In anticipation for the next title in what is quickly becoming Activision’s Rambo for massacring a series’ titling and numbering, I thought for my opening article that I would take a look at one of the best franchises of the last decade. Modern Warfare 2 is set to grace store shelves this November, but how has Call of Duty progressed since 2003? Did Infinity Ward lay a solid WWII foundation with which to build their present campaigns, or has the CoD universe slowly been crumbling away?
To be honest this maiden game didn’t get quite the gameplay time it rightfully deserved. It wasn’t until the summer before my freshmen year at college (Fall of 2004) that I finally gave into peer pressure and built a gaming computer; before that I was rooting exclusively for the console team. During orientation week my roommate introduced me to Call of Duty, a game to which he and many of my friends had become addicted the months prior.
I instantly fell in love.
The way her smooth, detailed edges elegantly rendered the gritty gore of WWII; the graceful movement that made lifelike her strafes and grenade jumps; the joy in not knowing how badly the BAR was going to be screwed in subsequent games.
With this title, Infinity Ward nearly perfected the old-school shooter (loosely defined as the medipack days). That’s not to say Call of Duty was necessarily innovative, but it was so well polished that the sheen by itself could almost carry the game.
But as I stated previously, the original title for me was not the in-depth experience later titles were. Much like its review here, VCoD‘s existence was limited and jagged; released just one month after my introduction to the first…
United Offensive was the only expansion pack released within the CoD lineup. Before merging with Treyarch, Gray Matter developed UO effectively as a patch to the original with a slightly different take on content and mechanics.
What both the original and expansion pack shared, however, was a very strong multiplayer package. They offered frantically close-quartered gameplay with a relatively high number of possible players while giving the more strategic of its followers a very finessed, competitive experience. The gun mechanics were also great; no gun felt or played like another. Noticeable differences in distance and impact registration reflected the era weaponry well, helping balance all the guns (except maybe the FG42).
What about single-player? Granted both games had nice historical snippets, but single-player campaigns are typically overlooked in CoD games (and for good reason). There never is much of a story. Both VCoD and UO suffered from lack of forward-pushing narrative. Everything in the campaigns came off as backstory/history rather than “here and now, you literally are in the war” motivation. Enemies came out in droves, endlessly spilling from god-knows-where. It’s good to see massive amounts of enemies in war games, but ever-spawning Nazis get annoying very quickly. The level design wasn’t bad, except for the fact that many (if not all) of the scenes and scenarios came verbatim from Hollywood productions. Enemy at that Gates, Saving Private Ryan. Hell, I started laughing when I saw the Carentan episode of Band of Brothers because the game level is EXACTLY the same.
But what did United Offensive specifically bring to the table? The contributions from UO still linger within the series. Gameplay mechanics were tweaked to add sprinting and cooked grenades; the first, crude usage of a per-game ranking system was added; multiplayer was enlightened to capture-the-flag matches; and don’t forget the ever-loving satchel charge made its debut. However, one piece of content made its way into the series that has only popped up once again down the road. Infinity Ward has always stated that their Call of Duty games are about the infantry: man-to-man combat, frag grenades, and iron sights (or ACOG scope, depending on your timeline). They wanted the combat to be personal. So to have Gray Matter add vehicular gameplay this early in the series seemed odd.
Tanks and jeeps (and their associated artillery canons) warranted the developer to add larger maps. In doing so, the gameplay weakened. Sure, having a multiplayer map specifically designed to have two tanks duel old-west style is awesome, but the vehicle maps crippled the normal gameplay. The original game was not designed with vehicles in mind, so their addition here seemed tacked on, not only changing the game, but bogging it down to near unplayability. Thankfully, vehicles were optional.
United Offensive in my mind is a very rare gem. Not normally does a expansion surpass its core game, but UO seemed to do it in spades. It not only maintained the overall feel of VCoD, it grew from the foundation and became its own entity.
Around the time of the original Call of Duty, times they were a changin’. Gaming was becoming a more mainstream “necessity”. Consoles were becoming more like single-box, all-purpose media centers. Games like Halo were leading the first-person shooter front, proving games on console could be fairly profitable. It was inevitable that Infinity Ward would make the plunge.
Call of Duty 2 represented the franchise’s leap into full mainstream gaming. For the first time CoD could be played on a home console. It was a launch title for the Xbox 360 and quickly became one of the best selling/reviewed games of the year. The question, though basic, is – why? Many players of VCoD and UO turned their backs on the game right out of the gate, as I almost did. Why could a game be so well received while simultaneously shunning many of its core gamers?
