Call of Duty 2 represents Infinity Ward’s follow-up to their Game of the Year, Call of Duty.  Call of Duty represented the cream of the crop in the glut of World War II titles at the time.  From the intensity of the Omaha Beach landing, to the incredible and addictive multiplayer, Call of Duty raised the bar. 

Two years after the debut of the first title, Call of Duty 2 is the follow-up to Infinity Ward’s FPS.  Can this sequel live up to the power of the original, or will it end up mired in the mud of the over-saturated World War II genre?

Activision is not without their graphic-centric titles.  Doom and Quake always bring new and exciting technology to the table resulting in mind-numbing graphics that demand only the best in video cards apply.  When I was told at E3 that this title would be coming to the Xbox 360, I nodded my head and thought that we’d be getting a one-off version that would pale in comparison to the incredible PC version I had just seen.  I am happy to report that I was wrong. 

Call of Duty 2 is a lot like a high quality photocopy of the PC version in the graphics department.  It is almost exactly like the original source in every way.   With the higher power of the Xbox 360, and a native 720p resolution, this game is equivalent to running a high-end PC version at 1280×720 resolution.  It won’t match the beauty of 1600×1200, but 4x AA comes free on the 360.  Given that I get to play all of this on my 52” HDTV, I’d have to say that is a good trade.  On to the details…

The sheer number of characters on screen in Call of Duty 2 is amazing enough, but when the first mortar round struck the ground and the dirt began to fly, my eyes damned near fell out of my skull.  The soldiers scaled the cliffs of Pointe Du Hoc and began to set off smoke grenades.  Well, it was too late for my eyes, out they came.  Put simply, there has never been smoke in any game that has looked this good.  The smoke was voluminous and billowed into the grey sky. It obscures the player’s vision to the point where they would have to be directly in front of someone to be able to recognize them.  The friend or foe indicator turns off, and you can’t tell if that brown uniform in front of you is your enemy or not.  I wish I could describe it better, but it would be better if you simply check out the PC demo, or the screenshots in the game record, and see it for yourself.

The devil is often in the details.  When player graphics are this incredible, often the background areas suffer.  Infinity Ward would have none of that.  Call of Duty 2’s backgrounds are crammed with detail to the point of overflow.  The wood grain on the weapons, the dirt on your binocular lenses, piled rubble, dead cows, fire, explosions, and dynamic lighting effects recreate the horrifying world in which these soldiers fought.  Like many games in this new generation, the screenshots really don’t do this game justice.  The chaos of this jaw-dropping battlefield has to be seen to believed. 

One of the buzzwords you’ll hear slung about when you are talking about the current generation of games, whether that appears on PC or Xbox 360, is normal mapping.  Normal mapping is the texture system that allows surfaces to take on a ridged, leather-like, wrinkled, or dirt-covered appearance.  The result is that every surface in this game takes on the most realistic look possible.  The graphic quality rivals anything else on the shelf, and simply shuts down anything else in the same genre. 

There is one minor issue present in the game.  Occasionally you’ll see minor clipping issues where enemies that should remain hidden clip through a surface.  You’ll also see this rarely when an enemy is killed – their feet may stick through a wall.  This occurs very rarely, but frequently enough where I think I should mention it.

Half of the immersion equation is sound.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in a war title.  There is nothing worse than enemies that spout the same lines over and over, or gunfire that sounds like plastic pens being dropped on a hard surface.  Infinity Ward is well aware of this fact.  To combat the first issue they have created an all new Battle Chatter system.  The Battle Chatter system features several thousand lines of voice, and not just for the Allied side.  It is only right that enemy speaks their native language, so that is what they do.  That’s right, your enemy will be yelling some of the same things your allies would yell, but in German.  I have the advantage of knowing a little bit of German, so sometimes I could hear the enemy call out my position to their comrades.

On the Allied side, your group will yell out enemy positions and conditions.  They yell out things such as “MG42!  Top floor, on the right!” or “Hey Fritz, you can kiss my New York Ass!” and “Potato-masher! Take cover!”  The part that makes this out of the ordinary is that these are not scripted.  Some of the enemies are ‘placed’, but others seem to be completely random.  The BattleChatter system and this random enemy placement brings the immersion level to the next level.

