A Modern Retrospective
Call of Duty was Infinity Ward's debut game. Infinity Ward, mind you, was founded by a group that split off from 2015, Inc to work for Activision. The irony of this may be fully appreciated when we consider that this was the group that developed EA's Medal of Honor: Allied Assault series. In a way it might even be called turning full circle. Time heals all wounds, apparently. Whatever the case, IW took the experience from developing MOHAA and applied it to this game; MOHAA may be most properly considered the groundbreaker for the PC WWII shooter genre, but Call of Duty represents its perfection.
Call of Duty utilizes the id Tech 3 engine, which was used for Quake 3: Arena. At the time of its release, this engine was already showing its age, and Call of Duty definitely pushed it to its graphical limitations. Of course, the graphics are dated, but the biggest difference you will probably notice as a contemporary gamer is how bright everything seems to be. Whereas the series after Modern Warfare emphasizes darkness and shadow, the lighting and brightness of the maps and textures will seem very unusual (less evident in the Russian missions, but more so in the American). This distinction is not merely graphical. The very theme of Call of Duty is: "No one fights alone," and as such it emphasizes the heroism and camaraderie of war. By contrast, a game like World at War emphasizes the evils and atrocities of war.
Indeed, this difference is evident in its presentation. There are not very many people scripted to die in your presence, but quite a few who are made not to die. The epilogue shows footage of Soviet and American soldiers embracing each other and sharing in the joy of victory, while not a whole lot more is said about the Germans. The music is stirring and inspiring, and often times moving onto a curiously major key. A lot of these missions have the feel like they come from a thrilling movie: You have car chases, daring escapes, and epic set piece battles. In fact, some of these missions are based on movies, for example, the first Russian mission in Stalingrad is just like Enemy at the Gates. A game with this lens would be considered cheesy and naive if it was released now, but there's a certain charming quality with it that lends it a sense of tension in place of the one you would feel for a movie plot. It's not an easy thing to do, considering that the campaign (which starts the legendary precedent for short, short, short campaigns) has you fighting for the Americans, British, and Russians, spheres which for the most part are separate (although less so than COD2).
The actual campaign plays very competently: There are a variety of missions types, and you really do get to have a feel for every weapon in the game. Some missions have you as a commando, facing off hoards of enemies by yourself (namely, the British ones), while the Russian battles are much larger in scope. You sabotage, rescue, escape, defend, advance, capture, and kill, kill, kill. The American campaign mostly sees you in squad-based combat as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division, segueing into the British campaign as you rescue two British officers from capture. The British campaign sees you doing some commando sabotage work against the Eder Dam and the great Tirpitz battleship. The large-scale battles happen in the Russian campaign, in Stalingrad and Poland. At the end, there are three "epilogue" missions for each campaign: the Americans at Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge, the British sabotaging some V2 rockets aimed for Britain, and the Russians capturing the Reichstag.
Why such a short campaign? Well, there's much more to Call of Duty than a campaign. After beating it, you'll definitely want to check out the multiplayer, which was a real hit back in the day. If you happen to log on today, you'll still find around 100-120 dedicated servers still playing this game, a real feat for a six year old game. Much of this can be attributed to its superb gameplay balance and map design, which continues to live on. Call of Duty really shows the ingredients for what a good multiplayer experience should entail.
First off, the maps are a work of art. They come in a variety of styles: some are wide and open, some are very close-quarters, while most manage to strike a balance. Those who have been reared on the more recent games will notice that some maps have been directly inspired by Call of Duty maps. The MW2 map Wasteland is a pretty faithful copy of Brecourt; Wetwork from COD4 is based on Ship; COD4's Chinatown is a remake of Carentan. There are plenty of flankpoints to use, and there really aren't many locations where a spawn trap can be achieved.
Secondly, there aren't a lot of weapons to choose from. While some may view this as a negative, I believe it is a positive in that there are really no extraneous weapons that do the same thing. Each weapon comes across as unique and specialized to do its job. There are the rifles, which are superior at medium and long ranges. There are the submachine guns, deadly in close range. There are the support guns that can be used in both long and short ranges. And rounding it off, there are the sniper rifles. Each faction gets only one of each, with the exception of the Russians (who have a 71-round PPSh submachine gun to make up for their support gun deficiency) and the Americans (sporting two rifles, the light M1 carbine and the powerful M1 Garand). It's this minimalism and specialization that eliminates many of the headaches that plague the later Call of Duty series.
