Dave's View of the World

Dave's View of the World

Written by Dave Gamble on 10/11/2005 for

Two recently released demos in the WWII first person shooter genre afforded me the opportunity to compare the merits of the two fundamental sub-styles emerging in their respective state-of-the-art products.  Ubisoft released a demo of their flagship "Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood" squad-based tactical shooter, and Activision almost simultaneously treated us to an early taste of the upcoming "Call of Duty 2" cinematic thriller.

In preparation for assessing the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the two demos, I watched the first six episodes of the superb "Band of Brothers" HBO mini-series.  The gritty reality of this series would serve as the baseline to determine which of the new games more accurately captured the mayhem and violence of infantry combat in WWII.  As an added bonus, it also served as a great way to kill the time spent crammed into a flying aluminum germ tube on a recent business trip to the west coast.

It is important to note that these are demo versions, and may not be representative of the final game play. In both cases, however, it is fair to say that if the final game play is anything nearly as good as that available in the demos, these will both be very successful releases.  There may be a few naysayers out there that think the WWII genre has reached its peak and there is no point in releasing yet another pair of titles, but they will likely change their minds after playing either or both of these demos.

Starting with Call of Duty 2, I'll describe the experience of playing through the demos.  In Call of Dut 2y, I started out in the bed of a truck rumbling through the wide open Egyptian desert.  In front of me was a tank carrying some troops on top.  As it sped along, I could see the dust cloud kicked up by its tracks.  It was a beautiful day, with plenty of sun and clear blue skies.  There was no time to enjoy the scenery, though, as those aesthetically pleasing skies were inconveniently full of Stuka dive bombers.  Our boys were up there too, periodically removing a bomber from the fray, but some got through to drop their bombs.  The tank ahead of me took a direct hit, blowing up just a few feet away from my truck.  The driver of my truck made a turn and I saw the walls and spires of a city just ahead.  As we pulled through the gate, the truck stopped and I jumped off, right into the middle of a fire fight!  A squad that had arrived before me was pinned down by a German machine gun.

I heard a sergeant shout, "That MG 42's a real bugger!  Flank it from the right!"  Following his directive, I followed the rest of the squad down a side street, where we immediately ran into another group of Germans entrenched behind sand bags.  I crouched down behind a stone pillar and ducked around the side to try to get a glimpse of the defenders.  The muzzle blasts made them pretty easy to find, so I shouldered my weapon and sighted in on one of them.  A well placed shot blew off his helmet and he fell behind the sandbags.  The rest of the squad was shooting too, all the while calling out directions to each other and trash-talking the Nazis.

With all of this concentrated fire, the Germans ducked for cover.  That gave me the chance to advance to the corner of a building across the street, staying under cover as much as possible since the Germans popped up every few seconds and fired a burst in my direction.  As I approached the corner, one of the squad called out a warning of another machine gun, this one located on the second floor of a house on the right side of the street.  I peeked around the corner and quickly pulled back as I saw the muzzle flashes in one of the windows.  There were also troops on the street firing towards us.

A couple of my squad members got hit, so I advanced to their positions to continue the battle.  I realized that the only way we were going to be able to get that machine gunner was to get into the house and take him from behind.  The other troops were shouting back and forth to each other, and I could hear the Germans doing the same.  Guns were firing all around, explosions were rocking the ground, and there was dust kicking up around me as bullets hit the ground.  It was all nearly overwhelming and I would have liked a few calm minutes to think out what to do next, but my fellow soldiers were counting on me.  I grabbed a smoke grenade and tossed it into the street.  In just a few seconds a dense cloud blocked the sight of the opposing troops, so I was able to run and duck into the doorway of the house. 

Once in the house, I slowly approached the stairs, knowing that the Germans had probably posted a guard to protect the back of the machine gunner.  Even knowing that, they still almost get me as I came around the corner of a low wall alongside the stairs.  One soldier popped out of a room on the other side of the stairs and another was waiting halfway up the stairs.  It took quick reactions to get a shot off at the soldier in the room, causing him to duck back behind the wall, and swing the gun onto the soldier on the stairs and give him a five shot burst.  By the time I got that done, the other soldier was coming after me again.  I swung your gun back to him just in time to get a shot off before he could.

