Looking back over the first generation of Xbox 360 game titles from late last year, there's no doubt in my mind: Call of Duty 2 (COD2, see my review, multiplayer review, and Bonus, Skirmish and Invasion Pack review) stands head and shoulders above all others. It was the best game of 2005-2006 and one of the best games I've ever played in my entire life. Indeed, I developed a serious COD2 addiction between November 2005 and August 2006, often playing the game for hours at a time online in lieu of trying out newer game titles I should have been reviewing. COD2 offered near-perfect single player and multiplayer games, and I just couldn't get enough.

Three weeks of vacation in August cleared up that problem nicely, and I've only occasionally hopped into multiplayer COD2 games since, if only to prove that I still have it (I do). The addiction, it seems, had passed.

And then Activision shipped Call of Duty 3 (COD3) for the Xbox 360 earlier this month. COD3 is, in virtually every way, superior to its successor, with more realistic and lush graphics, a more cohesive storyline, and killer new multiplayer features. On the flipside, COD3 includes frustratingly lengthy checkpoints, some glaring bugs, and, as is so often the case these days, an annoyingly stingy and lengthy set of Achievements. Like all software, COD3 is not perfect.

Despite its problems, COD3 is one of my favorite Xbox 360 game title released during this second holiday season for the console. Time will tell, however, whether the graphically superior Gears of War is the better overall experience. It's a contest I'm eager to wage. In the meantime, let's step back in time 60 years and see how Activision's latest World War II shooter measures up.

Plot

Unlike COD2, which took place over much of the European theater of World War II and encompassed three separate campaigns in wildly diverse environments, COD3's single player experience offers a much more cohesive story line that sticks to a single phase of the war. This could be good or bad, depending on your perspective, but I enjoyed it. (And couldn't help but think that future COD games could easily occupy other discrete parts of the war and be equally enjoyable.)

COD3 occurs during the so-called Normandy Breakout, during which time the Allied armies overcame the Germans in France and, eventually, liberated Paris before pushing east. You play as soldiers in the American, British, Canadian, and Polish armies, though the differences between each come down to just two things: Different weapons choices and a few pointless sub-plots in which various Allied characters basically express their dislike for each other during cut-scenes. I guess this was meant to add a sense of human drama and tension to the game, but it really just spaces out the time between missions, because you can't skip over the cut-scenes (which is deplorable and a huge, huge mistake). In fact, this is one of the game's biggest weaknesses: The cut-scenes almost always come two at a time (one cut-scene to end a mission, followed by another to begin the next mission). And again, even if you've viewed them previously, there's no way to skip over them. So every single time you start playing again, you get to watch the same lengthy cut-scene. Again. And again. And again.

This was my first indication that something was wrong with COD3. At best, the game could be good, perhaps occasionally great. But it would never achieve true greatness.

Anyway, as you progress through the single player campaign, you'll switch between the various Allied armies, which are moving ever closer to Paris as Hitler's army is routed and then defeated. Curiously, however, none of the game actually takes place in Paris, so while you participate in the events leading up to the liberation, you don't get to actually enter the City of Light yourself and help vanquish the Nazis once and for all.

Gameplay

Fortunately, the game play itself is excellent, and it builds nicely off of its predecessors. (The original Call of Duty is still available for PCs and is still an excellent title as well.) The elements are all there, from the compass-style navigation system that points you towards your next objective, the task-based missions separated by checkpoints (no manual saves, sorry), and the nice selection of weapons that vary from army to army, and from mission to mission. At its most basic level, COD3 plays very, very much like COD2, and that's a good thing, since COD2 was darn near perfect. No sense messing with a good thing.

While the original COD provided health packs and food bags around each level so that you could replenish your health, COD3 follows the COD2 tradition by providing an automatic recovery system whereby you regain health simply by resting a bit while not taking damage. No, this isn't realistic, obviously, but we're talking about a video game here and I think this system works as well now as it did in COD2.

There are a few new game play pieces. In COD2, German soldiers could pick up grenades that you threw at them and lob them back at you but, annoyingly, you couldn't return the favor. In COD3, you can: If you move quickly enough, you can use the X button on the Xbox 360 controller to pick up a lobbed grenade and then use the grenade attack button to throw it like you would any grenade. Neat!

