When Saving Private Ryan came out, World War II was suddenly back on entertainment’s radar. For video games (and specifically first person shooters) it kicked off what I just now have always called “The Five Years of the Deuce.” Medal of Honor on the PlayStation started the party, and while it was a decent attempt at setting a shooter in the period, there was certainly lots of room for improvement. The MoH series iterated accordingly, cracked the PC market with Allied Assault, and then many of its development team split off to start a nearly identical, competing series. Exactly why is something history has not recorded (hint: follow the money).
Call of Duty is the result, which incorporates Medal’s best features while immediately improving on its frequent deficiencies. MoH was infamous for casting you as some form of secret agent (usually OSS), sneaky-sneaking across Europe, blasting Jerry, and winning the war single-handedly. Allied Assault somewhat alleviated this with NPC squadmates to order you around and die dramatically, but Call of Duty takes this to the next level. The motto on the back of the manual is “No One Fights Alone!” and despite a handful of sections where you do, indeed, fight alone, the team does their best to stick to this theme.
Allied NPCs are everywhere; either following you along as a squad, or lined up around the battlefield, trading fire with the Nazis. Frequently you’ll be hunched behind a wall, surrounded by an ongoing battle against an entrenched enemy. While your buddies offer distraction, you’re meant to find the path to flank your foes. Surprisingly, this works. I remember a lot of “Player 1 Syndrome” in Allied Assault (where every enemy stops the pretense of shooting at NPCs and instantly targets you on when you poke your head out), but the NPCs of both sides will actually put up a convincing back-and-forth while you weave to the side and work your dark, bullety magic.
It’s not just static setpieces though. When you do charge ahead and clear the way, your fellow soldiers are right behind. As you prepare to rush into a new room, members of your squad line up in position near the door. Both enemy and friendly AI can use melee attacks when needed, throw grenades when appropriate (or sometimes chuck them back at you!), crouch-walk to present a lower profile, go prone when at a distance, and take over a machine gun when their comrade falls. It’s all handled outside of your control (no giving orders here), but certainly works to both make the battlefield come alive, and to make you feel like a part of a fluid fighting force. It certainly gives the illusion of teamwork better than nearly every single-player shooter before it.
There’s also a strong focus on “realism” throughout the game. You’re fairly tender to bullets on any difficulty level, but can easily get wiped out in two shots on the hardest mode. Crouching and cover become important tools, as well as the ability to go prone and crawl behind low walls. You can only carry a handgun and two more weapons at once, restricting the “walking arsenal” theme of previous FPSs. It also serves up situations where you have to crawl your way over and trade up for a Panzerfaust to blast a harassing tank. About the only complaint is that you can’t sprint in this title, so dashing safely through any open area is pretty much right out.
CoD also breaks with tradition by following multiple stories. Instead of dropping you in the boots of one soldier, you’ll take command of three – an American paratrooper, an elite of the British special forces, and a Russian sniper in the darkest hours of the Siege of Stalingrad. You’ll play the three stories one after the other, and each “campaign” has a series of interconnected missions. The final levels drop you back for one last mission as each soldier, culminating in the capture of the Reichstag by the invading Russian forces.
It’s all Europe here, but there’s still enough variety going on. Defense missions are easily the most memorable and hairy, from capturing and defending a key bridge as the Brits, to an infamously tough recreation of Pavlov’s House. Even the American missions get a pretty wild car chase, as three soldiers rush to escape from enemy lines. It’s not all Hollywood bombast (though that car mission comes close), and it’s not all recreations of scenes from Saving Private Ryan (though the Russian missions do borrow liberally from Enemy At The Gates). Overall, it’s all fairly new, still plenty exciting, and there’s a lot of various tasks and locations to keep you engaged.
Three different armies (four, if you count the Germans) also mean a tremendous variety of weapons to use, from bolt action rifles to deadly submachine guns. You can change the fire rate on many of them (from semi to automatic), though this honestly is rarely useful – probably why it was dropped in later titles. What does get showcased is the use of iron sights, allowing you to move the gun up and line up a proper shot. CoD isn’t the first game to do this, but it is one of the first to make it truly useful. You’re pretty awful at blasting from the hip here, so taking time to aim often makes the difference. You can quickly drop between aiming and running as well, making this system far more helpful than hindrance.
