Classic Game Reviews - Call of Duty
Despite being eclipsed by its successors and surrounded by a sea of World War 2-themed shooters, the original Call of Duty still appeals for its solid gameplay and innovative level design.
Call of Duty is best known for its big set pieces and short but intense battles. Players jump into the boots of Americian, British, and Russian soldiers during three separate campaigns, taking them from Normandy to Stalingrad. Even though it falls short due to graphical limitations, Call of Duty strives for a cinematic quality, leading players in desparate charges against overwhelming odds or fending off dozens of enemy soldiers with the help of trusty squadmates.
Some of the scenes from the game are plucked directly from Hollywood blockbusters. American paratroopers landing behind enemy lines hours before Allied forces land on the beaches during D-Day is reminiscent of Band of Brothers, and the Russian defense of the river at Stalingrad is almost Enemy at the Gates scene for scene.
Released in 2003, the game's had eight years to age like a fine wine, and the campaigns are still as fun and (at times) frantic as the first time storming Berlin in the final days of the war.
Call of Duty deals exclusively with the European theater in World War II, and players would have to wait years for Call of Duty 2 to play in north Africa and World at War for Pacific campaigns. Even though there are plenty of other WWII shooter franchises (Medal of Honor, Battlefield 1942, Wolfenstein), Call of Duty is the most popular by far, and the initial game's success necessitated half a dozen sequels which all stick to the same winning formula.
Since Call of Duty was a PC exclusive for many years, console gamers never had chance to try out the first game until recently. What made Call of Duty so beloved, but has it been forgotten in the years since its release?
It's World War II, so Infinity Ward only had so much leeway when writing a new story. Call of Duty features three separate campaigns, following a single soldier each from the American, British, and Russian armies. A common thread to most Call of Duty games is that you start out as a green recruit fresh out of training, and that holds true for each campaign.
Between missions, loading screens feature a journal updated with the latest developments in the campaign, and it's the main way you learn about your character - where he came from, what his fears are, and even how he hopes to survive the war. These journals also provide updates on the missions on which you're about to undertake, such as what kind of military intelligence there is, what kinds of enemies to expect, and your squad's feelings. If it seems like a suicide mission, you'll find that written down.
Scripted events in mission provide the rest of the story. In the CoD campaigns, you'll find yourself jumping out of an airplane hours before thousands of soldiers storm the beaches at Normandy, retaking Red Square with hunreds of other Russian "volunteers," and even storming the Reichstag.
Unlike many shooters, Call of Duty is pure action. Half-Life 2 has physics puzzles. BioShock gives players all sorts of unique abilities. Crysis had its nanosuit with invisibility, armor, and increased speed. Call of Duty has none of that. The game knows what it does well and doesn't branch out from that.
You never even have to open doors in the game. Enemies may surprise you by flinging doors open and storming out of a building, and your squadmates may kick doors in so you can take a building, but you yourself will never open a single door. After all, what do doors do other than slow people down?
That frantic pace means you'll finish the campaign in under ten hours, less if you have it on an easy setting. Call of Duty difficulties range from recruit (play it in your sleep) to veteran (just quicksave often), and turning the difficulty up can make your next playthrough frustratingly difficult but ultimately rewarding. Not only do enemies hit harder at veteran, but you'll find that most health packs are conspiculously missing. There are few things as heart pounding in video games as fighting a dozen enemies when you start the battle with 10 health. You just hope that nobody decides to fling a grenade your way.
Leaning's also incredibly useful, and fans everywhere were dismayed when Modern Warfare 2 took that ability out. Leaning around corners doesn't mean you can't be hit, but it does make you a much smaller target.
Sub-machine guns are of course good for close quarters combat in buildings and bunkers. Rifles are better for fighting across fields and down streets, but they're surprisingly effective up close as well. The only weapon that performs poorly against nearby enemies is whatever sniper rifle is available to you. Considering that sniper rifles and their ammo are rarer than normal rifles, you'll be using the latter far more often.
