At least in the video game world, World War II is the war that keeps on giving. Activision's Call of Duty is one of the more recent franchises to be set during the most far-reaching conflict in world history, and the company has teamed with Spider-Man developer Treyarch to deliver Call of Duty 2: Big Red One, the latest console entry in the series that's based on the Army's 1st Infantry unit, which was literally the first and most determined ground-based fighting unit sent into every major engagement of the war. For the first time in the series, Big Red One will cast you as a single character and follow the story of you and your comrades over a three-year period, taking you from Africa to Italy and finally into Central Europe itself.
We got to take a look at the latest version of Big Red One's prologue mission set in the ravaged burg of Maubuege, France. This mission apparently takes place about two-thirds of the way through the storyline. And after you finish the prologue, you'll flash back to your greener days in the unit and proceed through the narrative from there. At any rate, the level began with the player engaged in a conversation with the members of his unit, though we had a sense of being part of a much larger detachment, with soldiers milling around everywhere in the background. Heading into town, we could see American soldiers advancing all the way up to the horizon. This wasn't just a handful of soldiers, a la Saving Private Ryan: There appeared to be hundreds of them moving in for the attack.
Once we began to storm the town itself, that feeling of being immersed in an active environment only intensified. Big Red One is certainly among the busiest modern-warfare shooters we've seen to date, with a staggering amount of commotion occurring all around you as you try to remain with your squad and keep from getting shot or blown up. There were really cinematic elements of destruction happening everywhere, such as a church steeple being obliterated by tank fire or a bomber swooping in to reduce a city street to rubble. The game makes use of what Treyarch refers to as "look-at" triggers, whereby the engine knows what the player is looking at and only triggers such events when it knows you're going to actually see them happen. The cumulative effect is a war zone that's constantly alive with danger and that always keeps you on your toes.
Treyarch has gone to considerable lengths to bolster the realism in Big Red One, primarily through its use of the "ensemble" motion-capture technique, in which a specific actor is cast to perform both the motions and voice-over of each character, and scenes are shot on real sets to enhance realism. The designers will even be tweaking minor game variables to enhance the storyline, such as reducing the accuracy of one non-player character who always complains that he can never hit anything. NPCs will also use an advanced call-out system in battle, whereby they'll let you know verbally when they need cover or more ammo, or when they want you to follow them to the next objective. The enemy soldiers will even yell out the same sorts of things based on the condition of battle, though it'll be in their own language.
And speaking of your NPC buddies: They can die. And they won't come back. Granted, there are some characters who will live or die by the flow of the storyline, but many of your comrades, who will have names, personalities, and specific voices, can be shot and killed just like that at any time during the game. And they'll be gone for good from then on. We imagine it'll be something of a shock to become attached to certain characters--who help save your neck over and over--and then see them bite the bullet (literally) without any warning.
To further the authenticity of the game, Treyarch has only included weapons that its designers and artists could actually get their hands on and fire in real life. For the first time in the Call of Duty series, Big Red One will feature Italian and Vichy French weapons, in addition to the typical German and American arms. This means the developer had to track down some pretty obscure guns indeed. All the sounds you'll hear for those guns were actually recorded in the Nevada desert, and the animations, accuracy, and firing properties have all been based on the real thing as well.
Big Red One seems like one of the most complete World War II first-person shooters we've seen in a long time, from its rather impressive graphics (we saw the PS2 version) to its incredibly hectic battles. This is likely due in no small part to Treyarch's integration of Grey Matter, the developer behind the PC expansion United Offensive, into Big Red One's development team. We'll find out if the collaboration pays off later this fall. In the meantime, stay tuned for more.