I don't know how much of this will get past the censors, but hopefully they will leave enough in so you can get some idea about what my first week in combat has been like. It didn't take long to get to know the guys in my squad - they're pretty much the same as all of the other troops I've met. They're sarcastic and grumpy, but they stick together in a fight, and that's what is most important. Well, there's one guy that got into it with Sarge and nearly got his head blowed off, but they're a good bunch for the most part.
Most everyone at home will want to know what it's like to fight in a battle. Well Ma, it's loud and it's confusing and it's just so frightening that in my first couple of battles all I could do was follow the guys in front of me and try to shoot at anyone that looked foreign. There is so much going on all at once, and there's so much to hear, and shells are bursting around you and showering you with dirt, and guys are getting shot right and left of you, and it's all just happening at once! I don't want you to be scared for me Mom, but in just the few days that I've been here I've been in a truck wreck, I've been blown off the back of a tank that I was sitting on, and I've been stunned by close hits a couple of times. I've had a hand-to-hand fight to the death with a German soldier, and I've been pinned down my machine guns, thinking that there was no way I could move without getting shot. You know what, Mom? I was wrong. Go ahead and be scared for me - real scared!
But I'm learning Mom. I'm learning what it will take for me to stay alive as we defend the gains we made last week. We know that we cannot allow ourselves to be pushed back out to the sea. We know that if we don't put everything into beating this enemy now , we will have to come back and do it again later after he's gotten even stronger. If we lose this battle, we will have wasted the effort of all those guys that stormed the beaches. Plenty of mistakes were made during the landings, and most of our post-invasion plans were shot to hell by the unpredictability of war, but we keep ourselves motivated by thinking of you folks back home and how important it is for us to defeat this enemy before he can do damage to our families over there at home. We know all of you support us and our mission over here, and we're proud that even those people that thought we had no business over here, those that thought we should just ignore Hitler and let him take Europe, have banded together to stand behind us as we fight this ugly fight. I don't think we could win this thing if we didn't know that our Countrymen were united in supporting us and have put aside their differences to present a united front to this tireless, ruthless, diabolical foe.
I was thinking about all of that as my squad was pinned down in front of a big building. The Germans had placed a bunch of machine guns in there, and every time I tried to take a shot at one, the ground around me erupted with the hits of hundreds of bullets. It seemed that the Germans could keep replacing any of their guys that we hit with no problems. I realized that we were going to run out of ammo if we stayed put, and to retreat was to forfeit any gains we had paid so dearly for. I don't know what made me do it, Mom, but I tossed two smoke grenades out in front of us and as the thick covering smoke they provided blocked the view of the gunners in the building, me and a couple of the guys snuck around to the side. We were able to get in and sneak up on the gunners as they fired on our buddies. After seeing them swing their guns back and forth in a killing arc aimed at my pals, I didn't feel even a seconds worth of guilt as I shot them in the back. I know that's hard to hear, Mom, but that's the way it is here. It's violent, it's dirty, and it's Hell. But it has to be done. It has to.
So, Mom, that's what the first few hours of Activision's Call of Duty 3 on my Xbox have been like. When's dinner?
When I was offered the opportunity to review Call of Duty 3 for the Xbox, I leapt at it. I remember Call of Duty 2 on the PC and how high it raised the bar for me when it comes to tactical war games. I really liked the cinematic aspect of it, the immersive feeling of being overwhelmed by the cacophony of battle, and the way the action could pull me along like a raging current moves a kayak. I wondered, though, how the aging Xbox platform would perform with a game that would clearly be pushing the limits of even the newer Xbox 360. Frankly, I didn't expect much in comparison to the much higher resolutions and faster processors of the PC and 360, and as unfair as it is, I knew I would be unable to avoid making such comparisons.
