World War II may have ended in 1945, but that hasn't stopped the axis and allies from waging war against one another on the video game front. Call of Duty 2 was one of the Xbox 360's best games when the system launched last November. The game made use of the console's power to generate outstanding visuals and sound, immersing players in combat like never before. With Call of Duty 2 developer Infinity Ward having moved on to other projects, the series has been placed in the hands of Treyarch, the developer behind Call of Duty 2: Big Red One. It did not disappoint. Call of Duty 3 plays every bit as good as its predecessor, and it has improved multiplayer and visuals, too.
Call of Duty 3 takes place in 1944 during the Normandy Breakout. After landing successfully on the beaches of France, the allied focus was on getting the Germans out of France and liberating Paris, which was under Nazi control at the time. As was the case in the last game, you're placed in the role of several different soldiers and you'll participate in campaigns for America, Britain, Canada, and Poland. Each country's campaign has a unique storyline that is supposed to get you emotionally involved with the characters, but the stories aren't very interesting; there's a soldier with a strong distaste for the French, an overbearing sergeant, and a young radio operator who has been labeled a coward. Though the stories aren't particularly engaging, fighting for four different armies works because it gives you a sense of not only how much effort it took to wrestle control of France from the Germans, but also that it wasn't just the United States that lost men and women in World War II.
Once again, the game opens with a brief training mission, though it's a little shorter this time around. Here, you'll learn how to fire weapons and throw grenades, as well as how to move around. The controls are identical to Call of Duty 2, both in how they are laid out and in how they feel. You can fire your weapon with a quick pull of the right trigger, but this doesn't allow for much accuracy. For precision aiming, you'll want to pull the left trigger, which raises your gun to eye level and lets you use the weapon's sight. Here, you're vulnerable during the time it takes to raise your weapon and while you wait for the blurring effect that simulates your eyes focusing to clear up. It's a subtle effect, but it works really well and it's not overdone. You can also perform a melee attack by pressing the right analog stick. Clicking the left analog stick brings up your binoculars--an unfortunate button-mapping choice because it's far too easy to accidentally push the stick down when you're scrambling for your life. You can toss smoke grenades to create cover and frag grenades to clear large groups of Wehrmacht. Call of Duty 3 also lets you scoop up grenades thrown by the enemy and toss them back. To prevent your grenades from being returned to sender, you can "cook" a grenade by pressing and holding the right bumper, which lets the grenade get closer to detonating before you throw it. This is an important technique to master--not only because it's useful, but also because screwing it up results in a grenade exploding in your hands. Because there's no health bar in the game, you'll need to watch the screen when you're getting hit. As you get shot, the edges of the screen turn crimson and close in around you the more you get hit. Should you fall victim to a grenade or a bullet and not die, all you have to do is seek shelter to recover your health.
After your training is complete, you hop in the back of a truck and ride into battle. When you get out of the truck, or rather are blown out of the truck by an explosion, you're boosted over the cemetery wall. Here, you'll find yourself in the midst of one of the most impressive firefights in any first-person shooter to date. Everywhere you look, there's carnage. Bullets and grenades whiz through the air while bombs explode all around, leaving soldiers to scramble for whatever cover they can find--be it a bombed-out mausoleum or a grave stone. The bodies of your fallen comrades are strewn about the battlefield--a stark reminder that unless you want to join them, you need to keep moving. A later level sees you making your way across a pasture using a tank (and even the carcasses of dead cows) as cover to shield yourself from the Nazi soldiers who surround the field. Most of the rest of the game's 14 missions aren't quite as intense as these two examples, but there's rarely a dull moment to be found.
