Unless you've spent the last week or so in a coma after being brained by a flying Wiimote, you're probably aware by now of just how successful the launch of Nintendo's latest has been - but a trawl of gamer opinion would reveal that among the hardcore, at least, there's still some skepticism over the long-term prospects for the console. That's not really based on any level of mistrust for Nintendo's ability to keep delivering great experiences for the Wii - the DS' track record banishes any lingering doubt in that regard - but rather on a well-founded concern over how third party publishers will cope with things like the new control scheme and the vast imbalance in power between this and other next-gen systems.
Call of Duty 3 is an early test for this aspect of the Wii - a high profile, cross-platform title which has reviewed well on other systems, and which comes to the Wii with toned down graphics but a unique control system. Despite the changes, the game shares a fair amount of DNA with its counterparts on the more traditional game systems, which makes it into a good benchmark for just how well the Wii fares when it comes to handling traditional, well-known game franchises.
The answer to that question should be obvious, really - but unfortunately, we suspect that it's not the answer that many fans of Nintendo's latest really want to hear.
Wii! (Uh!) What is it good for?
First impressions count, and from the outset it doesn't really feel like COD3 is a game which has been designed with the Wii in mind. The first task you'll be asked to accomplish is entering your name, and rather than pointing at letters and clicking, in COD3 you're expected to navigate around a virtual keyboard with the d-pad. (Coincidentally, or not, the only other game we've seen do this so far is another Activision title - Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam.) It's a very minor point, of course, but it's sadly symptomatic of the biggest problem with this game - it's a traditional console game which has been ported to the Wii, not a game designed for the Wii from the ground up.
Once you're in the game, you're first presented with a training level where you learn to pick things up, aim and shoot, and throw grenades. This is where the problems that will plague the game for the next eight hours or so raise their ugly heads - the control mechanism, quite frankly, sucks. It works very similarly to the demo of Metroid Prime 3 we played at E3 back in May, but shows none of the fine tuning or careful thought that went into that, resulting in a frustrating and barely controllable mess. As you might expect, you move around using the analogue stick on the nunchuck, and aim your weapon with the Wiimote. In theory, you can aim your weapon around an area in the centre of the screen, and pushing against the sides moves the viewpoint around - which is how Metroid works, and how we imagine the majority of FPS games on the Wii will work.
In practice, however, COD3's control system lacks any form of balance. The "dead zone" in which you can move around the crosshair before the viewpoint starts moving as well is tiny, which means that even small movements of the remote are translated into on-screen motion - and in order to keep your viewpoint steady, you need to point the remote almost perfectly at the centre of the screen. Even a slight tilt in how you hold the controller will result in your viewpoint steadily sliding away from what you're trying to look at.
In long-range combat, that's almost forgivable, because you can press the A button to peer down the sights of your weapon, which significantly reduces the sensitivity of the controller and allows you to target more accurately. When you're clearing buildings or trenches, though, that's a much less useful mechanism - and the hyperactive control system makes the experience far more frustrating than fun. Worst of all, it robs the game of the sense of satisfaction you can get from an FPS with a good control scheme - kills feel more lucky than skilled, which makes you wonder why you're bothering.
Heeding the Call
Problems with the control system don't end with aiming, though - the developers have also chosen to put your grenade controls on the d-pad of the Wii, which is an incredibly annoying decision since it means that to access grenades (which play a really major role in most levels), you need to try and move your grip so that you can press on the d-pad without tilting the controller and hence ending up looking at the sky or the ground. One setting in the options screen does allow you to throw grenades with the nunchuck, which is a useful alteration to the system, but you still need to select a grenade on the d-pad before you can throw it. It breaks the flow of the game, and makes little sense as a gameplay mechanic.
The core shooting elements of the game feel, frankly, as though they were designed by people who had never actually spent significant time playing on the Wii - how else can you explain a game which seems to think that holding the Wiimote rock-steady and pointed at the exact centre of the screen is the most natural thing in the world? Several sub-games which use the motion sensing also raise the same suspicions; they're exactly the sort of thing which seems like a good idea when you write it down, but which clearly doesn't work terribly well in real life.
The first of these you'll encounter is a melee combat system, which is actually incredibly dramatic when it happens - a clearly mental German soldier jumps you while running through a ruined house and tries to throttle you on the ground - but quickly reveals itself to be an incredibly weak piece of interaction. You're expected to fight off the soldier by holding the Wiimote and nunchuck horizontally and pumping them in and out alternately; then to finish him off by holding them like the butt of a rifle and slamming him in the face. Nice in theory, but once again, in practice the flaws are self-evident - not least because doing that gesture runs the risk of smacking the controllers off one another (I'm not especially cack-handed, and still managed to make worrying "crack" noises with the plastic a couple of times), but also because the game offers no feedback on whether you're actually doing the right thing or timing your thrusts correctly.
Another mini-game, the jeep driving, is more fun - you hold both controllers as if they were the sides of a steering wheel and drive around like that - but it does beg the question, why do it that way when Nintendo has already laid out a really simple steering mechanism which works by holding the Wiimote in both hands on its side? COD3's method is more fiddly and annoying, not least because it relies on the seemingly less accurate motion sensing of the nunchuck - and again, feels like something that probably looked better in a design document than it is in real life.
Don't Call Us, Wii'll Call You
By now you're probably convinced that I hated COD3 - and to some extent, you'd be right. I felt bad for doing so, because it's painfully obvious that there's a fantastic WWII game in here; it's atmospheric, well-scripted, features varied levels and fantastic music... All the elements which would make a single-player WWII game great on any other platform are present and correct, but none of that really matters because the gameplay is broken to the extent that you find yourself longing for dual analogue sticks, let alone a keyboard and mouse.
The controls aren't the only broken thing in COD3 on the Wii, though - the graphics, while not awful by any means, aren't even up to the standards of Xbox games from the last generation. Whether this is down to the team not taking full advantage of the hardware, or an indication that the Wii really isn't suited to this kind of realistic art style, is something which only time will tell - but for now, COD3 is somewhat ugly, not because it's low resolution (Zelda manages to look stunning despite this drawback) but because it's very apparent that this is a game designed for near photo-realistic hi-def, which has been shoehorned backwards onto a less powerful console.
The final deal-breaker, as far as I was concerned, came when I turned off the single-player campaign and decided to investigate the multiplayer options before writing the review. This paragraph will be short; there are no multiplayer options. Not online, which isn't surprising, but not even split-screen, either. Given what a major part of the COD offering on other platforms that is, this seems like just a teeny bit of an oversight, n'est pas?
However, in the final analysis, I can't really bring myself to intensely dislike COD3. The control system isn't much fun, and feels unfinished and somewhat unloved - but it is certainly possible to get to grips with it and to eke some enjoyment out of the superbly designed levels of the game. Even while battling against the limitations of the Wii port of the game, the fact that this is, at heart, one of the finest WWII games around still comes shining through from time to time, and that lifts the game from the doldrums of negativity to the point of being merely disappointingly average. This, we hope, is not the shape of things to come on the Wii, and the existence of games like Metroid, which demonstrate FPS gameplay working superbly on the console, is a beacon of hope for the genre - but right now, if you fancy shooting your way through the hedgerows of northern France, pick up the excellent versions of this game on other platforms, and give the Wii version a miss.