Review – Call of Duty 2: Big Red One

I have a confession to make. Despite my general crankiness about the game industry, as well as my increasingly picky taste, I have a soft spot for a bane of the industry: World War 2 shooters. Chalk it up to the fact I am a history buff with a desire to compare in-game depictions of certain battles and weaponry to reality. This weakness has led me to play some of the worst Medal of Honor games, as well as to attempt to beat Call of Duty 3 on two different platforms (I finished neither). Finally the genre has provided a diamond in the rough.

When Call of Duty 2 was released on 360 and PC, someone decided to give gamers still using “old gen” consoles a consolation prize. A “bitch game” if you will. This came in the form of Call of Duty 2: Big Red One. Big Red One had nothing to do with the real COD2. Upon first impression, Big Red One looks like shit; something that developer Treyarch had dumped on the PS2 in order to squeeze some more money out of the franchise during the holiday rush of 2005. They probably used more money to make the misleading CG ads that pissed a bunch of people off than they did making the game.

Look past the bullshit however, and you will find some of the smartest, sharpest missions in all of Call of Duty and the reason why is deceptively simple. Treyarch knew their limits, and they had the COD formula down to a science. The PS2 was the baseline for this project. It can’t handle sweeping vistas and massive amounts of enemies. Big Red One keeps the fights in relatively close quarters, even out in the desert (just place some hills and sand dunes cleverly and suddenly you’ve got the perfect place for an ambush). Each level is tightly designed, threading you from one checkpoint to the next. The scripting is rarely finicky, which is important since your squad mates open all entrances for you. Nor do the scripted events feel cheap. Like in COD2, the script may call for a Sherman to explode, but it doesn’t dangle its killer right in line with your sites, invincible until he completes his task. Big Red One would rather launch an explosive from offscreen and send your men into a panic.

Another important aspect is that enemy forces never appear in groups larger than six or seven. This rule still applies in situations where in other games enemies would constantly respawn, making most battles where you must “hold the line” manageable ordeals that rarely require more than one or two attempts. This decision gives combat a distinctive feel compared to the regular COD2, which introduced what I call the “Call of Duty Rule,” where enemies constatly respawn until you advance to a certain point on the map. I don’t know why Big Red One eschews this idea, since even Goldeneye could infinitely respawn soldiers.

Whatever the reason, fighting through small squads of Germans and enemy advances that have a fixed number of troops feels a lot more real than the idea that a small building is housing 50 German riflemen that all vanish when you cross the street. With the exception of the final mission, if you shoot enough of them, they will go away, and it cannot be understated how nice it is to remove all the guesswork. On Normal difficulty, Big Red One can be played fast and hard, always firing and advancing, soaking up damage but remaining alive until you reach the next batch of medkits. Until the final few stages, death is rare, which keeps each level tense and prevents wasted hours at the hands of a few scenes that require 20 attempts.

Big Red One is as worthy an experience as its older brother, all because Treyarch worked around hardware limitations by being attentive and smart with how they made the game. It is clever and expertly paced, making even retread locations and battles feel interesting. But it does not surpass the real Call of Duty 2. The added horsepower of PCs and the 360 allow that game to have an even greater scope. Locations are much bigger and more complex, and battles involve so many troops that you actually feel intimidated by the might of the Germans.

So, the question is: Can we have a game that combines Big Red One’s ingenuity with COD2 (and 3 and 4)’s technical might? Apparently not. Because everything post-COD2 has been different levels of retarded. Friendly AI allies seem to kill fewer enemies, and exist solely to impress the player with the number of soldiers on screen at once. The scripting in 2 and 3 is often lazy and tends to stand out rather than flow naturally. The developers implemented a new AI system where comrades scream the location of enemy soldiers – every 15 seconds. And, of course, the aforementioned infinite respawn, which makes Veteran difficulty too frustrating to be worth the time and effort.

Call of Duty 3 has all of the same issues as 2, takes place entirely in France (which we have been in for 60% of all our WW2 shooters), and is a completely worthless retread of a game. It too is made by Treyarch. How did they go from Big Red One to this? Perhaps the only answer needed is the fact that they decided to render the BAR and MP40 in gleaming, silvery steel instead of dull grey and black metal. Why be historically accurate when you have a nice lighting system to show off? We know now that Treyarch can make a smart game, so what the fuck happened?

I am entirely convinced that this is a sign of a quiet problem with the new generation of consoles. Developers are so obsessed with HD graphics and all the lighting and textures they can create that other aspects of the game lack the polish and focus they deserve. Early previews of Call of Duty 2 promised great new AI, but the end result was middling. We were promised dynamic environments and battles that offered players meaningful choices. Instead we got more scripting. It is as if the next gen has made developers dumber. More likely, they simply do not have the money, time, and mental energy to make every aspect as highly polished as the visuals.

The mistakes made by so many modern games could be avoided if priorities were rearranged. They won’t however, because gamers don’t care. They crave HD visuals as much as they deride the Wii for not having them. Once a game reaches a certain graphical benchmark, all others in the genre must do as well, for fear of player backlash. And it seems we aren’t very good at noticing the holes in new games. Only recently did someone point out to me that as realistic as Gears of War looks, no enemies flinch or react to being shot at, a gaffe that now bothers me more than it should. As long as we continue to ignore these immersion breaking problems, they will continue to exist.

I just want a coherent game world, where the little details are in place and the scripting is careful. Optimally, I would like to see scripting removed in favor of great new AI, but that seems like wishful thinking at this point. I’m all for 1080p glory, but not when it makes a game play dumber than something running on a PS2 slim.

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