Once more into the abyss. Since the advent of the Xbox 360 (see my exhaustive review), I've played more Call of Duty 2 than any other game title (and perhaps, more than every other game title combined). I've played through the entire single player game twice, the second time on the hardest Veteran mode, and I've logged countless--literally countless-hours online, fragging people from around the world with my sniper rifle. My feelings for Call of Duty 2 border on obsession and addiction. It is, by far, the best Xbox 360 game on the planet, no contest.

I've tried to temper my nagging guilt over the time lost to Call of Duty 2 with the rationalization that I've also written more about this game than I have any other Xbox 360 game. There's my original COD2 review, of course, and my multiplayer review. And more recently, I've begun experimenting with a set of Xbox 360 Game Galleries. The first gallery, naturally, was for Call of Duty 2. And now here we are again, with my latest bit of rationalization. Can I really wring another article out of this wonderful, wonderful game?

You know I can.

But here's the thing. I'm not cheating here, or just trying to waste your time with another love letter to my favorite game. The truth is, Activision has been kind to Xbox 360 gamers this year, largely because Call of Duty 2 has turned out to be the most popular game on the Xbox 360 by far. It has released a total of 9 new multiplayer maps for Call of Duty 2 on Xbox 360 since May. Some are actually free, which I think was a nice touch. Most, however, require a purchase via Xbox Live Marketplace.

The maps were released in two waves, if you will. The first wave consists of the Bonus Pack, which is free and contains two maps. The second set, dubbed the Skirmish Pack, also consists of two maps, but you must pay to get them. Both of these map packs arrived in May. The second set, called the Invasion Pack, consists of 5 maps. Like the Skirmish Pack, the Invasion Pack is a paid Xbox Live Marketplace download only. In this review, I'll take a look at each of the maps in these three add-on packs based on, yes, my countless hours of experience battling through them with people from all over the world. It was time well spent, believe me.

Bonus Pack

Release in May 2006, the free Bonus Pack consists of two multiplayer maps, Vossenack and Wallendar, both of which are located in Germany.

Vossenack, Germany

Grade: B
Vossenack is tightly confined space consisting of a bunker in a hill and the surrounding countryside. A medium-sized map with no real tight turns to maneuver--you can see basically the whole playfield from every edge of the map--Vossenack is perfect for snipers, as you will quickly remember where opposing players respawn, especially if they're unlucky enough to be on the barn side of the map. (Actually, that's a problem with this map: Those respawn points are too easily abused by good players, leading to lop-sided games.) Overall, Vossenack is great fun, especially if what you're looking for is a balls-out battle with little in the way of team play required. It's just a tight, confined battlefield.

Wallendar, Germany

Grade: A
Unlike Vossenack, the Wallender level is large and complicated because it takes place in a town with two major avenues with tons of buildings--and thus, hiding places--available for snipers and others waiting to ambush the enemy. Because of its complex structure, Wallendar is ideally suited to team deathmatch, and the more people playing the better. There's an excellent church and graveyard on one side and an obvious sniper's alley on the main road leading up to the church, which is lined with buildings you can enter and hide in. The other street isn't as often used because the outermost row of buildings is the level border only; you can't enter those structures.

Skirmish Pack

Also released in May 2006, the $5 (400 Microsoft Points) Skirmish Pack consists of two excellent maps. Like the Bonus Pack, this pack consists of one confined map and one that's wide open with an excellent village layout.

Kalach, Russia

Grade: C
My least favorite of all the new maps, Kalach is extremely compressed into a small area, much smaller than the Burgundy level from the original multiplayer maps, with much more in the way of obstacles. Kalach has two problems, only one of which will affect everybody. First, it's not an ideal location for snipers like myself, and is instead far friendlier to those who prefer brute force, close range weaponry. Second, because the Russian team has access to the overly-powerful Tokarev SVT-40 rifle, which hugely effective at both short and long range, the Russians almost always win this one. In fact, this level is so one-sided because of this second problem, that I absolutely can't stand playing it. If Activision would fix the one-sided weapon issue, I'd raise the score of this one to "B".

