When a game is announced for both the PC and consoles, the question always arises about what's different between the two versions. Did any compromises have to be made on one platform or the other? Did something get lost in translation? As it turns out, the recent release of Call of Duty 2 on the PC turned out to be a very accurate preview of what Xbox 360 owners could expect to get from next-generation shooters. Almost everything that makes the PC version one of the year's best shooters remains intact on the Xbox 360 version of the game, which looks just as good and actually runs smoother than all but the most beastly of gaming PCs. If not for the online multiplayer that's limited to eight players, the Xbox 360 version probably would have been hands-down better overall. But as it is, Call of Duty 2 still sets a high standard for any shooters following in its footsteps on Microsoft's new console, and it's considerably faster, prettier, and more exciting than most any other shooter available on consoles.
Call of Duty 2 sets the bar high for Xbox 360 first-person shooters.
As in the first PC game, Call of Duty 2's campaign will put you in the shoes of a few different soldiers fighting for different Allied factions. You start off as a private in the Russian army, visciously fighting off the invading Germans in Moscow and Stalingrad. The British campaign is unlocked after beating the first Russian mission. For most of these missions you'll be fighting in the sand-swept deserts of North Africa, alongside the Desert Rats, against Field Marshal Rommel's troops. The final mission in the British campaign sends you to the bombed-out houses and hedgerows of Caen, France. After you're done with that, you'll play as an American corporal in Europe. Yes, you will be doing a D-Day landing, but not on Omaha Beach or Utah Beach, which you've probably played several times before. Instead, you'll be scaling the sheer cliffs of Pointe du Hoc as artillery with the Army Rangers. If you already thought rock climbing was an "extreme" sport, try doing it with artillery and machine-gun fire raining down on you.
Each of the game's 10 missions is broken up into a few different stages. If you play the game on regular difficulty, you could blow through it in about 10 hours. Ratcheting up the difficulty a notch makes the game much harder and more tactical (this is probably the experience the designers intended). Since you'll be creeping and peeking more carefully through all the encounters, you'll lengthen the campaign significantly, and you'll enjoy it more.
Breaking up the campaign into several different narrative vignettes arguably weakens the impact of the plot as a whole, although that was never the strength of Call of Duty in the first place. What this does is let the designers put you in a lot of different, interesting situations. One memorable moment in the Russian campaign has you crawling through a raised pipeline to sneak behind German lines and into a fortified factory building. As you make your way through the pipeline, you'll spot and snipe small pockets of German infantry through holes in the pipe. When they fire back up at you, you'll notice bullets tearing through the rusted pipe, ripping open holes for shafts of light to poke through. It's a thrilling effect.
You'll also get quite a rush from both participating in and defending against all-out infantry charges across open city squares in Stalingrad. But just as the novelty of these wears off, you're shunted over to the British campaign in North Africa, where you'll do things like participate in night raids of small Tunisian towns, climb up to the top of spires to call in artillery on enemy tanks, and even drive a tank yourself. The American campaign has its own memorable moments, like scaling the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, or sniping at German mortar crews from the top of a grain silo. The game paces itself so that you're always on your toes, and you'll find yourself switching back and forth almost constantly from an offensive position to making a defensive stand against counterattacks on the objective you've just captured. Yes, at the end of the day you're still just shooting a lot of Nazis, but the constantly varying contexts of how and why you're doing it keep the game compelling from start to finish.
Massive amounts of infantry can populate the battlefield.
You won't be participating in these forays alone; far from it. In every setting you'll be surrounded by what seems like dozens of soldiers, both friends and foes, who move and act in a realistic fashion. Lots of your artificially intelligent mates will die by your side, along with the dozens of enemy soldiers you kill, but more will come in from the rear echelons to take their place. The designers often do a good job of reminding you that the war isn't just the infantry skirmish in which you're fighting. From time to time you'll see planes engaged in dogfights flying overhead, or when you complete an objective of capturing a German harbor, you'll call in a naval strike and see enemy merchant ships being sunk at the docks.
In each confrontation, you'll find yourself setting up at logical stopping points to exchange fire with German resistance. You can snipe dozens of enemies out of the windows and from the trenches in front of a house, for example, but reinforcements replace them. It never feels as though the game is cheaply spawning in more fodder for you; it just does a great job of making you feel like there are a realistic number of soldiers holed up in a building. You need to get a feel for the flow of each pitched battle, and this can be done by advancing your line when the enemy ranks look thin enough, and then breaking into the house or bunker. Your allies will follow you in and help you clear out the objective. Of course, if you're too meek at attacking and pressing your advantage, the enemy AI is wily and aggressive enough to take charge. They're not afraid to pour fire on your position and toss tons of grenades at you. Thankfully, a handy grenade danger indicator lets you know when and where you have to scurry away from an impending blast. When you do die, the game reloads very quickly, and you're even treated to a quote about war from various historical figures. One that sticks out in our minds is an ironic one from Solomon Short: "The only winner in the War of 1812 was Tchaikovsky."
One aspect of gameplay that has changed since the first Call of Duty is that you no longer have a health bar. As you get shot, you'll see the screen growing redder and redder along the borders, and your character will start to grunt and pant. If you continue to take damage in a short span of time, you die. So as you get shot that first or second time, you need to get yourself back to cover to hide for a couple of seconds to recover. Once your vision clears, you're good to go again. Some people may be put off by this Halo-like gameplay conceit, but it actually works very well here, and it really is no more contrived than hunting down and hoarding health packs. In the context of Call of Duty 2, we'd go so far as to say that it's an improvement over the traditional health system, as you never find yourself at a tough spot without enough health or medikits. Ammo's never an issue either, as there's never a shortage of dead bodies to loot for guns, bullets, and grenades. The focus stays squarely on the fight.