The final component of sound in a war game is the level and degree of it.  Call of Duty 2 has no problems in this area. From the second you leave your short basic training, and for every second after, you are thrust into a world of explosions, death, screaming, and chaos.  Once you have experienced the run across the field of battle in the Pointe Du Hoc mission, you will wonder how any game will compare.  I’m not exaggerating here, it is just that damned good.

Emotional attachment in a game is often linked to the music, and Infinity Ward made sure to hire the best.  Graeme Revell, award-winning composer behind such movies as Blow, CSI: Miami, From Dusk Til Dawn, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Negotiator, Pitch Black, The Crow, The Crow: City of Angels, and Walking Tall, created an original score for Call of Duty 2.  If you enjoyed the music in movies such as Saving Private Ryan, you’ll know what you are in for here.

Call of Duty 2 has a very comfortable control scheme.  The left thumbstick handles movement and binocular views, the right thumbstick handles the camera and melee attacks.  The left trigger allows you to aim down the sights of your weapon, and the right trigger fires your weapon.  The left bumper handles smoke grenades, and the right bumper tosses frag grenades.  A is jump, Y is switch weapons, B changes your stance from standing to kneeling to prone, and the X button reloads.

An odd ommission here is the removal of the lean function.  This may affect your gameplay, so adjust the score accordingly. 

A new change to the 360 version is the use of an auto-aim feature.  By tapping the left trigger, if your targeting reticule is remotely near an enemy, it will lock on to them for a brief second for you to make your shot.  It compensates for the loss of high speed mouse control and helps keep both games on even footing.  It certainly won’t replace the tried and true PC control method, but it goes a long way towards that goal.

Speaking of sniping, it has been improved, based on the feedback from the previous game.  The sniper rifle was over-powerful and was dead-on accurate.  The new system is based on movement.  If you are running, the rifle’s scope will be all over the place.  If you are prone and you click and hold the left thumbstick to hold your breath, you can steady your shot.  It makes sniping more realistic, although it is still devastating. It isn’t as comfortable on a controller as it is simply pressing a button on the PC, but it works.

The only thing about the control system that I felt was missing was a sprint option.  There are some times where your teammates seem to run almost double speed compared to you.  Obviously when the fires of Hell are raining around you, this would have also come in handy.

The primary complaint in the original Call of Duty was that the game was very linear.  The whole affair was straightforward and often made it feel like you were guided all throughout the game.  Call of Duty 2 set out to address this issue, and in many ways has succeeded. 

The game kicks off in the Russian front, continues to the British campaign, and then ends with the American push against the Nazi oppression.  This isn’t some cobbling together of ideas that culminates in a disjointed and disconnected game – this is a retelling of real events that occurred during World War II.  To add an air of authenticity to the game, Activision and Infinity Ward used real WWII footage for your mission briefs. The result is better than any pre-rendered cutscene could have managed, so it was money and time well spent.

The new AI in Call of Duty 2 is far more aware than its predecessor.  The concealment elements in the game are utilized by both your enemies and your allies.  This means your enemies will duck and cover, run and regroup, utilize smoke, set up ambushes, and use the environment to their advantage.  The best part, again, is that it is not always done in a scripted fashion. Even when enemies are scripted to show up in a particular location, the logic system in the game may change their reaction depending on how you assault.  If you press forward with grenades, you may force the enemy to back up and bottleneck in a bombed-out building.  If you press forward alone, your enemies may flank you as you have no support.  This means that you’ll have to be far more aware of your surroundings and enemy tactics.

The missions in Call of Duty 2 borrow heavily from some very well known war movies.  There is one particular mission that puts you and a teammate into a pipe in the bombed out city of Stalingrad.  Just as in Enemy at The Gates, you are given many opportunities to take shots at the enemy through holes in the pipe, but if you do you will reveal your hiding place.  If your enemies do discover your location, they can put bullets through the pipe.  Once again, the real time lighting engine struts its stuff as light streams through the bulletholes in the pipe.  Similarly, you’ll have a few capture-and-hold areas similar to scenes from Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan.  Being able to play the scenes from these movies is certainly an inviting experience.

