There's no doubt that Call of Duty was one of the standout shooters of 2003 thanks to its addictive blend of intense single-player action and wild multiplayer gameplay. By taking its cues from Hollywood movies and television shows such as Band of Brothers, Call of Duty manages to immerse you in a virtual cinematic experience as you fight the battles of World War II on the front lines. So it's not too hard to imagine that developer Gray Matter faced a daunting task when it was asked to make an expansion for Call of Duty, which was originally developed by Infinity Ward. However, apparently Gray Matter was more than up to the task, because the developer took everything that was great about Call of Duty and then ratcheted the gameplay's intensity even higher. The result is that Call of Duty: United Offensive is a truly great expansion.
United Offensive follows a similar format to that found in Call of Duty. You play as three Allied soldiers--an American paratrooper, a British SAS commando, and a Soviet infantryman--who are caught in the great struggle against Nazi Germany. Over the course of the single-player campaign, you'll go from the frozen siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge to the epic German counterattack at Kursk. Throughout most of the campaign, you'll participate in huge, heavily scripted, set-piece battles that make the squad-based battles in Call of Duty look downright minuscule in comparison.
A good case in point involves Bastogne, which represents the opening segment of the expansion. After a short joyride in an American jeep through German lines (not unlike the similar sequence found in Call of Duty), you and your fellow paratroopers have to repulse a powerful German attack on American lines. While a battle in Call of Duty usually involved Germans that came at you in manageable numbers at a time, the sheer number of opponents that the computer throws at you in United Offensive is almost overwhelming (at times). We're not just talking infantry, either, because the Germans come at you with tanks and half-tracks as well. With gunfire and tracer fire all around, you must run from foxhole to foxhole in a desperate defense of the lines. And just when you think that things can't get more intense, P-51 fighter-bombers streak in on devastating bombing runs. It's an awe-inspiring moment, to say the least.
The expansion switches gears a bit for the British portion of the campaign by starting you off as a gunner in a B-17 Flying Fortress that's on a bombing mission over Germany. It's a visually stunning sequence, though you don't get to do much other than shoot down waves of incoming Luftwaffe fighters. Luckily, it's a one-time event, so you'll spend the rest of the British campaign on the ground partaking in commando missions that are probably closest in scale and scope to those found in Call of Duty. These include a Guns of Navarone-style mission where your team must destroy coastal guns that are threatening the invasion of Sicily. While packed with variety, the British segment of the campaign feels relatively low-key compared to the rest of the expansion, mainly because it lacks the massive set-piece battles that are at the heart of the American and Soviet segments of the campaign.
Thankfully, the gameplay returns to over-the-top form with the Soviet portion of the campaign, where you and your Soviet comrades face Hitler's last major offensive on the eastern front. This segment weaves from chaotic trench warfare to house-to-house--and even room-to-room--combat as you attempt to clear the Germans from a broken and burned-out city. It culminates in a climactic battle for a rail yard that pits you against oncoming German infantry and tanks, with Stuka dive-bombers making strafing runs over your positions. It definitely makes for a harrowing experience.
About the only complaint about the single-player campaign is that it's not that long. The fast pace of the action works against the game, because there's somewhere between six and 10 hours of total gameplay, depending on how proficiently you're able to get past the tough parts, of which there are many. On the medium difficulty level, you can generally get past most battles and encounters after one or two attempts, but there are some notable sequences that may require a greater number of tries. The key in those situations is to recognize what the problem is and to figure out a way around it. The original Call of Duty featured its own fair share of challenging, almost puzzle-like sequences like these, so the overall level of difficulty in United Offensive is actually about the same.
You'll also get some new toys to play with, including semiautomatic rifles for the Germans and Soviets, which represent more than welcome additions. Another big addition is the machine gun, like the German MG34 and the American .30-caliber, which can deliver a heavy rate of fire but which can only be used while stationary and prone. And since Gray Matter developed Return to Castle Wolfenstein, it's not too surprising to see that it has imported the memorable flamethrower from that game to United Offensive.