More than anything, the focus appears to be on trying to simulate the adrenaline infusion of being in a battlefield. Bullets whiz by, explosions kick up fountains of dirt, and you’re frequently placed in situations – such as under suppression fire from a machine gun, or in a building getting pounded by tanks – where you reeeeally just don’t want to go out there. That’s a fair accomplishment, and certainly plenty exciting. Playing on Veteran (where health packs are removed, and enemies are crack shots on the level of Blood II) does wonders to pucker one’s asshole even more.
But the flaws, you ask? Most notorious are the areas of infinite enemy spawns. This is where the illusion of a fluid fight breaks down, and your squad is stuck pinned down by a row or house full of enemy gunners. It doesn’t matter how many of them you snipe, more will immediately take their place. The battle will go on forever unless you alone make the daring charge to the flanks. This is a deadly proposition depending on what difficulty level you’re playing on – and how your health is doing, regardless – and I found myself wishing someone else would pick up the slack far more often than I felt the part of the brave hero.
It’s also funny that, in a game so apparently focused on realism, enemy reactions to bullets come off more like getting tagged with paintballs. An AI buddy shot nearly to death will walk away with merely a leg cramp. Enemies can get knocked on their ass by a burst of machine gun fire, but they’ll slowly crawl back up and continue the fight no worse for wear. Much like N64’s GoldenEye, an enemy isn’t dead until he drops his weapon – anything else is just an elaborate “pain” or “stunned” animation. This is juxtaposed with some heavy-handed quotes about the tragedy and horror of war, which fade up upon your death. Sure, “War is delightful to those who have not experienced it.” Now back to playing the obvious video game.
Graphics are pretty impressive, even compared to Allied Assault running on the same base engine. The draw distance has been improved, the explosions look startling and destructive, and all models have received extra levels of care. Faces are especially nice, and guns have working bolts, slides, and other moving bits. You’ll also get a nice spread of indoor and outdoor locations. If I had to complain about anything, it would be that textures and colors seem rather flat and washed out – but it’s entirely possible this is the point (replicating Saving Private Ryan‘s “old film stock” look). Animation can also be a bit janky. One particular example is when you shoot a guard and he flips over a railing. Instead of a smooth transition, the guard simply warps to a few different points during his rotation. Overall though, it’s nice work – nothing too flashy – with strong renderings of a variety of European locales.
Sound is equally competent, with all the bassy gunfire and rumbling explosions you’d expect. There’s support for up to EAX3, so you can certainly light your speakers nice and loud. A sweeping orchestral score oversees the proceedings, but manages to avoid being too pompous by generally staying out of the way during the core action of a level. Voice work is the expected shouts of military jargon, and the voices are just as unmemorable as the faces. The exception is Jason Statham as the island of Britain; throwing out lines like “smashing good work, chaps!” and “bloody good use of mines!” And while Germans do speak German, the entire Russian side is voiced in campy accented English – possibly a good thing, depending on how much cheese you’re expecting.
The multiplayer that has gone on to define the series exists here, but not in any notable form. It’s straight deathmatch in maps based off the campaign, or cinematic references (like HBO’s Band of Brothers). The only real revolution added here is the “killcam,” which lets you see the location of the player who killed you – the idea is to discourage camping. Beyond that, vehicle combat, killstreaks, modes other than DM or Capture the Flag variants – none of it is in the series yet. However, dedicated servers are (astoundingly) still running, so it’s up if you want to give some basic WWII arena deathmatch a turn.
So there it is – the somewhat humble origins of a genre that would go on to define militaristic shooters. How much you’ll like it probably depends on when you started gaming. If your introduction was Modern Warfare 2, you’ll surely find this primitive and corny. If you’re an old hat at this sort of thing, it’s as fun as you want it to be. Lower difficulties are a fine arcade ride through a good spread of tasks, and the Veteran difficulty will challenge you more than any modern health-regenerating shooter possibly could. In short, a fine game, a worthy challenger to Medal of Honor, and it gets 4 stars because no one says “we’re Oscar Mike” in the entire game.
Tackles Medal of Honor right where it’s weakest. Three different stories from three different armies is brilliant. Doing away with the solo sneaking style also increases the scale and the excitement.
Hasn’t aged well. No sprinting option leads to some deaths that feel cheap. You’re the only one in the army with initiative, so you’re always forced headlong into danger. Not “thrilling, fun” danger – actual, annoying, “game over” danger.