Even if the genre is overcrowded, the mesmerizing, addictive, and brutal Call of Duty 2 shows why we needed another World War II title. This unrelenting and harsh video game uses the Xbox 360 not just for its graphical capabilities, but for intensity not possible on a different console. With battles like this, it's hard to believe anyone made it out of the war alive.
It's not often that the ESRB makes a mistake. However, handing out a T to this one is a rare misstep. The sheer amount of violence, coupled with disgusting blood splatters when enemies meet their fate, makes this an undeniably adult experience. It's important to the gameplay and not used for shock value. Having fellow troop members blow up from a grenade when they're standing next to you only to flop into an unnatural position is the real definition of survival horror.
Call of Duty 2 never lets up through the entire experience. Taking players through multiple areas of the war to keep repetition down, this first-person shooter doesn't feature a single dull moment. There are so many memorable sections, nearly every level offers something the developers could have ended the game with.
There's nothing they could have done to make the ending standout after you've taken over a tank battalion, downed buildings with strategically placed bombs, and flanked multiple German outposts with style. Since you control multiple characters, it doesn't have the cheapness of other war shooters where a Rambo-like hero manages to take down an entire army by himself.
The only thing the title loses in the programmed chaos of the battles is some emotion. Troops are decimated at the hands of the enemy, and replaced mere seconds later by another eager candidate for death even though there was no one else around when the mission started. It's not that they're dumb. The AI is, for the most part, superb. It's likely best we've seen yet without actually having control over the squad.
All the brutality comes from the difficulty, which makes no compromises even on the easiest setting. You will die, and it will happen a lot. The Halo-like health regeneration feels out of place, but if you're in trouble, you won't have a chance to make a recovery. Developer Infinity Ward have created a continue system that should be used for every first-person shooter to follow as well. When taken out, you have a few minor seconds to regain your composure, and you're tossed right back into the game without warning. It keeps the game flowing and frustrations stay low.
Levels are incredible, and not just for their uncanny look and visual variety. They're linear, usually bordered off with barbed wire or debris. Rarely can you tell though, and there's freedom given to the player as to how they can approach the situation. There's no wrong or right choice here, and aside from a few helping hands along the way (how is there always a rocket launcher available when a tank rolls in?), each level is an experience you can't possibly be disappointed with.
That's not to say they're perfect. The scenarios are designed with similar ideas. There are numerous sections of the game where you're only goal is to defend an enemy counter-attack for five minutes or until the opposition is depleted. The game is also picky about friendly fire, and in a few missions (especially into the opening Stalingrad levels) it's nearly impossible to distinguish friend from foe. You'll be repeating numerous sections after picking off a squad mate. The on-screen identifiers don't always pop-up in time to make the save.
Multi-player fans are in for a treat, and the only thing missing is a co-op mode. Four players can try to take each other down on a single console, eight players can go at it on Xbox Live, and 16 can play via LAN. Modes are typical for this style of game, from deathmatch to a "defend your home base while taking theirs" mode. Maps are a little on the large side, so if there are only two people available, you'll spend too much time looking for each other.
In a limited two-player mode, you'll also lose the audio, which is quite possibly the greatest thing to happen to video game sound since the introduction of 5.1 capabilities. Forget all the Medal of Honor titles and other cheap attempts of full blown wartime audio. Call of Duty 2 uses everything a 5.1 receiver can handle, and in a smart move by Infinity Ward, the soundtrack is non-existent until the mission had ended for maximum immersion. Even though the game does feel like it runs a little too long, the full audio effect is never tiring.
It's hard to find things to dislike about Call of Duty 2, which is certainly the launch title that makes a $400 game console feel worthwhile. The only thing holding it back is the genre. Even if you swore off D-Day levels for the rest of your gaming life, rest assured Call of Duty 2 deals with that scenario in an original way too. You don't truly own an Xbox 360 nor have you come close to experiencing a war from your home until you have this game.
(***** out of *****)