Back in November 2005, my first Xbox 360 game title review was for Call of Duty (see my review), a sequel to one of my favorite games of all time, and the front-runner for best Xbox 360 launch title. Since that time, I've completed a number of Xbox 360 titles, and have played through both Half-Life 2 and Halo 2 on the original Xbox. And of course, I have a number of upcoming reviews of Xbox 360 games, including the various sports titles that came out at launch, and original games such as GUN and Perfect Dark Zero.

Everytime I try to get out....

But something about Call of Duty 2 kept drawing me back. Certainly, it's a better game than most Xbox 360 launch titles, and its multiplayer possibilities give the game huge replayability. But part of the draw is that all Xbox 360 games include a series of Achievements, which are sort of like reward points for achieving certain in-game objectives. Though I had completed the entire Call of Duty 2 single player experience, I had gotten only 200 of the 1000 possible Achievement points in the game. The reason? I had completed Call of Duty 2 on Regular difficult level. And the only way to get most of the Achievement points the game offers is to complete it on the hardest difficulty level, Veteran.

I'm no slouch when it comes to first person shooters. I had played through COD2 on Regular the first time around simply so I could get through it and write the review. After all, I had 17 other Xbox 360 titles to look forward to as well. That's a lot of playing--and a lot of writing.

Non-Achievements

But those Achievement points nagged at me. Eventually, I popped the game disk back in the Xbox 360, fired up the 52-inch HDTV display, and went to work. Because I had already completed the game, I was able to pick and choose which levels to play, in any order. I elected to simply work through the game, from beginning to end. I quickly started racking up Achievement points as I finished each level. Winter War. Done. Stalingrad '42. Done. Fortress Stalingrad. Done. And so on.

I got stuck in a few places. For example, the last segment of Rommel's Last Stand, where you must shoot down a bevy of attacking planes with a fixed gun, hit an awkward auto save, causing me to die almost instantly each time I respawned, so I'd have to restart the level segment from the beginning, which was frustrating. So I elected to save that one for the end. After finishing the third and final set of levels, concerning the American portion of the war, I returned to Rommel's Last Stand, moved quickly through the level, and got a much better auto save. The game was quickly completed. In all, it took me two weeks to cruise through COD2 on Veteran difficulty. But then it's not like I can sit in front of the Xbox 360 for several hours at a time. I had to do this part time.

Bad Reputation

Anyway, 800 Achievement points later I still wasn't satisfied. There was something else missing. In the four months since I first got the Xbox 360, I'd watched as my Achievement points total went up steadily (it's at 3385 as of this writing) and as my Reputation barely moved. On the 360, Reputation is based on a five star rating. I started out a two stars, I believe, moved quickly to three stars, but then have hovered at 3 or 3.5 stars ever since. Despite completing several games, I couldn't get that Reputation rating to go up.

Something told me that the remaining 1.5 or two stars had to be tied to online play. And sure enough, this has proven to be the case. I'm not sure if there is any correlation between Reputation and the gamer zone you choose to play within (I've chosen "Recreation" rather than the more hard-core "Pro" or "Underground"), and my testing since hasn't uncovered any connection. But with two weeks of COD2 multiplayer via Xbox 360 under my belt, I've bumped my reputation up to the hoped-for five stars. And I've discovered a brand new addiction. COD2 multiplayer rocks. No, it's not perfect. But God, it just freaking rocks.

Call of Duty 2 multiplayer

In my original review of COD2, I noted that COD2 multiplayer "delivers" while being is "fun and playable." Fair enough. On the Xbox 360, COD2 allows you to play against other human beings via Xbox Live, Split Screen, or System Link. We'll be looking at the Xbox Live component most closely, but split screen mode lets you play up to three other human beings on the same television, while System Link lets you hook two Xbox 360 consoles together via a proprietary System Link cable, so each system must have its own TV. I'd imagine this setup is preferable to split screen. Even on a widescreen HDTV display, with two players, split screen actually divides the screen vertically, resulting in two ultrawide, but short displays, a woefully inadequate inexperience; the screen should split into two 4:3 displays on a widescreen, in my opinion.

