Past games based on Activision's Call of Duty license have been designed to evoke the personalized horror of World War II. In that global maelstrom, many simple people were wrested from their homes and thrown into one terrifying abattoir after another; if they were to defer death, they had no choice but to count on their comrades to see them through. Like its forebearers, the N-Gage version of Call of Duty concerns itself with the minutiae of warfare, focusing the platform's limited horsepower on creating atmosphere and insuring authenticity. Unfortunately, this first-person shooter's erratic performance and occasionally buggy gameplay spoil some of the effect.
Call of Duty casts you in three successive roles across the single-player campaign's 11 missions. Your first step is into the shoes of an American grunt trying to wrest Normandy from the defending Germans; next up, you play as a British commando wreaking havoc behind Nazi lines; and finally, you're cast as a Soviet soldier striving against the Wehrmacht on the particularly brutal eastern front. You contribute to the Third Reich's fall in a variety of roles through the three chapters, conducting espionage and sabotage missions, clearing certain targets of gray-clad German soldiers, and even shooting down Stukas behind the controls of a flak cannon.
Each of Call of Duty's single-player levels is quite large, and your missions generally require you to complete multiple objectives that guide you through a sizable portion of the available terrain. At the same time, however, it's quite clear that you're supposed to adhere to a particular path between objectives. The game keeps things pretty linear and scripted, often enforcing your compliance with "minefields" that will kill you instantly if you venture off the right path, or barriers that simply disappear once you've picked something up. Your heads-up display features a compass arrow that guides you toward the next checkpoint at all times, and if you get really disoriented, you can call up an excellent overhead map that updates dynamically as you move.
You are usually accompanied by at least one artificial intelligence-controlled squadmate who covers you and performs certain scripted events. With a few exceptions, your partners (who appear to be invulnerable to enemy fire) aren't particularly useful in combat. They don't fire very quickly, and they can impede your progress in narrow quarters. On the other hand, they draw enemy fire away from you, which gives you more time to draw a bead on the bad guys. You may not be fighting "alone," but it doesn't necessarily feel like you're fighting with a fellow soldier either.
Call of Duty's greatest asset is its depiction of infantry combat, which is both highly emotive and fairly well-designed. First of all, the game features a cornucopia of authentic American, British, German, and Russian weaponry. Although not all of these weapons are tactically useful (your primary weapon will probably be a submachine gun of some kind), they are all appreciably distinct in look, feel, and sound. For instance, the standard-issue British assault rifle's top-loading banana clip cuts down on your visibility; it has a slower rate of fire than its American and German counterparts and it makes a lower report when fired. The countries even have different grenades. This range of hardware adds some variety to the otherwise mundane task of shooting Nazis.
In addition, Call of Duty's combat situations are well-scripted, and its combat mechanics are generally solid. The game does a good job of shaking up your killing methodology. You may round a corner and run into a group of three soldiers who are best dealt with by tossing a quick grenade, for example--or you can gain a sniper rifle to take out distant, unsuspecting foes with head shots. In many cases, enemies are hidden in shadows or in tiny windows, forcing you to memorize level layouts and to use cover. Also, the game's customizable controls greatly simplify the tasks of aiming and protecting yourself. You are provided with a limited amount of auto-aim to cut down on unnecessary control nudging, and your gun cursor flashes green whenever you can successfully hit an enemy. Your soldier also has three combat positions--standing, crouching, and crawling--which offer you a range of speed versus exposure options while traveling.
It's really too bad that Call of Duty doesn't deliver a consistent gameplay experience, given its solid foundation. One noticeable flaw involves the use of heavy guns, like panzerfausts and howitzers. These weapons don't look natural at all, and they're very difficult to use correctly because their shells sometimes seem to pass right through enemies without detonating. This compounds the game's slightly spotty hit detection, which occasionally lets you track and shoot enemies right through freestanding, solid objects like gun emplacements; by the same token, Nazi bullets will come zinging at you through certain walls.
This game's Achilles' heel, however, is its wildly fluctuating run speed, which ranges from reasonably smooth play to unacceptably sluggish periods, often in close proximity to one another. Some levels run at a respectable 15 to 20 frames per second when you're moving straight ahead, but slow down precipitously as soon as you start fighting; others, like a midlevel mission where you're shooting out of the back of a truck, are so jerky that it's barely playable. All of the N-Gage's first-person shooters have problems with screen rotation (turning your "head" from side to side), but this issue is serious in Call of Duty. In fact, turning around takes such a long time that if you try to turn and run after setting explosives, you'll die in your own blast--you have to backpedal away. These lag spikes will lead to many frustrating, unnecessary deaths, like when you walk into a room and you're ambushed by an enemy on your flank because you can't turn around in time. Luckily, the game allows you to save your progress at any time, so you won't lose all of your progress when you die.
Call of Duty's graphics are decent when taken together, although they have some marked difficulties. The character animation looks fantastic. Your enemies will reel and collapse in several different ways, depending on where and how you wound them, and your comrades will gesture to you and lean against walls for cover. Many of the textures, however, are on the muddy side, and the game's light and shadow effects look unnatural. In addition, Call of Duty's draw distance is too short, so terrain and enemies will simply pop out of nowhere as you move forward. This is particularly pronounced in large, indoor environments where the sky texture will sometimes bleed through the far wall. The sound, on the other hand, is superb. The game features a ton of in-game speech from your allies and opponents alike, as well as crisp, eclectic sound effects and well-delivered, if fairly standard, martial music.
Call of Duty's Bluetooth multiplayer supports four-way deathmatches, either on a free-for-all or team basis. The game also features four special multiplayer maps, which offer a nice balance of terrain themes from the single-player game. When entering a deathmatch, you choose your nationality and weapon, which are static for the duration of the match; you can, however, pick up power-ups off of your opponents' corpses. The deathmatch mode seemed to function without any noticeable lag, although we had some trouble establishing an initial Bluetooth connection. If you have a network connection, you can also download additional Call of Duty content from N-Gage Arena; at the time of this writing, this consisted of three multiplayer-only weapons.
Ultimately, Call of Duty's play experience doesn't quite match up with the ambitious scope of its design. The N-Gage Call of Duty probably couldn't have been abridged any more than it had been while remaining a recognizable cousin of the console and PC titles; but given the resulting game's struggle to run at a decent speed, more trimming may have been the better choice. As it is, fans of the Call of Duty games and other WWII-themed first-person shooters will probably get some enjoyment out of this game, as there's plenty of fighting to do here, which is multiplied by four difficulty levels. Others will have a better time playing Ghost Recon: Jungle Storm.