When a game is announced for both the PC and consoles, the question always arises about what's different between the two versions. Did any compromises have to be made on one platform or the other? Did something get lost in translation? As it turns out, the recent release of Call of Duty 2 on the PC turned out to be a very accurate preview of what Xbox 360 owners could expect to get from next-generation shooters. Almost everything that makes the PC version one of the year's best shooters remains intact on the Xbox 360 version of the game, which looks just as good and actually runs smoother than all but the most beastly of gaming PCs. If not for the online multiplayer that's limited to eight players, the Xbox 360 version probably would have been hands-down better overall. But as it is, Call of Duty 2 still sets a high standard for any shooters following in its footsteps on Microsoft's new console, and it's considerably faster, prettier, and more exciting than most any other shooter available on consoles.
As in the first PC game, Call of Duty 2's campaign will put you in the shoes of a few different soldiers fighting for different Allied factions. You start off as a private in the Russian army, visciously fighting off the invading Germans in Moscow and Stalingrad. The British campaign is unlocked after beating the first Russian mission. For most of these missions you'll be fighting in the sand-swept deserts of North Africa, alongside the Desert Rats, against Field Marshal Rommel's troops. The final mission in the British campaign sends you to the bombed-out houses and hedgerows of Caen, France. After you're done with that, you'll play as an American corporal in Europe. Yes, you will be doing a D-Day landing, but not on Omaha Beach or Utah Beach, which you've probably played several times before. Instead, you'll be scaling the sheer cliffs of Pointe du Hoc as artillery with the Army Rangers. If you already thought rock climbing was an "extreme" sport, try doing it with artillery and machine-gun fire raining down on you.
Each of the game's 10 missions is broken up into a few different stages. If you play the game on regular difficulty, you could blow through it in about 10 hours. Ratcheting up the difficulty a notch makes the game much harder and more tactical (this is probably the experience the designers intended). Since you'll be creeping and peeking more carefully through all the encounters, you'll lengthen the campaign significantly, and you'll enjoy it more.
Breaking up the campaign into several different narrative vignettes arguably weakens the impact of the plot as a whole, although that was never the strength of Call of Duty in the first place. What this does is let the designers put you in a lot of different, interesting situations. One memorable moment in the Russian campaign has you crawling through a raised pipeline to sneak behind German lines and into a fortified factory building. As you make your way through the pipeline, you'll spot and snipe small pockets of German infantry through holes in the pipe. When they fire back up at you, you'll notice bullets tearing through the rusted pipe, ripping open holes for shafts of light to poke through. It's a thrilling effect.
You'll also get quite a rush from both participating in and defending against all-out infantry charges across open city squares in Stalingrad. But just as the novelty of these wears off, you're shunted over to the British campaign in North Africa, where you'll do things like participate in night raids of small Tunisian towns, climb up to the top of spires to call in artillery on enemy tanks, and even drive a tank yourself. The American campaign has its own memorable moments, like scaling the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, or sniping at German mortar crews from the top of a grain silo. The game paces itself so that you're always on your toes, and you'll find yourself switching back and forth almost constantly from an offensive position to making a defensive stand against counterattacks on the objective you've just captured. Yes, at the end of the day you're still just shooting a lot of Nazis, but the constantly varying contexts of how and why you're doing it keep the game compelling from start to finish.
You won't be participating in these forays alone; far from it. In every setting you'll be surrounded by what seems like dozens of soldiers, both friends and foes, who move and act in a realistic fashion. Lots of your artificially intelligent mates will die by your side, along with the dozens of enemy soldiers you kill, but more will come in from the rear echelons to take their place. The designers often do a good job of reminding you that the war isn't just the infantry skirmish in which you're fighting. From time to time you'll see planes engaged in dogfights flying overhead, or when you complete an objective of capturing a German harbor, you'll call in a naval strike and see enemy merchant ships being sunk at the docks.
In each confrontation, you'll find yourself setting up at logical stopping points to exchange fire with German resistance. You can snipe dozens of enemies out of the windows and from the trenches in front of a house, for example, but reinforcements replace them. It never feels as though the game is cheaply spawning in more fodder for you; it just does a great job of making you feel like there are a realistic number of soldiers holed up in a building. You need to get a feel for the flow of each pitched battle, and this can be done by advancing your line when the enemy ranks look thin enough, and then breaking into the house or bunker. Your allies will follow you in and help you clear out the objective. Of course, if you're too meek at attacking and pressing your advantage, the enemy AI is wily and aggressive enough to take charge. They're not afraid to pour fire on your position and toss tons of grenades at you. Thankfully, a handy grenade danger indicator lets you know when and where you have to scurry away from an impending blast. When you do die, the game reloads very quickly, and you're even treated to a quote about war from various historical figures. One that sticks out in our minds is an ironic one from Solomon Short: "The only winner in the War of 1812 was Tchaikovsky."
One aspect of gameplay that has changed since the first Call of Duty is that you no longer have a health bar. As you get shot, you'll see the screen growing redder and redder along the borders, and your character will start to grunt and pant. If you continue to take damage in a short span of time, you die. So as you get shot that first or second time, you need to get yourself back to cover to hide for a couple of seconds to recover. Once your vision clears, you're good to go again. Some people may be put off by this Halo-like gameplay conceit, but it actually works very well here, and it really is no more contrived than hunting down and hoarding health packs. In the context of Call of Duty 2, we'd go so far as to say that it's an improvement over the traditional health system, as you never find yourself at a tough spot without enough health or medikits. Ammo's never an issue either, as there's never a shortage of dead bodies to loot for guns, bullets, and grenades. The focus stays squarely on the fight.