Call of Duty 3 isn't a run-and-gun FPS, but it's not as slow-paced as a tactical shooter, either. You'll fight alongside CPU-controlled soldiers, and you'll generally need to stay behind cover, pick off as many soldiers as you can, and then advance to the next safe location. Since you spend so much time behind cover, it would have been nice to have the ability to lean, but you can do pretty well without it. Because the game's artificial intelligence appears "smarter" than a typical FPS, it can be frustrating to be unable to clear a particular section because of cheap tricks like how new enemies will spawn to replace fallen soldiers in outdoor levels (they don't do this indoors). But once you come to grips with the fact that you can't kill them all, it shouldn't bother you much. You still need to be careful not to shoot fellow soldiers, but the game is more forgiving this time around--the game doesn't instantly end when you fire that first bullet into your comrade's chest. Call of Duty 3 isn't a terribly difficult game on the default setting, nor is it particularly lengthy, clocking in at 8 to 10 hours from start to finish. On the default difficulty, enemy soldiers aren't very aggressive and they'll follow the same patterns over and over, so it's easy to sit back and wait for them to show themselves. Series veterans looking for more of a challenge will want to bump up the difficulty to hard or veteran, as doing so results in a vastly different and more intense experience. Enemies are much more aggressive, they're better shots, and your health disappears much quicker.
Mission objectives are varied but don't stray far from what you'd expect from the type of first-person shooter that takes place in World War II. Sometimes you'll simply need to get from point A to point B, while other times you'll need to defend an area from attack, rescue hostages, or plant explosives. You'll also have to use your binoculars to mark targets for air strikes, man stationary guns, and even ride in the back of a jeep and pick off bad guys with the jeep's machine gun. Rather than a single path to success, there are multiple ways to approach missions. Sometimes the game presents you with clear-cut options, while other times you'll have to find them on your own. Each objective is shown as a star on your radar, making them easy to find even in the heat of battle.
A few new twists have been added to the gameplay, but they don't necessarily make the game better, nor do they make it worse. Rather than just hitting a button to plant a bomb and then running away, you'll need to hit a button, rotate the analog stick a few times to insert the fuse, and then hit a button to arm the bomb. There's also a new close-quarters battle mechanic that takes place when you're surprised by an enemy. These scripted events have you rapidly alternating pressing the left and right triggers to fight off your attacker and then pressing a face button to finish them off. Some of the scenes look pretty cool, but the mechanics are boring and there are less than 10 of these situations in the entire game, so they're rather worthless. Not all of the game's action takes place with you on foot. There are a few missions that place you in the driver's seat of a jeep, and it's your job to follow the checkpoints and avoid enemy fire while escaping from an area or rescuing hostages. A couple of other scenarios have you behind the controls of a tank and you'll need to eliminate enemy tanks and armored vehicles. The driving missions aren't particularly exciting, but the controls are forgiving enough to make them sort of fun, and if nothing else, they do mix up the gameplay a bit. The tanks are unwieldy at first, but once you get the hang of them, it's a blast driving around and blowing stuff up.
Call of Duty 2 was one of the most played Xbox 360 games on Xbox Live, and Call of Duty 3 is poised to be just as popular. While you were limited to just eight players in a game last year, 24 players can now join in the fray, including four players per Xbox. Tripling the amount of players has made the game much more fun, though it's more difficult to make a difference operating as a lone soldier now. There are nine different multiplayer maps to play on, and the game promises downloadable maps in the future. Six different match types are available for play, including team battles, capture the flag, headquarters, and more. If you're looking to play as something other than a basic soldier, there are seven different kits to choose from, including a medic who can revive players and a support soldier that delivers ammo. To help ensure that people will play as these two classes of soldiers, two of the game's achievements are specifically tied to healing people and delivering ammunition. And you won't have to hoof it all the time, either. Jeeps, tanks, and motorcycles are found throughout the levels, adding even more depth to an already deep multiplayer experience. Playing on prerelease servers, the online action ran smoothly with nary a hint of lag.
This is not a game that you'll play once and then put on the shelves never to play again. There's enough difference between the different difficulty levels that they're worth going back and playing again, and the multiplayer is excellent. Of course, there are achievements to be earned, as well--both on and offline. There are points awarded for beating the game on any difficulty, beating it on veteran, and finishing multiple missions for each country, as well as getting through a level without dying, without shooting, or getting hit by less than 30 bullets. Additional achievements can be earned online for reviving players, delivering ammo, and by achieving certain ranks.
