I was recently asked by a Japanese game developer why first-person shooters are so popular in America. Don't we get bored of doing the same thing over and over? At the time I was at a loss for an explanation, but after playing Call of Duty 3 I can answer that question. We don't mind playing scores of shooters because month after month we're presented with games in the genre that up the ante in terms of presentation, mechanics, and overall quality. For example, only a year after COD made the jump to high definition on consoles, developer Treyarch has taken the reigns from Infinity Ward and added enough to the successful Call of Duty formula that we were happy to once again join the battle for the free world.
When Call of Duty 2 launched with 360 last year, one of its selling points was the wide range of environments gamers would experience while fighting in theatres that spanned the globe. This time around Treyarch decided to tighten the focus and center the game on the Normandy Breakout. The chapters are told chronologically through 14 single player missions that span the 88 days leading up to the liberation of Paris. Players fight as the Americans, British, Canadians, and Polish. That's right - you have the honor of joining a Polish armored division as they roll their tanks across enemy lines. Canada and Poland are two forces that have yet to be represented in a WWII game and their inclusion is refreshing.
The cut scenes that tie together the story are filled with enough personality (and heavy accents) to make for a few memorable characters. However, the action is always seen through the eyes of the main character so players become something of a floating name that is secondary to the drama they witness. COD3 does a good job of humanizing the soldiers reminding us momentarily that real heroes don't have to resemble a roided out linebacker with no neck. And they don't always make it through the day. The cut scenes are well directed, but it would've been nice if the user was able to skip them after the initial viewing.
Icing on the Cake
If you want a near perfect descriptor of the gameplay in COD3 just pop in last year's hit Call of Duty 2. The core mechanics are identical down to the slight auto aim that occurs when players use the left trigger to look down the sight of a gun. The "overshield" damage system has also returned allowing soldiers to recover from all damage by resting behind cover for a few seconds. The beautifully rendered smoke grenades are back, only this time there isn't as heavy a stress placed on using them to obscure the enemy's field of view. To spice things up Treyarch did add a few new combat mechanics. The most commonly used technique is the ability to toss grenades back at the enemy by picking it up with the X button and quickly tossing it with the trigger. Running towards an unexploded grenade to lob it in the other direction can be exhilarating but overusing the technique will eventually lead to some messy deaths.
Also new are action events that have replaced mundane tasks like placing a charge or aiming a mortar. Players now have to complete a series of button combinations that appear on screen as the task is completed. The most successful example of this occurs during the hand-to-hand combat sequences that put you in the face of the enemy to struggle for your life It's more exciting than just pressing "X" but not difficult enough to add any real tension. Overall, the action events are used sparingly and barely add or detract from the overall experience.
The enemy and ally artificial intelligence in COD3 is nearly identical to the last game in every respect. Enemies are good at taking cover, varying their attack patterns, and acting aggressively with grenades; don't get caught thinking you're the only one that can toss those babies back. A new facet of enemy behavior occurs when a line of Germans are outgunned. This sometimes causes them to retreat as a group to find better cover. Act fast and you can pick them off as they turn tail, drag your feet and you'll be faced with a better entrenched enemy.
Along with the aforementioned intelligent behavior players still have to deal with allies who jump into their line of fire and block doorways. The only thing more frustrating than trying to wedge between friendlies to advance is winding up for a grenade toss and having it bounce off the back of your buddy's head. This doesn't occur too frequently, but it will happen. The campaign can be completed quickly on the normal difficulty setting and veterans should crank it up to one of the two tougher modes for a more lengthy experience.
Treyarch's last Call of Duty game was Big Red One, where they excelled at creating a frantic battlefield with an impressive amount of scripted events. Their handiwork is visible in COD3, and without ruining any of the surprises I will say that there are some jaw dropping moments that are incredibly immersive and jarring. Combine this with some dramatic lighting affects, and a great score and Call of Duty 3 is easily the most cinematic entry in the series.
The soldier's voices are almost all caricatures, but they work in the context of the game. Just like the last game battle chatter has a tendency to become very repetitive, you'll be thankful for the switch to Polish just for a change of pace.
Visually the game is heads and shoulders above its predecessor. Treyarch took an already beautiful game and added detail and nuance. One of the standouts is the foliage which is the best I've seen in a WWII shooter. Trees and brush sway in the wind, and going prone will bury your character's face in individual blades of grass. The forest levels aren't just close approximations of vegetation; they look like dense, wooded areas that provide both cover and an obscured view of the battlefield. The same attention to detail can be found throughout Call of Duty's environments. Destroyed buildings are filled with rubble and scattered remnants of what once filled the rooms. There is also a depth of field blur effect when players use the left trigger to aim their gun. It's a small bit of eye candy, but its very cool to see.
Another area where Treyarch has bumped up the visual splendor of the game is with semi-destructible environments. Unfortunately hardware constraints still don't allow for fully destructible worlds but the developers have managed to make objects blow to bits where it counts. Things like shutters, some wooden crates, and banisters will explode into the air when hit with machine gun fire or a well placed grenade. Picture frames crash down from walls, exploding barrels bounce through rooms, and in an especially nice touch, barrels of wine spring leaks.
The only problem with the destructible objects is that some cover is blown apart by enemy fire while other objects are invulnerable to any type of assault. Watching one wooden crate get vaporized by a firefight while the one right next to it survives multiple grenade detonations only serves to remove gamers from the experience. It's a minor complaint, but I look forward to the day when the hardware can handle fully a destructible world.
Even with the additions that I've mentioned, Call of Duty 3 still has to contend with the World War II genre becoming a little stale. The best graphics in the world don't negate the fact that the game mechanics are the same as last year's installment. What really saves the day for COD are the enhanced multiplayer options. Available for four player split-screen, system link, and on Xbox Live, Treyarch has implemented the fully featured multiplayer mode that COD2 was sorely missing.
Now 24 players have access to all of the standard modes including deathmatch, team battle, capture the flag, headquarters, and a War mode that designates a random zone that each team must capture and protect for as long as possible. There are bikes, trucks, and tanks at your disposal as well as seven character classes that make team play more intelligent and necessary to reign victorious online. In our play sessions the medics and armor support classes were amazingly helpful when properly utilized. There's nothing like calling in an air strike, or using an RPG at the right moment to completely turn the tide of battle.
You can change classes after each death and while your overall online stats are recorded, there is no experience or level-up system to speak of. Thankfully, at the end of each match players remain grouped together until the next match is created so no more being bumped out to the lobby. Amazingly, the online environments look nearly as good as the single player experience and the maps seem to be well balanced and heavily tested. The frame rate was excellent and the architecture of the levels is nearly just as detailed as in the campaign. You can never truly judge the online mode of a shooter until it's been released to the community, but COD3 has all the makings of a satisfying Xbox Live experience.
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