Call of Duty 3 Review
This is a trying time for the Call of Duty franchise. The original developers, Infinity Ward, are off on some mystery project after the success of the first two games, and now Treyarch, creators of a couple of current-gen console spin-offs in the Call of Duty series, has taken the helm. The second game was a great launch title for the Xbox 360 and just as great on the PC, and it's still played both online and offline by thousands today. So let's see what happens when Treyarch takes one of publisher Activision's flagship franchises and gives it everything they've got.
Call of Duty 3 is a World War II first person shooter that takes place just about entirely in France shortly after D-Day. As you finish various battles you'll swap around between the perspectives of four soldiers in the American, Canadian, Polish, and British armies. You'll come in contact with the French resistance, drive jeeps and tanks, and participate in some very bloody battles as you fight to gain a foothold in Europe and liberate France from the Nazis.
While CoD2 was one of the best-looking games during the Xbox 360's launch, it was obvious that the game wasn't really taking advantage of the power of Microsoft's powerhouse console. This time around we're getting new special effects and even more detailed physics, characters, and environments and even larger battles with more stuff going on at once than in any past WW2 shooter. The problem, however, is that this war has been done to death in video games, especially in first person shooters, and we've seen all this stuff so many times before. It's got all the stuff you'd expect: farmhouses to clear Nazis out of, counter attacks, coastal defenses to smash, AA guns to plant explosives on, and vehicles to escape in while dozens of Nazis shoot at you. You've seen this all before if you've played more than a couple of WW2 games, and while CoD3 is trying to differentiate itself with a focus on just France, not much more detail has been added to the world. A few special effects here and there are nice and some partially destructible environments are of course always fun (although they are highly scripted here), but if they're just going to depict one country for this game then I'd have expected a higher level of detail.
That's not to say that this game is somehow boring or anything like that, because Call of Duty 3 is certainly the kind of intense, action-packed WW2 experience that you're probably expecting. The addition of things like ragdoll physics and even the ability to throw German grenades back at the enemy are very welcome, but I think that Treyarch might not have the same priorities when making a WW2 game that gamers have when playing them. For example, I really appreciated how the Call of Duty games would switch you from Normandy over to Russia and into Berlin, then down to North Africa and many places in between. While most of the gameplay is just as fun as you'd expect, the setting and situations you get into are largely unoriginal; just about every WW2 shooter has both countryside and urban areas of France somewhere in there along with other countries as well, but France is all you get here. I know that the hottest trend recently is to make a yearly franchise out of games (hence Tony Hawk, Splinter Cell, Prince of Persia for a while there, and many, many sports games), but I honestly don't think that the World War II setting (and its limited amount of situations, environments, and weapons for game developers to take advantage of) is that conducive to a successful, yet original yearly franchise. I really hope Activision doesn't try to force it with Call of Duty.
New this time around is the inclusion of a few button-press mini-games. During specific, scripted moments during Call of Duty 3, you'll get into a close-quarters fight with a German soldier. You'll have to mash the triggers alternately and also make other quick button presses in order to win your fight. The level of detail here - seeing the soldier in your face sneer when he gets the upper hand - is very cool, but maybe Treyarch should have put less effort into facial details and more into making the campaign feel a little less disjointed and artificial (when you fall behind your squad, the game kind of stops and waits for you to catch up, and this happens often as you're boosted into a second story window while your buddies simply go through a door and wait for you to finish the Nazis lurking upstairs). You'll also see small mini-games for doing things like planting charges or a few other activities, but they all fell pretty flat in my opinion. They just don't add anything useful to a game that's supposed to immerse you in the Great War.
The look, feel, and sound of the weapons has been entirely redone for Call of Duty 3, although you'll find that these weapons have all been done before many times. In fact, everything seems to have been done from scratch, from the characters and levels to the vehicles, interface, and of course the guns. And overall it's a good move that makes this feel less like a direct cash-cow sequel, but the downside is that some of the small arms weapons sound like little more than pop guns. The sniper rifles are probably the worst overall, and sound like toys compared to some other guns. On the upside, driving a tank feels really powerful, and it's noisy - lots of squeaking and groaning happens as you cross the landscape, but the cannon and the two machine guns mounted on the tanks sound really, really good.
