Sunday, February 23, 2020

Classic Review: Call of Duty [2003]



In January 2002, the developers of EA's Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, 2015, Inc brought the franchise which had achieved success on console to it's true representation on the PC. It won awards and accolades and established EA Game's position in the forefront of World War II shooters. Then EA for some unknown reason took development of further MOH games in-house and so 2015, who had already begun thinking about MOH:AA's sequel were left high and dry. That didn't last long because long-time EA rivals Activision had their iron sights set on stealing EA's WWII crown and they did it by hiring all the displaced 2015 developers who had reformed into Infinity Ward and putting them to work on what would become a new franchise: Call Of Duty.

In October 2003, Infinity Ward produced a game somewhat similar to, but different in several ways to MOH:AA. Graphically it was slightly better as the developers had already become familiar with the idTech3 engine on MOH:AA so they had a superior understanding before beginning work on COD and even built IW Tech 2.0 a version of idTech 3 with a skeletal animation system. The campaign was from the viewpoints of three different soldiers, an American, a British and a Russian soldier who were all pretty green but the core of the gameplay in COD emphasised that the player, spent most of the time with A.I. team-mates who support the player and helped the immersion and the realism of the situation in difference to the common one-man-army approach winning WWII mostly by yourself. 


Including being part of a squad, the game embraces more realistic elements, so one can't bring 10 or more weapons into battle. You get two main weapons, likely a rifle or sub-machine gun together with a machine gun or a scoped rifle, a sidearm with grenades and that's it. As the levels tend to be long, one often runs out of ammunition before the end and you do well to learn to pick up and use the weapons of the Germans you kill, or you may need a different weapon than the one you have so you'll have to drop one to pick it up, a trade up which you may often second-guess. The weapon damage modelling was considerably better applied than in MOH:AA insofar as one wouldn't need to practically empty an entire sub-machine gun clip into a Nazi as was necessary in the older game.

Infinity Ward crafted a very cinematically-framed experience as this was now more possible to do dynamically, rather than predetermined scripted sequences. One could show several dozen moving characters on screen at once now, especially during the harrowing Battle of Stalingrad [pictured below], which rivals MOH:AA's Omaha Beach landing for intensity. Shooting is the core and following the compass is essential but the mission types have some variance, so every now and again you may be in a support role with a machine gun, clearing out bunkers with grenades or be the sniper taking out enemies before they have a chance to kill your allies. The British and U.S. campaigns feature on-rails levels where you're shooting your Thompson while leaning out a car window, or firing a Bren Gun from the back of a lorry, but the Soviet campaign gives you command of a tank, and you get to do both the driving and shooting, much more fun. 


Activision threw considerable resources into acquiring significant voice talent for Call of Duty. Giovanni Ribisi (Saving Private Ryan) Earl Boen (Dr. Silberman in The Terminator franchise) Micheal Bell (G.I.Joe) Nick Jameson (24) Michael Gough (Diablo II & III) Neil Ross (Mass Effect, Transformers) and Steve Blum (Star Wars: Rebels) all lent their voices, and even Jason Statham, yes that Jason Statham was roped in as Sergeant Waters of the SAS - who spent much of his time yelling at you. Composer Michael Giacchino who who would later go on to compose scores for both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, had earlier provided the exceptional score to the Medal of Honor games. He was enlisted by Activision to out do his earlier work and while he did succeed in delivering a suitably brilliant and unique score, in my opinion the music for Medal of Honor remains superior.

The only aspect that COD was genuinely criticised for really was the fact that the campaign's total length was about 6 hours in comparison to the 8 or 9 hours required for Medal Of Honor: Allied Assault even though the game concentrated it's development squarely on the campaign rather than the multi-player. However, in time gamers would soon come to terms with the shorter length of single player FPS campaigns further into the decade and upon replaying, it seems a normal length today. 

 

It's worth noting that while Medal of Honor evoked Saving Private Ryan and Return to Castle Wolfenstein nodded to Where Eagles Dare, Call of Duty pays homage to... well almost everything else. A Bridge Too Far, Enemy at the Gates and even Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was referenced to name but a few. In fact it would become a staple point of the COD franchise going forward to pay homage to a notable cinematic movie sequence or two in every subsequent entry in the franchise, always resulting in a better experience than trying to play an "official" movie-tie in game.

Call of Duty itself still holds up to this day and I do prefer it to Medal of Honor. While technically and graphically inferior to all modern engines and representations of WWII now of course, it still provides the player with a cinematic experience of being part of a U.S., British or Russian squad as you and your allies proceed to take back German occupied land, destroy their weapons, defences and other infrastructure and of course kill hundreds of Nazi's which I'll admit, never gets old.


Since 2002, the Medal of Honor franchise saw more titles released by EA each year, usually either exclusive to one platform or another, with varying degrees of commercial success until 2007. In 2010 they attempted to modernise the series away from WWII as Activision had done by then, but this was successful for only a single game, as it's sequel in 2012 was enough to put Medal of Honor on ice indefinitely. Activision have released a new Call of Duty game every year without fail since 2005. All ten Call of Duty games released between 2010 and 2019 occupy a place in the top-20 highest selling games list in the U.S. It was nice to go back and see where the ideas that would define the franchise take form for the first time.

Call of Duty is available from Steam for €19.99 which for a 17 year old game is fucking ridiculous. This is the worst thing I've personally experienced with Activision - while the game certainly was worth the full price in 2003, today most 17 year old games are under €5* when on sale but the pricing of Call of Duty franchise, even when the maximum 50% off remains premium and thus prohibitive to this day.

*Steam full price today of example games released in 2003: Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy / Knights of the Old Republic (€8.19), Deus Ex: Invisible War (€6.99), Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (€9.99), Rainbow Six 3: Gold Edition (€4.99)



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