Activision released one of the most successful Xbox 360 games to date last year with Call of Duty 2, and now it's back with the third game in the popular World War II shooter series. As we've reported in our previous coverage, the game's development has been taken over by Treyarch from series creator Infinity Ward, and this time the action will focus on the Normandy Breakout campaign, which pushed from the Allied landing on D-day all the way to the liberation of Paris some weeks later. Call of Duty 3 is due on all the next-gen platforms--Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii--but until a recent Activision press event, we hadn't had the chance to see all three versions up and running simultaneously.
Having played all three games, we've gotten a feel for their relative merits, as well as the feel of Call of Duty 3 in general. Activision showed off different levels in each version, so we got to experience a broad cross-section of the sort of action the game will offer. In short, if you've played the previous Call of Duty games, you won't be terribly surprised by anything here, since the core conventions remain the same. Running from cover to cover, experiencing dramatic scripted events, using your iron sights to gun down Axis soldiers from afar--the gameplay here has remained basically the same from one installment to the next, which isn't really bad considering this series has consistently been among the most visceral and satisfying first-person shooters on the market.
Rather than reinvent the wheel, Treyarch has chosen to intensify the action elements that were already in place in past games. The team has promised a larger scope for the combat, and from what we saw during our time with the game, it seems to be delivering on those promises. In the Xbox 360 version, we played a mission in which we had to advance on an enemy position amidst a raging thunderstorm, trudging through a field filled with tall grass. It's not easy to make progress with the Germans raining fire down on you from up the hill, but luckily we had a tank on our side, and we had to keep close behind the tank and use it for cover as we moved along. On either side of us, we had allies scrambling through the cross fire, ducking behind cattle carcasses and diving among the individually modeled blades of grass in an effort to stay low.
Later in the level, we met up with a larger squad of troops and moved through a path the tank had created toward our objective, which was a fortified Nazi position atop a small hill. But before we could move out into the clearing, a truck came roaring through the grass and exploded in front of us, kicking the firefight off with a bang. Once we got into the clearing, we found it extremely broad, with fortified machine gun positions along the top ridge. This area was large enough that when we died repeatedly trying to reach the top of the hill, we were able to attempt flanking either side of the enemy and using different routes to try out different strategies, before we finally found one that let us avoid enough of the cross fire to make it to the top and help take control of the hill. After cresting the hill, we were thrown to the ground and shell shocked by an incoming artillery blast, which initiated a first-person cutscene in which our allies had to drag us out, cursing our character's sorry butt all the way.
We spent the most time with the Xbox 360 demo and felt that it showcased Call of Duty 3's wider and busier levels most prominently. The PS3 demo level, the Forest, showed off a different sort of action. This one was a bit more linear, sending us down a heavily wooded corridor with Nazi soldiers hiding behind trees all along the way. We were fortunately armed with a scoped Springfield rifle, so we could pick off foes from a distance here, but the underbrush was so thick that going prone to steady our aim proved more trouble than it was worth. After intense tree-to-tree fighting, we finally reached the end of the level, where the Germans had dug trenches to establish a base and then populated it with far more soldiers than we thought we had a chance of realistically taking down.
Some ballyhoo has been made of Call of Duty 3's seamless presentation of the Normandy Breakout campaign, which will have you playing as officers of the American, British, Canadian, and Polish forces in turn. The way this works is that you'll simply see a full-motion video briefing in place of the loading screen. In other words, as soon as one level is over, you'll move to a video showing maps and old footage that detail the particulars of your next mission, all while the data for that mission is streaming off the disc. So you won't actually be playing the game nonstop from start to finish, but you won't glimpse a loading bar, either, which will hopefully make the game feel more streamlined as you progress.
It's worth noting that the 360 and PS3 versions are identical in terms of content; the only difference we noticed is that you can thrust with the sixaxis controller on the PS3 to make your character do his melee attack (though you can still use the button if you want). The games looked quite similar, too, from what we could tell. The level of detail in the maps and characters has been noticeably ramped up from Call of Duty 2, such as with the aforementioned individual grass blades and rays of light filtering through the trees. The characters' facial expressions, clothing, and animations are also appreciably more realistic than in the past. You'd be hard pressed to say which version looks better, especially since they're both running in 720p resolution, but neither one is a slouch in the visual department.
