Review: Big red one? Oh no, it must be that time of the month!
Once dominated by EA's Medal of Honor franchise, the FPS subgenre of World War II shooter is now in the hands of the mega-hit Call of Duty. Last year the COD series made its debut on consoles with Finest Hour; a heavily scripted FPS that was extremely intense and carried a true epic feeling, though it really didn't do a whole lot to advance the genre like its PC counterpart did a couple years before that (though the two games were totally different). It sold enough to warrant a sequel, subtitled Big Red One. With veteran developer Treyarch at the helm this time around, there's not much groundbreaking content to be had; BRO is still an epic, intense WWII shooter, but thanks to the highly scripted mechanics and some confounding design, it doesn't quite raise the bar like its next-generation brother. Fans of the genre who know what to expect likely won't mind the linear action and general lack of freedom...or even the ability to open a door, but it definitely won't bring back those tired of the WWII fad.
For the record, while this game is called Call of Duty 2, it has nothing at all to do with the PC and Xbox 360 game developed by Infinity Ward, though you may never have realized it seeing Activision hasn't done a great job splitting the brands, so you know some schmuck will buy it expecting the same game as you'd get for those systems. Instead, this game focuses on the real-life troupe the Big Red One, one of the top Army platoons that undertook numerous dangerous missions during World War II that paved the way to Allied victory. Like always there's some serious liberties taken here, as most of the things going on likely didn't happen, or at least not in the same fashion. As such every mission of the game puts you right in the middle of the warzone, through some of the most famous battles in WWII history, with a squad-based horde of tactics to boot. In addition there's plenty of multiplayer options for split screen and online, though COD games have always put the solo experience first.
Thanks to WWII franchises like Brothers in Arms, which put emphasis on team-based tactics along with traditional shooter gameplay, you're going to see more squad-based antics, and Big Red One has such concepts, though it doesn't fall into tactical action much. As the leader of a group, you can order them around a little, but for the most part they act on their own and assist you in dealing with the always-hectic action, though at the same time you can't leave areas without them, so you may end up hanging around until they are ready to go. As always, these events are highly scripted affairs, making it feel like you're playing out a movie rather than a game; there's little you can do to break up what's happening on the screen other than the enjoyment of shooting Nazi's, which is the reason everyone buys these WWII games anyway. Granted, games like Halo and Half-Life have gotten away with these pre-planned sequences and worked like a charm, though it does make the game seem far too rigid and linear, though linearity is hard to avoid in a FPS.
For the most part, COD2's gameplay is serviceable and enjoyable, but really it doesn't reach out and draw you into the action, mostly because this has all been done before in numerous clones and copycats since Medal of Honor made WWII games en vogue on PlayStation. It's hard to not compare this game with its big brother on PC and 360, which goes way beyond the normal WWIII FPS, especially since it's not even the same game, but you can tell that it doesn't quite reach for the same heights as its other namesake. The action is certainly intense; there are few moments where there's silence...even when you start the game you're already in the fire without a chance to adjust. It's definitely authentic, right down to the vast selection of weapons from all the Allies, whether you're using US guns, even the obscure French weapons you'd never hear of otherwise. The controls are solid, even on PS2 where first-person games sometimes struggle compared to the Xbox. Opponent AI is pretty smart and won't just stand there when you get into their view, and thus makes firefights pretty intense.
Alas there are some things that really stink to boot. As mentioned you have to wait for your squad to finish their duties before advancing to the next area of a stage; this is right down to the opening of doors. Apparently your character has Doorphobia and is unable to do the deed himself, meaning you have to wait for teammates to open one up. It's a slight WTF moment when you realize this gameplay quirk. The other thing that bothers me is how aiming is dealt with, at least in the campaign. Granted this is a WWII game and there was no 'aiming' abilities with these old guns, but the reticule needs some work. Usually it changes color in most FPS games when you target an enemy, to know who you're firing at. In COD, the reticule simply 'zooms' when a baddie is in sight, but seeing there's so many people on the screen at once, and the action can get downright crazy, it's tough to get a feel on who you're firing at. It's more than a bit confusing. Granted I'm no FPS God, but still. Just a way to differentiate between friend and foe would have been nice.
Visually, the game is pretty impressive for aging PS2 hardware. Whenever there's a huge fight on the screen, the framerate rarely, if ever drops and slowdown is minimal, so the game always plays smoothly. The looks of war are represented by destroyed buildings, bodies lying around, tanks, whatever you can imagine. It's not real colorful in many places, but then this is a war-torn area you're playing in, not Disneyland. You won't mistake the game for a next-gen release, but it does the job. The audio features an epic-sounding orchestrated soundtrack fitting the mood of the game, and some solid voice acting to tell the story. The guns sound great, and most other effects are pretty good; such as the sounds of nearby (and distant) explosions, tanks shooting at things, and the lovely sound of Nazi's prepping for their trip to Hell. If anything few WWII games fail at accurately representing the sounds of war, and COD2 certainly passes as well.