Late last year, Call of Duty 2 emerged as one of the most accomplished launch titles on the Xbox 360--but then again, it was no slouch on the PC either. But less than a year later, how is it that Activision is already prepping a third entry in the wildly popular World War II series for release this fall? It did it by shifting production from series creator Infinity Ward to Treyarch, the LA-based development house that Spider-Man built, and a company that already cut its teeth on the Call of Duty franchise with the console-only Big Red One.
But what we've seen so far of Call of Duty 3 indicates its scope will far exceed that of Treyarch's previous effort with Big Red One. So many World War II games have focused on the famous D-Day landing at Normandy, but few (if any) have ever examined the weeks-long campaign that followed as the Allies pushed their way deeper into France in an attempt to strike at the heart of Hitler's empire. COD3's single-player campaign will center on this lengthy and complex military action, a collaboration between American, British, Canadian, and Polish forces--and of course, you'll get to play as members of all four throughout the game.
The basic action in Call of Duty 3 will naturally fall in line with what you've seen in past games--you'll run and gun your way through missions set in a variety of European locales, and the story will jump from one group of soldiers to the next as you take on different roles and complete objectives that will advance the Allied cause. In the demo mission we saw, American forces were moving into the nearly obliterated French village of Saint Lo, storming a hill covered with ruined buildings occupied by German soldiers. It was obvious from this short demo that the scale of COD3's levels has been significantly expanded over those of the last game--the battlefield was wider and more active than before, with a greater number of friendly troops rushing in on all sides of the player. In fact, in addition to a simple variety of paths, Treyarch says it wants to give players multiple ways to address a particular situation. So, for example, in one mission, you might be tasked with neutralizing a machine-gun nest, so you'll be able to either snipe, use explosives, or choose trench warfare to complete this task. The choice will presumably be at the player's discretion.
Though the core shooting is familiar, Treyarch's designers have instituted a number of new mechanics in this latest Call of Duty to keep the experience fresh. One of these came when the player had cleared an area of enemies and was creeping through a bombed-out building. Upon entering a doorway, the player was surprised by a hiding German soldier who seized his rifle and initiated a cinematic struggle that would occasionally require the player to hammer on the shoulder buttons to maintain the upper hand in the fight. The gameplay mechanic here wasn't particularly complex, but the struggle began so quickly that we could see players being surprised and caught up in such encounters due just to the thrill factor.
Another sequence had a little more meat to it, in which the player rode on the back of a tank through the streets of Saint Lo and acted as a binocular-wielding spotter for the tank's gunner. The player was able to see into any building within range and call in a strike, which would obliterate most of the targeted structure and, of course, anybody who was taking cover inside. While this seemed to be mainly a method of clearing out enemies wholesale as the player and his allies progressed down the street, one could conceivably hang out on the tank and blow the surroundings to smithereens ad nauseam in this section. Hopefully the final game will contain more such interesting sequences to complement the main shooting.
Call of Duty 2's rudimentary multiplayer was arguably lacking next to the game's meaty story campaign, so it's nice to see Treyarch is putting forth due effort to make the third game's online component far richer than that of its predecessor. The player limit has been raised to 24, which will allow for much busier matches--which is good, because it sounds like you'll need a lot of bodies to populate the class- and vehicle-based action on offer this time around. Seven player classes will be available, and each class will have its own abilities. Medics can heal fallen players, while scouts can call in artillery strikes, for instance, and you'll rank up through exceptional performance within a match to enable more-advanced abilities.
It seems like the classes will offer distinctive offensive capabilities, too--the rifleman will be able to fire "rifle grenades," for instance, which will essentially let you propel live grenades into the enemy position. Other classes will have antiarmor and antipersonnel mines at their disposal. The vehicles we saw during a multiplayer trailer also looked more action-packed than what we saw in the single-player demo. A jeep housed three players--one driving, one firing from the passenger seat, and one manning a mounted turret--while a motorcycle with a sidecar accommodated a second player on gunner duty.
Call of Duty 3 will be released on the Xbox 360 and the PS3 (along with a Wii version, which we know little about so far), and we got to see the game running on the 360. Nobody would call the last Call of Duty a bad-looking game, but still, it's immediately striking what a visual leap Treyarch has made with this sequel. From fine details--like the bump-mapped wrinkles on soldiers' uniforms and the many, individually modeled blades of grass--to the massive scope of the battlefields, complete with booming cinematic set pieces like a fighter crashing into a church steeple overhead, Call of Duty 3 looks markedly better than its predecessor did. If nothing else, it's encouraging to see developers continuing to squeeze more and more performance out of the Xbox 360.
If you thought the rapid appearance of a new Call of Duty scarcely a year after the last one signaled a possible drop in quality for this entrenched shooter franchise, we can say with some confidence that Treyarch is putting as much effort into this sequel that has made the last two games so good. It won't be that long before we find out if the effort pays off, since COD3 is due out on all next-gen platforms later this year. In the meantime, check out a developer interview and handful of gameplay movies for a look at the game in action.