Now, there is one place that Treyarch really has put a lot of effort in, and that's in the multiplayer modes. While CoD2 did ship with very fun online play, it was very frustrating to play because of some technical limitations. The update that came a few months later fixed many of the problems, but you could still only have eight players in a game and Capture the Flag just isn't that great for teamplay when it comes to World War II games. This time around, Treyarch has pulled out the stops and delivered a multiplayer mode with up to 24 players in a game at once, vehicles to drive, a totally redone weapons system, and new game modes.
While the multiplayer maps in CoD3 are much bigger than in past games (to support the larger number of players), you might find that the more classic modes like Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and CTF modes actually work pretty well here. There's also a new War game mode, which has you capturing and holding points - not unlike Battlefield 2. In fact, there are quite a few similarities that can be drawn here, as Call of Duty 3's online modes include a class-based system that allow you to pick from things like Light Assault, Heavy Assault, Scout (with sniper rifle and ability to call in artillery strikes), Support, heavy MG, and Anti-Armor. Medic is included as well so you can revive your teammates on the front lines.
Every class in multiplayer has a "primary" gun, and you cannot get rid of that weapon. But you can still pick up the guns off of fallen soldiers, replacing your sidearm with them, for a total of two weapons that you can carry at all times. The reason for the gun limitation is so that you can't become a supersoldier with unique abilities (like artillery strikes or medic revives) while holding the best weapons of two other classes. And even the tanks are balanced - not only can another player in a tank kill you with one good shot, but you also won't be taking too many Panzerschreck or rifle-grenade hits before your tank goes up in flames. Even more, an enemy can sneak up your tank, climb up on top, and dump a grenade in to take you out as well. Why I can't do that in single player, though (and instead have to go through a weird mini-game where I set an explosive charge on the tank instead), I've no idea, but at least in multiplayer I've found that the tanks are important and powerful, yet balanced.
Unfortunately, not all of the great weapons from WW2, or even past Call of Duty games, have made it here into CoD3. My two personal favorites, the M1 Carbine and the Gewehr (both semi-automatic rifles), are nowhere to be seen in online play. The M1 Garand is in, but if you have to play on the Axis side, you're stuck either with a submachine gun or the bolt-action Kar98k. As far as I've seen, there are fewer weapons to use in multiplayer than in single player, because at least in the latter you get some of the war's more unique guns like the Bren light machine gun, the FG42 rifle, and the Lee Enfield rifle. You won't see those guns in the online game at all.
There are other strange problems with the multiplayer modes. Now, I understand that a tank's turret fires where it's pointing, so you've got to let it "catch up" with where you want it to go before it'll fire at where you yourself are pointing. But sometimes even then the turret fires a few degrees off, causing missed shots and even fatal accidents if you hit a tree trunk next to you. Also, tanks can sometimes disappear, leaving only the player controlling them visible. This is pretty amusing to see some guy in a sitting position just hovering in the air, but it's not so funny when that mostly-invisible tank blows you up. Connecting to games is also pretty iffy sometimes, even with all the correct ports forwarded for Xbox Live. At least it's pretty solid once you get into a game, and sessions often last longer than the really short games from Call of Duty 2.
It's difficult for Call of Duty 3 to live up to the rest of the series, and with a third-party developer working on the game, I was not terribly hopeful that this one was going to be worth the wait. The idea of a focused single player campaign in one country during World War II is interesting, but the execution could have gone better and the action is just about exactly what you'd expect. While the graphics are great and the intensity of the atmosphere Treyarch has created is huge, there's still something missing from the single player to really propel it to greatness. Luckily, the multiplayer modes make up for at least some of this - at least, assuming that a round of bugfixes comes through pretty soon. Let's hope to see an update for CoD3's online modes to fix leftover issues, and until then, I think you'll find that this is a solid game but it just doesn't offer enough over its predecessors to make it a must-have.