Perhaps it’s a testament to Call of Duty’s quality that even the developers have been unable to leap past it. The original Call of Duty absolutely blew away every other game on the market with better AI, more immersive singleplayer, excellent multiplayer, and the best weapon design ever. This was all the more surprising because Infinity Ward is largely made up of ex-2015 employees, makers of the original Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. Those expecting a similar improvement over CoD are bound to be disappointed. Call of Duty 2 is an updated, tweaked and visually stunning sequel, but no revolution is to be found here.

Levels are bigger, more imposing and longer. Often, parts of a map get recycled as the player’s side finds that roles have reversed from an influx of enemy reinforcements, or perhaps the Germans were driven back. The levels are no longer quite as linear for the most part, and some are almost entirely non-linear. In many situations, like approaches to a machinegun nest or tank, the player is offered more than one approach to the target. Of course, this doesn’t hold a candle to the levels where you’re told to seize half a dozen or more objectives located at various points in the map. There’s no particular order given, though they are numbered, but there is some strategy in how to capture them. Often, it’s a great deal more difficult capturing one point without first owning another, especially in situations that create a crossfire. The enemy won’t recapture your objectives but they will occupy the buildings around them as well, creating buffer zones for their own protection.

Call of Duty’s AI was so impressive it is difficult to say how much improvement there is in CoD2. There are fewer occasions on which the AI doesn’t react to the player’s fire, though enemies are still apt to ignore grenades on occasion – especially when under fire. The AI is excellent about covering entrances to buildings, often holding both corners of the door and leaning out from another door to fire at the main entrance. It also reacts to being flanked and will occasionally fall back from a position that is no longer defensible, but it is rare that the Germans will be aggressive enough to re-establish a perimeter. There may be no hesitation about shooting a limping enemy in the back, but you may pause when you see one trying to crawl away when he’s desperately wounded – at least until he rolls over, pulls out his Luger and starts pecking away at you.

Of course, all the levels are highly cinematic. Missions are divided into multiple parts, but the opening phase is almost inevitably an imposing opening sequence meant to put the player in awe of the war, complete with an inspiring or forbidding musical score. Exploding buildings, artillery strikes, and withering machine gun fire build up an impressive level of anticipation and dread, especially if you’re packed into a boat or landing craft, approaching your target.

The graphics engine delivers great visuals on the scale and quality of Half-Life 2, especially the lighting and smoke effects. Call of Duty has always had excellent sound effects and they continue to add to the immersion of the game. Weapons sound real, powerful and crisp. The voice actors got a huge workout, with your squadmates constantly chattering and calling out warnings and orders, giving an intensely chaotic feel to the battlefield. Nothing chills the spine quite like hearing “EMM-GEE FORTY-TWO, behind those sandbags ahead!” half a second after breaking cover to move onto the next area. Oops. Despite the familiar settings and missions, Call of Duty is very engrossing, due in great part to its technical achievements.

There’s a tank sequence in the singleplayer campaign but it’s quite weak – it involves a head-on rush against German panzers in your British Crusader tanks. At the risk of sounding like a nitpicker, a game that has two historical advisers should not try to convince the player that PzKpfw II tanks are more heavily armed and armored than Crusaders. While the general outline of the battle is historically correct – Montgomery did in fact charge German positions to get his tanks within effective guns range – the German tanks he was worried about were certainly not of the Pz II variety. Furthermore, like United Offensive, the game handles tanks in an arcade kind of way, abstracting them with hitpoints instead of penetration, and permitting accurate fire on the move. The clash of armor isn’t bad and doesn’t detract from the experience, but it could have been done better.

Naturally, every conceivable mission has been done. Whether you’re simply clearing a town and then repelling the inevitable counter-attack, or trying to hunt down German tanks, it’s been done before. To be fair, war does revolve around precisely such objectives, as is well-illustrated by the Pointe du Hoc scenario, which has the player assaulting a cliff on D-day in an attempt to destroy a key heavy artillery battery overlooking Omaha beach.

The game changes wildly depending on difficulty level. On the easiest settings you’re like a one-man kraut killing machine; rampaging through buildings, trench networks and ruins like a lion among wolves. A moderate difficulty levels you begin to slow down and take stock the situation before charging in, perhaps throwing some smoke or grenades and pausing to heal. At the highest difficulties, you poke your head out for fractions of a second, throw grenades everywhere, wait for your men to rush ahead to draw fire and then only move up. It’s a different experience every time and the game becomes increasingly more tactical and realistic as the difficulty ramps up.

It’s rare – almost unheard of in fact – to think that a graphical effect can change a game almost entirely but that is the case with Call of Duty 2. United Offensive gave us a taste of smoke but Call of Duty really lays it on thick and heavy. Not only is smoke a prominent feature of multiplayer, it is a vital component of the singleplayer campaign. Certain areas are very difficult to pass without it and your squad mates are sure to tell you about them, but smoke isn’t limited to those situations. The AI responds quite believably to smoke, no longer demonstrating much in the way of accuracy.

Smoke is also highly important in multiplayer, particularly the objective-based modes of Search and Destroy and Headquarters. It’s fairly effective at protecting the player from snipers but also masks movement of large groups of player and can distract the enemy into thinking that an attack is coming from the direction of the smoke. In a neat twist, only certain classes get smoke – SMGs do, but snipers, shotgunners and assault riflemen don’t, for example, We’re a bit surprised that the shotgun men don’t get it, since they have the least range of anyone, but on servers with a clan or two working together or against each other, smoke is deployed quite strategically.

