Review: Big Red will leave you feeling a little blue.
The Call of Duty franchise has become synonymous with incredibly intense and exciting shooter action, a well-deserved reputation heavily reinforced with the phenomenal Call of Duty 2 for PC and Xbox 360. Fortunately, Activision is more than happy to share the excitement with current generation console owners but instead of giving us a simple port of the PC/360 version, we get an exclusive new edition in Call of Duty 2: Big Red One.
Developed by Treyarch (creators of the outstanding Spider-Man games) and Gray Matter (creators of Return to Castle Wolfenstein and the original CoD PC expansion pack United Offensive), expectations were high for yet another thrilling World War II shooter. In fact, Gray Matter was folded into Treyarch specifically for this project. So did this development supergroup hit the bull's eye?
Disappointingly, no. They came very close, and with just a little extra effort on the audio effects and AI, they could have had a real winner ? but as it stands, the Big Red One is just a plain average shooter. Don't get me wrong; I really wanted to like this game. After completing the breathtakingly exciting CoD 2 and writing a glowing review on it (where I said it should be named Game of the Year), I eagerly slapped Big Red One into my big black box hoping for a similar experience. Alas, it wasn't to be. I suppose my mistake was playing CoD 2 first ? which may have over-inflated my expectations ? but regardless, Big Red One still feels somewhat ?unfinished?.
Following the 1st
To be fair, the developers deserve kudos for making their own creative interpretation of a CoD title rather than duplicate previous efforts. For example, the story follows only one main character throughout the game, a departure from the usual CoD format of jumping between several characters in different Allied armies. The ?Big Red One? in the title refers to the nickname of the famed Fighting 1st Infantry Division, the most decorated and respected infantry unit of WWII. In over 440 days of fighting, the 44,000 men of the Big Red One earned over 20,000 medals and awards, including an incredible 16 Congressional Medals of Honor; however, those accolades came at a terrible cost, as the 1st suffered over 21,000 casualties.
You play as a new member of the 1st as you and your fellow squadmates battle against Rommel's formidable Afrika Corps, spearhead the invasion of Italy and Normandy, and take the fight right into the heart of Germany herself. As is CoD tradition, each battle is based on real events but the narrative only loosely follows the actual exploits of the Big Red One. For example, there are a couple of tank missions that in reality only have a tenuous relationship to the 1st (they were infantry after all, not tankers) and for the first time ever in a CoD game, you get to experience aerial combat as you man the gun turrets of a B-24 bomber, and even get to drop bombs on enemy targets. Although these levels have little to do with the actual Big Red One, they are a fun diversion from the usual FPS combat. The bomber level is especially fun, although there is one problem: you are tasked with several objectives along your flight path but there are no consequences if you don't complete them, leaving you with the feeling of ?what's the point??
Most of your fighting is on the ground with your trusty squad, exquisitely voiced by Band of Brothers
actors Michael Cudlitz, Rick Gomez, Frank John Hughes, James Madio, Ross McCall, Rene L. Moreno and Richard Speight Jr., all of whom also appeared in CoD 2. Star Wars fans will be pleasantly surprised to find that Mark Hamill also lent his vocal talents to this game, though sadly he does not run around light sabering Nazi butt. Your squad engages in some interesting and at times funny conversations at pre-determined points throughout each level, which helps you build a more personal relationship with each character. They are a little cold to you at first since you're the new guy, but soon warm up to you and respect your skills on the battlefield. They also provide helpful information by giving you specific warnings about enemies on the second floor, for example, but this context sensitive verbal warning system is not as effective nor as frequent as in CoD 2. Your squadmates also realistically develop over the course of the game, as their uniforms become dirtier and their faces become haggard with the stresses of war. The ?personalization? of each character was done to recreate the actual relationships soldiers formed in WWII, and to let you feel some real emotion when a squadmate is killed in combat. It works to some degree, but ultimately fails to give you the desired emotional connection because you are constantly reminded that you are playing a game, making it difficult to immerse yourself into the experience (more on this later).
On the plus side, the action can be quite fierce at times and it is often difficult to tell where the enemy is firing from, which adds to the frantic tension of combat. You can pick up and use any of the roughly three dozen authentic American, French, Italian and German weapons (though are limited to carrying only two) as well as man mounted machineguns, plant explosives, chuck grenades and as mentioned, hop into a tank. Your squad will fight by your side as they return fire, duck for cover, fire and maneuver, and take defensive covering positions.
Graphically, the game looks good, especially the impressive explosion, fire, smoke and particle effects. The game has a gritty look to it that accentuates the setting nicely. The animation is a mixed bag: on the one hand, your squadmates crouch and cover their firing zones realistically, and on the other they run with jerky cartoonish speed; grenades also send enemies flying through the air with comical force.
A CoD trademark is loud and overwhelming sound effects, and Big Red One delivers with booming explosions that will give your subwoofer a good workout. Graeme Revell's sweeping cinematic score also helps punctuate the action. Accenting the 13 levels are actual war footage and films provided by the Military Channel, all narrated in classic 1940s propaganda style.
Overall, however, Big Red One strangely lacks the audio punch of its franchise brethren, which really hurts the immersive experience. Yes, the explosions are loud and there are moments when you are surrounded by mortar shells, MG42 fire, grenades and frantically yelling squadmates, but most of the time the game is disappointingly silent with very little (if any) background noise. The gunshots are especially poor; they are supposed to be recordings of the actual weapons but sound more like toys. Some Hollywood-style audio embellishment would have been a huge improvement to the aural experience. Your squadmates are also very quiet with only a sporadic yelled comment or warning; the Nazis are oddly mute as well, and the sound level of the music is way too low. As it stands, combat is limited to the soft and wimpy ?Pop. Pop. Pop? of gunfire which does little to pull you into the experience. This is in marked contrast to CoD 2 which overwhelmed your senses with a constant barrage of sound effects which really helped suck you into the game.
