like a glider crash-landing behind enemy lines or bluffing your way aboard a German battleship.
The giddy core of the game is right there from the start. This isn't a series that evolved into a blockbuster - it was born with explosions and blood and oh my god that plane crashed right next to me; thrill-seeking already thrashing around in its DNA. The upside to this is that Call of Duty Classic is still an absolute blast to play, albeit one with a lot more rough edges than you might expect.
It's nothing special graphically, and often looks downright ugly. Character models are bloaty and unconvincing, and the rudimentary AI is even more transparent than in its current ancestors. Race ahead of the game's crude signposting and you can find NPCs standing rigidly waiting to be activated by the presence of someone else or, worse, find empty areas that magically fill with enemies when the correct trigger point is hit.
In the first real story level, for example, you can dash across the first field without waiting for your fellow paratroopers to land. Do this, and you can reach the house at the end and lob grenades through the window before the German machine-gunners even exist, let alone get a chance to shoot you.
The Call of Duty games have always been rail-bound carnival rides, but recent incarnations have become adept at masking their mechanisms behind smoke and mirrors (well, okay, mostly smoke). Playing the first entry, in all its slightly crude glory, feels like you're going through the same carnival ride but now all the lights have been switched on, and you can see the wires and pulleys that make the plastic skeletons fly overhead. It's fun, but hardly immersive.
This means that a lot of the recurring complaints about the COD template are even more relevant. Enemies tend to either pop in and out of cover like whack-a-mole puppets, or run towards your location in a suicidal manner. Too many encounters can be survived simply by waiting in a room for enemies to run through the door, one after another. Allied AI isn't much better, with squad mates wandering in front of you (friendly fire is an instant "game over") or squatting on top of grenades.
The game predates the era of rechargeable health, so medical kits litter the ground - at least on the lower difficulty levels. Veteran, as is traditional, is brutal, frustrating and often blatantly unfair. With no quicksave, no way of regaining lost health, some horribly spaced checkpoints and enemies that can kill with one shot, it's the sort of experience that will reduce those weaned on the comparatively cuddly Modern Warfare to a gibbering mess.
If you picked up Classic for free as a thank-you for buying Modern Warfare 2 in some fancy pants special edition then it's an interesting history lesson. If you're paying 1200 Microsoft Points (£10.20 / €14.40) for the privilege, however, it's harder to make an emphatic recommendation.
First-person shooters are a little like supermodels, in that they're swiftly shunted aside when a younger, fitter alternative comes along to do exactly the same thing. The existence of Super Mario Galaxy doesn't impact on the genius of Super Mario Bros 3, but Call of Duty Classic is, in most aspects, simply a clunkier version of what you can now do in Modern Warfare 2 (or, if you want to be pedantic, World at War) with a lot more polish and audacity.
The multiplayer, for instance, offers six modes and apart from the crude lobby system is a compelling part of the package. But... who is seriously going to invest the hours when Modern Warfare 2 is beckoning with its longevity, depth and fiercely committed community?
All of which leaves this exhumed Call of Duty in a weirdly redundant position. It's a very good game, and the "classic" tag is deserved. As the reviewer's cliché goes, if you like Call of Duty, you'll like this. How could you not? It's the same game you've already played in its more advanced form, making this more of an academic exercise in gaming genealogy.
An important game then, though perhaps more so for Activision's accountants than the FPS genre itself, and one that fans won't regret experiencing again. Just don't feel like you're missing out on anything too essential if you decide to stick with Soap, Roach and friends.
7 / 10