Beaumont-Hague, France

Grade: A
Beaumont-Hague is absolutely my favorite among the new levels, and maybe even among all the multiplayer levels available for Call of Duty 2. (Caen is right here as well.) It's an absolute tour-de-force with a huge play area that extends off in great distances in all directions, a wide variety of structures in which you can hide, snipe, and attack, a crossroads with multiple avenues of approach, and it's shining glory, a wonderful silo that idiot newbies can't help but climb, allowing me to snipe them, repeatedly, either as they're climbing the ladder or once they've reached the top. Obviously, I can't keep track of such a thing, but my record against people on the silo is something like 500 to 1, advantage me. You have to be an idiot to climb the thing, but it seems like no one can resist it. And God love 'em, because there's nothing better in Call of Duty 2 than sniping someone that's half a mile away. Newbs on the silo give me that opportunity again and again. I swear, I laugh out loud just thinking about it.

Beaumont-Hague isn't just about the silo, however. There's a wonderfully huge barn in which entire teams can hide and often do. There are various two story buildings, complete with various vantage points around the level, perfect for sniping. There are excellent hiding spots, boxes to jump on so you can look over walls, and even two humongous farms in which the truly bored can hike out, hide behind a tractor and wait for the occasional enemy to pass by. Seriously, it's got something for everyone, but it's perfect for Team Deathmatch, which is of course the best way to play COD2 online.

Invasion Pack

The $11.25 (900 Microsoft Points) Invasion Pack consists of a whopping five maps. None are as good as Beaumont-Hague in the Skirmish Pack, but then none are as lame as Kalach either.

Alam Halfa, Egypt

Grade: B
Another highly compressed and tiny level, Alam Halfa takes place at night in a small concentric town with good alleys, obstacles, and few low rooftops you can set up shop on. Despite it's size, which makes it less than ideal for snipers, Alam Halfa is a good level, sort of like Vossenack in that it's all about furious combat, but without the lame respawn issues. The reason? There are too many buildings in the way to camp out and repeat attack the spawn points.

St. Louet, France

Grade: B
Another night level, but this one in a town about the same size Villers-Bocage from the original multiplayer map list. It's a got a nice layout with lots of standing and partially bombed out buildings, two main streets leading up either edge of the map, and a large church and graveyard on one end. There's a bit of a respawn issue near the church, actually--it seems like players often reappear at exactly the same location at the end of an alley, but otherwise its pure multiplayer bliss with a complicated layout, lots of hiding spots, and diverse terrain.

Anctoville, France

Grade: A
Probably the best map in the Invasion Pack, Anctoville is quite large, but laid out in a unique way. One edge of the map is dominated by a huge barn and surrounding fields, but the other two thirds is a small town with a single main road, running alongside the barn property, and a few smaller roads lined with two-storey houses complete with multiple sniping posts and hiding spots. Because of its size, Anctoville is best with large teams of people, preferably in longer matches than the default 15 minutes.

Amaye sur Seulles, France

Grade: A
A Burgundy At Night type map, Amaye sur Seulles is small but manages to pack a lot into its compact area. In the center is a blown out series of buildings, surrounded by a single (and occupyable) house and another blown out building in which you can also set up shop. Despite its size, Amaye sur Seulles is just fine for snipers, thank you very much, and rewards those who like to hurl grenades into the center of the map with frequent cheap kills. (I'm surprised no one else has figured this out yet.) It's basically a simple square shaped map, at night time, with good cover all around.

Rostov, Russia

Grade: B
Rostov is a harbor level in the snow, and despite the presence of the Tokarev SVT-40, it's not as one-sided as Kalach because it's more open, allowing snipers to do their thing. It's a complicated map, with a series of interconnected buildings, some of which offer second floor sniping points. It's also a very large map, with great distances to travel to get from one end to the other.

