Several years ago, developers began combining first person shooters with the rich wellspring of World War II-era story lines, giving gamers a potent combination of good vibes that hasn't been seen since Reese's linked chocolate with peanut butter. The first major title in this suddenly hot genre was the PC-based "Medal of Honor: Allied Assault," which realistically displayed war-torn Europe from the perspective of a US soldier moving from battlefield to battlefield. Though linear in nature, the original Medal of Honor was so cinematic, so breathtaking, and so undeniably enjoyable that it sold millions of copies, garnered fans from the around the world, and generated a host of sequels on a variety of platforms. I've personally played through the PC version of Medal of Honor, its two mission pack add-ons ("Spearhead" and the even better "Breakthrough"), and "Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault," several times each. It's just good stuff.

In 2003, a rival series, called Call of Duty, emerged from a new game design house made up largely of ex-Medal of Honor coders. Like the Medal of Honor series, Call of Duty progressed through World War II, but this time the action was split between different soldiers in different parts of the European theatre, as told from the perspective of the US, British, and Russians. Call of Duty represented a step up from Medal of Honor, in both graphics/immersion and playability. Call of Duty also featured a multiplayer option, which I've rarely tried, though I did find a nighttime snow-laden garden level to be particularly creepy, with occasional dog barks in the background as hidden players tried to snipe each other from the darkness. Call of Duty, like its predecessor, was followed by numerous platform ports (most of which were minor subsets of the full PC version), a great add-on pack called "United Offensive," and, most recently, a true sequel called "Call of Duty 2."

I've played both the PC and Xbox 360 versions of Call of Duty 2, and as a fan of the genre and series, I can say that Activision has really nailed it with this one. Let's jump right in.

The story lines

As with the PC version of Call of Duty (COD), Call of Duty 2 (COD2) features three separate campaigns that separately present the World War II experiences of soldiers from the US, Britain, and Russia. This is different from most console ports of the COD games, however, which typically feature a small subset of the PC game's play. And that fact alone is notable: Whereas many PC games in the past were available on consoles, you weren't getting the full meal deal. That COD2 is available in its entirety on Xbox 360, and with identical graphics, says a lot about Microsoft's console. There's no need to accept less anymore: The COD2 experience on Xbox 360 is identical to that on the PC. On the flipside, COD2 utilizes a lot of small text that can be particularly hard-to-read on standard definition televisions. If you're not playing this on an HDTV set or computer display (using the optional VGA adapter), the text will be fuzzy looking.

In COD2, the campaigns are reordered from the way they appeared in the original COD (the Russian one is first) and, after completing a few missions in any given campaign, you can optionally opt to jump into missions from one of the other campaigns if you'd like. At first, I didn't see the benefit to this, but this feature actually breaks up the linear nature of the game quite nicely, especially since the Russian, British, and American campaigns take place in shockingly different terrain. So you can intermix the Russian and British campaigns after a while if you'd like, though the third campaign, which starts at the American attack on D-Day, is always last, available only when you've completed three of the four British campaigns.

The Russian campaign, as you might expect, takes place in the dead of winter, as the Russian army attempts to defend Stalingrad from the advancing Nazi forces. You can expect lots of swirling snow, with bullets flying out of the distance in cramped urban and factory settings. When you pick up with the British, it's off to the start North African desert. And the American campaign picks up during the D-Day invasion (just like the first game) and then continues among the green swards of war-torn France and Germany. You couldn't ask for a better mix of settings, unless of course you were looking for a Pacific campaign or two as well. And fans of COD will recognize many of the settings and locations, which is both good and bad. Given the historical nature of the games, however, this is understandable: You wouldn't want to see new, invented, scenarios.

What's new

Like previous WWII shooters, COD2 is heavily scripted, but the designers made the game less linear than its predecessors by presenting you with wider areas through which you must achieve certain goals. That is, you don't always proceed from Point A to Point B to Point C, but instead can sometimes get to all three points in different ways; How you arrive there is up to you. Naturally, there is still a bit of DOOM-like "find the key" simplicity, but the game is so immersive, I just didn't care. And COD2, like many shooters these days, reuses levels in ways that are disconcerting. While hunting tanks in Stalingrad, for example, I had a weird sense of d?j? vu until I realized I had earlier run through these various streets in an earlier mission. I'm not sure if I feel cheated by that or not.