The experience itself takes place via 3 Russian campaigns covering 1941 to 1943, 4 British campaigns from 1942 to 1944, and 3 American campaign sets from 1943 to 1945 for a total of 27 complete missions.  As awesome as the single player is, the multiplayer is where the game truly shines.  The single player is ultimately over before you’d like it to be – I completed all of the missions on the normal difficulty level (there are four) in about 15 hours.  (roughly 30 minutes per mission)  Two of these missions feature you as a tank commander and are completely free-formed.  You are given objectives and it is up to you how you’d like to tackle them.  Some of the on-foot missions operate in a similar fashion as they let you off the tracks a bit.  There are some that are very linear, but it isn’t as confined as the original was.

Another change that could swing players either direction is the new health system.  When you are hit, your heartbeat becomes louder and your breathing becomes labored.  If you take even more damage, you’ll get a pulsing red tinge to the rim of the screen that indicates you’ve just about had it.  There is no visible health bar, so these are all of the indications you’ll get as to whether you are in trouble or not.  Resting behind cover will restore your health, so no more seeking out the next medkit in this game.

I encourage you to check out the demo for Call of Duty 2 on the PC to see if you enjoy the experience.  The single player game is a fantastic ride while it lasts, and the multiplayer will keep you occupied for many weeks to come – even with the glut of titles headed our way this holiday season.  If you pick up one title for the Xbox 360 launch, this should be near the top of your list.

Let’s talk about multiplayer gaming.  I had the opportunity to play against the folks at Infinity Ward, as well as some of my fellow press members the other day.  Let me tell you, the original game doesn’t hold a candle to the experience of its successor.  Shipping in the box there are 13 maps (with 4 favorites from the original) and 5 gameplay modes including Headquarters (a capture and hold game), search and destroy, capture the flag, deathmatch, and team deathmatch. The levels were incredibly balanced and elicited feelings of imminent danger as you are often starting very close to your enemy’s location. One area that actually did suffer – the game only supports 8 players over Live, or 16 over LAN.  This is down from 32 on the PC.  This changes the tactical approach to the game as there are fewer people to, for instance, guard a flag while the others baserun to grab the enemy flag. 

Infinity Ward has expanded the multiplayer to fit the new console by adding four player split screen. The beautiful thing is that the game runs completely smooth and with full detail on 4 player split screen – no compromises have been made here.  If you have a big screen TV, not only is it actually viable, it is pretty fun!  That said, the real experience is on Live or via LAN parties where you can up the chaos meter with a few more players.

The weapons in multiplayer use a stat system to differentiate from each other.  One weapon may have a higher mobility rate, but may not do as much damage.  Another may have greater accuracy, but a terrible mobility rate.  The tradeoffs make the game challenging instead of having everyone running around with a knife in their hand for the first 2 minutes, like you would in Counterstrike. You also get two new weapons for multiplayer – the M1879 Trench Gun, a powerful short range shotgun, and the PPS42, a Soviet submachine gun. The new sniper mechanics make sniping a bit more challenging, so don’t expect it to be fish in a barrel like it was in the first title.  You’ll have to bring your “A” game if you plan to sit behind that scope for long.  I’ll look for you, through my scope, online when the game hits shelves today.

There are several achievements in this title, ranging from completing basic training, and then all three campaigns, to completing all three in Veteran mode.  Themes and icons are also available.  The lure of additional multiplayer levels is here, although none were available at launch.

The big question on people’s minds will be – is this game worth $60.00 bucks?  I believe it is.  The game’s production value is off the scale, single player is engaging and has some length to it, and the multiplayer will be a staple of Live gaming for the forseeable future.  I just wish that with everything else so smoothly ported from the PC version, the number of possible players online would have ported too.

What can I say?  I sound like a raving fanboy when I talk about Call of Duty 2, and for good reason.  It was worth the wait from the original to this one – it represents a fantastic PC title that didn’t get watered down in the conversion to console.  If this is the future of console gaming, I’m sold.  Go buy this title right now.