Version tested: Xbox 360
Just when you thought that interest in World War II games was on the wane, along comes Call of Duty 2 and becomes by far the biggest selling Xbox 360 launch title.
Clearly the public's lust for shooting thousands of Nazi soldiers is as high as ever - especially when it's framed in the cinematically intense fashion that has become Infinity Ward's trademark. Activision knew it had to get a high quality follow-up on the shelves in time for this Christmas' buying frenzy - especially with EA's latest Medal of Honor franchise making its comeback in 2007. Having the whole WWII market to itself for the second Christmas running is a gift-wrapped opportunity.
But Infinity Ward isn't one of those sweatshop developers that can just merrily churn out annual updates of its games - and Activision knows it. Which is precisely why it's been such a smart decision to have another talented developer beavering away on various Call of Duty console projects over the past few years. And with IW taking its traditional two-year cycle to work on a proper 'next-gen' Call of Duty game (presumably due out next Christmas), Call of Duty 3 sees Treyarch take centre stage for the first time
Act of neglect
But its first controversial act has been to neglect to do a PC version, which, given the series originated on the beige box, has annoyed a significant chunk of its audience. Conspiracy theorists have every right to suspect that hardcore fans who've traditionally played the game on PC are effectively being funnelled into buying a next-gen console version. Certainly, here in Europe that decision puts an awful lot of extra focus on the Xbox 360 version, where the PS3 version is an irrelevance until March. By accident or design, it's handed Microsoft another golden opportunity to shift a few more consoles to those who won't be denied their latest CoD fix.
It's disappointing, then, to find that Call of Duty 3's core single-player offering feels like it's been rushed to market to fulfil demand rather than its potential. If it's not the minor technical glitches that give the impression of slapdash development, it's the half-baked new ideas, resistance to change and cut and paste mission design that serve as a stark reminder that we've been here so many, many times before that novelty hasn't just worn off, it's completely transparent. Luckily the multiplayer is a major saving grace, but we'll come back to that one.
Given that so many of the famous events of World War II have been covered off, Call of Duty 3 thumbs the pages of the history books to focus on one specific sequence of inter-connected events in the summer of 1944 that involved not only the Brits and the Yanks, but the Poles and Canadians as well, all fighting to squeeze the Falaise gap and liberate the French. Unlike Treyarch's more focused campaign in last year's acclaimed 'last-gen' Call of Duty 2: Big Red One, this reverts back to the formula where you're flitting between different nations over the course of the rather brief 14-mission campaign. As a result, the game often feels like a disconnected series of set-pieces culled from any WWII title you might care to mention. The narrative tries its best to inject character into the proceedings with some cheap anti-French gags and the odd flare-up between soldiers, but it mostly falls flat, and what you're left with is a game that never truly drags you in. Your sense of purpose is reduced to eyeing the mini-map and heading for the next starred objective. Destroy the artillery. Defend the south side. Clear out that house. Regroup with your squad. And all this surrounded by an anonymous sea of re-generating allied cannon fodder to make the scenes look as epic as possible.
Just an illusion
At first glance, you could easily argue the case for Call of Duty 3 being one of the best-looking games ever. Some of the scenes of intense battle are right up there with the most incredible sequences you've ever seen committed to videogaming, and it's no wonder they made for incredible-looking teaser videos. Appropriately enough, some of the very best are right at the beginning of the game - always a key tactic to pull in the unwary punter. The individual blades of grass swaying in the breeze, that church roof exploding in a massive plume of dust and debris. That tank rolling on by, inches from your head as you scramble through a stream. The incredible rattle of gunfire and explosions from all sides. Man, the explosions. The dust. The smoke. The sound is incredible too, with shouts of desperation from pinned down comrades alerting you to the machine gun nest that's got them pressed up against a tombstone, rather fittingly. With a spectacular Joel Goldsmith score putting the gloss on the package, it merely underlines that it's still capable of being the same incredible assault on the sense that it ever was - but if you stop and look around for more than a few seconds, you're constantly reminded that the battle doesn't ever just carry on around you. That's the illusion. The reality is all-too easy to identify, and it generally relies on you moving the scripted events on and going in the direction the game dictates. Despite some very loose concessions to in-mission freedom (read: branching paths or choice over which house to clear first), you're still tightly penned in by some ludicrous invisible walls and rarely given a chance to experiment. Of course, it's always been this way, but in essence Call of Duty 3 is weighed down by the baggage of old school game design decision that we really should have moved on from by now.
