Summary: Jakub's little misadventure in Poland did have a purpose: Call of Duty 2! Activision gave us time with the game, and boy did we ever get the most of it.
Call of Duty 2 takes the phrase “don’t mess with success” close to heart. Even though it has a new game engine and is built from the ground up, the similarities to the original are clear in every respect. The movement code, the way weapons look, feel and fire, the reactions of characters to being hit – all the dozens of little touches we so loved about Call of Duty are present in the sequel.
Infinity Ward haven’t rested on their laurels, however. Call of Duty 2 features many updates and improvements, ranging from the obvious like the graphics engine, to the subtle like AI and gameplay changes. The venerable Quake III engine has been retired in favor of an in-house custom job, featuring pixel shaders, bump maps and much-improved shadows and lighting. In an interesting twist, it seems that the new game engine is either capable of playing original Call of Duty maps, or – more likely - it wasn’t difficult to import them. I say this because the multiplayer testing we did was deathmatch in Carentan. Unfortunately, it was only raw deathmatch so we couldn’t report on any new game modes available yet.
The solo campaign consumed the bulk of the presentation however, with a variety of maps to choose from. The Russians, Americans, and Brits were all playable, in a frozen Stalingrad, sun-scorched Toujane in North Africa and a soaking wet Pointe du Hoc in Normandy, respectively. All three settings provided abundant evidence of the expanded maps that were a design focus for Infinity Ward. Though a far cry from Far Cry (oh teh punny! -ed.), the maps were larger and more open than in the original, offering the player multiple options at assaulting a target at times. These attack options didn’t always boil down to the dumb head-on charge and the sneaky flanking maneuver either; sometimes sneaking around would only expose the player to another group of enemies, pinning him down in a withering crossfire.
Another notable improvement is with the artificial intelligence of both friends and foes. The developers have cut down on the instances of nonsensical behavior of AI characters and improved their range of abilities. The AI is considerably more likely to seek out proper cover and to use grenades to flush the player out. In conjunction with the map layout, it is also more capable of pulling off attacks on the player’s position by flanking. This is more likely a level design development than AI, or at least purely AI, but we’ll reserve final judgment for the review.
SIDEBAR: For those wondering how I placed in the deathmatch, how can you doubt FiringSquad? Of course I whooped on everyone! O ye of little faith…
Once the difficulty was bumped up to the two highest settings, new features in CoD 2’s AI became apparent. For example, the player’s squad no longer waits for him to lead. Call of Duty had the squadmates pushing up only to the player’s current location and immediate area, waiting on him before moving forward. In the sequel, the AI is more pro-active about attacking enemy positions. It’s not particularly successful – after all, the player’s character is the hero – but it does it.
It took me until the higher difficulty levels to notice this because there are many more situations where you find yourself pinned down by enemy fire while you heal up before making the next move. At times like this, the AI would go forward and take a few Germans down or at least distract them. In fact, on the highest difficulty level, I wouldn’t be surprised if I permitted more squadmates to die than I actually killed enemies. Despite this, the higher difficulty settings force the player into a more realistic way of playing.
Healing brings us to another new feature in Call of Duty 2. The developers had noticed that players in the original game would stop the action and go back to earlier parts of the map for health packs, especially if facing an unknown or difficult situation ahead. Even though enemies dropped health on occasion, this wasn’t enough to keep the player constantly pushing forward in the action – a mark of good gameplay. So the new damage system is regenerative. Your avatar takes hits and his vision starts going red, the heart pumping sound kicks in and the more he gets beat up, the worse these effects are. Take too many hits and you’ll be pushing up daisies. However, during lulls in the action, the shock effects fade away and the character returns to full health. We’re not sure if this is how all characters operate.
The developers have continued their tradition of basing battles off actual engagements during the war. One of the most talked about is of course the battle of Pointe du Hoc, the cliff assault on D-Day, with the objective of surprising the German defenders (who assumed the cliffs were impassable) and getting at heavy artillery batteries that had a good view of Omaha beach.
SIDEBAR: The British Crusader tanks present in the screenshots look like Crusader IIIs, lightly armored cruiser tanks. The British army had this weird idea of having light cruiser tanks and heavy infantry tanks working together. The Crusader III was armed with the over-achieving 6pdr 57mm gun.
The battlefield, if loud before, is a complete racket now. When MG42s aren’t stitching red tattoos on your hide, or grenades aren’t making your head ring, you’re going to hear about those MG42s and grenades – and everything else. Call of Duty 2 has a huge stock of voice clips that are pieced together to give information about the battlefield. Of course, it’s all available in English even if you’re fighting alongside comrades in Stalingrad, but if you know German you can also overhear and understand what your enemies are saying.
Smoke is another huge factor. While many of the changes that Grey Matter brought on board have been reset – ie, there are no vehicles in multiplayer (as far as we can tell), and there’s no more ranking for special abilities – smoke has been retained. It adds a whole new dimension to the battlefield, being effective even in the singleplayer campaign, with the AI being specifically coded to be blinded by it.
Altogether, Infinity Ward has produced a more intense and visceral Call of Duty. It looks better, sounds better, plays faster and hits harder. There are no stops to pick up health packs, and the player is under constant pressure to keep moving forward to capture every new German strongpoint to prevent them from reinforcing it. You can snipe all day but sooner or later you need feet on the ground to control that ground – and that means moving. Along the way, IW has somehow managed to avoid tinkering with all the parts of Call of Duty that made it great. Years back, during my review of the first title, I commented on the incredible crispness, the smooth yet exact motions of the player, the solid feeling of guns, the predictability in using them. These are intangibles that are difficult to describe and yet so vital to the experience – intangibles that Infinity Ward has somehow brought to a new peak.
SIDEBAR: The success of the Rangers at Pointe du Hoc, not only in the attack but holding against German counter-attacks, saved many lives in the already tough fighting at Omaha beach.
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