Call of Duty: United Offensive Review
Infinity Ward and Activision basically came out of nowhere with last year's smash hit Call of Duty. Its intense World War 2 action and solid production values scored big with both gamers and reviewers, and the multiplayer mode that was thrown in turned out to be not half-bad. Activision commissioned developers Gray Matter (creators of Return to Castle Wolfenstein) for the inevitable expansion pack to Call of Duty, and they've delivered a very solid experience that's true to the name.
United Offensive offers basically nothing new over Call of Duty from an engine standpoint, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Infinity Ward wound up revamping so much of the Quake 3 engine that there's hardly anything left of the original technology left. The best I can say here is simply that Gray Matter's expansion pushes the boundaries of the technology almost to the breaking point. And this is a good thing; the game ran great at 1280x1024 with 4xAA and 8xAF on my computer, although the final couple of levels slowed down enough that I had to forego the AA and AF. Even then, this game doesn't look near as good as other, more recent FPS titles - with some luck, Infinity Ward and Gray Matter will have fully moved over to a brand new engine for their next games.
Plenty of gamers who buy United Offensive will be taking the multiplayer mode for a spin, and it might be the first time that these players even bother to try the Call of Duty multiplayer mode in any form. The netcode is very solid here, and while I can't say with any certainty that it's still the original (and excellent) Quake 3 netcode under the hood, the gameplay was smooth nevertheless.
Finally, I want to say that Activision's been doing a great job as a publisher recently. They have delivered quite a few games right on time recently, and they've helped the developers squash tons and tons of bugs; I found basically no bugs in United Offensive's single player mode, and only a couple of minor ones in the multiplayer. It's refreshing to see a game - especially one with both single- and multiplayer modes - that doesn't need a patch right out of the box. I think we'll probably see a patch or two anyway, but I wouldn't really complain if we didn't.
The solid FPS controls and excellent menus seen in Call of Duty are back in United Offensive. You'll be manning guns on a doomed bomber, storming through buildings, fields, and war-torn cities on foot, shooting Axis troops from the sidecar of a motorcycle, and taking control of a tank in one of the largest tank battles in all of history. Through all of this, the controls are smooth, simple, and rarely ever get in the way of the action.
United Offensive's multiplayer interface seems relatively unchanged from the original game, and that's a good thing, as it works beautifully. The server browser is perfect and the new vehicles added to multiplayer drive just right.
United Offensive does an excellent job pulling you in with accurate landscapes, great troop models (and animations), beautiful explosions, and an overall atmosphere that is top amongst World War 2 action games period. All of this can be said about Call of Duty as well, but these elements are not necessarily a given in an expansion pack. Suffice it to say that UO gives gamers more of the same great stuff with new scenarios and different battles to take place in.
This time around, Gray Matter has done their best to make each campaign as unique as possible, and also to differentiate the expansion from the original game. The British missions in Sicily are a perfect example of this, while the American and Russian campaigns less so. The Battle of the Bulge looks beautiful during the American campaign though, and while we've seen this setting in previous WW2 shooters, it's never look this good or been this fun to participate in.
United Offensive seems to use some sort of approximation of pixel shadwed water (it's the same effect as in CoD) so it doesn't quite look as good as what we've seen before, and with a chunk of the British campaign taking place on the gunner seat of a boat, the rather dated-looking water is much more obvious. Does this really take away from the gameplay? Not really, but WW2 shooters as a whole really could use a bump up as far as graphics and special effects go - while Call of Duty looked pretty good for last year, many graphically spectacular FPS titles have been released in the last year and United Offensive falls behind just from the competition's advancements.
If you've played Call of Duty, then you know how this one plays. You and your squadmates (you're pretty much never alone in this game) must take on the Germans all over Europe across three campaigns: the Americans, British, and Soviets. The game mostly skips the usual suspects when it comes to WW2 game settings, although the Battle of the Bulge has been seen before. This time, though, you're spending less time getting randomly killed by artillery you can't even see coming (I'm looking at you, Medal of Honor: Spearhead) - and more time actually killing the enemy. Your squad generally displays pretty decent AI considering the norm for FPS games, and enemy AI is only a bump above mentally retarded. Sadly, that's also pretty good for modern action games. Still, United Offensive certainly excels beyond most of its peers, so Gray Matter winds up winning points from me there anyway.