What rankles even more is that some of the so-called 'new' elements introduced to Call of Duty 3 are so flimsy it's hard to believe that a developer as talented as Treyarch thought they improved the game in any way. The supposedly intense Close Quarters Combat sequences that pop up four or five times during the game are, frankly, a pathetic waste of time. Now and then the game dictates that a German solider will get the jump on you in a fight to the death. The screen switches to a close up view of their gurning face, and you're tasked with fending them off by hammering the left and right triggers (a rubbish idea in Fahrenheit, and no better here). Eventually, you'll have to press the indicated button when it flashes up to finish them off - the only bonus about the whole affair is that it doesn't occur very often.
Elsewhere, the game throws in some equally pointlessly unchallenging sequences where you have to use your binoculars to mark targets (click left stick to go into zoomed-in binocular view, move cursor a few degrees left or right, press X, boom), and tries to make the bomb-planting sequences more interesting by turning them into a Simon Says-style sequence where you have to press the buttons in the directed order, rotate the stick, touch your toes and wiggle your ears. The sections where you drive a tank feel nicely bombastic, but, again, it's hard to fail, and feel more like interactive cut-scenes than a life-or-death part of the war effort. Equally half-baked are the occasional driving sections where you board a jeep and marvel at how much it feels like you're driving a hovercraft through the set of Telly Tubbies. Unfortunately there's no sign of Tinky Winky.
Stuck in a rut
Normally, it'd be easy to overlook some of the more undercooked elements, but then some of the technical deficiencies start to prove irksome. For example, on more than one occasion you'll find yourself inexplicable stuck in the scenery and unable to get out. Fair enough. Restart checkpoint. But then you'll come across times when the AI itself gets stuck, and as a result events don't trigger the scripted events that move things on. Grr. Restart checkpoint.
Other things also strike you as strange - muzzle flash showing up through solid walls, dead enemies stuck mid air in scenery, the occasional appallingly textured area, some dreadful lighting bugs where soldiers are either inexplicably brightly lit, or too dark to see their faces. And then there's the clunky-looking animation transitions where you see men literally flicking between stances, and even, shock, some pop up (though admittedly that's on one small section in the whole game). It's the lack of attention to detail that take you out of the moment, that shatter the suspension of disbelief, that remind you that the game engine's already horribly dated in places that matter, and you have to wonder how significant the game's parallel development on PS2 and Xbox had on the so-called next-gen versions.
Lean on me
Instead of being involved in a tense battle for survival, you're wondering where the five extra allied soldiers just came from, and how many times they're just going to wander straight into the firing line of that machine gun nest. Even the generally slick controls have the capacity to annoy, by mapping the binoculars to a click on the left stick, you're forever accidentally getting it out just as you're trying to flee imminent danger. You'd also think that in a game that's mostly based on making good use of cover that you'd at the very least be able to lean out from behind a wall, column or doorway by now. Yeah, we know the CoD games have always been like this, but why should we put up with being given the same old creaking controls and gameplay mechanics and just 'cos? GRAW and Gears of War have shaken up some of the old school convention, so why can't this? It's easily on an equal footing as one of the biggest, most anticipated games of the entire year. And yet we're supposed to be happy to part with the cash for something that feels like a marked step back in the current climate?
As with last year's version, Treyarch has come up with the latest game to adopt the rather controversial recharging health system. Now, while this definitely makes it a less frustrating game, and removes the need to litter the battlefield with medikits, it also reduces the challenge to almost zero. Played on Easy or Normal, you'll whomp through the game in about six or seven hours without breaking sweat. To try and spice things up and to see whether it made the game more challenging and tense, and to see if the game's AI gets any better, I played a fair chunk on Veteran level. Supposedly the AI is tougher, more uncompromising and a better shot, but the real difference is that they react slightly quicker, nothing more - the main difference is your ability to take shots is massively reduced so you'll merely be taking two or three times as long to inch your way through each level, mentally logging all those surprise moments that catch you out first time around and reloading certain checkpoints repeatedly. But after a combined total of about 15 hours playing the single-player campaign, the thing that really jumps out at you is how old the core battlefield/house-clearing combat feels.