I am not disappointed. No, the graphics obviously aren't on a par with the superior capabilities of the newer consoles or my older PC, but they are very good in comparison with other legacy Xbox games. The screen can be a bit dark for my tastes, making it difficult at times to see enemy soldiers that are more than a few yards away, but it helps enormously that they can see me and often will give away their positions by the muzzle flash as they fire at me, though. I can usually get them to at least duck or stop firing just long enough to get myself behind some cover by firing back at the muzzle flashes. Beyond that, the details of the war-torn towns and fields around Normandy are spectacular. Not that the destruction of property and lives is a good thing, mind you, but history is history and I appreciate the attention to detail evidenced by the design team. The two of three of you that have read my past reviews know that I am big into the idea of a truly immersive suspension-of-disbelief when it comes to games, and Activision truly delivers with CoD3.
In fact, the entire Call of Duty series has created and dominated a niche that I call Cinematic games. A Cinematic game puts tremendous emphasis on making the player feel like a participant in events of such immense scale that the player is to a discernable degree just along for the ride. Where this differs from simply watching a movie, though, is in the level of individual participation. In CoD3, you are not going to single-handedly change the overall course of events, but your individual contributions are still important. In fact, the entire authenticity of the experience is based on that premise. Much like a real GI (whether you are American, Canadian, British, or Polish – you play roles as all four in CoD3) back in August of 1944, you have no real understanding of the overall historical importance of any given battle or objective – history has not yet determined the macro picture of these momentous events. All you know is that you are tasked with one highly dangerous objective after another, and while you have some understanding of why your success or failure on any objective is important (hint: if you succeed, you live. If you fail, you die) and you have a rudimentary understanding of the higher purpose, you don’t know that someday the Normandy Invasion will be viewed as the turning point in the war against Hitler’s expansionism. You also know that you cannot do it all alone. You have to depend on the rest of your squad to do their jobs too; there’s no room for Rambo in this particular war.
As you can imagine, it takes quite a bit of effort to truly engage a player in an experience like this. The graphics have to be believable, the sounds have to be authentic, and the actions of the other players on the field of battle have to be realistic. CoD3, just like its precursors, delivers the goods. All of the CoD titles are distinctive in their tremendously high production values, but CoD3 improves on what was already the most engrossing and entertaining series of WWII FPS games available today. For example, new to CoD3 is the ability to pick up an enemy grenade and toss it back. That simple feature adds a new element to the fight: your response to a grenade landing at your feet is no longer a choice between running away or dropping prone and hoping for the best. Now you have to make a snap decision as to whether you have a better chance of turning the tables on the guy that threw the grenade, or sticking with the old method of avoidance. Now, truth be told, I tried tossing the grenade back a few times and found my odds of success to be far lower than my odds of survival using the duck and cover method. But that’s just my experience – yours can (and likely will) be completely different. And that, in a nutshell, is what makes the upgrade or initial acquisition of CoD3 a worthwhile investment.
Even beyond the newly enhanced reality of grenade swapping, CoD3 has other features that suck you into the virtual battlefield. The cut scenes between objectives are well done and quite entertaining, although players of French ancestry may get a little annoyed at the stereotyped attitudes regarding the French Army’s capabilities evidenced by the chatter amongst the GIs. Truth be told, the cut scenes tend to (accurately?) display the friction that could occur in the trenches when Allied soldiers of different nationalities had to work together. Another change from previous iterations is that it takes a lot more time to perform actions such as placing explosives or operating equipment. Rather than just plaster the explosive charge to the unit intended to be destroyed, there are now more realistic steps involved like inserting the fuse, removing the safety wire, and the like. It’s easy to do, but it takes enough time that you have to make sure you aren’t going to get shot while you’re doing it. The intent of all of this from the developers’ point of view is to increase the reality and believability quotients, again in an effort to maximize the cinematic aspects of the game, and for the most part they have been very successful.
