The Xbox 360's launch lineup may have been the subject of speculation ever since the nascent console was announced back in May, but one game we've always expected to see at release is Infinity Ward's World War II shooter sequel, Call of Duty 2. Activision affirmed that expectation recently when it showed us the latest 360 build of the game, which is nearing the end of production and is showing considerably more polish thanks to the last few months of development. The developer hasn't exactly reinvented the wheel with the game, but for the legions of fans who crave fast-paced, explosive combat in a WWII setting, we're fairly convinced the game is going to deliver.
The core gameplay in Call of Duty 2 isn't going to surprise veterans of the original game--or of most World War II-themed first-person shooters, for that matter. The missions are still lightly objective-driven and are still full of extremely intense shoot-outs. You've got all the standard equipment, such as frag and smoke grenades and a host of authentic period firearms, and you can use a weapon's iron sights to zoom in a little to get better precision. In fact, like the original game, we found that using this aiming mode was essential to success. Within the framework of the game, the designers have made a few additions that seemed to enhance the action. For instance, you'll be able to vault over low walls at the touch of a button, which takes the annoying guesswork out of navigating cover in the chaos of an intense battle.
During our demo, Call of Duty 2 was described by Infinity Ward as a "healthless" shooter, since you have no visible health meter onscreen, and you won't find any health pickups at all. Instead, when you take damage, the edges of your screen will redden, and you'll hear your character begin to breathe heavily. Take more damage and these effects will intensify to the point where it's pretty obvious another hit or two will kill you. The only way to get out of this danger zone to restore yourself to full fighting ability is to find some cover and avoid taking anymore damage for several seconds. Once you've rested for a bit, you'll hear your character gasp. Then the redness will fade, and you're essentially back to full health. Though some diehard players may complain this will make play too easy, we found it helped smooth the flow of the game considerably, as did the quick-save checkpoint system that immediately got us back into action (without any load times) at the last point the game had autosaved.
As in the original game, Call of Duty 2 gives you a lengthy single-player campaign that thrusts you into numerous heated battles all throughout Europe, Africa, and Russia. Again, you'll take control of three different soldiers--one each from the Russian, British, and American forces. Previous showings of Call of Duty 2 have focused on one mission, set in the Egyptian town of El Daba, but Activision gave us a look at quite a few other scenarios in the game, set in places like Tunisia, Stalingrad, and rural France. Each of the environments displayed the same attention to detail in architectural and cultural aspects as the original game, and the variety of locales should certainly help to keep the action fresh over the course of the single-player campaign.
From what we saw, the designers seem to have done a good job of varying up the mission objectives and action scenarios you'll encounter. One of the Stalingrad missions tasked us with following a communications wire that had been cut at several points, in addition to repairing those cuts--all while dodging enemy fire. Later in the mission, we picked up some sticky bombs and had to take on three enemy tanks, sneaking around them under fire to plant the explosives to demolish the tanks. During this level, we were fighting from windows on the second floor of a building, and an enemy tank fired a round that blew out a huge section of the wall just to the side of us. Another Stalingrad level focuses more on stealth, as it sends you and your squad creeping through a network of elevated pipes, letting you attack unsuspecting enemy guards from above.
War Is Hell
Our Call of Duty 2 demo continued with a couple of missions set in desert environments, such as one in Toujane, Tunisia, which has you attempting to neutralize the crews manning a number of enemy flak-gun emplacements that are giving the Allied aircraft hell. This mission gave us a couple of artificial-intelligence-controlled tanks to fight alongside, and we saw one particularly impressive moment when our tanks got into a battle with a German panzer. Infinity Ward demoed another desert mission for us in which you'll take control of your own tank and rove around the dunes, with the task of taking out a set number of artillery positions and other tanks. Though we didn't get to play this level, the tank gameplay and control here looked pretty intuitive and was reminiscent of the tank action in the Battlefield series.
Finally, we got a look at a couple of missions set in France. The Pointe Du Hoc mission featured the now-classic beach-storming action you'd expect from a Normandy map, and later on in the mission, you'll be faced with intense trench and bunker fighting. The primary objective here is to seek out a number of artillery guns and neutralize them--with bombs, of course. The playable France mission was set in New Villers at night, and it gave us a number of strategic points that we had to capture in sequence, including a heavily defended church and the Nazis' main base of operations within the village. This mission sent us in under the cover of both darkness and an intense thunderstorm, which added some nice ambience to the pitched battles that occurred at every point we had to capture.
We also got a chance to go hands-on with the Xbox 360 version's split-screen multiplayer component as well, which will feature the standard complement of deathmatch, capture the flag, and objective-based mission types. Of course, all these game types will be available on Xbox Live when the 360 is released as well, and we found that the four-player action ran smoothly and played well on the same console. One nifty addition to the competitive action here is the "killcam" that's invoked anytime you die. When that happens, the camera will switch to the perspective of the person who killed you--several seconds before the kill actually happened. This gives you a way to review how exactly you screwed up and let that other player get past your defenses. However, you can also call BS on the kill, if you're feeling contentious enough.
Call of Duty 2 falls squarely in the "next-gen" shooter category, and as such, it's looking superb. The game has especially improved on the Xbox 360 since the last couple of times we've seen it. In 720p, the game was moving right along at 60 frames per second for much of our demo, and the character models and backgrounds are certainly more detailed in terms of geometry and feature more special effects, like specular highlights, than you'd see on current-gen consoles. The particle system that governs things like smoke or the snow and dirt that explode upward from a grenade blast are also nicely done. The artists have even added some nice little touches, such as in the Stalingrad stealth mission. Once you're discovered by the guards, they begin spraying down the pipes you're crawling through at whatever point they think you're at--and you'll see bullets putting holes in the pipe in front of you, with light streaming through and everything. There's a solid visual effort going into the game, in short.
Our extensive hands-on with Call of Duty 2 left us with the impression that fans of the series will have plenty of new meat to chew on with this latest installment. As we mentioned, the action isn't radically different from what you'd expect if you played the original game. But then again, sometimes bigger, faster, and louder isn't such a bad thing. Call of Duty 2 will ship on the PC on October 25, and then you'll see it alongside the Xbox 360's launch on November 22. We'll bring you more on the game in the coming weeks.