Part I: Call of Duty – Answering the Call
You’ll Always Remember Your First…
On October 29, 2003 a small company under the name of Infinity Ward would release their very first game on PC. This first person shooter title, published by Activision, would not be the first World War II to arrive onto market. Indeed, games like Electronic Arts’ Medal of Honor series and Battlefield 1942 as well as various games by other developers and publishers already filled the marketplace. In regards to the former two titles mentioned, Medal of Honor (since 1999) had its feet firmly planted in delivering an epic single-player experience within the time period with players commonly serving as elite O.S.S. operatives operating behind enemy lines. Meanwhile Battlefield 1942, released in 2002, dominated the multiplayer landscape by using its World War II backdrop to immerse players in massive online battles against others around the world. Infinity Ward’s game would be different however. Not so much different that it completely changed the field by itself mind you, but by focusing its attention on presenting players with a different type of single player atmosphere, one centered around the concept of being part of full scale battles instead of behind the scenes like with Medal of Honor, it would go on to establish a unique identity that serves as a foothold for future domination. That game was Call of Duty.
From the get go during the game’s opening trailer sequence it’s clear that Call of Duty wants to impress you on one front, and that’s being the sense that you’re in the middle of the battlefield.
From the incredible Volga River crossing during the Battle of Stalingrad, even smaller less explosive night drops in France before D-Day, and even simple training sessions at boot camp you’re rarely ever alone in this game as NPC troops surround you left and right. Even when there aren’t any soldiers around, the sights and sounds of the battlefield as explosions go off in the distance and planes sweep by overhead contribute to a feeling of immersion making you feel not so much an army of one, but truly being part of the army and making significant contributions to a given battle. This is in stark contrast to the other highly acclaimed WWII title during this time frame, Medal of Honor. And whilst Medal of Honor had its amazing set piece battles in the beginning of its games such as its recreation of the D-Day landings these levels only serve as a means to have the player picked out away from the army to serve as a super-secret badass of one O.S.S. operative. That in turn leads to the majority of Medal of Honor games being mainly solo affairs deep behind enemy lines where the action is solely centered on you. It’s certainly fun in its own way, but because of that focus on the solo O.S.S. missions Call of Duty is able to really bring forth an experience that hadn’t been explored for the entirety of its game. And unlike Medal of Honor, Call of Duty would seek to expand the viewpoint beyond just what the Americans faced.
War on (More Than) Two Fronts
Whether on the ground or in a vehicle, from the forces of the U.S.A. in the West or the Soviets in the East, Call of Duty managed to portray warfare from a variety of newer angles for the masses. With it comes a variety of different weapon sets appropriate for each faction helping expand most gamers’ knowledge of WWII weapons beyond the iconic chink of an M1 Garand expelling its clip. Even vehicular combat in a single player setting became new grounds thanks to the Soviet missions where players helm the iconic (though so iconic that people tend to forget the Soviets had other tanks) T-34.
The addition of having fully fledged American, British, and Soviet campaigns didn’t necessarily make for a longer game compared to WWII shooters back in the day, but the different theaters help expand the range of battles players got to participate beyond the usually recreated battlegrounds American forces fought through. Battles rarely portrayed in games due to limitations of an American viewpoint were suddenly tapped into though most of them are recreations or inspired by scenes existing in movies much like how the opening sequence in the Battle of Stalingrad would be pulled from Enemy at the Gates (with another scene subsequently inspiring a future Call of Duty sequence). That being said, the nature of having multiple fronts show would become an iconic staple in subsequent games in the series. But how does the game actually play?
Relic from the Past, Vision of the Future
Gameplay wise, Call of Duty was pretty standard fare for a PC title. Movement generally felt the same as any other FPS at the time and mechanics like a health bar and a need to get health packs still persisted as was the standard of the day. One of the more slightly newer features compared to most games like its rival Medal of Honor was the ability to aim down the sights (ADS). The vast majority of FPS games thrived off of an accuracy system based on crosshairs that would tighten whilst crouched and with the less movement there was; CoD did away with that to become one of the very few to favor a more immersive system of having the player literally aim down the sight of their weapon for increased accuracy. Whilst it was an extremely minor change, it was one that would persist throughout the series and become a standard feature in all future titles.