But let's face it, split screen stinks, though it and System Link do give you some options you don't get on Xbox Live. For example, you can create custom games in which you specify the location and game type, options we'll discuss in a moment. On Xbox Live, you can't actually create your own games.

Xbox Live

So what do you get when you choose to multiplay COD2 over Xbox Live? First, the system gives you two match type options, Player Match and Ranked Match. Player Match, as the game notes, lets you "play for fun with people who share similar profiles." Put simply, COD2 attempts to find games in progress or about to begin that are populated with people who have similar Reputations, play within similar game zones, and have played similar games. You know, if it can.

Ranked Match lets you "play competitive matches [that] improve your TrueSkill rankings. Yes, this is yet another complicated ranking that exists with Xbox Live. According to Microsoft, TrueSkill is a skill based ranking system that identifies and tracks the skills of gamers in a game in order to be able to match them into competitive matches. More to the point, TrueSkill rankings sit in the background, invisible to the player, attempting to match you against other players of similar skills.

I have to be honest here. I've seen no difference at all between Player Match and Ranked Match games on Xbox Live. That's not to say there isn't a difference, per se, but certainly there's been nothing to make me choose one over another.

Regardless of which you choose, in the next screen you pick between Quick Match and Custom Match. In Quick Match, you jump quickly into a random game type (see below for the different game types). With Custom Match, you get to choose which type of game you'd like to play, ostensibly. But I've seen it substitute game types fairly regularly (I often get Team Deathmatch when I chose Deathmatch, for example), so my guess is that it will substitute only when a game of the type you choose is not available.

What's completely unclear about this system is how games are started and chosen. For example, let's say I want a custom game type and I choose Deathmatch (again, see below for game type descriptions). If there is a pending Deathmatch game, or an ongoing game with an available slot, presumably I'd be able to join. But if there isn't one, I should be able to host a new Deathmatch game myself, and wait for other players. And sure enough, sometimes that's what seems to happen (you can tell you are hosting a game when your ping, a measurement of network latency, is 0). But oftentimes, you're simply told that the game sesson is unavailable and you're bounced back to the main Xbox Live screen. That's frustrating because it happens a lot and you have no idea why.

The PC version of COD2 handles connections between players and games much more seamlessly and offers many numerous options. For example, you can start your own server online, browse through a list of thousands of available servers, and fine-tune the list to include only those servers with the game types or other attributes you want. This is vastly superior to how it works on Xbox 360.

Game types

There are five available game types. The first, Deathmatch, is the most basic. In this game type, it's every man for himself. You enter the level, kill anything that moves, and respawn in a random location in the map when you're killed. Deathmatch games typically last 15 minutes or run until someone scores 25 points. This is my favorite type of online game type, and the one I frequent the most, largely because it's so similar to the online games I first cut my teeth on over a decade ago.

Team Deathmatch is the second game type. In this version, players split onto opposing teams, Allies vs. Axis, and try and rack up the most points for each team. This is almost as good as straight Deathmatch, but for one problem: COD2 actually lets players choose which team they'll be on. That means you might have 5 players on the Russian team, say, and just 2 on the German team. The game should simply auto-assign players, and add new players to the appropriate (i.e. short-handed) team when they join. Hey, that's just my opinion. That said, there's nothing quite like a good team game. And if you get two reasonably-matched teams, Team Deathmatch is good stuff.

Capture the Flag is another classic that dates back ten years. In this team-based game, there are two flags placed on opposite ends of the level, one for the Allied team and one for the Axis team. You score a point by capturing the enemy flag (by simply running over it) and then touching your own flag. If your flag is captured, you can't score until it is returned; to do so, you kill the opposing team's flag carrier, and then touch your own flag to return it to it's original location. While Team Deathmatch pits teams of people against each other Flag requires those teams to work as actual teams. Some people should defend the flag, for example, while others probe the enemy defenses and attempt to capture their flag. The game ends when times runs out or one team scores five points.