Accessing the new multiplayer levels

As Activision phased in the three map packs this year, it had to change the Multiplayer menus in Call of Duty 2 a few times. These changes, largely, are positive. Now, after you choose a game type, you're prompted to pick the map types you want to play. There are three choices: New and Original Maps, New Maps Only, and Original Maps Only. The New Maps choices apply to all three of the new map packs, Bonus, Skirmish, and Invasion. As these maps were being released over the past few months, I started off just playing the new maps. But now I always choose New and Original, and the older maps seem a bit fresher because of the three months or so I wasn't playing them. Bliss.

Xbox Live gaming evolves with Call of Duty 2

As a side note, I'd also like to briefly discuss how COD 2 online gaming has changed in the several months since the Xbox 360 first appeared. In the first few months after the release of the Xbox 360, there simply weren't many people online. But as the Xbox 360 became more readily available, the number of online gamers swelled, and there are always games waiting to be played at any time of day. The problem with such success, of course, is that as the overall numbers have risen, so have the number of idiots.

By idiots, I'm referring to the clowns that feel like singing during game play and in the match rooms. The guys who repeatedly switch teams in order to slow down the frame rates for everyone, which is a curious side effect, but it works. The guys who switch teams temporarily simply to see where the other team is hiding. The people who try to tell you which team to join and then whine when you simply let the game pick it for you. I think you know the people I'm talking about. They're idiots.

In the past month, especially, it's gotten a lot worse. I tend to stick to Team Deathmatch games, and it should be obvious to anyone that these types of games sink or swim based on the quality of your teammates. Team Deathmatch is, by definition, a team game. But if I had a dollar for every time some clown on my team walked in front of me, stopped, and began firing at the guy I was literally just sniping from a crouched position, I'd be a millionaire by now. These people don't get the team concept, and they certainly don't have any clue about at least being mindful of the people they're playing alongside. They really do ruin the experience.

On the flipside, the quality of the players online is now all over the map. Whereas I spent a good portion of this year absolutely dominating virtually every single game I played in, as time has gone on, a number of truly great players have begun showing up. Occasionally, I now get my petoot handed to me in a cute little basket with a ribbon on it, which is a nice way of saying I get beat badly. After a few months of relative safety, it's no longer a sure thing that I can hop into a COD2 game online and just thrash people. In the greater scheme of things, I'm a decent player, but I'm no college student, and I certainly can't play all day long. Inevitably, these people are going to rise to the top. I don't mind getting beaten by a truly good player. It's the idiots I despise.

There's another odd thing happening in COD2 online and the more I've played this summer, the more sure I've become that I'm not just imagining it. Without any evidence at all besides my experience playing the game, I'm ready to assert that Activision has changed the way people respawn in multiplayer Call of Duty 2. In the past, I recall complaining frequently (to myself, of course) when I'd respawn and be at the furthest possible point in the map from the action. This would happen again and again. Now, the reverse is true. And it's worse. A lot worse. Now, you often respawn exactly where the action is, and that means that you get killed twice in a row, the second time due to circumstances you cannot possibly control. It's infuriating and unnecessary. My guess is that customers complained about the respawning behavior before and Activision overcompensated to fix it. I would love to know whether this is true, but that's my guess. It's a real problem, regardless.

Conclusions

It's funny. I never expected to discover that first person shooters could be done right on a game console. Activision not only proved me wrong with Call of Duty 2, it created a game that I feel is by far the best game title on the Xbox 360 and then extended it with numerous new multiplayer maps at just the right times. Doing so kept the game fresh and kept me gaming well into the summer, nine months after Call of Duty 2 for the Xbox 360 first landed on my doorstep. With Call of Duty 3 arriving late this year, I've got more World War II action to look forward to, but for now the Skirmish and Invasion packs will keep me happy. Highly recommended for all Call of Duty 2 gamers. You're all Call of Duty 2 gamers, aren't you?