Another gameplay feature was a more reasonable weapon inventory system. Rather than carry every single gun encountered, players were forced to manage two main weapons, a side arm, and a grenade. Whilst still a very clunky system thanks to needing a personal slot for a side arm and a grenade, the reduction of main weaponry to just two would become the first step into streamlining its gameplay into what it is today, but back then the reduction was a bit of a surprise for PC platform where hot keys easily supported a far more varied weapon inventory versus consoles. Eventually the series would do away with both health and this particular weapon management system in favor of the two-weapon with regenerating health feature that console-game Halo: Combat Evolved (and subsequently its sequel Halo 2) began to popularize.
When it comes to enemies, AI is fairly standard fare as German soldiers on the battlefield line up like ducks at the carnival in need of being shot down at a distance. The vast majority of the time, failing to push up upon taking these soldiers down will result in another soldier taking the previous one’s place in the firing line with potentially infinite numbers of soldiers spawning. Other times a seemingly endless wave of soldiers will need to be faced until an undetermined amount of kills triggers a scripted sequence. Up close there will be quite a few contextual animations (e.g. a soldier taking a piss or a squad of troops not alerted to your presence just talking amongst themselves) that attempt to liven things up between shooting galleries, but nothing particularly that stands out and seems like there’s particular life to these soldiers. Yet just having swarms of two opposing armies just yelling at each other and going down in waves is still enough to breathe a bit of life in them that hadn’t been achieved at the time thought unfortunately the endless wave of enemies would be a persisting negative throughout the series.
At least the monotony of numbly killing troops is broken up by having characters leading the way constantly throughout each campaign. While they don’t say too much, their voices and their appearance in-game conducting most scripted events adds a certain bit of life to your own armies’ otherwise faceless infinite swarms. The introduction of the Captain Price character for example would eventually become a staple for Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty for a long time to come with more and more personable actions being attributed to the character and his successor in subsequent titles.
As for weaponry its looks and sounds were rather impressively detailed back then with each weapon having a satisfying click or pop to them as each one is fired and reloaded. A far wider cast of weaponry is available thanks to the allied nations having their own expanded campaigns to feature them in. That in turn leads it to having a rather expanded arsenal of weaponry available in the game’s multiplayer though on that particular front the game is far weaker.
An Online Battlefield like the Other…Just…Smaller
When it comes to multiplayer Call of Duty was nothing special having only free-for-all and Team Deathmatch available; both game variants pitted players against each other with an Allied Nation on one end with a German team on the other in small arena settings. Weaponry is selected prior to each spawn and players go on to duke it out. Because of its arcade-like fast controls, the majority of period weapons (single shot rifles) limited and made awkward a variety of encounters in this relatively fast paced and unbalanced shooter. But it was still a fun shooter nonetheless despite it being simplistic when compared to its other rival Battlefield 1942 which dominated the multiplayer arena by providing the same type of scale CoD’s campaign had, but for a multiplayer exclusive audience.
Still with the advent of its expansion pack Call of Duty: United Offensive, additional game modes like Domination and Capture the Flag became part of the multiplayer suite and would remain a staple for the series from then on out.
The First Step in a Long Journey
At the end of the day Call of Duty resonated with gamers and critics primarily for its immersive campaign. A good many of the Game of the Year awards in 2003 would be bestowed upon the game with a few developer awards going to Infinity Ward for their ability to make a hit game as an untested studio.
Still, while successful, Call of Duty’s success and renown was limited to its PC audience and critics. It would still be a long way from truly breaking out to the masses. Initial sales were strong enough to warrant the above mentioned United Offensive expansion which added more campaign and multiplayer content in 2004 which would carry over onto the next numerical sequel. That expansion would be helmed by Gray Matter Interactive, a dev most Call of Duty players nowadays (particularly those on consoles) would likely not be familiar with until it merged with what would eventually become second main developer of the Call of Duty franchise…
Activision would slate the release of the next title in the franchise for 2005 whilst 2004 was covered by the first game’s expansion along with spin off titles developed for the PS2 from other developers. With a firm grasp on the PC market Infinity Ward set its sights on taking an addition step…One that would expand its theater of operation to an audience adopting what was then the latest in home console entertainment…