Have WWII-themed games been done to death? There are certainly few subjects that have the history, multi-genre representation, and continuous attention in PC gaming, and it's impossible to ignore its recent resurgence. Despite this, I disagree that this theme has had too much exposure; after a quarter of a decade of releases, gamers have yet to play the experiential WWII game. Granted, the flight sim, tactics, or strategy fans in us should be very satisfied with some truly remarkable offerings, both past and present. However, the releases from these genres almost exclusively emphasize the pragmatic side of the war. I say this without the slightest hint of judgement. After all, during WWII, we saw the emergence or large-scaled use of tanks, mechanized infantry, military aviation, and other technological advances that are ingredients to many a successful gaming recipe. But what about intangibles that speak of the human condition; specifically, dichotomous concepts such as comradery and isolation, bravery and cowardice, patriotism and ethnic hate, and pessimism and hope? These are themes through which WWII can serve as just as powerful an example, yet have remained elusive from gaming thus far.
Action games have always been a great potential vessel of these themes, due to their often visceral nature. Sure, excellent strategy games like Combat Mission include the concept of morale, but what better way to appreciate the ebb and flow of morale than firsthand in an action game? Given this void, one only needs to view the heavy handedly violent, and tragic introductory movie of Call of Duty to wonder whether it can be considered the first real attempt to fill it. Alternatively, the opening sequence can be interpreted as a peddler of standard movie trailer material ("In the war that changed the world... victory was not acheived by one man... but by the lives of many..."), such that it could also be seen as an unintentional, self-mocking parody of the entire self-important FPS genre. Game introductions aside, there are plenty of moments in Call of Duty that hint at the first claim, each of which take wonderfully rendered battle-torn environments, polished scripting, and blend them together to create an incredibly intense single player experience, and at times a brutal depiction of warfare.
During the game's more chaotic moments, players are thrown into a cauldron of intense combat. I can't say I have ever been so deafened by enemy and friendly gunfire, motivated by shouts and orders from squad mates, had my nerves frayed with randomly landing artillery fire, or felt a rush of relief at the sight of reinforcements at the denouement of a vicious battle. Granted, comparisons will be made with Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, not only because many of that game's original development team form Infinity Ward, but also because of MoH:AA's acclaimed cinematic presentation and alleged authentic experience. While comparisons are fair to an extent, MoH:AA is still a standard FPS. While it had its memorably immersive moments (the opening mission and Omaha beach come to mind), these high points always devolved into standard shooter fare.
Call of Duty is decidedly different. While MoH:AA contained some elements of squad play, at its core stood some of the pillars of the FPS genre that some have come to dislike: the lone hero, with eight weapons strapped to his back, accomplishes a series of over-the-top missions, all the while taking on the Third Reich with Duke Nukem fervor. CoD on the other hand, presents itself as one part war flick, one part firefight simulation. Levels play out as a more tightly packaged and focused experience, putting you shoulder to shoulder with a multitude of other dutiful foot soldiers, on whom you must depend, and vice versa. The AI used isn't perfect, but believable. Squad mates try to cover each other as they advance, stick to cover whenever they move, peer around corners, and bark out warnings and orders. What makes this non-player behaviour even more satisfying is when it is combined with tightly scripted events, dropping you in incredibly atmospheric environments which are both fun and at times, frightening. For the first time in a game, I felt like a part of a unit in which I am not the leader. Yes, progression through the game still relies on you, but the fact that many Germans will fall without your direct involvement drives home the game's premise that the war was won by soldiers fighting together.
To maximize the illusion of squad cohesion, and to take the opportunity to throw in some surprises, the entire game is a heavily scripted series of events. Deviating from the window of play may result in lulls until the missed "hot spot" is touched. But as you progress through some of the more chaotic battles, there are so many things happening around you, you are sure to miss some of them the first time you play the game. Unlike many action games that literally grab your view and point it at an event of interest via a brief cutscene, Call of Duty continues to run in real time whether or not you are looking. Thus, while presentation and thrills are done at the expense of personal choice in the game, the payoff is well worth it. Having said all this, it's best to approach the game as a willing participant, not as a QA tester. In order to avoid finding flaws, staying on the game design's rail requires a slight suspension of disbelief, but you will be rewarded with some exciting, tense, fearful, and truly humourous moments. While it is true that there are times when Call of Duty begins to feel like a standard shooter (particularly in the British SAS missions midway through the game), I found this was only when the game regressed into solo play, which speaks volumes about the difference unit-based combat makes.
Player and weapon control lean towards realism. When not firing from the hip, the in-game perspective switches to the gun's iron sight. While this partially obscures your vision, your aim is far more accurate, thus emphasizes self-discipline over spray 'n' pray. Although this is a small change in terms of the player interface, it is a big step toward more realistic action gaming. Additionally, crouching and kneeling increase your steadiness, and they, along with leaning, lessen your vulnerability. You will need these stances in order to evade enemy fire and advance in battle.