My involvement in all of this action was very fluid and did not feel scripted, although in many ways it most assuredly is.  In a very clever way, the developers have pre-positioned both friendly and enemy troops, vehicles, and events along each of the paths through a level that you may choose to take.  Crossing certain invisible points will cause other troops to move or actions to occur.  As in a movie, all of this is completely transparent to you, allowing a suspension of disbelief that allows you to vicariously experience a first person view of large scale, fast-moving fire fights.  The level of action and the highly detailed environment felt almost exactly like the city-wide fights depicted in the Band of Brothers movies, with the significant difference of having a high degree of interactivity in the story. 

The fluidity and of the action combined with the autonomous movements of the other troops mask any feeling of being led through a maze, a problem encountered in previous generation games of this type.   The feeling of being a soldier participating in a large battle, following your fellow troops and listening for the commands of your sergeant but also making on-the-spot decisions as to how to proceed, is very immersive.  Decision making is often reduced to which crate or wall to duck behind, and how long to stay there before trying to advance on the enemy.  The action is nearly constant, and there is always the requirement to keep advancing before running out of ammo.  The enemy is aggressive, but will seek cover or fall back to a better position if pressed hard.

Call of Duty 2 does a spectacular job capturing the essence of the large scale battles as depicted in the Band of Brothers movies.  The graphical environment and sounds of war are perfectly tuned to provide an intensely believable background to the tight action and fighting.  There’s another aspect of the movies, however, that is lacking from Call of Duty 2.  Part of the overall arc of the Band of Brothers series is the development of the leadership abilities of Lt. Winters.  In Call of Duty 2, you follow your squad and act as an infantry man.  You aren’t faced with the significant tactical challenges that confront squad leaders.  To experience that tactical leadership aspect of combat, you have to play Ubisoft's Brothers in Arms: Earned In Blood.

In the Brothers in Arms demo, I selected the Skirmish mode to avoid the tutorial at the beginning of the story mode.  The tutorial teaches you how to use your weapons, position the two two-man teams under your command, and how to order them to provide covering fire or assault an enemy position.  In Skirmish mode, I started out in a dry river bed, hidden behind a large fallen tree with my two teams.  A quick look around the tree revealed a pair of German soldiers up on a railroad beidge manning an MG-42 machine gun.  I ordered one of my teams to follow me and climbed out of the river bed, using a fence for cover.  When I was positioned where I could see the Germans, I ordered the team I had left behind in the river bed to open fire on them.  That diverted their attention and I was able to duck down under a trestle in the bridge and get to the other side.  There was a sand-bagged revetment ahead of me, and figuring that it was probably hiding at least one enemy soldier, I lobbed a grenade over it.  A soldier came running out and dropped into a firing crouch as soon as he saw me.  I had him sighted in already and was able to dispatch him easily.  Under the trestle near his revetment I fould some explosives placed and ready to be detonated.  I set the timer and ran for cover.  The bridge blew up, silencing the gun crew that my other team had been keeping distracted.

As we progressed down the river bed, we reached an area of resistance from a group of five troops hidden behind fallen trees.  I ordered my fire team to stay behind and distract them with covering fire as I led the assault team around to flank them on the left.  I had the assaut team stop in a position fairly close to them, while I continued on.  I was able to get around behind them, so I ordered the assult team to storm their position.  At the same time, I opened fire on them from behind.  Caught in a fierce crossfire, they were wiped out in seconds. 

I lost a troop in the assault, and had taken a few hits myself.  As we moved on down the river bed, we ran into more troops.  One of them got a bead on me when I carelessly left myself exposed, and in my weakened state he killed me with one shot. 

The pace was much slower in Brothers in Arms than Call of Duty, and the worlds weren't as stunningly dynamic.  The overwhelming feeling of huge events going on around you in a much larger scope was also absent.  The tactical decision making challenge was far higher, though.  There wasn't anyone to tell me where to go or what to do. Rather, four men's lives were dependent on my skill, aggresiveness, and decision making.  I was forced to look at the fight from more than a "shoot the guy in front of me" perspective.  I had to make fast decisions regarding how to deploy my teams to positions where they could support each other, while still maintaining an aggressive posture toward the enemy. 

I got my ass handed to me on a platter, but in a fun way.  I've found that I play each demo about the same amount, choosing which to play depending on my mood.  When I want to run through an incredibly rendered and visually rich adventure, I go with Call of Duty.  If I'm interested in concentrating a bit more and relish the idea of trying to out maneuver an aggressive and intelligent enemy, I choose Brothers in Arms.  Both are superior virtual models of WWII combat, but in different ways.

I'll have to buy both.

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.

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About Author

I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.

My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.

While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.

My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.
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