The original Call of Duty is the only one in the series to not feature the regenerating health bar common to most shooters today. Instead, it's the classic "find a health pack" gameplay, and on harder difficulties, those health packs are precious indeed. It's easy to forget how difficult shooters used to be compared to the toned down console-fied experiences of the past few years, and by difficult I mean you'd better have quick enough reflexes to drop those Nazis in half a second.
Most levels are the "kill Nazis and blow up artillery guns/tanks" variety, but a few stand out for being innovative and exciting at the time. Immediately after the dam level, there's a lengthy car chase in which you fend over hordes of Nazis riding motorcycles and other automobiles. The chase ends at an airport, where you man a powerful anti-aircraft gun to shoot down incoming bombers and fend off infantry closing in on your position.
There's also the mandatory tank level through a city, featuring tons of destructible buildings and camouflaged Panzer tanks. Beyond that, it's a pretty typical FPS experience. The skeleton of a story helps differentiate this from other WWII shooters, but CoD's gameplay generally sticks to a tried and true formula.
Call of Duty AI
Another big advancement Call of Duty introduced follows one of the game's slogans: "no one fights alone." Instead of players essentially being Rambo and toppling the Third Reich by themselves, AI squadmates help you fight through the game's three campaigns, a series staple which has carried through to the franchise's newest offerings.
Squadmates aren't perfect soldiers. They take cover, run away from grenades, and possess some basic strategies to try to outflank enemies, but Call of Duty's AI is unremarkable but acceptable. There were a few times when they ran out into live machine gun fire (taking one for the team, I guess) and needlessly wasted their lives. Thankfully, I usually picked up more squadmates further along in the level.
Even with some help, prepare to do most of the heavy lifting yourself. Call of Duty is notoriously scripted, and you won't be able to advance through most areas without killing 80% of the Nazis yourself. There are a few levels in CoD where you go it mostly alone, such as the dam, ship, and Russian sewer levels, but these are few and far between.
CoD squadmates, on the other hand, contribute more to the general feel of the game. It's a huge step closer to actually reenacting a war, at least as much as a video game can manage.
The Weapons of Call of Duty
Weapons behave about as you'd expect from a WWII shooter with your usual assortment of submachine guns, rifles, and grenades. This territory's been covered dozens of times now, and there aren't any big surprises in your arsenal.
The big difference is that for the first time, players were able to actually look down the sights to aim at enemies. Sniper rifles have always allowed players to zoom in, but trusty old iron sights weren't really utilized before Call of Duty came around. However, you actually have to aim down the sights to hit ranged targets. It's easy enough to blast away at a close enemy with a Thompson SMG, but rooting out that sniper takes a bit more precision.
Each campaign features unique allied weapons, but you'll be able to pick up any of the Axis weapons off of dead soldiers during any campaign.
- Colt .45
- M1 Garand
- M1A1 Carbine
- Springfield Sniper Rifle
- Colt .45
- Sten SMG
- Bren LMG
- Lee Enfield
- Mosin-Nagant (and scoped version)
- Kar98k (and scoped version)
There are a couple miscellaneous weapons scattered throughout the game, but they're usually specific to a certain level. You'll use the panzerfaust rocket launcher to take down tanks in a few levels, and the venerable FG42 can be picked up off German paratroopers in the first full mission of the American campaign.
As recent Call of Duty games have shown, the series thrives in multiplayer, and the original game is no exception. There's no automatic matchmaking feature, but there are still plenty of public servers open. While the ability to instantly jump into a match without fiddling around with servers is nice, what isn't nice is taking away privately owned, public servers entirely. Thankfully, Call of Duty was produced in the golden age of PC gaming, when multiplayer and PCs were one and the same.
There are some basic Call of Duty multiplayer modes, like your basic deathmatch and team deathmatch, but there are some pretty neat modes like the now common search and destroy mode, where one team attempts to destroy the other team's equipment, usually a piece of artillery. Headquarters is a type of domination match, with radios spawning over the map. Teams who can hold those points for a period of time win.
CoD weapons are still split up by army in multiplayer, and each map has a specific allied army (American, British, or Russian). Axis weapons are always the same, and you only get to choose your primary weapon - rifle, sniper rifle, SMG, or assault rifle. The rest of your loadout - pistol and grenades - are always the same.