Multiplayer is almost exactly like in Call of Duty. There are a few new maps and updates to old maps like Carentan, Bocage and Railyard. Railyard has the most extensive changes, with a new route and trenches around the railroad tracks – unbelievably it’s actually better than before. The other updated maps have smaller changes, like an MG nest or maybe some tightening of the routes, but nothing significant. Overall, there are far fewer choke points and certain maps are so porous and have so many routes that the defending team is often better off going on the offensive.

One of the key changes between the sequel and its progenitor is the abolition of the fixed hitpoint system. The avatar, whether in multiplayer or singleplayer, can still withstand only a certain amount of damage, but this appears as a red outline on the screen to simulate shock and bloodshot eyes. After a few moments the effect goes away as he heals. It’s a little like Halo’s shield system, but with a more organic damage indicator and considerably less ability to take punishment.

The weapons in general have undergone some changes. The sniper rifle is back with 90% of the effectiveness of COD 1.1 – though this is a controversial change, with a fair bit of griping from some people on the servers. Thanks to a “hold breath” ability which steadies the rifle for up to 5-10 seconds or so, gun sway is no longer a factor in aiming. This has the consequence of making some maps into sniper duels. Particularly bad is Moscow, which offers sweeping views of most of the battlefield, meaning certain death for anyone caught in the open. Sniper rifles are bad enough that people jump out from behind walls, crouch, aim and fire – sort of like AWP whores in CS beta 6. Happily, many maps offer significant cover from snipers, like Villers-Bocage, El Alamein, Leningrad, Carentan and so on.

There are a few new weapons in the campaign and multiplayer, while others have been tweaked for balance. The Germans and Russians enjoy the benefits of semi-automatic rifles thanks to the Gewehr 43 and SVT40. There are new automatic weapons too, like the PPS42 and M3 “Grease Gun”, with the PPS42 serving as the Soviet MP44 equivalent (though it is lighter and doesn’t hit as hard). The Thompson has been reduced to a historical 20 round clip, with the slower-firing Grease getting 32 rounds. The Winchester M1897 “Trench gun” is a six-round pump action shotgun that, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to make an appearance in singleplayer but is quite popular on many multiplayer maps. In a nod to history, Infinity Ward added the Webley revolver for the British as their standard pistol. Finally, there are variants of weapons, scoped versions of the SVT40, G43 and Lee-Enfield.

Weapons in general are slightly easier to use; the MP44’s recoil has been significantly cut down, for example. The barrel no longer climbs as much in aimed mode and the crosshairs don’t bounce out so wide when un-aimed. The same can be said for the Garand, which also had its rate of fire slightly reduced. Other weapons like the Thompson have been balanced with a smaller ammo clip, though to our knowledge nothing has been done to the deadly PPSh which is as lethal up close as the shotgun while being better able to handle multiple opponents and ranged shots.

The level of online competition on even public servers is tremendous. Players are better, smarter and faster. Chatter on the built-in voice and text chat often revolves around the discussion of clans and CAL competition, as well as map and weapon balance issues. Few express concerns about the game’s competitive viability, but more casual players are disappointed in the lack of vehicles.

Surprisingly, despite the multiple routes to targets and fewer chokepoints, maps still feel best with about 12-16 players. Any more and you begin to see the usual symptoms of congestion, such as grenade spamming, excessive sniping and a 2-3 minute war of attrition before maneuver can resume, in the case of Search and Destroy. Of course, it all depends on the game mode and personal preference. Team deathmatch is still fluid on smaller maps like El Alamein with 32 players on the server, while Search and Destroy would quickly devolve into that aforementioned grenade spam and attrition.

Overall, I’m personally quite pleased with the way Call of Duty 2 multiplayer has turned out, but there’s no denying that it feels more like a gameplay tweak mod with a few custom maps and weapons. In fact, Quake 4 did more to advance the Quake style of play than CoD2 has done for its genre. Quake even has a more diverse selection of maps and the weapons tweaking is more controversial in Call of Duty. I enjoy both games but I’m wondering if I wasn’t too critical of Quake 4’s multiplayer in my review earlier this week, because Call of Duty 2 is still immensely enjoyable while providing even less.

Pros

  • Singleplayer – Though I didn’t feel any particular desire to burn through the campaign in one sitting, I never managed to leave once a mission was started. You might as well have stapled my balls to my chair, that’s how engrossing this game can get.
  • Multiplayer refinement – Call of Duty 2 has a very, very refined version of Call of Duty multiplayer which was already smooth as a baby’s bottom. Some will gripe about the reduced recoil and sniper rifle changes (especially the sniper rifle!), but Call of Duty is still the best Counter-Strike ever played. We recommend sticking to smaller servers for SD/CTF modes.
  • Graphics – We’re a little skeptical if this is a completely new engine – it feels so similar to Call of Duty – but there’s no denying that shaders, bump maps, lighting, smoke and the bloom effect have at the least kept up with the Half-Life 2 standard.
  • Sound – Call of Duty had the best sound we heard until Half-Life 2. Call of Duty 2 is at least a contender for the title.

Cons

  • Unchanged multiplayer
  • Obviously multiplayer was refined, but there’s so little difference between CoD2 and CoD that we think some more effort could have been expended. At the least, a vehicle mode could be added to appease United Offensive fans.
  • Hit the wall?

After the quantum leap from Medal of Honor to Call of Duty, those expecting similar improvement in Call of Duty 2 are going to be let down. As with multiplayer, refinement seems to be the name of the game, rather than outright improvement. Have World War II shooters hit the wall in what they can do?

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