The very blunt answer was Halo. As I said the Halo series was causing a surge of FPS fandom on consoles. Along with that, it brought one basic gameplay overhaul. Looking back on it, the change seems minuscule; however at the time it was nearly a deal breaker for hardened players. That change? Regenerative health.
Med packs, pills, virgin blood – whatever the execution, these health pick-me-ups and a limited life bar were in our blood. Switching this one thing completely changed the landscape of CoD gameplay, for better or worse. The idea of hiding and miraculously healing seemed idiotic, again at the time. Now, it seems only Valve still holds valiantly to the olden days of a life bar (look at their track record and decide what is best). But I’m glad I stuck with CoD2; it became one of my favorite games, even with its faults.
Obviously a next-iteration game will have a graphics overall, and CoD2 didn’t skimp on the visuals. Although many competitive PC players crippled their graphics down to DirectX 7 to obtain a better model distinguishability (hell, I know I did), maxing out the settings still creates a game that can compete visually with most new games coming out today.
The single-player campaign like the previous games was pretty barebones. Minor missions took you through action set-pieces with no real storyline or reason to actually play through it. Again, Infinity Ward seemingly spent most of their time with the multiplayer aspect of the game.
We were granted with ten new mp maps along with three recreated fan-favorites from the previous games. The level design was exceptional. Every place on a map had little nuances that were perfect for holding or covering a section of the map, but at the same time could be taken by a flank or flushed out with nades. The balancing of each map was really well done. Granted, spawning didn’t quite (or even remotely) match the quality of level design (I’m looking at you Dawnville), so the multiplayer quality can be pretty subjective.
My only real gripe with this game was the hit detection. Right out of the box, the hit detection was buggy and subsequently never really fixed. For a time my clan participated in “rifles only” matches; when you’re using a long-range, bolt-action weapon as your only gun, character hit boxes are much more relevant and noticeable then with spray-and-pray tactics.
Overall CoD2 was pretty solid. The graphics, sounds, level design; all were done well. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it surpassed its predecessors, but it was a worthy addition to the franchise.
Treyarch takes its first true crack at the main CoD lineup. 14 people play.
And so the WWII era officially dies…
Even when Call of Duty 2 came out, World War II games were starting to get stale. I mean how many re-tellings of Easy Company’s hardships can we take before we don’t care anymore? Infinity Ward realized this and quickly began production of their next installment right after CoD2 was finished. Taking us out of nazi Germany and setting us down into the turmoil of the Middle East, Modern Warfare dragged us into modern day combat.
Not only did the setting change, Infinity Ward did a complete overall. The graphics, especially the particle effects, were upgraded nicely; the sound design reached new depth and realism; many of the gameplay elements from UO (sprinting, nade cooking, etc.) were added back; multiplayer received a fully-functional XP ranking system; singleplayer was awesome; the lev…
Wait, wait, wait. Back up a second. Single-player was awesome? In a CoD game? Is that even possible? Apparently so. It only took seven games (counting the console-only spinoffs) before enough effort was put forth to create a quality campaign. IW seemingly took their time and interlaced an interesting story amongst their mini-mission formula. Every mission was unique and helped push the narrative forward. The overall feel was much more cinematic then prior attempts, from the opening credits to the out-of-left-field nuke scenario to the gripping finale. I still think ‘All Ghillied Up‘ is easily one of the best levels ever created; so much tension is built up and yet no bullet is fired until halfway through. The dialog was immersive and seemed authentic. The scenarios felt much more organic and less scripted. Albeit mildly short, not much if anything was bad with this single-player go-through.
Which brings me to multiplayer. Honestly, “flash in a pan” pretty much sums it up for me. Modern Warfare took the frantic gameplay of CoD, added modern-day weaponry, built upon the kill-streak perks from UO, and essentially made everything too streamlined, too easy. I bought CoD4 the day it released as early as Gamestop would allow. By midnight two days later, I had reached level 55. Granted, the leveling system was good, and it gave me a actual reason to play CoD on public servers, but after the initial *umph* reaction, I found the multiplayer to be quite lackluster. The weapons were too much alike (except for the sniper rifles, which were useless). The ‘noob tube’, though amazing, was extremely cheap. The level designs were well detailed, but none really felt unique, just more of the same (although ‘Shipment’ was an amazing official ‘Wawa‘ map). And overall it was just flat out too easy to kill someone. Don’t get me wrong though; Modern Warfare is fun in moderation. But I mean I put at least 1,000 hours in CoD2, a game I basically hated at the get-go; CoD4 didn’t even come close. It just grew old and tired too quickly.