On the minus side, a number of in-game actions, such a setting bombs, working the controls on various pieces of machinery, and so on, are no longer single button click affairs, as they were in COD2. Now, you have to actually go through a series of button presses in order to complete these comparatively mundane tasks. And if you think that sounds all fun and stuff, think again: It's monotonous and pointless, and for two reasons. First, these actions occur outside of the normal game play timeline, so while you're performing them, the war basically pauses around you anyway. So there's no real sense of danger, or feeling that if you don't complete a task in a timely manner, you'll be in trouble. Second, the button press combinations for identical tasks are often randomized, so you can't even memorize the correct sequence for, say, setting a detonator. The whole thing is ridiculous.

As with COD2, the worst parts of COD3 involve the sequences in which you drive vehicles or man the gun on a moving vehicle. These scenes are not fun, but are fortunately over quickly and easy to complete successfully.

Teammate and enemy AI is, annoyingly, very similar to COD2, though it's often buggier in this game. That is, your teammates often walk right in front of you when you're crouching and shooting, and God help you if you kill one of them because you're returned immediately and ignobly to the last checkpoint with a stern warning about friendly fire not being tolerated. Frankly, if they're that stupid, I can't imagine they're that much of a loss. And there's nothing quite like getting shot because one of your teammates has positioned himself poorly and you get stuck trying to get by him. Good stuff.

On the enemy side, poor coding has resulted in some annoying passages where a German infantryman will be standing behind a tree or other object, and will occasionally pop out briefly to fire at you. But you can't score a hit on him, even when he's out in the open. It gets annoying after a while, especially when these bugs prevent you from successfully completing a checkpoint.

Now, it sounds like I'm down on COD3 here, but I want to put this in perspective. These problems are worth noting, but COD3 still plays amazingly well and is on par with COD2 which, again, is one of the best Xbox 360 titles of all time. Put simply, COD3 is fantastic, but it should be, given its pedigree. It's got some issues, however, and some are serious. COD2 certainly had a few bugs, but COD3 feels a bit more rushed to me.

Graphics and sound

Graphically and sonically, COD3 is inarguably superior to its predecessor, and the overall presentation in this game, if you can get past the repetitive cut-scenes, is often breathtaking. Rain beats down around you, grass and trees sway in the breeze, and the booming sound from far-off artillery attacks resonates in the background as you make your way through war-torn France. COD3, like COD2, provides an interesting level of detail, where more detail is revealed as you get closer to items, but COD3 takes it to the next level in various ways. The most effective is visual effect seen when you use a gun site. In COD2, you'd get a nice telescoping effect, but in COD3, the item you're zoomed in on is crystal clear, while the area around that item is blurred, as it is in real life. It's very nicely done.

The very best sequence in COD3 is right at the beginning: After a brief training segment aimed at getting you up to speed with the controls, you're sent to the front lines. A fellow soldier gives you ten fingers and hoists you over a wall, and the game starts. For a second, you hang suspended in the air above the wall, giving you a moment to take in the scene in front of you: All out warfare, with a bombed out French town as the backdrop. It's a sweeping and cinematic scene and easily as effective as the Normandy Invasion sequence in COD2. It reminds you, immediately, why you were so excited about this game in the first place.

The music is largely militaristic as you might expect, and appropriate for the game. There's also the occasional bit of period music, which adds to the immersive realism.

Of bugs, Achievements, and replay value

The single player campaign features stunning graphics and excellent music and sound. It's an immersive experience. And I mean, let's face it: Nazis are the perfect enemy because there's no ambiguity. They're just bad people. I mean, with aliens, there's always the chance we misunderstood them. With Nazis, there's no doubt.

And yet. A series of annoying bugs really drags this title down, and removes any chance it had of being an undeniable classic. There are the enemies you can never kill, as noted above. But it's worse than that. Early on in the game, during a rush up the stairs with a group of American soldiers, my character's feet got stuck in the stairs, blocking anyone below me from moving further. After struggling with this silliness a bit, I finally detonated a grenade in the group, triggering a checkpoint reset. It's bad enough that it happened once. But it actually happened twice. In a row.

In another painful sequence--further marred by one of Call of Duty 3's now infamously lengthy checkpoints--you have to make your way up an enemy-infested hill, take out the Nazis at the top, and then hop into a trench, after which you make you way to the end of the trench and begin shelling a German encampment. I had struggled to actually get to the top of the hill several times, and did make it a few times, only to get wiped out by the Nazis in the trench at the top. One time, after making my way to the top of the hill, and into the trench, I discovered there were no Nazis. And my buddies were all still down at the bottom of the hill, and wouldn't join me. Worse yet, I couldn't even jump out of the trench: The game is designed so that you can only move forward, of course. So I had to kill myself, after exhausting various escape ploys. Stupid.