The tension of war that this game generates does a great job keeping you on your toes, and the developers have paid specific attention to the game's pacing and style - much like the way Call of Duty itself did. The one part that I really miss in these games is the emotional factor - when a buddy gets killed, I couldn't care in the slightest. It's just another dude in a uniform with a unique name above his head. These games need to spend some time (either with in-engine cutscenes or in pre-rendered or live-acted movies) giving each soldier some personality, and they should make me want to save them while in combat. No WW2 FPS has done that yet in my opinion, although I have a feeling that the next generation of these games will show us a bit of that. Ok, I won't hold out for any decent live acting made just for a game, but there's miles of room for improvement here.
In my opinion, the most memorable part of Call of Duty was the Soviet assault of Stalingrad, which showed hundreds of soldiers storming the riverbank and getting cut down. That part of the game had a cinematic quality to it that many developers strive to achieve, and it's a culmination of the music, the desperate nature of the Soviet assault itself, and the knowledge that you don't even get to start off with a weapon that made it great. Sadly, United Offensive never quite gets to that level of intensity, but it gets pretty close a couple of times.
It's pretty standard in these games to have tanks pop in at various times to surprise the player, and United Offensive keeps that tradition going. There'll always be an unlimited supply of bazookas or Panzershrecks nearby for you to use, or a specific way to take care of the tank. If this sounds familiar, that's because it probably is; many of this expansion pack's game mechanics have been used and re-used a few times. While the gameplay isn't bad by any stretch of the word, this genre needs some originality injected into it soon. Let me put it this way - I liked Call of Duty: United Offensive, but I'm likely to be bored to death by another game that's too similar to it. Consider this to be the last time I really enjoy a WW2 game of the Medal of Honor-Call of Duty style.
The multiplayer mode is great, though, and I'm betting that it'll be fairly underappreciated by most gamers. The gunplay of World War 2 is difficult to make fun in a game, but I think that Infinity Ward and Gray Matter have gotten it just about as good as I've seen yet with Call of Duty and the expansion pack. While the game doesn't have the larger scope of Battlefield 1942, vehicles are still important, and the small arms action doesn't feel so wishy-washy.
There are plenty of multiplayer improvements here, including drivable tanks and jeeps, almost a dozen new maps, and three new modes: Domination, Capture the Flag, and Base Assault. We've seen all three modes in first person shooters quite a few times before, but they are done in a way that's so slick in Call of Duty: United Offensive that I'd consider them original and unique.
In the end, I enjoyed Call of Duty: United Offensive but I'm not sure I could stomach another game based on this engine with the same old flat character development, the "Surprise! Here comes a tank!" bits happening regularly, or the regular rail-shooter scenarios that come up almost like clockwork. The multiplayer is very solid, though, and I can still recommend this expansion based on what it offers. The single player campaign will last you about seven to eight hours, which ain't bad for an expansion pack, but Gray Matter went beyond the usual amount effort put into an add-on with their multiplayer enhancements.
Quite a few of the original Call of Duty sound effects made it into this expansion pack, but that's good - not bad - as the sounds are excellent. The ambience in many missions is perfect, as artillery goes off in the distance in some areas while the quiet, nighttime areas also have their own little charm. The weapons are still satisfying to hear when you fire them, and the sounds of tanks firing (and the ensuing explosions) will kick your subwoofer just like you'd expect.
The voice acting this time around comes without any big Hollywood names, although I admit that they didn't really add a whole lot to the original game in the first place. It's still pretty decent, and none of it winds up being embarrassingly bad. The music swells up at a few parts of the game's story, but it just never really did anything for me like it did with Call of Duty. The music is pretty rare as well, as you'll mostly just be hearing your commanding officer and the many sounds of war going on around you.
Call of Duty: United Offensive is a solid expansion pack with a decent single-player campaign and plenty of replayability in the multiplayer mode. While the overall package lacks originality, it's still a solid experience and almost surely will be fun if you enjoyed Call of Duty.