It's wise to use sound evasive tactics within the frenetic pace of some of the skirmishes, or quiet approaches to expected confrontations. If you play the typical FPS "bring 'em on" approach, you'll soon find yourself reloading the level. Tactics are not only required, but when surrounded by AI mates, they are encouraged. Players are encouraged to use the highest difficulty setting, at which very few enemy rounds are needed to end your life, and more important, there are no magical health packs. This forces you to play in a much more focused manner, relying on team mates, cover, and smart movement, all of which add to the sense of realism. With the exception of three bloodbath levels in the game, the levels are designed well so that cautious players will survive with minimal reloading.
Gameplay aside, perhaps the most promising aspect of Call of Duty is the aforementioned "we fight together" sentiment established at the game's introduction. Instead of the lonely exploits of a solitary protagonist, so typical in FPS affairs, Call of Duty tells stories of three soldiers from each of main Allied participants. Although the stories are played in sequence, by the last third of the game, it becomes apparent that each storyline is not played out in chronological order, and involves some crossover. This hints that some clever storytelling is on the way, no doubt extolling the mud-trudging efforts of the American grunt, the extraordinary acts of the British SAS-man, and the soon-to-be revealed Red Army soldier, all of which culminates in some symbolic meeting between them somewhere on German soil, during which warm embraces give more meaning to their struggles thus far [exhale, wipe tear from eye].
As the Russian story is played out, it becomes apparent that each branch is merely a self-contained game, and what little crossover that existed between the American and British storylines is ultimately of no consequence. This missed outcome is unfortunate, not only because of its dramatic potential, but because it is entirely plausible. I can think of few documented moments from this dark period in history as hilarious and heartwarming than a meeting between British and Russian units on the move, during which each of their long-winded congratulatory greetings was not understood in the slightest by the other. Then again, it may be a good thing that the developers never saw this real life moment, for it probably would have been transferred too literally to the game, which in turn, points to a another issue.
Call of Duty's well-researched levels represent locations from both real life, and war films. What's unfortunate is the sequence of events in some missions rely far too heavily on filmmakers' depictions of real or fictitious events. After reflecting on some of the film-inspired moments in the game, whether having seen the films before or after playing them, I am still undecided whether this can be considered an homage to great war films, or a lost episode of The Chris Farley Show. Make no mistake, the "borrowed" missions in particular are in fact, "awesome"; but as fun as it is to play out a moment that someone else crafted, a realized unifying theme to these missions is missing, and like the inconsequential storylines, ends up feeling like a missed opportunity.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the game was the decisive manner in which the Red Army was portrayed at times in the final third of the game. This campaign begins at Stalingrad, and manages to effectively convey the sense of desperation the Soviets must have felt at this point in the battle and war. The visually powerful opening owes everything to the memorable scene from Enemy at the Gates, from which it is taken. But the film's "you must slay the fascist beast" pep talk has been spiced up into a tongue-in-cheek nose-thumbing at Stalin and the "oddball" ways in which the Red Army functioned. The pre-mission communiqué consists of exerpts from Stalin's Order #227, written in a typeface typically found on Soviet propaganda posters, and omits the portions of the order that were meant to clearly explain the Russian's dire situation and "motivate" the soldiers, and instead only emphasizes the harsh consequences of taking one step back. We also get to hear lines like "last Russian general to Berlin has to go to a re-education program" by fellow soldiers. While it is about time the Red Army is included as protagonists in an action game, it does so in a subtly judgemental manner.
It is important to remember that by the time of Stalingrad (a campaign that claimed the lives of half a million men and women of the Red Army, and an unknown number of civilians), the Russians were completely committed to a war of survival against the Third Reich's war of extermination; it is equally important to remember the British and Americans were neither fighting the same kind of war, nor under the same conditions. It's often instinctive to employ Cold War stereotypes, even mild versions of them, simply because they have been ingrained into Western society for decades. It is quite admirable that Call of Duty, an action game of all things, addresses (at times, implicitly) various realities on the Eastern Front, including executions (some estimate that over 10,000 Soviet soldiers were killed for cowardice at Stalingrad), political representation in the military, the use of penal battalions, and the separation of classes in the Red Army. But at times, it borders on hamming it up, Krazie Kommie style. I would have preferred to see a brutal depiction of the Eastern Front minus the somewhat biased writing, as an invitation to the player to begin to sort between reality and myth regarding the war from the Soviet Union's perspective, and by extension, begin to sort between them in the context of war in general. It will be a great day when a game does that.
So what then becomes of the aforementioned themes such as fear, hope, comradery, and isolation? Does Call of Duty show they find a home in a WWII-themed action game? The game provides truthful visuals, a dramatic score, telling environments, and convincing scripting, each of which contribute to a solid foundation on which a game can potentially and effectively portray WWII as a tragedy instead of yet another excuse to kick Nazi ass, and there are times when it begins to succeed. However, the most substantial elements that have the true power to deliver (a well-crafted story supported by original level scripting) exist, but overall, fall short of their mark. Despite this, it still deserves immense amounts of praise for giving players an incredibly intense A-to-B experience, and the best single player FPS in years.
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