Call of Duty‘s initial success on PC back in 2003 helped put Infinity Ward on the map in the eyes of PC gamers, and the success of its expansion and the then-current generation console spin-offs (PS2, Gamecube, and Xbox), United Offensive and Finest Hour respectively helped to keep the CoD name in the periphery of gamers in 2004. And whilst the latter two games were produced by different studios, Infinity Ward themselves were hard at work at producing the next numerical Call of Duty title. Much like the first game, Call of Duty 2 would see a PC release date whereas its spin-off title, Call of Duty 2: Big Red One, would see a release on the current-gen systems of the time. However, the bumped up release of Microsoft’s next-gen console, the Xbox 360, would provide Infinity Ward the prospects of releasing their flagship title on a console, thus introducing a whole new market to the fully realized Call of Duty experience delivered on PC. Come 2005, Call of Duty 2 would make the first attempt at leaving a lasting impression not only of the core series of the franchise, but also the name Infinity Ward in the console market.
If it’s a Tad Clunky, Fix it
Despite still being a PC title and having the majority of its gameplay tenets left intact, Call of Duty 2 made a few changes to streamline functionality as well as to better adapt it to the restrictions of an Xbox 360 control pad. These changes include: the removal of a health bar in favor of a health regeneration system, moving grenades from the weapon slot to a dedicated button, the addition of a secondary grenade (the smoke grenade) that also takes up a dedicated button, and the introduction of a two weapon system. Alternate fire modes on certain weapons were also removed. Whilst seemingly minor changes, the introduction of these gameplay mechanics would become the gold standard for the franchise going forward.
As for the remainder of gameplay mechanics, Call of Duty 2 doesn’t do much to shake up what it introduced in its first iteration. Because the game utilizes the same four nations (American, British, Russian, and German) in its campaign, the weaponry utilized and encountered is more or less the same sandbox used from the first with its functionality still being the same as well. If anything, the most improvement in regards to the environment, weaponry and vehicles comes from enhanced sound effects, smoother animations with a 60 frames per second standard, and a visual upgrade as there are few new things actually introduced. The introduction of a British Crusader tank as a vehicle as opposed to the first game’s Russian T-34-85 does provide the excuse to have a smoother, faster, and more precise tank to control in gameplay, but ultimately even that change is minute, as are the different uniform skins for NPCs to reflect the different divisions of the four armies being used this time around.
Speaking of precision, the introduction of gameplay to a console controller does introduce some problems when it comes to precision aiming with guns. There is a high magnetism for auto-aim set as a necessity to help aim at enemies both in single-player and multiplayer to compensate for the lack of precision on a joystick, but the snapping from aiming down sights can often be more of a hindrance when attempting to acquire specific targets in a crowd (which is often). Without the auto-aim feature turned on, there is still noticeable magnetism involved (as is necessary with console shooters), yet even then aiming can be thrown off not so much because of outright missing. This is because hit detection is at times poor when attempting to acquire a target. This is most apparent when attempting to aim down sights and mow down enemies in close quarters where a hit should be guaranteed on the first squeeze of a trigger alone, only to result in an incredible miss. And when it comes to multiplayer and the Veteran difficulty mode in single-player, it’s a flaw that’s incredibly frustrating to deal with.
What is significantly different from the first title however, is how vastly different level design felt. Whereas the majority of the first game had far more wide and sweeping environments whether they were in an open field or inside of a house, there is a distinctly tighter more cramped sense of design element for this game. It’s far more pronounced during the American and British levels taking place in France, as well as what would normally be wide open rooms are reduced to very compact rooms that look as though they serve less functionality and feel more claustrophobic. This is especially apparent when clearing out the German forces that stuff them. Supposedly, the design of the French architecture is far more accurate in this game game as opposed to the last, and consequently as a result created clustered indoor gameplay sections in both single player and multiplayer settings, but it’s not all bad.
Despite what sees like far more noticeable tightly controlled environments, there are still moments throughout the campaign where multiple paths to flank enemy positions are present, with linearity not really an issue with design. However, that said, the introduction of smoke grenades (which facilitates advancement across enemy fire lines) does allow Infinity Ward to insert linear paths that essentially force the use of these new grenades to get through in a straightforward fashion.
