The siren song of Activision’s Call of Duty franchise has sounded for a few years now and each new installment takes gamers to different battlefields in Europe circa the Last Great War. Since people in our generation have grown up knowing that the two things you shoot on sight are Nazis and Stormtroopers one would think that another World War II shooter would be welcomed with open arms.
So why then does Call of Duty 3 feel like nothing more than a tired rehash of every other WWII shooter we’ve seen in the last three years?
Absolutely nothing in this game feels original. If anything else, the missions and objectives feel more obligatory than fun and that’s never a good sign when playing an installment of a renowned franchise. The first two PC games were terrific because they brought the immediacy and sheer adrenaline-fueled terror of the WWII battlefields into our homes and let us roam free to wreck havoc. Where the console titles haven’t been as successful is in re-capturing that magic and this direct sequel fails in the same fashion.
After playing Call of Duty 3 through the first few missions a pattern started to emerge. Whether or not it was caused by the limitations of the original Xbox hardware is up for debate but there was a huge amount of pop-in as backgrounds loaded. Now, to be entirely fair, the majority of the time this was not an issue because even though the maps are bloody huge it appears that at least 90 percent of it loaded up before the level began.
But it quickly it dawned on me that what the game made up for in detail it lacked in depth. There is a tremendous attention to detail to everything surrounding the player and this creates a truly immersive feeling as soldiers run through one small European hamlet after another. But the second the game shifts to wide open spaces on the tank missions or even some assault missions the background becomes very spotty.
One thing the developers have improved on over the last game is the smoke effects. Both the smoke and the frag grenades create plumes of thick, choking smoke that renders visibility to nothing. This is extremely helpful, more so than in previous titles, when in the heat of battle. It would be fun someday for developers to put a flamethrower into a game like this and use the same attention to detail on the fire effects. That may be wishful thinking on my part.
The game does have a pretty serious problem with clipping as my character was shot repeatedly through a door, and returned fire through a near-by wall. There were a few times when non-player characters would get stuck somewhere on the environment, but usually a well-placed grenade was enough to shake them free.
The one area where this franchise has performed above and beyond is in the sound effects department. One cannot fathom whether the first two games would be anywhere as intense as they are if not for the stellar sound design. So it is with a heaving heart that this reviewer played through Call of Duty 3 wondering where all the great sound effects were.
Gone were the heavy explosions of bombs and mortars dropping. Gone too were the zinging of bullets whizzing by your head as you crawled from one trench to the next. One assumes that these actually were the original sound effects designed by Infinity Ward but they sure do not sound like it. If anything, all of the battlefield sound effects come off as an after thought and that is absolutely the wrong way to approach a Call of Duty game.
Also, the recent trend in what I refer to as “directional audio” needs to stop because those of us without surround sound setups play at a huge disadvantage. This happens when you directly face a speaking character and when you turn to look elsewhere the speaking character’s audio is meant to sound like it’s coming from your side. There has yet to be a competent incorporation of this technology in any game, but Call of Duty 3 spectacularly fails in this regard. Early in the game when the Sarge is barking orders to the Americans, you can stand right in front of him, look him directly in the eyes, and still not hear a single word he says. But the very second any of the other soldiers pipes up with a quip or other smart remark they come through loud and clear.
Does anyone else see how this might prove awkward when trying to understand your objectives?
Idiocy such as this prompted Yours Truly to activate the subtitles just so I would know what was going on. This proved fortuitous because I was able to see when people were speaking to me on the battlefield because otherwise I never would have known they were talking. For example, on one map I was running with my squad towards a trench and a subtitle appeared at the top of the screen from a fellow soldier somewhere saying we needed to take Objective X. No prior mention of this was on the Objectives screen so had those subtitles not been on this would have resulted in a battlefield catastrophe.
