It seems fashionable to be down on WWII shooters, but I don't think I'll ever grow bored of them - well at least not the good ones. It's a little unfair to group the Call of Duty series in with all the rest as it has rarely put a foot wrong, on consoles and PC. Call of Duty 3 marks a number of firsts for the series: it's the first numbered title to be developed by someone other than Infinity Ward, and it's the first numbered title to be developed for just consoles. And PC owners have a real reason to be upset as Treyarch's Call of Duty 3 is the most intense FPS I've ever played.
Set during the summer of 1944, Call of Duty 3 sees the player switch from one nation to another (the British, Americans, Polish and Canadians) with the overall goal being to liberate Paris. The problem with switching from nation to nation is that you'll feel a little disconnected from the story, but the on-going narrative does its best to keep things together, even if it doesn't wholly succeed. It's not a game that relies on its story to keep you hooked though; the downright gritty feel to the game does that all by itself.
At first glance everything is very Call of Duty 2, with the game mechanics, minimal HUD, regenerating health, and those familiar, if rather panic inducing grenade symbols, all present and correct. It's a good job too, as you'll need something familiar to cling onto. Within seconds you'll be running for the nearest cover, and some missions don't even let you move before assaulting you with gunfire. To say Call of Duty 3 is explosive would be putting it lightly - it's absolute chaos, and you rarely get a moment to breathe, let alone think.
After lengthy sessions of Call of Duty 2 I was left feeling a little worn out, but once you put down the controller after a few hours with 3, you'll feel absolutely exhausted. It's a total assault on the senses, with all hell breaking loose on-screen and your ear drums being blown out at the same time. Sure, some poor checkpoint placement will cause a few expletives, as you fail at the same point numerous times in a row, but it matters very little when you're so caught up in what's happening - to the point that you'd keep playing until your fingers bled.
Saying Call of Duty 3 is Call of Duty 2 on steroids would be a fair analogy to make. If the previous game was a Spielberg action movie, Treyarch's game is unashamedly a Michael Bay popcorn flick, but perhaps the best he's ever made. The fourteen chapters in the game fly by (perhaps a little too quickly for some), but that's partly due to the fact that you'll play it continuously through to the conclusion. Call of Duty veterans might want to be just that and play on Veteran difficulty, as this will add a considerable number of hours to your first play through the campaign.
Treyarch has added a few new ideas to the tried and test formula, but they're a mixed bag in terms of success. Grenades can now be hurled back at enemies if you can pick up and return in time (something that scares me each time I do it), vehicle sections play a much bigger role, and you occasionally fight mano-a-mano with an enemy soldier. The addition to the grenade system is excellent, but the driving sections feel rather unpolished and the button-mashing fight sequences just feel out of place.
You also get little mini-game-like moments for events like laying an explosive charge, but you're invincible during these moments and rather than adding to immersion they take you out of the action. You'll get a few other pretty pointless events, such as crowbaring a door and operating a crane, but they could just have easily been cut from the game. Why Treyarch decided to dilute the action packed experience with these trivial interludes I'll never know, but thankfully they don't take up too much time. The inclusion of fixed weapons, such as firing a mortar on a blocked road, is a nice touch though, as you feel like you're in control and doing something meaningful.
As great as the combat is, the game isn't without a few annoyances. The first is stupid AI squad mates. When you enter a building they'll often bundle in behind you, which is fine, but it's not so great when you try to retreat from a maniacal machine gunner, only to find the way to cover is blocked by said squad mates. With the screen flashing red, your escape route blocked, and panic rising, it's a sure-fire recipe for stress, and lots of it. What's worse is that at various points my character and AI characters became stuck on scenery, forcing me to restart from the previous checkpoint.
Call of Duty 2 on the Xbox 360 was a fine looking game, running at an almost constant 60 fps, but it was still a port of a PC game. Call of Duty 3 takes the visuals up a notch, filling the screen with more explosions, smoke, and destruction than I've seen in any other game. It's not all fancy effects either, with some truly beautiful architecture and the best forest environment to grace a video game. Some of the character animation is a little clunky, and the frame rate certainly isn't as smooth as in the previous game, but this is one of the most impressive looking games available for the Xbox 360.
I've already mentioned the incredible audio, but it's worth emphasising how much this adds to the atmosphere in the game. Some of the weapons aren't quite as booming as they are in Call of Duty 2, but the overall level of audio is just as good, with thunderous explosions, constant chatter from your squad mates and enemy soldiers, and some impressive voice work from a fairly large supporting cast. On the presentation front the in-engine cutscenes are the biggest letdown, not because they're poor, but because they seem to take an age to start, with everyone standing around waiting for something to happen.
Ask any Call of Duty 2 Xbox 360 fans about the game's weaknesses, and online play would undoubtedly get mentioned a few times. The whole thing was a bit of a shambles, with a poor lobby system and lag issues being the biggest offenders. Call of Duty 3 makes up for these blunders by giving Xbox 360 owners one of the best online offerings the system has seen to date. Up to 24 players can play online (or over System Link) and you can even take four players online via a single system.
You get nine large maps to play on, with game modes covering all the favourites: Deathmatch (named Battle), Team Deathmatch (named Team Battle), Capture the Flag (plus a single flag variant), Headquarters (a defend a base mode), and War (battling for control over spawn points). It's pretty standard stuff, but added to this are drivable vehicles (jeeps, bikes and tanks), and a class-based character system.
It's brilliantly balanced, with each class having its own strengths and weaknesses, giving everyone a real purpose while on the battlefield. Achievement points have been split well between the single and multiplayer game, and they reward play with numerous character classes, so there should be a fair few players willing to sacrifice range and accuracy, for the ability to revive downed soldiers as a Medic. Lag has also been pleasantly absent in the games I've played, making it one of the most impressive online games available for the 360.
It would be easy to pick holes in Call of Duty 3, but bar a few annoyances they really don't matter. It might be a predominantly linear path shooter, but who cares? When the atmosphere and level of action on offer is this great, the fact that I can't wander off to see what's behind a tree half a mile to the East really doesn't bother me. I can certainly live without poor WWII first-person shooters, but when they're as much fun to play as Call of Duty 3, I'd happily play them year after year.