Call of Duty
This is the most enjoyable pure shooter available for the PC right now. If you like extremely well designed, very well programmed and supremely entertaining shooters then go and buy yourself a copy of this right away. Go on, you know where the shops are. Put thirty quid in your wallet and pay them a visit.
Still here? Then you must be curious as to why I make this bold claim. Well I'll break it down for you.
Programmed by Infinity Ward, a new team formed up form the majority of 2015, coders of Medal of Honour: Allied Assault, Call of Duty is the sequel to that game in all but name. Once again reprising the role of a soldier on the side of right in World War II Call of Duty will take the player on an exciting blast through some of the major battles and lesser known incidents all the while presenting you with the most visceral, cinematic representation of combat yet committed to silicon.
Opening up the front by giving you progressive control over first American, then British and finally Russian troops you will fight in the frozen mountains of Norway, the broccage of Normandy and the killing fields beside the Volga while taking in a few of the other locations where conflict raged over those dark years. It makes a pleasant change to have access to a side of the story that is not purely American, although I am waiting for Canadians, Aussies, Indians and other allied countries to clamour for fair representation in the next WWII game. The changes are not just cosmetic either. Weapons, tactics and voices will change according to the flag you are fighting under. For example the Brits go around in smaller, clandestine forces wielding the stubby Sten gun while the Russians mount massive assaults with sheer weight of numbers as their primary factor. This is a nice touch and indicative of the level of thought and planning that has gone into CoD as a whole.
Control of your trooper is very satisfying as minor obstacles are surmounted with ease and the lean controls give you a good chance of scouting round corners without greeting instant death between the eyeballs. There are three stances which can be toggled and while standing straight is the fastest way to make a dash you present a nice big target for enemy marksman, a foe blessed with the skill to punish any reckless posturing and foolish exposure on your part. Most of the time you will be dashing around in a low crouch only to fling yourself to the ground as the unmistakable mechanical farting of an MG42 opens up. On the harder difficulty levels you will really need to make the best use of the stances and the desperation of an instant belly flop or the terror of making a bold sprint across a debris ridden street is conveyed all too well. This is such a good game that the controls in themselves do a great job of drawing the player into the game.
While you will often be accompanied by other soldiers on your mission you have a very limited control over their actions. Basically you can order them to guard you or leave them to press ahead as they see fit. They will lay down covering fire so you can sprint across a gap, fall back when under heavy fire, and call out when in difficulty, generally looking after themselves so well that you feel confident in their abilities. This keeps things nice and simple and while there is the occasional sticky situation where some additional command control would have been nice the AI that your buddies exhibit is convincing in the extreme.
Considering that the boys at Infinity Ward have really done their WWII research, even going so far as to draft in the advice of members the very company whose story was so well told in Band of Brothers, you can be confident that the tactics that you see are similar to the methods employed by the real fighting men. The weapons, uniforms and vehicles are all straight from the historical records, and the sound effects are so damn realistic they can nearly make you soil yourself if your 5.1 is turned up too loud. Trust me on that one. The sound of individual weapons will be learned hastily so you know which of your own weapons to counter with. You can carry one main weapon along with a sidearm and specialised weapon, say a bazooka or sniper rifle. The sniping in this game is great, with realistic reticule weaving depending on stance and some of the most satisfying echoes as your shot snaps out of the barrel and into the face of the distant machine-gunner. The sniper rifle can get abused though. Many of the maps, especially in the Russian campaign, are long and ill-suited to dashing about with a normal rifle or sub-machinegun as you will be shot down by the enemy before you get within range for your own weapons. This is a minor but noticeable point but seeing as everyone loves a good sniper rifle I can't see this harming anyone's enjoyment. The weapons also have realistic patterns. The Russian PPSh has a great rate of fire but is as accurate as an elephant playing basketball while their sniper rifle can place a bullet on a fly's chuff from a thousand paces. You can look down the sight of each gun giving you a nice sight to aim with which increases your accuracy while drawing you deeper into the game's world. Call of Duty exudes authentic World War II atmosphere even if it is slightly stylised like Spielberg's WWII flick and TV show.
Luckily for us the high level of workmanship extends right into the gameplay. The level balance is well done, with insanely hard missions where you must survive an enemy onslaught balanced out by more leisurely strolls through broken French towns of afternoon cruises in flatbed trucks. The Pegasus bridge level in the British campaign is fiendish, both in difficulty and fun. The sniper house level that you must take then hold as a Russian conscript will also go down in gaming history as one of the finest ever levels in a shooter. Each environment looks great with plenty of incidental details and some lovely lighting effects. Unfortunately there has been some sanitising going on so humans no longer bleed. While it makes use of the ancient Quake 3 engine the developers have added so much to the core code that it can stand up beside some of best that the latest engines can display. The animations of your soldiers are superb; they will die, cower, sprint and engage the enemy in fluid and human movements, all adding greatly to the level of immersion and atmosphere. All of this will run super smoothly on all but the crappiest of machines making CoD the best modern game for older computers while having enough bells and whistles to show of the power of today's monster rigs.
