It's rare that a game turns out exactly as you'd hope it would. Niggling problems or totally bizarre design decisions nearly always mar an otherwise great game. Call of Duty 2, however, is exactly how I envisaged and hoped it would be. 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 - but 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.
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.
Anyone who has played F.E.A.R. has been spoilt by its incredible AI, but Call of Duty 2 doesn't disappoint in this area 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, 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. Even tank controls have had some thought put into them, with both the tank and gun turret able to move in tandem by holding down the space bar. It's a small touch, but makes all the difference to how well the tank sections play.
The game looks great too, albeit in a different way to the likes of Quake 4 and F.E.A.R. 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, or the soft lighting casting a glow over an otherwise ugly, 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.
This wouldn't be half the experience if it weren't for the game's peerless audio. A great score and booming sound effects are pretty much a given, and the game doesn't disappoint in this area, but it's the constant chatter from your comrades that brings the endless battles to life. At times it's scarily realistic, with shouts of "More tanks coming in from the North," "Jerries, in the building on the left," and "Watch out, Potato Masher." It's brilliant, and while certain phrases are repeated, it never feels repetitive; it just sinks you further into the experience
There are some problems though, with the biggest being the game's sluggish performance. Running with all the fancy DirectX 9 features turned on, at a reasonably high resolution isn't for PCs with a faint heart (or GPU). The highest settings made mincemeat of my Athlon 64 and 6800GT, forcing me to cut back on some smoke and texture settings, and to sacrifice my TFT's native resolution. Even when smooth performance had been achieved there would be random performance degradation, often turning a smooth frame rate into a horrible chugging one. Reloading the section sorted things out, but it wasn't an ideal way to play through the game. A DirectX 7 mode can be used for lower end hardware, but while the game is essentially the same, a lot of the atmosphere is lost, making for a less intense experience.
The single-player game is also pretty short (although this is becoming the norm these days). All three campaigns combined take little over ten hours to complete, but if played on the highest difficulty setting this number could be doubled. There's also no real story to get involved in. The game is more about throwing you into certain situations and then throwing you straight into another. There's never a dull moment, but you don't really feel any connection to any of the characters either.
The game's developer, Infinity Ward, has also included a solid multiplayer mode, but it isn't for everyone. There's the standard deathmatch, team deathmatch and capture the flag, plus the search and destroy mode that was in the original. In this mode one team must attempt to blow up a certain object or location, while the other team tries to defend it. The only other mode is 'Headquarters' which is essentially a fight for possession of the map. Teams battle it out to set up headquarters in set areas of the map and must maintain their position to score points. The defending team's members can't respawn, so the attackers always have a good chance of overrunning the headquarters and gaining possession themselves. It's a neat mode, and certainly offers something that might gain a fairly large fan following. There's nothing astounding about any of them though, making the multiplayer something that die hard fans of the single-player will enjoy more than casual players.
If you've been waiting for this sequel since you finished the original a few years ago, you won't be disappointed. It's a thoroughly entertaining, immersive experience from start to finish that hardly ever skips a beat. Vehicle sections could have been left on the design room floor, and the multiplayer mode doesn't have the simple appeal of Quake 4 or the epic scale of Battlefield, but these are minor quibbles. If you've got the hardware you'd be a fool to miss out on such an involving first-person shooter.