We might occasionally bemoan the incessant glut of World War II games, but Gott im Himmel, they sell. In fact, Activision shifts so many of the blessed things every year that it has two developers working on the Call of Duty franchise at all times. So while Infinity Ward (no doubt) beavers away on its next PC-related project, Treyarch is conjuring Call of Duty 3 for all the various console platforms, including Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PS2 and even the dear old Xbox.
But unlike the regrettable confusion of releasing two entirely different sets of Call of Duty 2 products, Treyarch is making damned sure that the forthcoming Call of Duty 3 is the same game across all platforms, with only inevitable graphical differences between versions this time.
Shown off in 'controlled demo' form last week, we were treated to the typically impressive opening level of the 360 version - a snapshot of play that left onlookers in no doubt that Treyarch is every bit as adept at providing the trademark cinematics as Infinity Ward.
Back to the past 12
But first a bit of background to this year's campaign. With so many of the 'famous' segments of the war having been claimed in this crazy WW2 land grab, attention has turned to the Normandy Breakout and the liberation of Paris. From D-Day of June 6th 1944 to the successful conclusion on August 25th, all the action of Call of Duty 3 zones in on the various battles that ensued in the near vicinity across 14 missions. Rather than repeat the usual formula of flitting around various parts of Europe, Russia and North Africa, the entire campaign promises to be a more focused, authentic and "intertwined" affair, while retaining the need to shift focus between different parts of the Allied forces - in this case, the US, Polish, Canadian and the Brits.
Much of the purpose of the brief demo was to discuss the big strides Treyarch has made with various bits of technology that all contribute to making the game look easily the most impressive World War II game yet.
The first - and most obvious - improvement is the use of a new 3D modelling technique borrowed from NASA that makes light work of rendering characters to incredible levels of detail. Essentially everything from (high-end scale models of) tanks, to weapons and actors can be stood in a 'pool of lasers' and scanned in to automatically create a 3D model which goes towards recreating everything in minute detail with minimal effort. Previously tough-to-replicate items like the kinks and folds in uniform cloth and minor details on vehicles and weapons can now be shown off exactly like real life - and the results are indeed impressive.
The opening Operation Cobra mission kicks off in the back of a truck, and the assembled squad look immensely realistic, not only because of how uncannily realistic their uniforms look, but because of the way the character models respond to every bump in the road. Another part of this new tech is the ability to film scenes as an ensemble, as opposed to motion-capturing individual soldiers. The results are more fluid, more natural, and, as a result, promise greater immersion.
Advanced lawn simulator
Moving onto the battlefield itself, your eyes are immediately drawn to the new grass techniques, which not only render each blade to a previously unthinkable degree of precision, but now actually get trampled underfoot, leaving flattened trails as you and your squad stomp through the swaying mass. Again, a small touch, but one of several subtle new additions designed to make the environment that little bit more believable.
As smoke and debris erupted nearby, we're told that the smoke particles now reacts to wind and other explosions, and to demonstrate the point the Treyarch rep lobs a frag grenade inside the spewing cloud of a nearby detonated smoke grenade to show the way the billowing mass gets shifted dynamically with the force of the explosion. With such small touches now implemented, the tactical considerations are there for all to see; it's the sort of thing we'll be demanding from all FPSs before long.
Of course, the familiar cinematic chaos of battle erupts from all sides, with the incessant chatter of nearby squad members and continual staccato roar of intense gun battle. Buildings explode in a mass of rubble, with plumes of dust, smoke, fire and scattered debris erupting with terrifying force. A plane crashes into a church tower sending the bell flying towards the ground, a flaming Nazi leaping from the building to his doom. No let-up in the action.
Waggling fingers at the ready
Other small touches have been added to the mix - a subtle depth of field effect while reloading (that's less obtrusive than, say, Black's), and (apparently) more ways to tackle the same mission than ever before. Oh, and let's not forget Close Quarters Combat. Taking a cue from the likes of God of War, Resident Evil 4 and Fahrenheit, the more cinematically intense moments have been handled outside of the main game control system, with reactive button prompts directing the player how to elude sudden, unexpected danger. In the demo, a bit of basic shoulder button 'waggling' ensued when we were jumped on by a hidden German solider as we peered down the sights of our rifle. With no time to react, you're pitched into a life or death struggle as the soldier bears down on you, attempting to ram your own rifle down onto you to crush your windpipe. Some concerted waggling later, you fling off your aggressor and can get back to business.
In the final part of the demo we got to see a bit of tank driving action, which showed off the graphical strides this series has made in yet another chaotic example of how much on-screen action Treyarch's proprietary engine can handle. Smoke, heat haze, explosions - check any destructive box you fancy, it all looks pretty incredible. Talking of destruction, we're promised many more opportunities to use our firepower against the scenery - though we weren't shown any specific examples of how dynamic this actually was. Apparently you can no longer assume that cover points won't be blown away this time, potentially making the game a far more dynamic, tense affair than it ever has been to date.
Meanwhile, the health system introduced in Call of Duty 2 will make a comeback, meaning players have the dubious ability to recover health just by getting into cover for a brief period.
Multiplayer wasn't shown off (unlike the video shown to our US contemporaries), but the promise is of 24-player support in the next-gen consoles, with various character classes to choose from. For example, Light and Heavy Assault gunners come armed with anti-personnel mines, Medics can bring back stricken squad mates and provide medi kits, Scouts help call in precision artillery strikes, Riflemen can fire off rifle grenades, while Support and Anti-Armour Support provide ammo drops. Points can be scored not only for successful kills, but carrying out your duties effectively too. The modes include Team Battle, Capture the Flag, War, Headquarters, and a single flag CTF, while the beefed up presence of vehicles includes side-car motorcycles (woo!) and our old friend the tank, ensuring that players can choose to be the driver, gunner or mere passenger.
So far, even from the limited glimpses of Call of Duty 3 that we've been treated to so far, this already looks like being a must-have first-person shooter, boasting everything that made last year's version such a massive success and more than enough extras, improvements and new additions to warrant revisiting World War II one more time.
Call of Duty 3 is coming to the Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, Xbox and Wii later this year. No PC version is planned.