After you've exhausted the single-player campaign, you can look forward to the impressive new multiplayer modes in United Offensive, which reinvent the multiplayer features from Call of Duty. For example, there are 11 new, huge maps that easily dwarf the largest multiplayer levels from Call of Duty. United Offensive also introduces vehicles to the mix--mainly jeeps and tanks. Jeeps are useful for scooting around the map quickly, while tanks have their obvious benefits. Tanks aren't too overwhelming, though, since both teams have access to armor, and there is usually plenty of antitank weaponry laying around for infantry. Snipers are less of a problem with tanks around, and it also helps that the maps are so large that snipers are more spread out. In fact, one of the nightmares of Call of Duty's multiplayer was the high concentration of snipers on relatively small maps, which often turned the entire affair into camping fests.
The new multiplayer modes certainly feel influenced by the popular Battlefield 1942, particularly with the addition of the vehicles. The domination mode is very much like Battlefield 1942's conquest mode in that each team must take over a set of strategic points on the map to win. Though it lacks the sheer variety of Battlefield 1942 in terms of settings and vehicles, it still makes for a fun gameplay experience as your team has to use combined arms tactics effectively in order to win. Base assault is another new mode that should prove popular, as the goal for each team is to destroy the opposing team's bunkers. The catch is that destroying a bunker is a two-stage affair. First, the bunker has to be shattered by heavy weapons fire, and then infantry must run into the gutted ruins to plant explosives. The maps themselves are well designed, and most of them offer a mix of huge, open areas for vehicle combat, along with narrow, indoor areas that are perfect for close-quarters infantry combat. A good example of this is the Berlin level, which offers narrow streets for tanks to roam, and plenty of gutted buildings where infantry can hide and lay ambushes, as well as a sewer system to move around. Then there's Kharkov, which features huge, wide-open avenues, as well as rooftops where infantry can rain antitank rounds down on tanks.
Another welcome multiplayer addition is a ranking system that rewards players for helping their teams win the match. Above each player is a rank symbol, which resets at the beginning of each match. The more you help your team win by seizing objective locations, the higher you rise in rank. A high rank means that you get special bonuses, like extra grenades, and at higher ranks, you have access to binoculars which can be used to call in powerful artillery strikes. The rank system is a good incentive to actually work as a member of the team rather than running around as a lone wolf, as you get more points for seizing objectives than you do for simply killing the enemy.
It's worth mentioning that we encountered a slight bug while playing United Offensive. The expansion retains Call of Duty's mechanic that prevents you from opening doors on your own. As a result, you have to wait for another soldier to run up and open a door for you. The problem is, we ran into a couple of instances in which the scripting broke, and that soldier didn't appear. So then we had to go back to an earlier save point. Also, though you can quicksave the game at any point, it automatically saves at certain checkpoints, which is helpful when you're caught up in the game's action. However, when you're low on health, the autosaving doesn't kick in (apparently so that you aren't stuck at death's door if you load up the saved game). We mistakenly thought this was a bug as we played through long stretches without any autosaving.
As testament to the sheer amount of chaos on the screen, United Offensive pushes the aged Quake III engine to its limits, and even high-end machines may stutter at times to keep up with all the action. However, the action is generally smooth, and the graphics have even been improved a bit from Call of Duty. In particular, explosions and smoke effects are rendered beautifully now, and it's a visual treat to watch an artillery barrage rain down around you. You'll see trees shatter, huge plumes of dirt will kick up into the air, and the earth will shake all around you. And, yes, the excellent sound effects that were in Call of Duty are back, from the overwhelming noise of gunfire and explosions to the squeal of tank treads in the distance to the dreaded sound of a Stuka dive-bomber coming in for a bombing run.
By turning up the intensity, United Offensive breathes new life into Call of Duty, which is saying quite a bit, because Call of Duty is an impressive game by itself. Nonetheless, this is an excellent expansion. The single-player campaign may be a bit brief, but it's packed with plenty of cinematic moments, and the new multiplayer gameplay should keep you busy long after you've blown through the single-player game. It's a no-brainer to say that United Offensive is a must-have if you enjoyed Call of Duty.