The Xbox 360 has its fair share of first-person shooters at launch, but Call of Duty 2 might just be the best of the bunch. While not doing anything revolutionary, it offers the most thrilling and atmospheric World War II experience ever found in a videogame. It might be morally wrong to enjoy depictions of real-life war, but when it's this good you just can't help it.
The game is split into three campaigns: Russian, English and US. While the Russian campaign is initially your only option, the English campaign is unlocked early on and the US campaign a while after that. While I feel it's best to play through each campaign successively, the option is there if you wish to dip in and out. Over these three campaigns you'll fight on the snowy Moscow streets, take on waves of Nazi soldiers in the destroyed French town Caen, be pinned down in sun-drenched North African villages, scale the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, Normandy, and more. There are even a few vehicle sections, although these sections didn't really have the same appeal as the standard on-foot first-person sections that make up the majority of the game.
Being a World War II themed shooter, there is an element of realism involved, but not enough to tip the game into the sim area of the market: Guns will fire with less accuracy if you're moving, so adopting a safe vantage point and using your gun's sight is essential; You don't have a health bar that a genetically altered super being would be envious of - you don't have a health reading at all - and on-screen cues such as blood and blurred vision let you know how you're doing; A rest from the action also brings you back to full health. It's not a game that can be played run-and-gun style (at least not on the higher difficulties) and it's all the better for it.
'... the game is kept fresh and interesting thanks to the range of environments and smart level design.'
Combat is about carefully choosing your position and selecting the best weapon for the job. Running through a bunker with enemies at close quarters and attempting to use a rifle isn't ideal. Pick up a machine gun of some sort and you're in business. If, however, you're trying to suppress a wave of enemy soldiers (and a gun emplacement isn't nearby) a scoped rifle is perfect for the job, and a slightly concealed location wouldn't hurt either. There aren't any 'Boss' battles to mix things up; the game is kept fresh and interesting thanks to the range of environments and smart level design.
The AI in Call of Duty 2 doesn't disappoint either. Enemies will take cover, man free gun turrets, effectively use grenades and lash out if they get a little too close for comfort. Your squad-mates don't do badly for themselves either. They'll move with you through the levels, taking up tactically sound positions when entering buildings and generally try not to get themselves killed. They'll even try and flush out rooms by lobbing in grenades, and scatter should an enemy lob one back in their direction.
The HUD works well too, only showing what is absolutely necessary. As mentioned, there's no health metre to be found, but ammo supplies are clear to see, as is the useful compass map. All objectives are clearly marked, which when combined with simple, but effective level design, makes for missions that never become frustrating due to anything other than your own competence. You can't even moan about dying due to an unseen grenade as the game indicates this with a grenade icon (and directional arrow) appearing on the screen.
The game looks great too, and is one of the most visually appealing Xbox 360 launch titles. It's not so much about flash as it is about atmosphere. Whether it's the stunning plumes of smoke spewing from a carefully placed smoke grenade (which have wisely been mapped to the 360's left and right shoulder buttons), or the soft lighting casting a beautiful glow over a devastated, war torn village, Call of Duty 2 immerses you into the world like no other game. That's not to say that the rest of the game isn't impressive; soldiers are modelled superbly giving them a real sense of being, weapons could have been lifted from a military museum and environments are pleasing in design and diversity.
Little details haven't gone unnoticed either. Enemies will attempt to crawl away to a safe position if wounded, but still alive. Some even accept their fate, simply choosing to fire their weapon in one last attempt to help their nation. Solider animations are superb all over, from the rushed vaults of your squad-mates as they attempt to scamper over walls, to their lifeless falls to the ground moments after a bullet has pierced their skull, sending their helmet flying through the air. At times the whole experience is staggering, with everything working together to create a truly astonishing videogame experience.