Another way in which Call of Duty 3, just like the previous iterations in the CoD series, breaks convention is in the area of personal health. Most FPS games require you to hunt for health packs or try to get assistance from a medic player. In CoD, you will recover from hits simply by getting out of the line of fire and waiting a few minutes to recover. Obviously there are plusses and minuses to that approach. On the plus side, it allows you to keep up with the train of events better since you don’t have to periodically go off on an Easter egg hunt. This is extremely important in CoD because the flow of the battle is fairly tightly scripted, and would bog down if you (the central character in the play) were to wander off in search of health packs. On the minus side, knowing that you can absorb tremendous amounts of damage and recover easily can lead to some of the Rambo behavior I mentioned before. Note that this is somewhat mitigated by the fact that you cannot manually save progress through the game. Since you have to get to the next save point or risk losing all progress by adopting an ill-advised overly aggressive attack mode, there is a tendency in some of the longer stretches to play somewhat conservatively, just as you would if your life was really on the line. It’s interesting that CoD3 provides both situations that call for a slow, methodical approach and situations that reward aggressive attacks. It’s left to you to decide which approach is appropriate in any given situation, which again lends authenticity to the experience. Be aware of this, though: there are a few missions that you will do over and over until you can work your way to the save point. Let’s just say that there is a road in France that I hope never to have to cross again!
That said, the health management scheme in CoD is only one of a number of ways that the designers kept the game approachable to non-hardcore gamers. The goal of the Call of Duty games is to provide an enjoyable, and perhaps awe-inspiring, cinematic experience to all audiences. To that end, there are a number of subtle “helpers” built in to help less experienced gamers keep the flow of events going. For example, you may get a glimpse of a German soldier peaking out from behind a tree. You swing around to aim your gun in his general direction and lift the gun to your cheek to sight down the barrel. The game will automatically give your aim a little, unobtrusive nudge to tighten up your aim just a bit. This is immensely helpful when you’re pinned down by a machine gun: you can pop out from behind your cover, quickly aim and zoom, fire off a few rounds, and duck back behind your cover. Depending on the situation, you can also hang back behind your squad mates and let them do the dangerous work. They’re actually pretty good at it and make a serious contribution to your efforts, although there are times when they might forget where you are and insert themselves between your gun and its intended target. “Sorry about that, fella!”
As I mentioned briefly above, in addition to battles as an infantryman in the United States 29th Infantry Division you also have the opportunity to play as a soldier from one of the many Allied countries. You will drive a Sherman tank in the Polish 1st Armored Division, fight as a Canadian soldier in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and team up with members of the French Resistance in your role as a Special Forces team member in the British Special Air Service (SAS). The accents of the foreign fighters lend a high degree of authenticity to the game, as do the little spats that break out when stress levels reach the breaking point.
So, is Call of Duty 3 the absolute pinnacle of perfection in WWII FPS games? Well, no. But it’s getting there. Some past criticisms of the series have been that the paths are very linear (somewhat akin to the chute cattle are led through on the way to their demise) and don’t leave a lot of room for ad hoc flanking maneuvers, the environments aren’t destructible so it is possible to unrealistically find cover behind lightweight wooden crates, etc., and the lack of hand-to-hand combat. These issues have begun to be addressed in CoD3, but not to the ultimate level that they should be. I found that every now and then an enemy would hide behind something that I could destroy with gun fire, but that it was far more often the case that bullets would have no effect whatsoever on whatever the enemy was crouched behind. I also found that there were, in fact, alternate paths that could be used to attack an entrenched enemy, but that I was also very often stymied by a one foot tall hedge that I couldn’t step over or some other obstruction that forced me back into the chute. I’m not sure if the event scripting technology inherent in a choreographed experience like CoD will ever allow for a completely open battlefield, but there is certainly still opportunity for improvement.
As it stands today, though, Call of Duty 3 represents the state-of-the-art in Cinematic war simulations. If you don’t have the lucre to move up to an Xbox 360, you will be able to add another years life to your legacy Xbox with CoD3 while not giving up all that much in the game experience. Much like HDTV, however, you would find it very difficult to move back down to the lower resolution alternative. With that caveat, I believe Call of Duty 3 belongs on every Xbox owner’s wish list for the imminent holiday season.