Release Date: November 1, 2005
It's not uncommon for games set in well-worn historical contexts to mistake the accumulation of details for authenticity of experience. Period-appropriate weapons and war machines make for good window dressing, but accurate representation of artifacts doesn't automatically equal excitement. If the only difference between a shooter set in World War II and one set in Vietnam is the bad guys' accents, the shallowness of the approach is going to reveal itself sooner or later in less-than-exciting gameplay.
Call of Duty 2: Big Red One nails the surface considerations, with visuals significantly improved over 2004's Finest Hour and an intensified maelstrom of mortar rounds and strafing Stukas threatening you at every turn. As far as authentically harrowing gameplay goes, Big Red One does World War II better than European Assault, this year's installment of the Medal of Honor series, but the relentlessly linear design of many single-player missions and too many simple, repetitive mounted-gun and anti-air segments punctuate the satisfying on-foot shooting. A handful of excellent multiplayer maps elevates the experience on the Xbox, but not quite enough to make this good FPS great.
No Mission Too Difficult, No Sacrifice Too Great
Working familiar dramatic territory, Call of Duty 2: Big Red One gets underway with Operation Torch, wherein you storm into North Africa with the renowned 1st Infantry Division – the Fighting First, or Big Red One – to oust German forces. The storytelling conceit this time around is that you fight with the same group of soldiers – your own Band of Brothers – throughout the game, presumably developing an emotional attachment to your squad as you move on to Sicily in Operation Husky and eventually back to Europe via the Omaha Beach invasion.
From the prologue on, every battle scenario is tense and chaotic. It's thoroughly chilling, for example, when Rommel's Afrika Korps tanks roll over distant sand dunes as you're trying to take out artillery. Later in the Sicilian countryside, you have to hold off another tank attack as they pound the bunkers you're using for cover, reducing the concrete walls to rubble and leaving you prone and scrambling for bazooka ammo. The feeling of being under constant, desperate siege only intensifies when you land in Normandy and make your way up a small canyon, protecting your engineers as Axis riflemen and Panzerfaust tank-killers strike from all sides.
Problems arise when the mission design begins to assert itself at the expense of your being an active participant in the action. Too many go-here-do-this tasks remind you that a game designer is your real commanding officer here. Jump behind that anti-air gun and blast Stukas while avoiding friendlies. Man a halftrack-mounted machine gun while an NPC buddy drives you around. Crawl back-and-forth through the bowels of a Liberator bomber to man the tail gun, ball turret and bomb sights. This is where the mission design works against the otherwise immersive sense of hyperkinetic drama. Squatting behind a turret and picking off sitting ducks simply doesn't make you feel for your buddies.
Weapons and vehicles do fill out the historical texture of Big Red One. The weapons are organic to the setting and are for the most part well-balanced. The Springfield is the sniper's best friend, with one-shot lethality from great distances, while the Thompson is an effective, all-purpose run-and-gun assault weapon. The Stuart tanks, on the other hand, feel toyish and weak in the single-player campaign, though that's partly due to the default third-person tank-driving perspective that shows their stubby design.
Your squad's AI impresses more than their ability to inspire any emotional connection. They assume positions behind walls, around corners and on the safe side of rocks and rubble, and they're smart enough to fall back and duck when you toss a grenade. They occasionally make your job too easy, like when you're ordered to clean out machine gun nests, and they go about it perhaps more aggressively than they should, letting you hang back while they do most of the dirty work. This does have the effect of unnecessarily shaving off a few difficulty points, but it also makes you feel like you're fighting alongside competent soldiers, even if you're not particularly moved when they fall in battle.
Snipe While the Sniping's Good
Much richer in presentation and more supportive of differing combat styles than Finest Hour's older-school sewers and empty desert towns, Big Red One's multiplayer maps encourage tactical variation in more thoroughly realized settings. Capture the flag and the (tragically underplayed) domination games are less plentiful online than death match and team death match skirmishes, but even in the simple frag fests, the handful of solid maps – from Gela to Bizerte to Snowy Peaks – offer plenty of hiding places and sniping positions to get the jump on the enemy. While there are only four multiplayer modes, the maps are well-imagined enough to keep snipers, grenadiers and machine gunners happy match after match, even when considered in light of other recently released installments of online juggernauts like Rainbow Six and Battlefield.
Do Your Part!
Visually, Big Red One is a far piece ahead of Finest Hour, especially as far as character models and animations go. Private Kelly stands out in particular, with his glasses and naive semi-grin, and everyone moves gracefully through the cratered streets and up bunker stairs. The destroyed villages are much more alive with fire, smoke and sharper textures, and they feel more densely drawn than the facades in Finest Hour that sometimes looked like low-budget movie set miniatures. Reloading animations are so slick, especially with the heavier weapons where you can see the huge rounds, that they make reload delays almost enjoyable. When too many massive explosion effects and disintegrating Stukas fill the screen at once, the framerate does chug a bit, but never so much that you don't want to take part in the action.
Weapon effects stand out among audio elements, as the Springfield, Kar and Garand rifles report with a frightful echo and tripod-mounted machine guns pump out jarring pops. The writing and voice acting tries to reinforce a sense of belonging with your fellow infantrymen, with lots of character-building dialogue like the ongoing routine about your buddy who's nicknamed "Brooklyn" even though he's from the Bronx. In multiplayer, the crisp, crunching snow and footsteps on wood floors alert otherwise vulnerable snipers to approaching threats. The score, while appropriately dramatic, is strictly background material.
The Military Channel filler footage provides extra details on what Operation Torch accomplished in North Africa, how the Fighting First contributed to Italy's surrender and other real-life information. While not uninteresting, it does create a certain distance between the player and the events the game depicts by reminding us of their historicity. That's unfortunate in a game that relies on immediacy and immersion for much of its appeal. If the gameplay is sufficiently compelling and the storytelling is suitably affecting, we shouldn't need an external source of historical context to remind us that the battle is worth fighting.
It's Fun Because It's True, Right?
True-to-life rifles and colorful dialogue don't make a great game unless those details support the essential thrill of the gameplay itself. With an engrossing, chaotic presentation that's sometimes at odds with the repetitive tasks you're ordered to carry out, Call of Duty 2: Big Red One asks you to overlook some questionable gameplay as you toil alongside the rest of the Fighting First. With several of the more tedious segments confined to the first third of the single-player game and some solid multiplayer action to sweeten the package, it's a worthwhile tradeoff for Live subscribers and those willing to wait a bit for the meatier fighting.
More articles about Call of Duty 2: Big Red One