The key new feature for the franchise pops up quickly during the first mission. When you enter a door you’ll get jumped by a German soldier who wrestles you to the ground. In order to throw him off of you and regain the upper hand, you have to pull both triggers as quickly as possible. This happens several times during the game so get used to the mini-game aspect of it. Just for kicks there is yet another mini-game in store for players and that would be “setting up the bomb.” When your soldier plants a bomb you’ll be prompted to spin the thumbstick a certain way to screw in the fuse, then prompts pop up telling you which button to hit to set the timer then pull the firing pin. It’s a nifty concept that grows stale the more you do it, and you will do it quite a lot throughout the game.
The rest of the control scheme is laid out for you immediately upon starting the game. The only variation on any one of the dozens of first person shooters is how the directional pad is used. You need to hit and hold either the left or right buttons depending on which type of grenade you wish to throw. When you hit either button a small red circle appears in the middle of the screen as it counts down how much time is left before Mr. Grenade is no longer your friend.
To be perfectly honest here, and honesty is my middle name right after Hubert, if you’ve played one first person shooter game ever then you stand a good chance of being under whelmed by Call of Duty 3. The game starts out like you would expect any game in this series to – with a too-long tutorial instructing you in how to use the controls which is then followed by a cinematic sequence then capped by your character getting knocked out by a nearby explosion then dragged out by other soldiers. Oh, and that whole “knocked senseless then dragged away” thing? It happens at least four times in the first few missions and eventually gets to the point where you’ll scream in frustration at the TV, “Let my GI go!”
It’s one thing to watch a game instead of playing it (looking at you, Metal Gear Solid 3), but it’s quite another to have the game pause repeatedly throughout missions for a quick in-game cinematic then throw you back into the fire. The intended effect is to make things feel like you’re starring in a WWII action film typified by the hand-to-hand combat and resultant dizziness.
I’ll be vague for those people who dislike spoilers, but it’s important to remember this is based on actual events 60+ years ago so if you don’t know what happened then I shall laugh at you. At one point in the game, your assignment is to assault a facility with your squad. When you reach the top of a particular tower a German soldier leaps out at you and you have to wrestle with him via the control scheme discussed above. When you finish him off he flips over the edge of the tower and takes you with him. As you hang onto the edge, you have to hit the triggers repeatedly to pull yourself back over the railing. All of this is handled in-game so the entire sequence is viewed in one shot from the player’s vantage point. I had to pause it at one point because my head was spinning from watching this.
When you’re not busy grappling with German soldiers you’re busy running through bombed-out buildings shooting at German soldiers. When you’re not doing this, you’re either driving Polish tanks across the countryside or driving jeeps through small towns. The tank sequences are a ton of fun and you truly feel an exhilarating kick from firing the guns. Conversely, the jeep is an unwieldy pain in the neck to control and maneuver through such tight quarters.
As noted previously, if you’ve played a first person shooter before, any at all, then you’ve played this game many times over.
Call of Duty 3 is certainly not a game likely to re-enter my gaming rotation anytime soon, if at all, because once you complete it there is very little to motivate a second run through. There are no achievements on the regular Xbox version, no secret weapons or special moves or vehicles to unlock, bad audio to contend with, and “important” characters who you don’t have time to bond with before it’s off to the next battlefield. If all that plus lengthy missions with constantly spawning enemies sounds like the game for you then feel free to enjoy it. At least the missions are long and varied and you get to kill lots and lots of Nazis which just never grows old.
Call of Duty 3 isn’t a terrible game per se but it is a highly frustrating one. On the one hand, the craftsmanship of the levels based in the small French towns is terrific but on the other there is little reason to care about your objectives. It could be burn-out from the glut of WWII-based shooters over the past two years, but I chalk it up to the developers failing to actually try and stand apart from the pack. With so many games focusing on this one subject, it should be incumbent upon developers to reach for the stars every time if only to differentiate themselves from the countless others. This tired sequel rides the coattails of the name brand and it remains painfully obvious right from the start.
The previous games were just as guilty of being “rail shooters” as Call of Duty 3 but they managed to successfully throw everything plus the kitchen sink at you to hide that truth. This one tries that same approach but instead comes off as little more than a “me too” clone and this series deserves far better than that. Here’s hoping that Infinity Ward’s eventual return to the saga won’t leave gamers with such a bland and lifeless taste in their mouths.