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Call of Duty was the most popular first person shooter released in 2003. However, its expansion pack was developed by Gray Matter Interactive instead of Infinity Ward, so people were naturally concerned that it wouldn't be the first game's equal.
Gray Matter's only other notable game at the time was 2001's excellent Return to Castle Wolfenstein, though the company merged into Treyarch around 2005. While a lot of justifiable criticism might be laid at their feet for some of their more recent Call of Duty offerings (World at War and Black Ops), this United Offensive review takes a look at how well the game stacks up against its predecessor.
With some pretty big shoes to fill, Gray Matter couldn't simply sit by and release a few extra maps. While newer games might be content to charge players $15 for content that companies used to publish for free (here's looking at you, Modern Warfare 2), United Offensive was in no such position. They still had players to win over since the original game, while excellent, was developed by another company and Call of Duty was still a new franchise.
As we all know by now, Infinity Ward is all but defunct, having lost half of its staff after a corporate dispute. They are developing Modern Warfare 3, but they're only managing it with help from some other developers. Until IW gets its act together, Treyarch will be the primary developer of Call of Duty titles, and United Offensive is the company's very first offering.
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United Offensive follows the campaign template from the first game. American, British, and Russian campaigns take you to Bastogne, Holland, Sicily, and Kharkov. It might look like the original game, but the campaigns take it up a notch by putting you into some of the worst fighting in the entire war.
As Cpl. Riley, you have to defend the line at Bastogne against overwhelming odds. The Germans have cut off your supply lines, but they're well equipped and rested. If you manage to hold the trenches, you'll be tasked with counterattacking and capturing the village of Foy, one of the big set pieces in HBO's fantastic Band of Brothers.
The British campaign is even crazier. As a gunner in one of the RAF's new B-17 Flying Fortresses, you have to fly deep into German controlled airspace to bomb a target. The only problem is that your fighter escort can only escort you half the way. After that, you're on your own. Once they leave, the Luftwaffe attacks in force, destroying your entire squadron of bombers one by one until you're the only one left. As soon as you drop your bombs, your B-17 is destroyed, and you parachute behind enemy lines. That's only the first mission in the British campaign.
The Russian campaign is the only one no better than Call of Duty's campaign, only because the original's Russian campaign was so brilliantly executed. However, you once again have to defend the trenches against an attacking German army, so it feels a little rehashed from the American campaign.
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Call of Duty: United Offensive doesn't add too much to the way of gameplay, but they're limited by the first game (since United Offensive is only an expansion pack instead of a standalone game), so that's to be expected. However, there's one important addition that makes this expansion pack infinitely replayable: vehicles.
Sure, vehicles have been done before (Halo and the Battlefield series), but this is the first time vehicles really come alive in World War II. I'm speaking mainly about the multiplayer here. While the campaigns do feature the requisite tank missions, vehicles really shine in multiplayer.
However, Americans and British share the same vehicles (the M4A1 Sherman and Jeep), cutting down somewhat on different play styles between the two armies. Beyond that, Russian and German armies both get heavy tanks, but the M4A1 is only a "medium" tank, so Americans need to be wary before rushing at a venerable "Elefant" German heavy tank (in that scenario, the Elefant wins).
Minor quibbles aside, vehicles allow Gray Matter to create some large maps three or four times what you'd find in Call of Duty since players can jump in a jeep or light truck and zoom across the entire map in one minute instead of five.
Bazookas and the like play much more important roles, giving infantry some basic anti-tank defense against vehicles. Still, tanks can easily snipe players from across a field even as rocket launchers can't seem to hit the broad side of a barn past one hundred feet. While this United Offensive review covers all of the game's aspects, vehicles were the biggest addition to the series. Sadly, it's the only game to feature them to this extent.
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CoD: UO expands on the original's arsenal to finally give Russian and British soldiers sidearms of their own. The British get the incredibly disappointing Webley Mk IV Revolver, holding only six rounds but packing about the same punch as the American's Colt. Russians get the TT-33 with a slightly better eight rounds and about the same accuracy and damage. I know pistols aren't your primary weapon, but it's far better just to pick up another SMG or rifle. Firing a Kar98k from the hip gives you far better accuracy and can usually kill an enemy in one or two hits.
United Offensive also adds the machine gun class of weapons. No longer do you need to sit at a machine gun emplacement. Instead, you can set up a mobile machine gun when you're in the prone position, but ammo is limited and you won't have as much cover to hide behind.