Speaking of grenades, the other major new gameplay conceit is the use of smoke grenades. You can pop these in front of machine-gun nests or to obscure the view of enemy snipers, making infantry charges a more viable option. The smoke effect looks outstanding and comes in handy in both the single- and multiplayer aspects to neutralize the effectiveness of fixed machine-gun nests and snipers. There's also nothing quite as exciting as running through a dense smoke cloud and finding yourself face-to-face with the enemy (the view from the opposite side is pretty cool as well).
The interface in Call of Duty 2 on the Xbox 360 is also well-thought-out and designed. You can change your stance from kneeling to standing, or you can go prone to increase your accuracy. You can carry two weapons at a time, and switching between them is just a matter of tapping the Y button. The left and right buttons give you quick access to your smoke grenades and frag grenades, respectively, while the right trigger fires your weapon. The left trigger toggles your aim down the iron sight of your gun (or through the scope, in the case of a sniper rifle) for a slightly zoomed-in view, and for better accuracy. Hold it down to aim, and release it to switch back to a normal view. You can't move as fast while aiming, but the visual transition between moving and aiming is quick and smooth, making it almost second nature for you to want to use the aiming feature. Unfortunately, you can't peek around corners as you can in the PC version of the game.
Multiplayer Call of Duty 2 picks up right where the original left off, offering standard deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture-the-flag modes, along with the search-and-destroy mode from the original game, where one team has to plant a bomb and destroy one of two objectives while the other team defends. A mode called "headquarters" is also available, and it's probably the most enjoyable mode of the five available in COD2. In this mode, two different areas on a map are designated as capture points for either of the two teams. To score points, a team must control and set up a headquarters on one of the two areas. Once that's set up, points begin increasing for the controlling team. The other team must attempt to overrun the position to try to stop the points from ticking up. During the time a headquarters is set up, the defending team members can't respawn (if they're killed) until their headquarters is overrun or the HQ expires. Once one of those two things happens, capture points are changed to different locations, and the teams begin anew to try to set up a base. The nature of capturing and defending--and a constantly shifting HQ location--makes this mode fun, because teams must adapt to different roles quickly and on the fly. As far as weapon balance goes, there's a predictable relationship between bolt-action rifles, semiautomatic rifles, assault rifles, and submachine guns. The smoke grenades can also change battlefield dynamics greatly, as snipers can sometimes find their favorite killing fields obscured. The shotguns are also extremely powerful in close-quarters situations, and they're fun to use.
Call of Duty 2 on the Xbox 360 also adds a four-player split-screen multiplayer mode for playing with friends on a single TV. The hardware never breaks a sweat, maintaining a crisp 60 frames per second even with action going on in so many windows. The problem is that the maps in the game are too large to really lend themselves to just four players. You can play any of the game modes, but playing two-on-two CTF or HQ is kind of silly. What's unfortunate about the online multiplayer action is that it's limited to just eight players on Xbox Live. The maps are definitely more viable with eight players than with just four, but you'll still find, in a lot of cases, that there's a little too much room to roam around. The action can still be fun, and the network code is very smooth, but those who've played the PC version know that the maps and game modes really play out better with more than just eight players. If you have the inclination to move a bunch of Xbox 360s and TVs together, system link brings the number of supported players up to 16.
The presentation in Call of Duty 2 is also topflight. Each mission is introduced with video footage from the Military Channel, as well as documentary-style narration that helps set the historical setting for what you're about to do. The game's graphics are also excellent, whether you play on an HDTV or a regular TV. If you play the game at HD resolutions, you'll find that there's no discernible difference between the Xbox 360 game and the PC one. The levels are just as well appointed, the textures are razor-sharp, and there's a great amount of detail in the character models. The effects from smoke grenades and explosions also look wonderful.
Most importantly, though, Call of Duty 2 on the Xbox 360 runs buttery smooth--even smoother than the PC version did for us in a lot of cases. Areas and situations that would cause most PCs to hitch up run perfectly fine on the Xbox 360 version. If you play on a non-HDTV, you do lose some of the sharpness and detail. But the game still looks better than just about any shooter we've played on a regular Xbox, and the frame rate seems even higher than when you play at HD resolutions, making up somewhat for the decline in texture detail. Sound is where Call of Duty 2 excels like no other FPS. From the stirring score that kicks up during key moments, to the top-notch gun and explosion effects, the game sounds fantastic. And if you have a Dolby 5.1 setup, you'll appreciate this aspect of the game even more. The speech is also pretty good, particularly the yelling that your squadmates and enemies do during battle, which plays right in to your excitement and tension as you fight.
Aside from the small-scale online matches, Call of Duty 2 is just about everything you'd hope for and expect from a next-generation first-person shooter. Its varied campaign, excellent sound and gameplay design, and generally good AI make it a worthy successor to the original game on the PC. At the same time, though, it's still a World War II shooter. So if you've decided you've grown weary of them, Call of Duty 2 doesn't do that much new to bring you back in to the fold. What Call of Duty 2 does do well is nail down just about all aspects that define an ideal first-person shooter. If you liked the original and have been thirsting for more, Call of Duty 2 will definitely deliver. And if you haven't experienced a Call of Duty game before, then get ready for an incredible experience in Call of Duty 2 for the Xbox 360.