The COD UI has been substantially improved and, dare I say it, dumbed down a little bit in COD2 to make it more accessible. Now, there are all kinds of helpful hints both during gameplay and after you've died. In one particular scene, after being nailed by a German grenade while trying to cross a wall-laden field towards an enemy-infiltrated but bombed out building, COD2 helpfully suggested that I watch for the on-screen "grenade threat indicator." Yes, seriously. The game actually tries to help you not get killed. On the flipside, I started relying heavily on this indicator, so maybe I should quit complaining.

As with the original, COD2 features a number of sequences in which you learn how to play the game by having an onscreen character teach you about a feature. For example, early in the game, you must cross a dangerous street by first throwing a smoke grenade that will hide your movement. Your commanding officer patiently waits for you to hit the right place with the grenade, while the game's onscreen help system explains which key to press. This is all well and good, but experienced gamers will find such scenes to be condescending. Fortunately, they go by quickly, and become fewer and far between as the campaigns progress.

Also like the original, COD2 features an incredible sound-less and dizzying effect when you're rattled by the nearby explosion of a grenade or bomb that almost kills you. For several seconds, things seem to move in silent slow motion, until your sight and hearing return to normal. The explosion of sights and sounds that follows this effect is especially realistic, and more than vaguely reminiscent of "Saving Private Ryan." It's one of the many small things that really puts you in the game. And unlike virtually every first person shooter out there, COD2 doesn't provide a health meter per se, but instead warns you when you're injured and should stay out of trouble for a second. The edges of the screen pick up a red haze that fades as you "get better." I guess this is simpler and even slightly more realistic than picking up strategically placed health packs and med kits, but it is a game after all. You can recover from your wounds and keep fighting.

One other odd thing about COD2 is that it doesn't support game saves, per se, but instead automatically saves the game at strategic points. So if you fail to dodge a grenade, you'll be transported back in time to the previous checkpoint, which may be further back than you'd like. On the flipside, you don't have that issue where you click Fast Save one second before dying, therefore dooming yourself each time the game restarts. This is a problem I've run into with various other games.

Multiplayer

The multiplayer portion of COD2 is quite similar to that of its predecessor, especially when you consider that a couple of multiplayer maps from COD were ported to COD2. There are Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Search and Destroy, and Headquarters modes in multiplayer. While the first three of those should be self explanatory to first person shooter fans, the last two might need a bit of discussion. Search and Destroy is a team game similar to the Assault mode in Halo 2, where one team attempts to plant a bomb in a base and the other tries to stop them. Headquarters is a Capture the Flag variant in which teams try to capture one of two sites, set up a headquarters there, and then defend it against the enemy.

When it comes to multiplayer, I like things simple. On the PC, my current favorite is Quake 4, which offers the perfect blend of high-end graphics with fast-paced gameplay; on the original Xbox, Halo 2 is still champ. Compared to these two titles, COD2 multiplayer is fun and playable, but of course gives off a completely different vibe because it doesn't feature sci-fi/fantasy weapons and settings. Many will thoroughly enjoy it for just that reason. I find multiplayer to be the most fun with crowds of twitch-happy enemies, moving at a fast pace through lovingly-tailored environments. COD2 delivers.

For more information about the Call of Duty 2 multiplayer experience, be sure to check out my Call of Duty 2 for Xbox 360 Multiplayer Review and Call of Duty 2 Bonus, Skirmish and Invasion Pack Review.

Conclusions

While Call of Duty 2 can hardly be called revolutionary, it's still a solid, wonderfully playable game and a great introduction to the graphical prowess of Xbox 360. On my gaming PC rig, I run COD2 at 1920 x 1200 with all the effects on, and the Xbox 360 version is identical looking on an HDTV display, while offering identical game play to boot. The three story lines are totally immersive and interesting, the action is realistic, and the music and sound effects all add to the drama. Overall, you could do far worse than Call of Duty 2, especially if you appreciate a bit of history with your action and prefer the single player experience. This is absolutely one of the best Xbox 360 launch titles. Highly recommended.