Call of Duty 2 was one of the hottest selling titles on the Xbox 360, representing the cream of the crop of launch titles.  Infinity Ward used new mind-blowing visual techniques, explosive gameplay, and incredible sound immersion to bring players into the World War II setting once again.  Turning the reins over to Treyarch for the sequel is enabling players to get their feet back in the mud again this holiday season.  We’ve gotten our hands on the Nazi-smashing sequel, and it is good.


Rather than reliving the assault on the beaches of Normandy, Call of Duty 3 starts you off in the boots of Private Nelson as he prepares for an assault on the town of Saint Lo.  With a little bit of friendly target practice under your belt, you prepare to casually roll up to the German line.  Your naive plan is quickly cut short when your Deuce-and-a-Half truck is shelled on to its side, killing several of your friends.  Thrusting you directly into battle, you begin the American campaign.  As the war continues, you will take part in the British, Canadian, and for the first time ever, Polish campaigns of the war.  Tying all four of these campaigns together is a single goal – freeing the French from their German invaders.  The question that comes to mind is simple – can Treyarch take the reigns of one of the best WWII titles ever made and recreate the great cinematic experiences for this new title? 

Call of Duty 2 was a visual feast.  The immersion factor of the title was amped into overdrive by some fantastic cinematic moments that help you believe that you are part of the war.  Treyarch took the engine for Call of Duty 2 and ran with it.  Rather than just using the existing engine to create a new game, Treyarch worked hard to push that engine to the limit.  Adding in incredible moving tree cover and grass and weeds that crush under your boots, the environment is alive with foliage.  Similarly, buildings are shattered and destroyed, with rubble and debris spilling into the streets.  Just looking at the small training area where you start is enough to really demonsrate just how much work has been put into the game.  Tires, broken fence posts, a leaning dilapidated barn, and a whole lot of grass and bushes swaying in the wind fill the foreground.  IN the background you can see an entire French city, all of the buildings in various states of disrepair.  The draw distance is excellent, never showing any sign of pop-in.  As you look at this scene, you might see a leaf blow past your field of view, or a butterfly flit around the area.  It brings into focus just how much detail Treyarch has put into the environment.


In addition to the fantastic environment work, it looks like the depth of view has gotten some polish.  One of the first areas you’ll encounter is a bombed out graveyard with a church in the distance.  Aiming down the sights, your vision will focus keenly over your target, with the areas on the edge of your field of view blurring slightly.  It adds a bit of focus to the immersion of the battlefield, and it looks cool too!


Speaking of looking cool, character models and physics have received a bit of attention. There are a few destructible objects in the environment, although they are often simply additional eye candy.  You’ll notice these things most when you lob a grenade into a room as it will send pictures, wooden chunks, and various other debris flying.  While you can’t interact with the environment to create cover or destroy it, it does add a little bit to the overall experience.


Speaking of the overall experience, the story for the game is moved along through cutscenes that mask the loading sequences, as well as giving you an idea of what you’ll be facing in your upcoming mission.  Having access to content from The History Channel has once again paid off.  That said, I’d still like the option to skip them.


The scenes of the game are packed to the gills.  Vehicles, soldiers running from cover to cover, dead bodies, grenades, buildings, fire, smoke, and a hailstorm of bullets from both sides keeps the action intense.  This does occasionally have an impact on the framerate, but you’ll notice it most as a level has just finished loading.  You’ll occasionally see some clipping issues, such as a soldier’s weapon sticking through doors, but these are fairly infrequent. 

If you want to test out your surround sound system, simply pop in the DVD of Saving Private Ryan and watch the beach scene.  In a similar way, if you want to show off a fantastic sounding game, simply pop in Call of Duty 3.  Soldiers call from behind you to keep your head down, or will guide you to your objectives with general directions.  You can pinpoint bullet trajectories with the audio, and it adds to the already intense experience. 


Activision and Treyarch secured award-winning composer Joel Goldsmith to handle the soundtrack for Call of Duty 3.  Working with the Slovak Symphony Orchestra, Goldsmith has created a soundtrack worthy of accolade and award.  The music is intense when the field of battle runs red with fire and smoke, and is quiet and subdued during more stealthy missions.  During a few points in the game I noticed that the soundtrack had stopped.  This had the same effect as it does in the movies as you know something bad is about to happen. 


There is one area that did not come together as well as the music and graphics, and that is the voice work.  The American actors turn in decent enough performances, but the British and French sound absolutely ridiculous.  They sound like Americans doing a British or French accent – exaggerated to the point of where it could have been something out of Austin Powers.  What is worse is that they repeat – often.  While adjusting my controls I got to hear the same line repeated quite a few times. 

The controls in Call of Duty 3 are some of the most configurable I’ve seen on a console.  You can toggle between four different stick configurations, including a Southpaw setup.  You can also choose from 4 button layouts.  If that isn’t enough, you can also invert the aim separately, toggle the ADS system (when disabled you must pull the trigger and hold it to aim down the sight), toggle auto-aim functions, use an alternate tank control (meaning that the tank will turn and move toward the direction pushed on the stick), toggle vibration, turn on subtitles, turn off crosshairs, and toggle friendly tags on your soldiers.  This allows you create as realistic, or as arcade-like of an experience as you’d like.  To help with that realistic immersion, there is also a brightness control. 