The fourth game type, Headquarters, is fairly unique to COD2, at least in my experience. In this team game type, each team much set up a headquarters somewhere on the map. Once the headquarters is set up, they accrue points while team ticks down until the other team overruns the headquarters. If a player on the defensive team is skilled, he will not respawn until the headquarters is overrun or the time expires.

In the final game type, Search and Destroy, one team tries to destroy various objectives that are held by the enemy by planting bombs in those places. The defending team must defuse the explosives before they're detonated. Like Capture the Flag, Search and Destroy has its roots in a long-time favorite, this time the Half-Life inspired Counter-Strike.

For a console-based game, that's a lot of game types, and while none of them except for Headquarters are particularly unique or innovative, they give you a solid palette from which to explore and enjoy.

One related note: In the even to a tie score, the game just ends as a tie. I'd rather there was some sort of sudden-death overtime in such cases.

Levels

COD2 supplies 13 multiplayer maps, which range from good to exceptional. There are seven France-based maps, most of which feature partially bombed-out towns, three North African maps, one of which is a night-time mission, and three Russian maps, which all feature blowing wind, falling snow, and the crunch of boot steps as you move across the frozen landscape. Here is how the maps break down.

The France maps are generally well-lit and feature wooded areas, small towns, and lots of good sniper points. Beltot is a small map with two areas separated by a small trench. Brecourt is a favorite: This large map feature low, sweeping hills, a nest of trenches, and some destroyed walls, all perfect for setting up position and looking for long-range targets. Burgundy is another small map, but this time set in a bombed-out town, complete with burned-out tanks, some decent second-story hiding spots, and a constrained play area. Caen is the largest of the French town maps, and it features an extensive range of buildings in various stages of destruction, making it perfect for either long-range work or man-to-man combat with faster shooting weapons. Carentan is another favorite, a mid-sized town map with clearly defined sections that make it perfect for both team-oriented games and standard Deathmatches. St. Mere Eglise is similar in both size and scope to Carentan, but features a blown-out church in its logical center. And Villers-Bocage provides the most urban and decrepit of the France levels; this town is almost completely destroyed, and you must skulk between the crumbling remains of buildings to discover your prey.

Two of the North African maps, Matmata, Tunisia and Toujane, Tunisia, provide awesome sun-drenched urban levels derived from the game's British single player campaign, and they're both favorite of mine. However, I often end up in El Alamein, Egypt online, which is a nighttime mission in the trench-heavy desert. The darkness of this level makes it hard to see on certain displays: On my HDTV and standard definition TV, I find this level difficult because of visibility problems, but on a Sony 23" widescreen computer display, connected via the Xbox 360 VGA adapter, it's more gray than black and highly playable. That said, it's my least favorite of the North African maps.

The Russian maps are all pretty similar and excellent locales. Leningrad and Moscow are both mid-sized urban settings. Leningrad is stocked full of buildings and various hiding places, while Moscow is demarked by a central square around which most of the action unfolds. Stalingrad is a large level that takes place in a train yard, complete with

Overall, the design of the COD2 maps is consistently excellent and while each of them seems to be designed with specific game types in mind, most of them work well with any. No complaints here: Even my least favorite COD2 maps are quite good.

Weapons

Unlike most other deathmatch-type online games, COD2 allows you to hold only two weapons at a time, and one of them is preset to the lamest pistol your type of soldier can hold. The other you can choose, and you can change your selection during the game (though you have to wait to respawn before getting your new choice), or pick up weapons from your fallen enemies if you want a change.

Since COD2 is a World War II-era game, the weapons are from that area. Regardless of the team choices you get--American, British, German, or Russian, the weapons all map out the same. You get a machine gun of some sort, a sniper rifle (my personal favorite if the map favors that kind of play) and various other choices.