It's worth noting that we encountered a handful of bugs in the single-player campaign. None of these prevented the game from being completed, but they did force us to restart levels from previously saved checkpoints. In one instance our soldier got stuck in a hole in the floor that had been created when bits of it fell to the floor below. Later in the game we were supposed to meet up with our squad, but were unable to do so because some of them had gotten stuck getting out of a boat, and the event wouldn't trigger. Other nuisances included guns that we needed getting stuck in walls and we got temporarily stuck a few times because a computer-controlled soldier had stopped in front of us, while another stopped right behind us.
Call of Duty 3's visuals are nothing short of amazing, and the game looks significantly better than Call of Duty 2. The game, of course, looks best in high definition, but it still looks excellent when viewed on a standard television display. The draw distance is excellent, and you'll never notice any buildings or textures suddenly popping into view. Whether it's a farm in the French countryside or a war-torn village, each level is very detailed and looks fantastic. The outdoor environments are particularly impressive, and though you'll run into an invisible wall should you stray too far, smart level design makes them feel larger than they really are. There are plenty of lush bushes, thick grass, and large trees to use as cover, and they all look great. The textures are an area of the game's graphics that have been vastly improved, as they're more detailed than ever. It's hard to appreciate every little detail when you're trying to escape death, but the cutscenes offer a chance to enjoy the improved presentation without having to worry about getting shot because you stopped to admire the falling rain, planes flying overhead, or a puddle that has collected in a hole left by a grenade.
Once again, the game's effects are outstanding. Throwing a smoke grenade results in a thick cloud of smoke so dense and so realistic you'll sometimes find yourself squinting in an effort to see better. Explosions from grenades, rockets, and bombs are similarly impressive. The frame rate isn't locked at 60 frames per second all of the time, but outside of some occasional slowdown, it's fast and smooth even during some of the most intense firefights. Every once in a while there will be a hitch in the frame rate as the game loads new areas of a level. While this hiccup is certainly noticeable, it only lasts a few seconds and it rarely affects gameplay since it usually happens after you've accomplished an objective and there's a lull in the fighting. There are a couple of small visual issues that mar the otherwise spectacular graphics. It never happened to a soldier that was alive, but after you kill them, dead soldiers will occasionally get stuck in walls and even float in midair. It's also possible to see the sparks from weapons fire through solid walls. Even though the textures are better than last year, some of them aren't all that impressive and some of the indoor environments, houses in particular, are repetitive.
Call of Duty 3 sounds great, even if you're listening to it through your TV's built-in speakers. But if you've got your Xbox 360 hooked up to a surround-sound setup, the game sounds phenomenal. You'll hear bullets coming from all directions and explosions will rattle your (and your neighbor's) walls. The chatter from both your fellow soldiers and your enemies not only adds to the atmosphere, but also provides helpful clues as to what you need to do next. Your squadmates will direct you to the next checkpoint or cover, and listening to Nazi soldiers will let you know their tactics as well as if your presence has been detected. Joel Goldsmith (Star Trek: First Contact, Stargate SG-1) has written a gorgeous orchestral soundtrack that elevates the presentation to another level. Performed by the Slovak Symphony Orchestra, the majestic score is on par with that of any major motion picture. It's a shame there's no option to just listen to the music from the game--it's that good.
From start to finish, Call of Duty 3 is an intense experience and a great game. The visuals are fantastic and the sound is some of the best in any game to date. Though there's no question that Call of Duty 3 is every bit as good as its predecessor, and without question the multiplayer is vastly improved, none of the changes or additions to the single-player campaign significantly alter the way the game plays. If the Call of Duty series hasn't won you over previously, Call of Duty 3 isn't going to do much to change your mind. But for anyone else, Call of Duty 3 is a must-own.