Release Date: November 1, 2005
"No mission too difficult, no sacrifice too great. Duty first…" Such is the motto of the United States Army's 1st Infantry Division, the first American unit deployed to the European front in World War II. Celebrated as one of the most decorated units of the war, the Big Red One (the nickname given to the 1st for the crimson numeral emblazoned on the shoulder of their uniforms) has been featured in several books and films, and now the Fighting First is featured in their own game. Call of Duty 2: Big Red One does an admirable job with its subject matter, treating its characters with respect and nobility while planting the player smack in the middle of the bloodiest, most destructive conflict in modern history. The best part is, the game rocks!
It's obvious that Treyarch took great pains to ensure that every part of Call of Duty 2 exudes historical accuracy. From the weapons to the vehicles to the equipment, absolutely everything in this game is depicted exactly as it was during the war. Missions are introduced with a History Channel-style short clip (with real war footage) which explains why the Big Red One was deployed to that location.
The game takes several of its cues from the Halo series. Your soldier can only carry two weapons at once, and you can toss grenades with the touch of a single button. There's no dual-wielding, though; most guns are too big to fire two at once, and pistols are rare. No need to worry about ammo conservation, either. In addition to your standard issue M1 Garand, enemy weapons can be picked up; most of the time, you'll need them. Curiously, though, you need to press a button to pick up health or ammo unless you're right on top of it, which leads to some incredibly frustrating moments where you could have survived if you had been just an inch closer to the medipack.
Any attempt to Rambo your way through the stages will inevitably end with staring at the Game Over screen. Cover is everything in Call of Duty 2; your allies use it, your enemies use it, and you should, too. Soldiers caught out in the open usually end up as bloody chunks. Working as a squad is also important. From breaching rooms to flanking fixed positions, team tactics are much more effective than trying to lone-wolf it. Unfortunately, your squad frequently makes some boneheaded moves, like stepping in front of your blazing gun or blocking a doorway while engaging the enemy, making it impossible to get through.
Speaking of allies, your comrades are brought to life through well-written dialogue and excellent voice acting. Several actors from HBO's World War II drama "Band of Brothers" lend their pipes to characters in the game, and Mark Hamill of all people shows up. The voice actors introduce moments of humor and drama that the game sorely needs, and should be commended for bringing credibility to Call of Duty 2. Through their efforts, your squadmates are fleshed out, making it that much more emotional when one falls in combat.
The core gameplay itself is your typical FPS: unload on German/Italian/French soldiers, secure the area, move on to the next objective. Thankfully, the game injects some variety by putting you behind a cannon or heavy machine gun and rolling out enemy tanks and planes, and in later levels gives you a tank and bomber to play with. These stages are fun and a welcome reprieve from the run-and-gun experience of most areas, but some seem almost tacked on, as if Treyarch decided to toss them in on a whim. It doesn't take much away from the game, but it does feel a bit odd.
Graphically, Call of Duty 2 fails to impress. Visuals are average at best; fires and explosions are rendered well, but textures are rough and jagged. Bodies inexplicably vanish after a few seconds, and clipping issues occasionally pop up. It's certainly not awful, but the PS2 is capable of more. Visceral, sobering scenes like the beachhead in Italy and the attack on Normandy are well done, but more work on the graphics would have really made the player there, a difficult sensation to capture on a television screen.
Call of Duty 2's most glaring flaw is a combination of save issues and difficulty spikes. This game is blood-boilingly difficult at points; one mission pins you and your allies between a German Panzer and dozens of well-armed soldiers, forcing you to dodge the tank's shells while running into a hail of gunfire, somehow surviving to fight another day. Expect to try that one a few times. Not really a problem, you say? If you get frustrated, you'll just save your progress and try tomorrow? Nope. The game only saves at the beginning of each mission, and checkpoints are not saved at all. Just imagine getting all the way to the end of a level and turning it off, thinking you can restart at the same place later, only to find yourself back at the beginning. That's the stuff broken controllers are made of.
The online multiplayer modes are nothing to write home about. The overall experience is improved from the original Call of Duty but still cannot hold a candle to other, more satisfying online games. The standard deathmatch is included, as well as the usual CTF and team settings. Teams that work together will win every time. Of course, there are a lot of morons out there on the 'net, and the chances of being stuck with a Schwarzenegger wannabe who refuses to stay with the group are high.
In addition to the normal version of the game, there is also a "Collector's Edition" of Big Red One, retailing for significantly more than the regular edition. I reviewed the Collector's Edition, and my advice is to go for the regular game. Your extra money gets only gets you several documentaries about the development of the game, including interviews with the voice actors and the multiplayer dev team's tips on a few of the maps. The only worthwhile portion is a short film detailing the heroics of the real-life Fighting First, featuring moving interviews with veterans.
Despite a few minor problems, Call of Duty 2: Big Red One comes through, providing a revealing glimpse into the battles fought by the 1st Infantry Division while still providing a thrilling game experience. It's pretty short, but while it lasts, you'll find an intense World War II shooter that sticks to reality but is still a blast to play. Duty calls… do yourself a favor and answer.
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