Multiplayer maps are based on locations found in the single player campaign. The chateau where you first find Captain Price (a recurring character in the series, even in Modern Warfare games) looks almost exactly the same with only a few tweaks here and there to open up new paths.
As with any FPS out there, most players simply think, "screw the objectives, I'm here to kill people," so any mode can feel like a plain old deathmatch, depending on the players in the server. That's a problem common to shooters, and that's not really the fault of Call of Duty.
Though somewhat dated by modern standards, Call of Duty still holds up remarkably well. When it first came out, the graphics were acceptable, but they've aged more gracefully than most older games. Compared to game engines today, the different particle effects are very rudimentary, textures are a bit muddy, and there's not even a widescreen option out of the box (the game was released before widescreen monitors were default).
Because of its age, there aren't any set pieces that will make you go "woah" just from the sheer sight of a huge explosion or a grand vista opening up before you as you crest a ridge. However, that's all right because the technology wasn't quite there yet, and I find myself forgiving when it comes to lackluster graphics from past gaming ages.
Even with nothing spectacular jumping out at you, the game remains easy on the eyes, even if it is a little blurry. It's easy to tell enemies apart from allies, and that's really what matters in these classic games. Call of Duty graphics are never colorful. Everything's washed out, so even pristine country scenes, seemingly untouched by the terrors of war, are faded and ruined.
Weather effects are nearly nonexistent, and even smoke billows unconvincingly. Graphics were never Call of Duty's forté, but they work well enough.
While the explosions and gunfire are nothing terribly innovative, the voice acting for the game is excellent superb. Several voice actors of note can be heard in the game, including Jason Statham and Giovanni Ribisi. Other than that, the World War II era weapons sound as you'd expect. The Kar98k has a satisfying thunk, and you know whatever it hits is going to hurt. The MP44 sounds every bit as menacing as it is since it's equally good at close quarters and long range combat.
There's nothing which sticks out, which is a good thing. When I'm ready to jump out of the plane above Normandy, the roar of the engines is a little deafening, and once I'm out, I'm startled by how quiet it is. Well, it would be quiet save for the flak bursting all around me, the sirens blaring in the distance, and machine guns firing haphazardly into the air. Not since Medal of Honor: Allied Assault did another game attempt to capture that feeling, and that game only with the D-Day landing level.
For a game now eight years old, there shouldn't be any issues installing and playing the game. Any desktop running Windows XP or newer should be more than capable of playing it, and all but the weakest laptop computers will be able to produce playable framerates. Still, it's not quite old enough that any computer can run it on max settings. New computers can easily run it, but if your computer's more than five years old, make sure you have at least a 1 GHz processor with at least 256 Mb of RAM. A DirectX 9.0b video card is required, but believe it or not, there are still PCI video cards being produced.
Call of Duty compatibility is extremely solid, and thousands of new players are trying out the game for the first on Steam since the complete collection went on sale. It's hard to tell what makes some games run smoothly no matter how old they are (like Starcraft) and some games grind to a halt, requiring hours of troubleshooting (like Jedi Knight). Still, I wouldn't expect to run into any problems installing and playing Call of Duty.
Perks for being the progenitor aside, Call of Duty holds its own as an FPS quite well despite its age. The gameplay is solid enough to have spawned multiple sequels in what has become one of the most successful gaming franchises of all time.
If you've played it, great. If you haven't, I sincerely urge you to take a look at the Steam's Call of Duty: War Chest, which includes the first two games and United Offensive, Call of Duty's expansion pack. For the price of two movie tickets, you'll get about 40 hours of engrossing single player campaigns set in various locations around the world, from the deserts of northern Africa to the frozen wasteland of Russia in winter.
Nearly a decade later, Call of Duty remains one of the more memorable WWII shooters in a market saturated with them. In fact, the only game based on World War II better than the original Call of Duty is, arguably, Company of Heroes, and that's a strategy game.
- Author's experience.
Infinity Ward. Call of Duty. Activision, 2003. Microsoft Windows.