After playing something like FEAR, you'd think Treyarch would maybe consider applying an approximation of Monolith's exciting 'hunt you down from all sides and exploit your weaknesses' ethos, but it does nothing of the sort. It's the same old story with the AI in CoD3. The enemy has precisely two behaviour modes: the 'sit behind cover and pop out now and again' mode or the demented 'rush towards you like a bunch of lemmings' AI that's been in place forever - and that applies both inside and outside. For all the amazing feats that Treyarch pulls off with regard to creating environments that look incredible at first glance, it doesn't take long to see beyond that, especially when it's shattered by the dense behaviour of the AI on both sides throughout. Until Infinity Ward (and Treyarch, presumably) gets around to fixing that side of the game (hopefully) next time around, what you're left with is an obliging enemy that only flanks if the game scripts it that way, and clueless squad mates that happily run into a hail of bullets and often have trouble dealing with enemies standing right in front of them. If all of this is the definition of top class next generation entertainment, then clearly we've got spectacularly low standards and the ability to forgive a multitude of gaming sins when they're glaringly apparent in front of our eyes.
So while, yes, the uniforms and tank models look better than ever thanks to that fancy scanning machine that NASA uses, and yes, we've never seen better smoke in a videogame, and yes, the impression of raging battle is impressive to the eyes and ears for much of the time, there's an equally crucial portion of the game when it all goes to pot and you're left with the feeling that you're playing an old, funnelled shooter against primitive enemy, going through the motions of things we've done so many, many times before. It's these things that, sadly, stick in your mind.
But if you're into the multiplayer aspect of Call of Duty, then you're definitely in luck, and it's this facet of the game that drags the review score up a notch. For a start, this year's version supports triple the number of players (24), of which four can join in for online action from the same box, not to mention split-screen and, of course, system link. This year there's six modes to enjoy either on ranked or unranked player matches, comprising Capture the Flag, Single Flag CTF, Headquarters (one team sets up an HQ and defends it, the other tries to infiltrate and attack), Team Battle (deathmatch), Battle (free for all deathmatch) and War (team mode where you battle to control spawn points). There's a lot to enjoy - most of it pretty familiar territory, for sure.
The key difference this year isn't just the presence of the nine excellent sprawling maps (with more to come online for sure), nor the ability to ride around in jeeps, tanks and motorbikes (with side cars), but the fact that it's gone all Team Fortress on us. Yes, this year you get to enjoy a class-based system with no fewer than seven different types to choose from, including Light and Heavy Assault, Medic, Scout, Support, Anti-Armour, and Rifleman. As you might expect, each play their own role and have specific strengths and weaknesses that - if played properly as a team - will make all the difference to your team's success. Each player has a predetermined loadout of two different weapons and a grenade (or mine), and is rated in terms of Damage, Range, Accuracy, Melee, Speed, and Rate of Fire, so, for example, a Medic has awful range and accuracy stats, but is great at melee and speed, while the Scout has great damage and range with his Springfield rifle, but is disadvantaged by his rubbish melee skills and low rate of fire. Tellingly, Activision has included some achievements to encourage those to take the less sexy Scout and Medic roles, so that should help balance things out in the short-term at least. Also, another thing to mention is that each player has their own special skill, so Scouts can mount artillery, Medics can revive downed soldiers, while the Rifleman has a deadly rifle grenade to go with his smoke grenade. It's beautifully balanced.
So far, with few players populating the servers, there have been no major incidences of lag, and we have thoroughly enjoyed every session so far. Certainly, for those with a PC gaming background, you'll appreciate the larger scale matches, the numerous ways to set options in game and the decent variety of modes. It certainly promises to be one of Live's most popular games ever, and arguably warrants a purchase for the online multiplayer alone - if that's your thing.
And there lies a straightforward decision. If you're only interested in the offline game and have maybe had your fill of WWII action, then Call of Duty 3 won't be for you. It's too stuck in its ways to provide any meaningful progression to the genre, and of the changes it has made to the gameplay, frankly none of them are worth getting excited about. Maybe if you're a committed fan then you'll be happy to overlooked the many criticisms we've jabbed in the chest of Call of Duty 3. Maybe you'll think we've gone raving mad for thinking the single-player's no better than a six out of ten, but no change there. It's much easier, though, to praise the advancements made to the multiplayer side of the game, where every new addition and every change is one that will help make it even more popular. If you spend a lot of your time online, then it's far more than a consolation 'bonus mode' to make up for the lacklustre single player offering - it's without doubt one of the better online games that console gaming has offered us all year. Maybe next year they can get both elements of the package spot on and we can start singing its praises again.
7 / 10