However, machine gun nests in multiplayer are death traps. Snipers are always looking around to see if anyone is stupid enough to poke their head up from a window mounted machine gun, and then it's game over. Having a machine gun you can pack up and move around is incredibly useful for setting traps and flanking your enemies.
Accuracy is mediocre at longer ranges, but machine guns are incredibly deadly in urban fighting. Just watch out for grenades. The only other downside is that machine guns require a short set up time. While they don't require too much time to set up, those precious seconds can mean the difference between life and death.
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Call of Duty had excellent multiplayer, but United Offensive is even better. There's still the standard slew of deathmatch and search and destroy multiplayer modes, but UO also introduced domination, base assault, and capture the flag. Domination and capture the flag are common enough in modern shooters, but base assault, in theory at least, is sort of like the payload race mode in Team Fortress 2. Both teams use every trick in the book to simultaneously defend their base, usually a fortified bunker, while inching across the map to blow up the opposing team's HQ.
What might have been a fairly standard multiplayer mode greatly benefits from the introduction of vehicles. Players can choose from an assortment of jeeps and tanks to give multiplayer an extra dimension. Suddenly, the lone wolf streaking across an empty field is a prime target for the Panzer driver. Tanks do take extra time to respawn, and jeeps can quickly ferry players from their base across the map in a fraction of the time.
Vehicles tend to be very powerful, and it's not uncommon to get some frantic tank battles going as multiplayer matches drag on. Especially at the beginning of a match, players sprint for the most powerful tanks in hopes that they'll rack up twenty kills before the other team figures out how to flank them.
Another welcome addition is the ranking system. Future Call of Duty games would make ranking persistent, but United Offensive ranks reset at the beginning of each match. This ensures no players gain an unfair advantage simply because they've been playing the game for hundreds of hours.
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Graphics and Sound
United Offensive relies on the same game engine as the original, but Gray Matter managed to wring out a good deal more performance and flashiness than Infinity Ward. The sounds are about the same, but the soundtrack is an improvement, especially in the Russian campaign and multiplayer maps.
The Ebenezer hymn, from the first game, is especially moving (a variation can be heard in "Once to Every Man and Nation"), adding to the general atmosphere and desperation you feel as you simply try to survive the chaos of battle even as so many of your comrades fall around you.
While the graphics engine is the same, Gray Matter utilizes it much more effectively. There's more haze and smoke. Some of the final Russian missions are downright claustrophobic, forcing you through narrow hallways in burning apartment complexes. The British missions have you gazing out miles into the air, squinting to see Luftwaffe fighters screaming in, eerily set against a beautiful pink horizon.
Even the American campaign uses graphics to lend the game a sense of drama. As you try to hold the line against overwhelming German forces in Bastogne, the enemy covers the ground in smoke so you can't see them approaching. When you do see them, they're no more than fifty feet in front of you, and some of them are even behind your trenches. Finally, there's a huge explosion as the smoke clears, and you see Allied aircraft finally providing support to your position.
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It's still World War II, but Gray Matter wasn't content to simply follow the winning formula of the first game. The campaigns are a little shorter than in the original game, but they're still longer than any of the sequels. Call of Duty featured some cinematic flourishes here and there, but United Offensive takes it to a whole new level. Whether it's trying to escape Germans in a long car chase after blowing up huge artillery guns in Sicily or defending Kharkov's railroad station against the combined might of German infantry, tanks, and aircraft, United Offensive makes every mission memorable.
While it was still too early to spot this trend, United Offensive started the series down the dangerous path of over-scripting the campaigns. That trend culminated in the now-infamous mission in which players cannot die as they ride in the back of a truck. How Treyarch went from the streets of Sicily in United Offensive to that sham of a game remains a mystery to me.
The non-persistent ranking is also a welcome change of pace. I know modern first person shooters like persistent ranking because it emulates MMORPGs to give players something to grind on, but you'd think companies would try to make their games more creative than that (I know it's all about the money, but these games can do better if they're charging $60). United Offensive harks back to a time when shooters were about the simple pleasure of dominating other players instead of giving us another Nazi zombie gimmick mode.
- Gray Matter Interactive. Call of Duty: United Offensive. Activision, 2004. Microsoft Windows.
- Author's experience.