Interestingly, the weapons choices have lead me to adopt a starkly different play style when compared to the other online first person shooters I've enjoyed, such as Halo 2, the Quake series, and Duke Nukem. In those games, most people tend to hop onto powerful rocket launcher-like weapons as quickly as possible. But because COD2 is more realistic, and exists in the World War II era, there's a lot more sniper action going on than machine gunning, though certain levels do favor certain types of weapons. As an online old-timer, my initial reaction to these snipers was to mutter "camper" under my breath and then pledge to find them--usually in exactly the same location--when I respawned. But I've adapted to the sniper-based fighting of COD2, which is actually quite exciting. There's nothing better than picking off a Nazi from a quarter mile away as you spy the top of his helmet through your sniper scope.

Problems in cyberspace

COD2 multiplayer is great, but it certainly isn't perfect. In addition to the fact that you can't start a custom game over Xbox Live and wait for others to join, you also can't browse a list of available servers and join games in progress, as you can in the PC version. But given the simplicity factor of a console when compared to a PC, I can overlook these flaws. There are, however, two other major issues facing COD2 fans on Xbox Live. One of them is Microsoft's fault. The other is the game maker's.

Idiots with microphones

Ever since Xbox Live debuted in 2002, every idiot with a microphone has come online to make an absolute ass out of themselves. It seems like you can't jump into a Halo2 match online without some voice-altered 13-year-old moron getting on and singing an inane song, chattering endlessly, burping, or making other audio trouble. The notion of being able to communicate with others online via microphones is excellent. The reality, however, has been horrible.

This situation is no better in COD2. Thankfully, Microsoft lets you mute the people you don't want to listen to, and you can of course complain about them, though the process is a timely and cumbersome, especially when you're just trying to play a game. I've had to complain about a few idiots, one of whom was simply spouting scatological references for no good reason, one of whom was actually just talking on the phone while not playing. Irritating? You bet.

Lag and quality of service issues

The other issue is that online games often lag, disconnect suddenly, or won't connect at all. In-game lag refers to a slow connection between your machine and the "server," which is a host Xbox 360 in this case. Oftentimes, an online game will start off very laggy, but then people get tired of the nonsense and disconnect, and the game speed picks up and all is well. I've learned to be patient in these cases.

The disconnection issues are equally annoying. Three times now I've had a commanding lead in a game only to see the game suddenly disconnect. My guess is that the host decided enough was enough, but I'm not actually positive how these games are set up online, so that could be incorrect.

Interestingly, Infinity Ward, the company that developed Call of Duty 2, says it is aware of the lag issues and will try and issue a fix. Earlier this month, the company shipped a patch for the single player experience in COD2, and explained that it was looking into multiplayer as well. "We are pleased to announce that we are testing a number of multiplayer enhancements to the community, including addressing the lag issues," the company wrote in a statement online. "We are working really hard on these updates. Development is a timely process and we appreciate your patience."

Another issue is that multiplayer games just aren't available sometime. The lack of an in-game server browser makes this aspect of COD2 particularly frustrating: Regardless of which game options you choose, you just get a message that says, "Notice. Unable to join game session." And that's it. You press Exit and start over. The problem is, once you see this message, you can try all you want, but you're not getting into any games. You basically just have to wait and try again later. It's stupid.

Sniping Paul online

If you're an Xbox 360 owner and Call of Duty 2 fan, feel free to meet me in an online deathmatch and beat the stuffing out of me. Heck, sometimes it feels like that's what I'm there for. Actually, I do pretty well overall. With good players, I usually end up in the middle of the pack, or a bit north of that. And sometimes, with the right ping and the right mix of players, I actually eek out the occasional victory. Those years of first person shooter experience have paid off, I guess.

Conclusions

Call of Duty remains my favorite Xbox 360 launch title, and the multiplayer component only enhances the overall game, even with a few niggling problems. I'm a bit bothered that the Xbox 360 version of this game doesn't have all of the multiplayer options of the PC version, but it's a far cry better than nothing. More to the point, COD2 multiplayer is an absolutely stunning experience, once you get into a game. If you're a fan of first person shooters, online deathmatches, or a World War II buff, this isn't a game to be missed.