Still, this crack at optimizing gameplay would serve as the basis for minor and major improvement over the course of the series as the franchise begins to take root with modern console hardware. Additionally, despite the then-current flaws they were mainly excused back in the day for providing yet another epic single-player campaign and multiplayer experience not only for PC (which didn’t suffer from as many precision problems), but for the Xbox 360 crowd booting up their brand new next-gen systems.
Same Sh*t, Different Front
Much like with general gameplay features, Call of Duty 2’s single-player formula remained essentially the same with enhancements added on top to improve existing mechanics. At its core, the game is still driven by a journal narration prior to each mission as the only source of characterization and briefing.
And much like the previous core game, the levels are spread out across American, British and Russian campaigns, with different battles and skirmishes taking center stage. The biggest exception is Russia, which is still primarily using the Battle of Stalingrad as the setting for its various levels.
That being said there are improvements that have been added on to enhance the immersive battlefield campaign experience Infinity Ward first crafted in the first title. Among these improvements are practically no more solo missions like the SAS commando raid on the dam in the first game. Instead, there are always allies around and a battle occurring whether you’re stuck in the middle of it or watching it happen in the distance while you disrupt enemy lines with a squad. Unfortunately, for whatever reason your AI companions appear to be far less effective compared to the ones in the first Call of Duty, but it doesn’t detract much from the feeling of being caught up in battle.
Furthermore, the tighter and slightly more linear level designs allow for far more scripted interactions with important NPC’s, leading to more cinematic moments that are more closely akin to the Hollywood style military movie dialogue exchanges. This trait really adds another level of being in the moment. Even if it’s based off already-fictionalized and dramatized works, there’s a cool factor to prepping yourself for an assault when you’re being led by a Tom Hanks-like leader in your squad or a very distinct lively Brit with a curious mustache.
Another layer of improvement that assists in immersion is improved audio. As mentioned before, gun noises, explosions and other miscellaneous sounds have been improved since the previous iteration, but in addition to that audio chatter for all NPCs have also been greatly improved to be more lively. Infinity Ward took great pride in having a ridiculous number of lines recorded for all NPCs to react to whatever is going on around them and to respond in kind. Instead of vague responses like “enemy there” or “watch out” from the first game, NPCs this time around are far more specific into pointing out things like enemy positions, letting others around them know they’re taking cover and reloading, and even mentioning other NPCs by name in small dialogue snippets. Even the German soldiers (despite me not understanding them) run off of a similar chatter system. Overall, it creates a feeling of life in the game as your NPC allies and enemies maintain the strong illusion that whatever is going on in their immediate area is truly happening.
Animation for NPCs gets a boost as well as allies and enemies react to gunfire or being shot. One of the more enduring bits of animations come from enemies or allies being gravely wounded, but rather than lay down and succumb to death they’ll whip out their pistols and fight to the very end much like Tom Hanks’ character in the finale of Saving Private Ryan…though a bit more annoying if anything when you’re the one being shot at from a bugger you swore you’ve killed.
Aside from the immersion factors, level design itself was as mentioned above far more tighter with less places to freely roam. Regardless, the environments are more detailed and there are still paths that help maintain the illusion that there is choice in the matter in how you tackle an enemy emplacement. The addition of simultaneous objectives being active for the sake of clearing them out also appears here and there to give the sense of actually scoring a town block by block.
At the end of the day, missions still rely on simply killing everyone wherever you go, so variety is ultimately limited to how you go about killing everyone. This can be through existing weapons everyone should at this point be familiar with, to on-rail vehicle sections, and even a nice tank. When you’re not actively attempting to push towards an objective to kill people, the alternative mission objective that’s given is to retreat whilst killing the hordes that bum rush you. Now, admittedly these particular sections are hit and miss, especially thanks to incredibly long timers for holding out, but some of these fall back sections such as the Point-Du-Hoc D-Day mission are wonderfully structured to actually feel like having your back against the wall as defense line after defense line is breached. But such moments are few and far in-between, with the majority of such sections feeling incredibly monotonous.