The Wii version, as it turns out, is content-identical to the 360 and PS3 versions, for the most part. It's reasonable to expect that the relatively weaker system will have fewer enemies and simplified geometry in some parts, but in terms of storyline, basic level design, and so on, you're getting the same game across all three platforms. The Wii version naturally doesn't feature the extreme detail of the other versions, but it does play much like we're coming to expect first-person shooters to play on this unique new platform. Like Metroid Prime 3 and Red Steel, COD3 has you using the remote for fine aiming, and moving the cursor to the edges of the screen will make you turn. The analog stick on the nunchuk makes you move, and the various other buttons of the Wii's controllers let you perform other actions like ducking, jumping, and going to iron sights.
There are a few more motion controls available on the Wii. Thrusting the remote outward will perform your melee attack, while twisting it to the sides will make you lean. Finally, you can switch weapons by flicking the nunchuk to the side or throw a grenade by moving it in a tossing motion. The Wii level we played was Crossroads, which featured more-typical house-to-house fighting through a ruined, bombed-out village. When we entered one doorway, we engaged in one of Call of Duty 3's scripted hand-to-hand combat sequences, which have you struggling with an enemy soldier in a cinematic fashion. When we last saw one of these minigames on the Xbox 360, we had to merely hit the right buttons at the right time to succeed, but on the Wii, you'll actually have to hold the controllers out in front of you in a facsimile of the onscreen action and struggle as instructed by the game to save your skin and take down the bad guy.
Aside from this difference, the game played like you'd expect. All the core mechanics are the same here as in the PS3 and 360 versions--the difference is merely in how you interface with the game. Luckily, horizontal and vertical sensitivity adjustments were available in the build we played, so we could fine-tune the aiming to our liking, and afterward, we found the actual shooting gameplay to be more satisfying and skill-based than when played with a standard analog thumb stick. With the more flexible aiming, it became more realistic to switch to iron sights and squeeze off a quick headshot to take out that soldier just barely peeking over the barrier. We're looking forward to getting more time with this and other Wii games to get a better feel for this sort of unique FPS gameplay, which seems to approximate the feel of mouse aiming on the PC.
Online play was one of Call of Duty 2's most enduring strengths, and we got to try a few rounds of the third game's improved multiplayer mode on the Xbox 360 to see just how improved it is. This consisted of deathmatch on a typical village map and then a couple of rounds of capture the flag on a map called Eder Dam, which (as you'd expect) places each team's base at opposite ends of a large dam. You can run across the top of the dam or inside it, but the catch is, the middle section has taken artillery fire and there's a gaping hole you'll have to get around by jumping and inching along girders each time you cross.
The big news with COD3's multiplayer is that it's now class-based and features vehicles, Battlefield style. There are a number of classes available, from light and heavy infantry to sniper, antitank, and medic. This merely affects your initial weapons loadout, since you can pick up other players' weapons when they die to change it up. Each class has some special abilities, as well. As the sniper, we were able to sight in the enemy's flag base with our binoculars to call in an artillery strike--and then we died laughing when the kill list lit up with the name of nearly every member of the other team.
The vehicles also add a madcap element to the multiplayer, such as the tank on the village map that let us savagely mow down infantry with impunity. That only lasted until one antitank player found a good vantage point from which to destroy us, though. On Eder Dam, a jeep with a mounted machine gun and a motorcycle with a sidecar were both available, which let us circumvent the dam entirely and get to the other side more quickly. They also made for some comical moments, especially since the hole in the top of the dam has a ramp on either side of it. At one point, we killed the driver of a motorcycle while he was on the opposite side of the dam, but even though the driver was dead, that didn't stop the momentum of the bike. It hit the ramp and came flying at us anyway, and it was all we could do to scramble out of the way before the runaway machine plowed over us.
With such an established franchise as Call of Duty, you don't want to make too many big changes to the core formula or you risk alienating the series' fan base. Thus Treyarch seems to have incrementally improved on all of the previous game's strong points, creating a sequel with the same flavor as the original but with enough new gameplay and increased realism that fans should find an incentive to enlist yet again. Call of Duty 3 is due out in early November on the Xbox 360, with the Wii and PlayStation 3 versions to follow thereafter.