However, do not mistake this by saying that all the weapons are the same. All the weapons feel different, sound different, and act quite differently, and you will definitely be able to develop your own personal preference for certain weapons. By the same token, no one weapon is overpowered. A fitting example would be the support guns, which include the BAR, the MP44, and the Bren. Each has their distinctive sights, different propensities for recoil, and altogether different feels. While they deal roughly the same damage, their delivery is markedly different, offering variety without having any one weapon being way overused. I also attribute this to the fact that each faction is restricted to spawn only with their own weapons, rather than the newer system where a German would be coming over with an Arisaka rifle from Japan.
There are no perks or killstreaks; there is just your raw skill and your knowledge of the map. Nor is there the arcady feel with the flash of "+10 points," or an experience meter or levelling. Everyone can select the weapons they want from their faction, and the score is based purely on the objective. And honestly, that's really the only way you can have people playing for the objective, when it's the only thing that matters.
The health system is something that ought to be mentioned. Call of Duty uses a health bar which can be replenished by picking up health. In the campaign, it has the effect of slowing down the game as you backtrack to grab that health pack you left behind after getting lit up. In this case, the regenerating health is a positive because it helps keep the campaign tense. However, in multiplayer, it's a much different story. Corpses drop a health pack that heals a fourth of your health. Otherwise, you're stuck with the health you have. Therefore, the problem of camping is largely solved (that and the fact that there are no mines or Claymore equivalents, thank God). Campers will get worn down very quickly, and the incentive is to keep moving to kill more and heal more.
The gameplay mechanics in general help support this fast-paced action and movement. You spawn with one weapon of your choice, a pistol, and grenades. However, you can pick up another weapon, which allows you to act better on the fly. You spawn with max ammo, and scrounging for ammo really isn't an issue; every weapon basically carries the equivalent of 12-20 magazines. Grenades cannot be cooked, and they are not the most powerful, but their role is much more suited for flushing out enemies, denying them ground, and weakening them rather than outright killing them. Altogether, this leads to the need to be flexible while you play. Keep moving, pick up weapons, pick up health.
The gametypes are the basics: You have Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Search and Destroy. Headquarters was started by Call of Duty in a patch, and it's still around in the series. Retrieval is a very rarely played gametype in which the attacking team tries to steal documents from the other team and bring it to their spawn, kind of like a mix between Capture the Flag (which is not in this game, sadly) and Search and Destroy. The last gametype is never played anymore (never was really popular in the first place), but for reference, it's called Behind Enemy Lines.
The people that play are also an important factor. Call of Duty does not natively support voice chat; you have to have Ventrilo, Xfire, or some outside voice chat program to chat. While this lack of chat might make it harder to coordinate attacks, you don't have to worry about adolescent micspam (not that many adolescents play this game anymore anyway). For the most part, people are civil here; they've been playing for a while. Call of Duty certainly has its glitches and hackers, but for the most part the people that still play to this day are dedicated enough not to use them.
Because there are dedicated servers, you really don't need to worry about your host ragequitting and putting a damper on the tension. Additionally, there are quite a few fun mods around. Most servers like to play bolt-action rifles only, which is quite challenging, considering that quickscoping in the MW/MW2 sense is nonexistent (aiming down the sight is quite slow) and that there is no auto-aim. The most common mod out there is AWE (additional war effects), which adds things like cooking grenades, sprinting, the ability to lay grenade traps, as well as a few other gimmicks. It's been tried and true, so no need to worry about it drastically changing the game balance.
All in all, Call of Duty is a classic and a trendsetter, but it's about time that it return to its roots, not necessarily in the WWII universe, but in a focus on raw gameplay. By eliminating the distractions, Call of Duty especially manages to be a model of multiplayer combat. It might be showing its age, but it can certainly hold its own.