Speaking of flaws, one of the only major ones to carry over is the infinite spawning wave of enemies. While not an issue on easier difficulties, the latter two difficulties (Hardened and Veteran) highlight the frustration that the infinitely spawning mechanic creates. When your job is to create an opening to advance up to an enemy position, and that opening is suddenly sealed by newly spawned enemies in less than a few seconds, then advancing becomes less of a personal achievement created by badass skill and more of a lottery. In this case, hoping that your luck holds out that the system doesn’t spawn another enemy so quickly and/or it doesn’t get accurate enough to mow you down the instant they take up position whilst you’re advancing.
Clearly, the new smoke grenade functions as a manner to by pass this issue, but the flaw is most glaringly apparent when clearing out buildings (a frequent task). Thanks to the imprecise controls for consoles, it becomes an incredible battle of patience when it comes to clearing out rooms, particularly second floors, thanks to the deadly combination of infinite spawns and incredibly enclosed tight corners. Smoke grenades can help deter gunfire, but in enclosed spaces there is nothing more frustratingly common than to smoke out a room only to get beaten by the butt of a rifle from behind because the game happened to spawn an enemy right there when your back was turned. And thanks to the integration of Xbox 360 Achievements solely focused on beating the game on Veteran, this will happen a lot and it’s unfortunate that it’s a flaw the series game design that doesn’t really get addressed until far far later in the franchise.
It’s Good to Play Together
Since this series is primarily focused on the Call of Duty legacy, going forward on consoles the multiplayer suite won’t be delved into on PC, but suffice it to say that there is a massive gap between the 64 player functionality on PC versus the extremely limited 8 players on the Xbox 360. That being said, the multiplayer component was still a large success on the console platform thanks in part to the lesser online offerings from other launch titles like Perfect Dark.
With that being said, Call of Duty 2 was a huge multiplayer hit on the Xbox 360, continuously staying in the top 5 most played Xbox Live Game list even when its sequel Call of Duty 3 was released (Halo 2 would retain the number 1 spot throughout). It wouldn’t be until the release of the fourth core title that Call of Duty 2 would drop off the list.
For consoles, players had thirteen maps to play on along with five gametypes for settings: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Headquarters and Search and Destroy. Being on the Xbox platform, the concept of playlists were introduced with a simple ranked and player playlist. Map locations were generally culled from single-player environments, with newer map packs available as DLC as time went on as opposed to having an expansion completely inject new maps, weapons, and vehicles. Speaking of which, unlike the expansion pack for the last game, United Offensive, Call of Duty 2‘s multiplayer offering was strictly infantry once more like the original. Regardless of gametype, players will choose either an allied faction (depending on the map) or the Germans and select the primary weapon available to that faction. Once chosen, players just have at it. Despite the simplicity, Call of Duty 2’s multiplayer was still a hit for retaining the core elements that made the campaign just as exciting.
Nowadays the online mode is a bit of a ghost town, but it is a rare occurrence to find enough people online to enjoy a 2v2 or 3v3 game. At the time of this writing about four games were found and played which was where the above screenshot was taken. But for the most part Call of Duty 2’s time as a multiplayer powerhouse on the Xbox 360 is truly over.
The End of the Beginning
Call of Duty 2’s legacy in the franchise is marked by being the first main Call of Duty game to hit a console even though the multiplayer was tuned down compared to its PC counterpart. Overall, it was an improvement over every element that existed in Infinity Ward’s previous title (as would future titles to more negative connotations), but for console goers this was their first true experience with the franchise and the online ratings were testament to its success and impact on the Xbox population. Another key milestone is that the game’s release would also mark the series’ brand association away from PC as Activision’s dealings with Microsoft would eventually turn into the partnership it is today, with Call of Duty being primarily marketed and branded towards being synonymous with the Xbox brand despite its PC origins and simultaneous multiplatform releases.
With another clear hit under their belt, Infinity Ward would go back to the drawing boards to see where their next game would take them. Meanwhile, Treyarch and Gray Matter Interactive (Call of Duty: United Offensive) would merge together under Treyarch’s banner after the development of 2005’s Call of Duty 2: Big Red One. Under their combined strength Treyarch would go on to take the helm of the next core Call of Duty, and in the Fall of 2006 Activision set its sights on letting all console owners experience the rapidly growing potential of this series…