So, you're the pround new owner of an Xbox 360 and you're wondering what the must-have launch title for Microsoft's new console is. Well, to be perfect honest, there isn't one...at least not yet. There's no Halo in the bunch, no title that defines the next-generation of gaming the way Bungie's FPS did on the original Xbox. The closest to a sure bet this time around is Call of Duty 2, the most polished of the Xbox 360 launch titles and arguably the best World War II shooter ever to enter the livingroom.
Developed by Infinity Ward, Call of Duty 2 is a first-person shooter set during World War II. As with previous games in the series, Call of Duty 2 lets you experience the war from several Allied perspectives, offering Russian, British and American campaigns. You'll start off as Russian Private Vasili Koslov, who, just moments after completing basic training, is thrown into the defense of Stalingrad from invading German forces. The Russian campaign spans 7 missions, leading up to the defense of City Hall. The campaign is highlighted by a mission that will see you infiltrate a trainyard via a pipeline raised above the city streets. As you traverse the pipeline, you can snipe down at the enemy below through holes in the pipe and vice versa, they can fire up at you, often turning the pipe into a block of swiss cheese with all the bullet holes. When you get to the end of the pipeline, you'll then fight to retake the trainyard from the Germans before fending off their counterattack, which is lead by an armored unit.
From the frozen tundra of the U.S.S.R. to the scorching deserts of North Africa, the British is the longest of the three campaigns, spanning 13 missions. As Sergeant John Davis, member of the Desert Rats, you'll fight Rommel's Afrika Korps, beginning with The Battle of Alamein and culminating in The Battle for Caen in which you'll attempt to capture a German field HQ, then repel the enemy counterattacks that not only include waves of enemy soldiers, but is also backed by a pair of armored vehicles. Unique to the British campaign are a pair of missions in which you'll fill the shoes of Tank Commander David Welsh, leading the 7th Armored Division in tank warfare against the superior firepower of the Jerries.
Though the temperature drops again under the cloudy European skies, the heat of battles boils over in the American campaign. Spanning 7 missions, the American campaign begins just prior to the D-Day invasion with The Battle of Pointe Du Hoc. As Army Ranger Bill Taylor, you'll lead a squad tasked with climbing a cliff face in order to destroy six 155mm guns the Germans captured from the French. You'll then have to defend the Pointe before moving on to clear a town at the foot of Hill 400, room by room, house by house. What follows is easily the most intense mission of the entire game: The Battle for Hill 400. After capturing the hill, you'll have to repel multiple counterattacks that include an army of enemy troops, numerous armored units, and even a few bombing runs thrown in for good measure. Survive this massive battle and you'll complete the campaign with an anti-climatic mission in the town of Wallendar, where you'll secure a crossing point on the Rhine River for the Allies.
One area Call of Duty 2 improves upon with regards to the three campaigns is freedom of choice. For example, you don't have to complete the Russian campaign before starting the British campaign. Mind you, you'll have to start with the Russian campaign, but once you successfully complete a few of the Russian missions, the British campaign will unlock. So, if you get tired of freezing your butt off in Stalingrad, you can switch over to the British campaign for a change of pace. The different campaigns offer a good deal of variety in terms of locales and weapons so being able to swap between them is a welcome feature. And while Call of Duty 2 remains a heavily scripted game, the addition of multiple objectives, and more importantly the ability to choose in which order to tackle those objectives, is another added bonus.
Infinity Ward has implemented a number of new gameplay features in Call of Duty 2, though the necessity and effectiveness of two of those features is very much up for debate. What's not up for debate is the addition of smoke grenades, which play a crucial role in several of the missions. You'll be equipped with four smoke grenades at the start of every mission and they'll come in handy when you want to cover infantry movement and mask armored advancements in order to surprise the enemy and gain a tactical advantage. And for the record, smoke grenades have never looked as good as they do in Call of Duty 2; the visual effect is outstanding.
What is up for debate are a pair of new features: health regeneration and the grenade indicator. When an enemy throws a grenade in your general vicinity, an icon will pop up to let you know the direction of the explosion. The indicator remains for a few seconds before the grenade goes off, giving you ample time to recognize the threat and react accordingly, be it by taking cover or running from harm's way. Call of Duty 2 also takes a page from Halo by allowing you to regenerate your health to full strength by keeping out of danger for a few seconds when you're seriously injured. There's no health meter in the game but you'll know when your close to death thanks to audio and visual cues; the screen will start to flash red and your character will struggle to breathe. Together, these two features make the game a little too easy. Since you can shrug off most attacks, you won't hesitate to charge an enemy bunker or an occupied household, knowing you can heal yourself afterwards just by stepping away from the battle for a moment. It's an arcade element I wouldn't necessarily expect from a title like Call of Duty 2 and I'm sure some World War II fans won't appreciate its inclusion.
Visually, Call of Duty 2 is an absolutely stunning game, highlighted not only by the previously mentioned smoke grenade effect, but also the particle effects from frag grenades and explosions. The level of detail throughout the entire game is astounding, from the unique faces of your squadmates to the war-torn environments. The game runs at a smooth 60 frames per second and load times are virtually non-existent. There's even some fantastic real-life war footage between missions to help set the various stages. The audio is equally brilliant. Once the first shot is fired, there's constant chatter on the battlefield from your squadmates and it's essential you listen carefully so you can not only hear orders from commanding officers, but also listen for cues as to where enemy snipers are hiding and from where enemy armored vehicles are approaching. Throw in some realistic weapon and sound effects and you've got a game worthy of being played on a great speaker system.
The area where Call of Duty 2 lacks most is multipalyer. The PC version supports up to 32 players online, but the Xbox 360 version is capped at 8 players. You can play with up to 16 players via system link and 4 players split-screen, but I would expect better support on Xbox Live. In fact, there's no post-game lobby so even after you finish a game online, there's no opportunity for a rematch. Call of Duty 2 also lacks co-operative support, which would have been perfect for this game. With that said, you can expect to find the usual competitive modes, including Capture the Flag, Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Search and Destroy, as well as a new mode called Headquarters. In this mode, one teams sets up a base at a capture point and attempts to hold onto the base while the opposing side tries to overrun and destroy the base.
If you can look past the thin multiplayer component, the questionable decision to let player's health regenerate, and the fact there's not a lot of replay value in Call of Duty 2, you'll find a very worthy successor to the franchise. The singleplayer campaign is one of the most intense and exciting I've played in quite some time. So, as long as you haven't grown tired of the genre, I highly recommend Call of Duty 2. It's the most polished of the Xbox 360 launch titles and is easily one of the best World War II shooters to date.