To keep the level of action high both your own and the enemy troops will occasionally respawn. While this does break the illusion it quickly becomes irrelevant as you find yourself having such a good time. Saying that, the Nazi's will get up after a stupid number of bullets have taken them down, making the game veer a little too close to the arcade at times. Key squad members are also indestructible, taking volley after volley only to continue soldiering on. This is also a very linear game with each mission funnelling you down a single path towards your eventual goal. Some have called this an "on-rails" shooter but it is nothing of the sort. While it leaves you under no illusion about which way to go - your compass puts pay to that - each time you retry a section it will be a little different. There's no real choice about how to tackle an objective other then choosing the left, middle or right sides, although you can sneak up and give a Nazi a bash with your gun on the side of the head. If you are looking for a tactical shooter look elsewhere because CoD is pure blasting action.
You might want to bypass CoD if you are looking for the next generation of shooters as this game sets out to be nothing complex, nothing groundbreaking, just to be the most well made and enjoyable example of a genre. Play it on easy and you will romp through it in a few hours without any considerations for cover, tactics or anything fancier than unloading clips on the hordes of Germans. Play it on one of the last two difficulty settings and you will be in for a far more challenging experience. On Veteran CoD can be one of the most taxing shooters out there. Not only is it rather hard but the level of realism in the AI and the damage models is ramped up considerably. Combine this with the amazingly cinematic atmosphere and CoD becomes the best shooter that money can buy. If you want a seriously good challenge and love your cinematic and gritty representations of WWII this game will deliver in spades. I've been playing FPS like a religion since Doom 2 and this is the most fun I have had in years. While it will not revolutionise gaming in the way that Half-Life did it will be so much fun you won't care about that.
CoD comes with a bunch of multiplayer options as standard, with the usual deathmatch options joining forces with Retrieval, where documents must be found and then returned to base, Search & Destroy which is like Wolfenstein in that objectives must be destroyed or defended and Behind Enemy Lines, which is a test of a small group of Allies who must stay alive against waves of Axis soldiers. These modes are fun and while bazookas have a tendency to turn an otherwise realistic match into Quake both they and sniper rifles can be turned off. Play a map without these weapons and you will get a great, fair game. Play on a server where the players take it seriously and it apes the action of more serious, tactically minded shooters out there.
The multiplayer complements the campaign and offers extra fun. Some of the maps are very large, and there are no small maps for LAN play, a shame as MOH:AA, whose MP this is near identical to, was a great blast on a small network. But it is the single player game which is the best part of CoD. It is one of the few shooters where I have wanted to go and try it again on a harder level, not only because it is just so much damn fun but it turns into a more involving and thoughtful shooter as the difficulty slider moves up.
Now comes a reservation, one I had for MOH:AA and one which is even more pronounced with CoD. Both games try to give as good an impression of real combat and its associated horrors from fifty years ago and both games do a very good job of this. The sound effects allow you to believe you are there, the actions of your squad-mates and of the enemy is realistic and convincing while some of the situations in the games are dripping with pathos and a feeling of connection with the massive suffering and death that plagued our planet so much during WWII. These are admirable accomplishments in so far as they give generations innocent of such warfare a vague idea of what life would have been like had we found ourselves in those places and those times.
But at its core CoD is a piece of software entertainment. It is not meant to be a realistic simulation of battle; the number of kills you achieve and your resistance to bullets puts pay to that illusion. This is war presented as hell and a hell of a good time. The number of instances where you feel a connection with the soldiers who fought these real battles do not form the majority of the game as most of the time you will be pumping lead into Nazi scum with near total abandon. While the harder difficulty levels to even up the balance and bring the reality of war that little bit closer by removing health packs and such like you are still getting enjoyment from mimicking the actions in mimicked environments of men who were desperately trying to kill each other. This sits uneasily with me. The battle of Stalingrad remains one of the most horrific chapters in human history but here you get to have a good romp through the German lines, with only a very occasional occurrence to remind you of the death that was so real in that winter of 1942. Like the Omaha Beach level in MOH:AA we have historical horror simulated for our titillation.
Is it really wise to market a game as showing the gritty reality of war and then making it so much damn fun to kill? While the attention to detail and resulting immersion make for a moving and intense experience it sits uneasily with me as I remember the hundreds of thousands who died doing the very things I am pretending to do while sitting in my nice warm flat with a pair of slippers on. Maybe that was the very point that the developers were trying to make, and if so they have done a fine job. But that does not cover the fact that we are pushing the envelopes of decency by taking enjoyment from such misery.
Then again, I must be a hypocrite because I enjoyed both games immensely and reckon you will too.