The AI is also surprisingly poor. Updated AI routines from the original CoD were supposed to be used but somehow I don't remember the enemies being this dumb. Enemies will often stand like statues in the open or not duck behind cover. When they do hide behind cover, they pop up at regular intervals and won't move from their spot. Enemies will also respawn from the exact same spots at regular intervals and will run along the exact same pathways, causing many ?battles? to deteriorate into a predictable carnival shooting gallery. Occasionally enemies will surprise you with a particularly aggressive attack ? especially up close where they will take great joy in charging at you to rifle butt your head into mush ? and are damn annoying when they get a hold of a MG42, but overall they are disappointingly passive and prefer to stick with their preprogrammed pathways. You rarely have to worry about being flanked, but this is most likely due to the linear design of the maps.
Your squadmates aren't much better. Yes, they are aggressive and will often clear out areas all by themselves while you backtrack looking for health and ammo packs. However, their survivability is mainly due to the fact that the main characters in your squad are invincible except at scripted moments in the story when they're supposed to die. They also have moments of myopia and run right past clearly visible enemies standing only a few feet away; this is a little distressing because most of the time, your squad will automatically advance when the area is clear. As a result, you quickly learn to check the area for any enemy stragglers, otherwise you find yourself being shot at from behind while your near-sighted teammates diligently continue to cover the area ahead.
Enemies also appear in small numbers, usually two to four onscreen at a time. Since their shots aren't very accurate and their movement patterns are so predictable, they are pretty easy to pick off. Just crouch, aim down your sights and one or two shots later they're toast. Keep aiming in the same spot as the next guy respawns and runs into your sights. Repeat.
The poor AI and disappointing lack of audio ?oomph? means you experience little of the frenetic energy and urgency the CoD franchise is famous for. The best (or worst) example of this is the D-Day invasion on Omaha beach. Anyone who's played CoD 2, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault or similar titles knows the thrilling terror of trying to survive relentless MG42 fire, mortars and grenades while being aurally assaulted by ridiculously loud gunfire, ricochets, explosions and screaming soldiers. Yet in Big Red One, Omaha beach is about as quiet as Pebble Beach, and is surprisingly barren of enemies. Instead of encountering a determined and deadly resistance, you instead come across tiny pockets of enemies, pop off a couple shots, run to find the next set of bad guys, pop off a few more shots, and so on. Up until this point I was giving the developers the benefit of a doubt and hoping the action would be cranked up several notches, but when it didn't happen on what is traditionally one of the hardest and most exciting levels in a WWII title, I knew the game was in trouble. This is really disappointing because Treyarch and Gray Matter have a long and proud history of creating exciting games, yet something went strangely awry with this project. I can't help feeling that there should be more
; more sound effects, more enemies, more aggressive and intelligent AI. It feels more like an unfinished beta build than a completed game; perhaps a few more weeks of work would have helped.
And one other minor, albeit annoying, problem: the game menus are difficult to navigate because it is hard to tell which option is highlighted. Whoever chose dark grey lettering that turns black when you highlight them should be smacked upside the head with a potato-masher.
As you progress through the campaign, you unlock brief but interesting historical profiles of the various weapons and vehicles used throughout the game, as well as videos and artwork. The Collector's Edition of Big Red One also includes several videos on the making of the game, detailed descriptions and fly-throughs of a few multiplayer maps, and best of all, fascinating and emotional interviews with actual veterans of the 1st which alone is worth the price of the game.
Multiplayer saves the day
Okay, so you sort of get the idea that the single player campaign is only so-so. But multiplayer ? ah, now that's a whole different story altogether. After a few 16-player games over Xbox Live (System Link is also supported) you will forget about the single player campaign altogether. As with most shooters, online multiplayer is where the real fun is found, and Big Red One delivers big time. In fact, multiplayer does wonders in bringing back the non-stop intense action the CoD series is known for. If you're tired of the comically over-the-top battles of Halo 2 and want to get back to some good old fashioned WWII combat, look no further.
You can play the standard Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag, and a revised version of Domination (originally introduced in the CoD: United Offensive PC expansion pack), which is similar to Battlefield's Conquest mode where you have to capture and hold key locations on the map. You can choose your starting weapon from a menu that outlines the key stats of damage, accuracy and so on. You can also pick up and use any weapon on the map, man mounted machineguns, and hop into tanks.
There are 11 maps to choose from, including a very cool night map in Kasserine, North Africa that is full of confusing alleyways and plenty of dark places to hide in. The maps are all generally well designed and decently sized, with good pathways for flanking and great spots for sniping and suppressing.
As you play, you earn points based on your performance, which includes kills, achieving objectives or assisting with a flag capture. When you reach a certain point threshold, you are given a field promotion and increase in rank; more importantly, you also unlock new attributes such as increased ammo or grenade capacity. Achieve a high enough rank and you will unlock even more new abilities such as calling in an artillery strike, dropping health or ammo packs, and using deadly satchel charges. To keep things balanced and ensure new players won't be crushed by powered up vets, your rank and upgrades are reset to zero at the start of every game.
The action is nicely paced, not too fast, not too slow and is generally well balanced, although tanks have a bit too much armor. You won't find anything special here but that's not the point; instead, it's a good, competent multiplayer fragfest that will soak up many hours of fun.