On the other side of the coin, there is a single volume control for the game.  This means that the volume can only be controlled globally, so you will be unable to turn the music down and the voices up.  Since the vast majority of game developers manage to turn the music up to 11 and keep the voices at 3, this is an unfortunate oversight. 

Call of Duty 3 marks the third in the Call of Duty line, with last year’s Big Red One being the only offshoot to date.  It also marks another trip to the front line of a famous battle of World War II. Treyarch has taken what worked in Call of Duty 2 and moved forward with this new installment.  Attempting to keep the same intensity of the first title, while adding polish and a new multiplayer system was not an easy task.  To accomplish their goal, they clearly took the core bits of Call of Duty 2 and built from that schematic.  Elements from the previous game made their way into this title, including the control scheme, the health system, the use of cover and smoke, and a linear war for you to experience.  Not willing to simply put a new helmet on the old uniform, they added the ability to throw back live grenades, added vehicles, and rebuilt the multiplayer aspects of the game from scratch.  Call of Duty 3 takes some risks with new content, but remains true to the legacy of its predecessor. 


As I described above, our story begins as new recruit Nichols joins the front as the counter assault on Saint Lo is to occur.  Thrust directly into the open maw of warfare, you’ll lead four soldiers through their experiences with World War II.  You’ll see the war through the eyes of American, British, Canadian, and Polish soldiers as you push back the Nazi occupation of France. 


Moving through the occupied cities and hedgerows where some of the most intense battles ever seen occurred, you’ll run into a few of Treyarch’s new gameplay elements.  The first example you’ll see will be a new minigame sequence used to plant explosives.  Hitting the right button sequence in the correct order will plant the bomb needed to take out strategic targets.  Similarly, new close order combat sequences will occur in the course of the game.  You’ll round a corner and find yourself in a mortal struggle for your very life as a Nazi soldier grabs your firearm.  Gripping the two ends of your own weapon, you’ll find yourself in a new minigame where you’ll have to complete the sequence to survive.  This new minigame sequence can catch you off guard, making for a tense moment or two.


The enemy in Call of Duty 3 has been given some new tricks as well.  Objects in the environment can be used for cover, just as in the previous game, but now they can be destroyed.  It does make you move more often, but the game does tend to implement this new gameplay element in a fairly random fashion.  Sometimes a small block wall will disintegrate quickly, whereas a table can become an impenetrable iron fortress in front of the enemy. 


Another gameplay element that’ll see a great deal of use is the new grenade toss-back option. Rather than running from grenades, you can now run towards them and throw them back at the enemy.  Since the enemy can throw back grenades as well, you can’t simply throw and forget – you have to be mindful that a fully-cooked grenade may be headed back your direction. 


There is an oddity to the AI of Call of Duty 3.  There is an iambic pentameter to the poetry of the game, and if you slip off of the pace you’ll find yourself on dangerous ground.  Enemies will take cover, use covering fire, flank, use tactical retreat to seek new cover, and surge forward when they find soft portions of your line.  The game engine wears this mask well, but ultimately it is still a mask.  If you rush forward, your fellow soldiers will often be quite a bit behind you and still pushing forward slowly.  Other times, they’ll surge forward through the fires of Hell, clearly putting themselves in more danger than they need to.  Fall behind this charge and you’ll once again be all alone.  If you keep the pace, the world feels alive.  When it doesn’t, you’ll feel like you are just a cog in a scripted event. 


Call of Duty 3’s single player game is a walk through familiar territory.  The gameplay is improved by the new elements that Treyarch have added, and the new physics engine grants some life to a still-linear world.  If you are a Call of Duty fan, this game will be right up your alley…and we haven’t even really looked at the multiplayer yet. 

While the single player game is still a linear affair with some new gameplay mechanics interwoven, the new multiplayer aspects of the game are a homerun for anyone with an Xbox Live account.  Using a new peer-to-peer based system allows up to 24 players to join the war, with support for up to four players per Xbox 360.  There are six different gametypes to experience, including capture the flag, headquarters, and deathmatch.  What makes this all new is the class system that has been integrated into the online mode.  Playing as a Scout, Rifleman, Light Assault, Medic, Heavy Assault, Anti-Armor, or Support class, you’ll engage in combat similar to a blend of Battlefield 1942 and Unreal Tournament.  As you fight, you can gain rank up to three times.  This allows your weapons to improve, including the airstrikes that can be called by the Sniper class.  While the multiplayer doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it is a vast improvement over the included multiplayer of Call of Duty 2.  With the promise of new maps over Xbox Live, I believe this multiplayer revision will keep us busy for a few months. Call of Duty 3 is obviously the child of Call of Duty 2.  It carries with it some of the best aspects of Call of Duty 2, and adds some new gameplay elements to the series.  On the downside, it also brings with it some occasionally braindead AI, and is still a very linear game.  If you are a Call of Duty fan, you know what to expect out of the single player game.  The new class system will offer those same players a fresh take on the multiplayer segments of the series.  Either way you slice it, Call of Duty 3 is a pretty good game, even if the time and place are a bit overdrawn.

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