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Call Of Duty: United Offensive

We played through four levels of WWII mayhem from Infinity Ward's fantastic-looking expansion pack...

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Image credit: Eurogamer

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Call Of Duty, to this day, stands as one of the finest examples of cinematic gameplay, taking the saturated World War II shooter to new heights of visceral intensity. As much as that sounds like marketing fluff, it's true. Few if any games captured that relentlessly hectic sense of being right in the middle of an all or nothing battle. Frantic, frenetic, and at times fantastic. But as universally lauded as Call Of Duty was at the time, it seems as if your dutiful reviewer was one of the only commentators that didn't get carried away with the marvellous cinematics. 22 missions or not, the whole thing was over in less than eight hours, and some missions clocked in at 10 minutes. Broken down, it was essentially a jazzed up Allied Assault, never straying from the popular formula that had served the ex-2015 team so well.

We couldn't blame Infinity Ward for giving the people what they wanted (and to be fair it's exactly what most people wanted, as reflected in its commercial performance too). Creatively it was arguably IW's idea in the first place to do a World War II Half-Life, but from the point of view of the hard-nosed hack that's played the bloody lot over the years, it just didn't deliver a lot more than a highly polished re-run. There are only a finite number of times you can get excited about overtly linear shooters that demand you place explosives on tanks and run away, while endlessly replaceable squad members fall like nine pins around you.

World War too

A year on, though, and much of what was wrong this technically outstanding game has been fixed, enhanced, supplemented and generally knocked into shape by expansion pack developer Gray Matter to provide a more rounded, yet way more intense experience that promises to generate a far greater degree of lasting excitement. Given four out of the game's 13 levels to wrestle with, we came away quietly confident that it's got the potential to become regarded as this year's essential expansion pack, and, until Half-Life 2 belatedly stumbles into view, one of this Autumn's top PC picks.

There's little to say by way of introduction. Once again you play three separate campaigns, first as the US, then the Brits, and the Russians, before rounding off the whole game with one final onslaught. The only major difference this time is that instead of playing seven missions per 'campaign', it's four, but this time the missions appear to be far more challenging, much more dangerous, and definitely in keeping with the very best bits of the original.

In terms of 'what's new', United Offensive doesn't bother with too much in the way of pointless frippery, instead bolting on a bunch of really useful additions that genuinely help improve the game. Chief among these is the new limited Sprint command (ALT button), which enables you to leg it for very short bursts - making those tricky jaunts between hot enemy lead even more frantic. On the very first level we were allowed to play (Battle of the Bulge, Foy, Belgium - the third in the US set of missions) you kick off on the outskirts of snowbound forest having to sprint like a lunatic between hay bails, and so much as a mistimed run will have you raked with gunfire, and there are many other occasions when a well-timed run gets you out of all sorts of trouble - although wisely the game automatically disables your ability to fire your weapon as a result.

Cook off, Nazis!

Elsewhere, you can now 'Cook Off'. You heard. Yes, grenade lovers, you can now time the explosion of your projectiles with utter precision by holding down fire to pull the pin and the right mouse button (aim down sight button by default) - hardly a revolutionary addition, but handy nevertheless when you want to send some explosive death straight into the faces of Nazi aggressors.

Most of the other changes are purely cosmetic. At first you might not see many immediately obvious changes as you dodge bullets and exploding mortars, but they become apparent the more the campaign develops. The much documented particle effects have, without doubt, been improved by an order of magnitude, and accordingly the team has gone to town to conjure an eye blasting selection of fantastically brilliant effects that give explosions incredible depth and realism. In a game as action packed as this you can rely on there being a constant supply of those. As you hare around the levels it's hard to find the opportunity to just soak it all up; one intricately crafted interior or a beautiful view may just completely flash past you as you focus on staying alive. But should you ever get the chance to have a quiet moment of contemplation, it's evident that then team has worked tremendously hard to provide a rich environment to base this mayhem on.

Gameplay wise, it's fair to say that United Offensive sticks to the basic, successful linear formula but builds on the very best bits, ramps up the enemy count dramatically, and generally enhances the feeling of being caught in a seat of the pants life-or-death scenario. The final US mission, The Battle Of The Bulge, is simply classic Call Of Duty, in that you spend ages trying to storm a building, then once you're in it you come under the most intense and prolonged onslaught imaginable. It's just chaotic stuff, with heavy artillery back up arriving one after the other to shell the hell out of you. With your health on a knife edge, every move is tentative, and the tangible feeling of danger works far better in this context than the all-too-easy romps that characterised most of the original.

Pip pip and chocks away

Moving onto the third of our preview levels is the first of the UK campaign, set in the belly of a RAF Flying Fortress flying over the skies of North-western Europe in September 1941, you fill the boots of a rookie soldier tasked with being a mere assistant to the gunners manning their positions on all sides of the plane. But, as you'd perhaps expect, the German onslaught soon puts paid to those plans, and as each gunner gets taken out by enemy fire, you're thrust into the limelight and forced to become a gunner hero almost all by yourself. It's thrilling on-rails stuff, once again displaying the graphical flourishes implemented, notably the clouds, which are unquestionably the best ever seen, and add enormous depth to the scene and a palpable sense of realism. It sounds ludicrous, but simply watching them waft by is breathtaking, and a perfect implementation of the technology. After a few attempts and the usual dose of quick saving we scraped through, but not before being caught in a pretty dramatic conclusion - which we won't spoil for you.

The climax of our preview session centred on the Battle Of Kursk, set near Botovo in Belarus in July 1943. This USSR mission is set in amongst rain-drenched trenches being stormed by dozens of Germans. Kicking off in an on-rails narrative section on the back of a truck with a bunch of fellow comrades, you're eventually thrust into the front line armed with what amounts to a pop gun (a bolt action single shot Mosin Nagent Rifle), a Luger and a stick grenade. Stuck in the muddy trench, seeing the 9th army hordes off is no mean feat; defending the left and right flanks from a sea of aggressors. Fortunately there's PPSh machinegun lying around (otherwise you'd be pretty much done for) and survival eventually results in the mission breaking out onto the battleground itself, tasking your young soldier with a daring tank-busting sub-mission, placing explosive charges on the front of a handful of enemy Elephant tanks. Of course, with no front-mounted machine guns, it's a relatively easy task to run right up to the tanks and plant your explosives - something the Germans realised soon after this defeat.

A final onslaught in the nearby village brought our sneak preview to an end, but suffice to say that United Offensive felt far more of a war effort than the overly forgiving original; if you're one of the people that admired Call Of Duty but wished it wasn't such a procession, then we'd highly recommend giving this more than worthy expansion pack a look when it arrives later this month. Check out our full review nearer the time.

Call Of Duty: United Offensive is released on September 24th on PC.

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