What stands out most distinctly when previewing a Call of Duty game is the severity with which the subject matter is taken. Sorry, both subject matters. Because FPS games are subject to two very important matters: being games, and being about something. Within the development of all four Call of Duty titles, whether by Treyarch or Infinity Ward [or Spark, don't forget - Ed], both sides are taken so seriously that you begin to realise why the finished games are quite so affecting.
I've been to two CoD preview events, and both times I've not been allowed to see the game before I've been taught something of the history behind what I'm about to play. You might argue that this is promotional puff, a trick to manipulate me before I sit down. You might be right. It probably is. But while previewing the game's development, it's so very revealing. If watching a series of interviews with elderly American, Polish and German men, dressed in their age-old uniforms, describing the horror of their experiences, can affect me at a brief glance, then how can it not affect those making the game? If you ever wondered how it was that Call of Duty made you need to quit out after completing a mission, just so you could calm down for a bit, then this might be why.
Military advisor to the series, Col. Hank Keirsey, is at great pains to ensure that everyone knows this is the last chance to speak to these people, and to hear their stories. In ten years time, he points out, they will all be dead. He sees the games as an opportunity to record that history in a new art form.
And then, seemingly in direct conflict with the respect and awe generated from their interviews with those present at the conflicts they seek to replicate, is their need to entertain. Everyone involved in developing recites the same mantra: "great cinematic intensity", closely followed by, "entertainment must come first." The two halves seem in conflict over the intent of their product. And here are the two peaks across which CoD has so far spanned - a tribute to those who fought, and an entertainment product trying to blow our socks off. So can Call of Duty 3, this time for next-gen consoles only, do it all over again?
Treyarch, taking over the main franchise from Infinity Ward this time around, is bringing some of the ideas it fostered in Big Red One. Rather than the series' previous detached chapters of different nation's battles, Big Red One followed one group of soldiers throughout some of the First Infantry Division's most significant conflicts. In CoD 3, where the multi-nation perspective is a requirement, a potentially imaginative change has been made. This time a chronological narrative will logically link it all together.
You'll play squads from America, Britain, Canada and Poland, but moving back and forth between them, so as to experience the story in historical order. Despite even the team's own early fears of running out of significant events to recreate, they were stunned to find so many more important stories untold. The main theme this time follows the weeks from the Normandy landing to the liberation of Paris, in the battle for Chambois, seen from the four distinct angles.
Each squad, like Big Red One, will have its own narrative, told through their appearances throughout the game, with the four combined forming the tale of the full campaign. Gone, we're promised, are the load points, with their awkwardly worded 'letters home', that attempted to justify the leaps in story, replaced by cut-scenes that will conceal load times completely. Executive producer, Marcus Iremonger, points out that the team won last year's Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences 'Best Story' award with BRO. "Quite an achievement for an FPS," he notes pointedly.
However, this doesn't mean there will be an abandoning of the traditional linear nature of the previous games. CoD 2's slightly unwise foray into offering multiple paths was a tactic quickly abandoned by anyone playing, once it was realised the rest of the squad would be sticking to the main route, and you'd be dying a lonely man. There's no such silliness this time around, we're promised, with alternate routes clearly flagged, generally with a scripted sequence explaining the likely consequences of either.
During my time with the game, I was crawling along at the bottom of a hill with my American squads, when someone informed me that half the team would be taking a bridge, while the other half would be clearing out the route beneath it. Choosing to go under rather than over, halfway along I passed under said bridge, and saw the other half of the guys overhead taking out the soldiers who would otherwise have slaughtered my men, letting us pass safely. Had I gone the other way, I'd have been up there protecting those below. Still sturdy tracks, but giving a greater impression of freedom.
This is combined with much 'wider' paths, which Iremonger explains offer another degree of choice. "People want to have this adrenaline-pumping experience, and sometimes that requires that the player is funnelled into areas," he begins. "But if you look at things like the scale of battlefields, they're much wider, so you have much more ability to choose your route across an area."
There's a huge step forward in graphics. CoD 2 was a 360 launch title, and as such was developed with little knowledge of the intricacies of the machine. Now with more of its power tapped, the visual effects are stunning. Realistic rain splatters, making soldiers wet, heavy rain streaming off the roofs of tanks, while lighting rips through the sky over distant hills, highlighting the fog; It looks pretty awesome. And developing for this new technology is the reason given for the lack of a PC release. "When it comes down to it, the team has to focus on those new platforms, and that's a major thing to do," explains Iremonger. "Working with the Wii, and the PS3, takes a great deal of concentration, and so we deliberately focused on that."
This perhaps misses quite a trick for next year's potential with Live Anywhere, and the 360's burgeoning online player base receiving a boost from the long-established PC crowd. Of course, this hasn't been too big of an issue for the series, what with CoD 2 being the 360's number one online game since launch. And this is despite the relatively limited multiplayer offered. CoD 3 intends to ramp it all rather a lot.
First of all, now 24 players can join any one game, much improving on the piddly numbers previously. Oh, and there's new vehicles controlled by multiple players. Indeed - Battlefield's having an effect. There's even a little flavour of Team Fortress, with soldier classes now available, which as you'd expect include Scouts, Medics, Light and Heavy Assault, etc. Each will be endowed with advantageous abilities, which will hopefully manage the rock/paper/scissors balancing act necessary.
There's obviously all the usual Capture The Flag and Deathmatch modes you'd expect, played in various war-torn locations. But there's some more imaginative games this time around as well. The most interesting mode I had a chance to die in an awful lot is being called, slightly superfluously, "War". It works a bit like PlanetSide meets Battlefied. Teams begin at various points on the map, and must advance, whether on foot or in the vehicles, to take territory - or spawn points. This is a frenetic approach, which unlike so many throwaway online modes, gives the sense of progress, or indeed the lack of it. It's an intense experience, and a slightly unsettling one. With the depth of authenticity, and the improvements in weather and environment effects, there's a chance the multiplayer will offer the same degree of emotional intensity that the single player series is famous for. It could be remarkable.
From an early look, Call of Duty 3 looks like it's making the correct adjustments to keep the series up to date, but still leaves the slight worry that cosmetic changes might not be enough to ensure it feels fresh. It's only a worry, and even if the game doesn't hugely advance from the first two, repeating them won't exactly be a bad thing. Infinity Ward left big boots to fill, so it will be interesting to see how far Treyarch achieve this. However, no matter the success of the single player campaign, we'd bet our bums that this is going to be the big Live game to look out for.