Summary: It's been a long time since we gave away an Editor's Choice Award, but it seems like Call of Duty: United Offensive just might have the Reich Stuff (pardon the pun). Also, Jakub comes away with 75 screenshots of this CoD expansion, including multiplayer tank action!
It’s remarkable how closely Gray Matter Studios was able to follow Infinity Ward’s lead for producing the single player experience. As with the core title, the player is put into three campaigns as an American, British and Russian soldier. The game throws you into various historically-based settings, such as fighting on the outskirts of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, or going after hapless German Elefant tank-destroyers during the Battle of Kursk.
Although it’s a stretch to call the gameplay realistic – you do face hordes of enemies in multiple waves, it does feel very authentic. It’s really all about the dozens of small touches that have been implemented. Many of these are about mere frosting, like helmets plopping off after headshots, having to aim down the sight of a gun, and the authentic uniforms and very realistic sound effects. The sound effects have been left alone, but Gray Matter has introduced a great smoke system with United Offensive. In fact, this may be the best smoke ever.
However, much of United Offensive’s “authenticity” about how the levels are structured and even the objectives themselves. Perhaps it’s merely my personal bias, since I did enjoy this very thing in FreeSpace 2 very much, but the game is enjoyable precisely because you’re a nobody. Oh sure, in Call of Duty the characters have names, but the player is never put in the role of officer or responsible for saving the world. The actions he takes lead to significant tactical contributions and sometimes the missions have strategic consequences, but these are all objectives that could have – and often were – accomplished historically.
The amount of enemies the player mows through is huge but not to the point of ridiculousness – it’s not something that throws itself into your face other than in the B-17 mission where there’s even a score card. The presence of the squad is really vital in maintaining the illusion of believability, as is the mission structure. Every objective the player goes after has a concrete plan – some might call it a railroad path – to victory. On the one hand, this can be annoying if you want more freedom, but overall the effect is of a much tighter and focused experience. Furthermore, the plans and events are made to be very believable, like the objectives are. Squads are sent down the left, right and center of a village, clearing it out house by house. Your commando team approaches a bunker as quietly as possible in order to get within grenade range without alerting the guards and their machine gunner. All in all, it’s a very convincing experience and highly enjoyable.
Unfortunately, it feels like development was rushed just a little bit. There are a few scripting bugs we found, but it happened with enough consistency to decide that United Offensive is just a little less polished than its gleaming white predecessor. Typically your team leader refuses to kick open a door or gate as he’s supposed to, enemies pop in from areas they shouldn’t be in, or ignore and are ignored by your squad mates, waiting only for you. It doesn’t happen very often, but like a small dirt stain on an otherwise perfectly white shirt, it stands out.
When I last left Call of Duty multiplayer – with the help of a rehab program, I might add – it was a spectacular infantry combat game. Whether your poison was Headquarters, Search & Destroy or good old team deathmatch, the weapon was a rifle, SMG or assault rifle.
In United Offensive, all of a sudden the mighty Garand rifle isn’t so imposing when it’s facing down a Pz IV H tank. Yes, the game’s key addition is vehicle combat. 95% of the time, this means tanks. Yes, there are jeeps in the game as well but tanks are where it’s all at. United Offensive has enough tanks on the average map to make sure that most people will be spending a good bunch of their time in them. They can’t be repaired, like in Battlefield 1942, but they’re so numerous it doesn’t matter.
Anti-tank weapons are littered around maps as well. In addition to panzerfausts, there are now panzerschrecks and bazookas. These hit with the same force as a main gun on the tanks, so it’ll take a lot of shots to the front, two to the side or one to the rear to kill one of them.
Gray Matter modeled a total of five tanks. There are three proper tanks – the T-34/85, Panzer IV H and Sherman 75, and two tank destroyers – the German Elefant and Soviet SU-152. The tank destroyers are much tougher and hit a lot harder to boot, but they lack turrets and, being rather ungainly beasts, can be out-maneuvered up close. Infantry are devastating to these.
The maps have grown accordingly to accommodate these armored monstrosities, and new game modes put in to support them. There’s the classic Capture the Flag mode, a Domination mode that ends when one side controls all the flags, and a Base Assault where each side is trying to destroy the other’s bases. These bases, incidentally, are also spawn points.
All in all, United Offensive is a lot more… chaotic. It’s much easier to die. If you’re infantry, the big, bad tanks are always looking for an easy kill on a “squishy” and if you are one of those tanks, it’s only a matter of time before an infantryman delivers his hot panzerfaust up your rear. The abundance of other tanks also means it’s very easy to get outnumbered. Tanks, being big targets, are hard to miss so fights are usually won by the tank that fires first.
Success really requires a lot more teamwork. No matter how skilled you are, it’s too difficult to succeed by yourself in United Offensive. In Call of Duty, even now I find it easy to rack up a good kill ratio thanks to superior aim and simply out-thinking my enemies. UO takes away from that to some extent, since both tanks and infantry have a tough time advancing.
On the other hand, players are rewarded for their skill and teamwork – by achieving objectives – with ranks. Initially, the player starts with very little ammo, but as he gains rank, he gets more ammunition, more grenades (including smoke grenades) and even the ability to call artillery, which works much like in Enemy Territory. On at least one of United Offensive’s 11 new maps, artillery’s a real pain, but otherwise it’s just a good way to punish the careless and discourage movement through a certain area. Let me say from experience that it works great at stopping flag capper pursuit.
CoD: UO adds a truckload of variety to the multiplayer. So much so, in fact, that we’re not sure if this is a drawback. Being an actual add-on pack, rather than a stand-alone expansion, United Offensive is likely to split the burgeoning CoD multiplayer community into those who prefer the old-school infantry style of play and those who like tanks.
Featuring the same thrilling ride through three theaters of World War II, including a new and a little too over-the-top B-17 gunner mission, United Offensive is everything that Call of Duty was. That, alone, wouldn’t have gotten it an award. Fortunately, Gray Matter put a ton of work into the multiplayer aspect, including tanks, almost a dozen huge new maps, and a rank system. The new modes of play are easier to get into though they’re likely to turn off some of the hardcore CoD players.
On the one hand, United Offensive will split the community and cannibalize players from the original because it’s an add-on, rather than stand-alone. The multiplayer in UO is revolutionary compared to CoD, and while we might wish Activision released this as a stand-alone for the sake of the community, we’re not about to punish an excellent expansion pack for adding so much to the original.
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