Call of Duty 2 Reader Review
There used to be a feature in some games that was pretty much guaranteed to get my Competition Pro thrown down in disgust. The culprit? Power-ups that reverse your controls. There’s something so hideously, destructively crass about a sole pickup hidden amongst the bonuses that imposes such a tedious and frustrating penalty on the player, making things arbitrarily difficult and shattering the illusion of disbelief to such an extent that you just have to wonder what exactly the developers were thinking. One second you’re lost in the moment, the next you’re acutely aware that you’re struggling with a clumsy input device and probably staring at a mocking ‘Continue?’ countdown. These days, with the demise of indistinct glowing orbs, developers have had to invent entirely new methods to artificially bolster their difficulty. Enter stage left: Respawning Enemies.
Respawning is just as annoying as control reversal. There’s seldom any attempt to justify its presence, and more often than not it’s used to cover up lazy design. Unfortunately Call of Duty 2 takes the concept and runs with it. It runs with it so far until it turns it into a core game mechanic. This isn’t to say that all of the game’s design is lazy – far from it in most places – but respawn has been integrated into the gameplay to such a degree that you can’t help but notice it no matter how well it’s been disguised.
Take, for example, an assault on a German-held village. The map itself is beautifully designed, and the defences are credibly and intelligently laid out. Your armour takes out a likely sniper position, and you and your mates move in to find yourselves faced with interlocking fields of machine gun fire and foes that are using their entrenched positions to great advantage. Gritting your teeth and following the sarge’s orders you get stuck in, gradually gaining a toehold in an outlying farmhouse. Using the windows to your advantage, you see the enemy is mirroring your movements across the street, and even as they fall to your squadmate’s fire the sheer number of opponents strikes you.
Leading the charge, you slowly outflank the defences and gradually, building by building, win back the town against huge odds until one solitary stronghold remains, seemingly with a machine gun or a rifleman firing from every window. Charging in there would probably be suicide, and with so many opponents you’d face a good chance of having one of your grenades thrown right back at you, so having decided that you’ve got them holed up you decide to thin their numbers a bit before the final assault. Blam! Down goes a gunner on the top floor. Blam! An officer foolish enough to poke his head out gets it perforated. Blam! A brave soul taking over the MG42 from his dead comrade gets reunited with him. Blam! Another excessively gung-ho officer goes down. This continues for a couple of minutes until you start to get suspicious of certain things. Blam! Yet another officer falls victim to your rifle, that’s how many now? Are they breeding them in there or something? Blam! Scratch another gunner. You think they’d get the message that manning the machine gun guarantees a swift death by now, after the first dozen corpses gave them a hint. So you decide to break the deadlock and storm in – only to find a mere handful of enemies of the types you’ve been killing for a few minutes. At this point the spawn stops, and you get to continue. What should be a dangerous attack on a defended town is reduced, at its most basic level, to capping spawn points by entering each building. Unsatisfying isn’t strong enough a word for the feeling when this realisation hits you. All that wary movement, suppressing fire, careful clearing of outlying areas, all of it was for naught.
What’s worse is that this kind of thing happens inconsistently – some buildings in missions aren’t spawn points, and you can shoot four of the defenders through the windows, wait to see if any more appear, crash on in and find a solitary trooper cowering upstairs. However, because you can never be sure what’s expected of you at any time you find yourself assuming that you’re faced with spawn points at almost every assault and just storming everything. It’s a crying shame, because a lot of the atmosphere and environment goes to waste. Rather than hugging the dirt, wondering how the hell you’re going to survive this firefight, you rather find yourself instead wondering how the hell you’re going to stop the enemy spawn, or even if they are spawning at all, which isn’t nearly as much fun.
The recharging health system, in addition to being implemented in an attempt to streamline the game (which, to be fair, it does since you’re never scrabbling around for health packs or searching for a medic) is actually pretty much a necessity, especially in some of the larger set piece battles. This is a game where you will get hit despite your best efforts, though the recovery system means that there’s not much tension in battles since you can usually duck behind something and be good as new in a few seconds. Getting shot by small-arms fire is almost something to be considered a warning rather than an immediately lethal hazard, and although things are trickier on the higher difficulties there’s never the dread of a round whizzing your way that you might experience in other games. Tellingly, you don’t find yourself using the prone position as much as you’d expect to at the start. What it does do though is allow for some set piece battles, and you could make a pretty convincing argument that these are what CoD2 is all about.
They’re pretty epic in scale, certainly. For the most part, they’re along the lines of ‘defend this position’, though you do get the occasional large attack too – the admittedly spectacular opening of the American campaign is a particular high point as you scale cliffs under fire, and assaults tend to be the most fun. The defensive missions tend to fare somewhat worse, and vary in quality quite wildly. A good case in point being the rather good Russian one earlier on, taking on advancing waves of German infantry as they close from several hundred meters away on the other side of a city square. At the other end of the spectrum is the American defence of a hill where hostile soldiers pop up seemingly from nowhere and at close range. It’s very chaotic and hectic, but showcases the ‘get hammered by gunfire, run and hide for a bit, repeat’ gameplay in its worst light. It’s an attempt to capture the atmosphere of a bloody, vicious close-quarters battle and succeeds in a very real sense, but this means it just isn’t very much fun to play.
For all its flaws, CoD2 is a hard game to actively dislike. The graphics are truly excellent, and the sounds are satisfyingly chunky, loud and, where appropriate, well voiced (though the Brit voices are the traditional Americanised caricatures). It treats its subject matter with an appropriate degree of severity and respect without resorting to melodrama, and there are some genuinely fantastic moments that make you either want to punch the air in triumph or send a shiver down your spine – being rescued from impending doom by timely air support, fighting through a thunderstorm, or watching silhouettes charge out of a smokescreen and being unsure whether they’re friend or foe. There’s clearly been a lot of effort put into this game, and it really shows in places – it’s been designed as a slick, cinematic shooter, it fulfils those criteria with real aplomb and while the charade’s kept in place it’s capable of being good fun.
You can’t help but feel it’s because the game achieves so much in other areas that it’s all the more disappointing when the veil of noise, explosions, shouts, cordite, smoke and spectacle of full-on war is repeatedly yanked away and the somewhat clunky underlying mechanics laid bare, because you’re constantly reminded you’re playing a game when you should be lost in the grandeur. It’s whether that grandeur’s worth the sacrifice of more refined and satisfying gameplay elements that will make or break the game for you. At least you won’t be holding your mouse upside down for half of it, though.