Modern Warfare definitely switched around the reason I enjoyed it. The single-player campaign was spectacular, but multiplayer came off neutered to me. That is not my recipe for greatness or even longevity.
Welp, Treyarch returned, sucking the teet of their every-other deal with Activision. Seems they backtracked a tad, ignoring IW’s transition to the present. We find ourselves back in World War II, fighting Nazis again and wondering why this company is still attached to this franchise.
World at War is basically a cut-and-paste job, and a bad one at that. It looks like they opened CoD4 in Microsoft Paint, splashed a little axis/ally color around, converted the game to a jpg, and released a pixelated mess. Treyarch tried their damnedest to replicate the juggernaut that CoD4 had become. In almost every way they stumbled.
The single-player campaign is modeled exactly after Modern Warfare: you get a seemingly much more cinematic experience with a grittier storyline weaving the missions together. However, most aspects of this journey just did not work. The voice acting was pretty bad; Kiefer Sutherland must have gotten his paycheck early, because he was phoning it in like nobody’s business. The dramatic in-game sequences were probably pretty cool, but I missed every last one of them since I was too busy trying to get through the level and didn’t pay attention to the non-existent queues (I even knew about the flamethrower death toward the end and still missed it). The AI was simply idiotic, period. The dragged-out, never-ending-onslaught, just-to-fill-time events got exceptionally annoying; didn’t you, Reichstag exterior? Oh, and the dramatic heartbreak of seeing my Russian psyche die twenty times was so very refreshing. Needless to say, I thoroughly disliked playing through this campaign. It was much more a chore than fun or even interesting.
Hmm… If I disliked the multiplayer of CoD4, I wonder how this one fared. Yup, horribly. Atop the reasons I disliked the former, Treyarch managed to throw a few more displeasures into WaW that irked me. For one, please stop putting vehicles in this series. THEY DO NOT WORK! Everything becomes off-balance. Just stop it. On top of that, the game also felt pretty sluggish. Movements weren’t as crisp; weapon switching was slowed. Everything felt like it was happening a step behind what it should.
I will say though that WaW had one aspect I really liked, even if it wasn’t something new. The weapons were well designed. Everything had enough distinction that no weapon played the same as another. That is one thing I always liked about WWII games: the variety and stats of weapons can be many and exaggerated to keep the game interesting, rather than everyone effectively running around with the same gun.
This is where I’ll end that mediocre praise and state that if I hadn’t received a free copy with my video card, there is no way I would ever pay money for this game.
Ah, Modern Warfare 2. What do we have to look forward to this coming November? Hopefully something worth $60 since even the PC game looks to match the price point of the console versions. However, I feel my hopes will be thwarted.
The Call of Duty series for me has been a roller coaster time-line (can you guess which titles constitute the valleys?). Even though each Infinity Ward attempt was good, if high school physics taught me anything, each subsequent peak of the coaster is lower than the previous. If Modern Warfare 2 follows the trend, it’ll sell like mad, like 11.1 million copies this year mad. But something won’t quite be right, causing another addition to the series to collect dust on my shelf before its time.
Let’s look at what we know so far. The game seems to be an overall slightly tweaked version of CoD4. This is fine given that the main storyline is a direct continuation, and the fact that CoD4 looked damn awesome in the first place. Aside from a few teasers, we’ve only had one official trailer. Come to find out the successor to CoD4‘s Zakhaev is pissed and launching his own “just” cause. Based on what I saw of the E3 demonstration, the quality of Modern Warfare 2‘s single-player matches its predecessor exactly. I’m actually somewhat giddy to play through the campaign.
Multiplayer though has not been mentioned as of yet. Infinity Ward tends to hold off info until late in the game. No demo nor beta has been officially announced either (or even rumored). But if I had to guess, there will not be too many changes to the game in any regard; more of the same will tend to please most Call of Duty gamers. We will just have to wait four more months to find out. See you on the battlefield.
PS – To those of you wondering about the side games (Finest Hour, Big Red One, or even Roads to Victory), seriously? Did anyone actually play those? If so, why?