Speaking of checkpoints, I've gotten used to games that use this system instead of saved games, but in COD3, the checkpoints are often painfully spread out. There are many, many examples of this, but the one I remember with the least fondness is in a level called The Forest. Here, you have to throw smoke grenades at a trench full of Nazis, make your way up a hill, fight off various waves of attackers, fight into a dug-in fortress, kill off a team in a trench, and then use a mortar to disperse two trucks blocking a road while wave after wave of enemies march up from the trucks to stop you. This entire process must be completed in near-perfect fashion in order to complete the checkpoint and it's just painful. The first time I played through the game, on the Hardened (second hardest) skill level, I got held up at this point for an egregiously long time, as, coincidentally, did a friend of mine, right in the same spot. Now that I'm running through the game for a second time, on the hardest Veteran skill level, I'm stuck once again at that checkpoint. I've only made it to the mortar once after dozens of attempts, and I got wiped out there after hitting the trucks at least five times. It's aggravating.

Also aggravating is how COD3 doles out Achievements, though to be fair this is a problem with many Xbox 360 games these days. When the first round of 360 titles appeared in late 2005, it seemed that few developers could figure out how to deal with the 1000 possible Achievement points per game. So most games came with precious few Achievements, and each individual Achievement was often worth quite a number of points. Now, a year later, developers have gone in the opposite direction: Most games offer far too many Achievements, and each Achievement is worth only a tiny number of points.

In COD2, for example, there were a total of 13 Achievements, all of which centered on the single player campaign. If you finished the single player experience on Veteran, the highest skill level, you would get all 1000 of the Achievement points the game offered. In COD3, achieving the same exact goal garners just 300 Achievement points. There are another 275 Achievement points offered for various single player goal-oriented milestones, like using only certain weapon types to accomplish missions and so on, and the remaining 425 point are all multiplayer Achievements. I don't mind diversity, but this is sort of ridiculous. There are 17 single player Achievements and 9 multiplayer Achievements in this game. Perhaps there is a happy middle ground.

Replay value is a mixed bag. I replayed the first mission repeatedly in order to accomplish all of the remaining goal-oriented single player Achievements, and I'm now replaying the entire game on Veteran to get that final single player Achievement. But if you're not concerned about that kind of thing, it's likely that the bugginess of the single player campaign will dull any desire to replay COD3 too frequently. On the other hand, COD3's replayability does rest largely in the hands of its multiplayer experience. And that, I suspect, will see some serious time over the next year, probably enough to hold me over until the inevitable Call of Duty 4.

Multiplayer

As with Call of Duty 2, I'll supply a separate review for Call of Duty 3's multiplayer experience in the coming weeks. Part of the reason is time: Because COD3 is still quite new, I haven't had a lot of success finding large groups of people to play the game online. But part of it is that the multiplayer portion of COD3 appears to be as high quality as that of COD2. In other words, it deserves its own review. So we'll get to that.

In the meantime, know this: Multiplayer has been completely revamped in this release and the changes look encouraging. There are entirely new classes of soldiers now, including medics and scouts, the latter of which can call in airstrikes. You can operate various vehicles, finally. And there are even entirely new game types. This is a major rethinking of COD multiplayer combat. In fact, the multiplayer appears to be so good that this, alone, could be reason to consider purchasing this game. Let me get back to you on that one.

Final thoughts

I assume it's obvious that I wanted and expected to absolutely love Call of Duty 3 and award this game a five-star (or "five Paul") rating, but the bugs and stingy Achievements eventually wore down my excitement. Don't get me wrong: I'll absolutely finish the single player campaign at least twice, and I'm looking forward to months of multiplayer fun. But unless Activision atones for the annoying and unnecessary bugs that dog this title, they're going to find themselves stuck with a lot of unhappy gamers. Given the company's record with COD2, which was steadily improved over time and bolstered by a surprising number of downloadable multiplayer levels, I have no doubt that Activision will do the right thing. In the meantime, however, COD3 is a flawed gem, a near-perfect game that is just too buggy to recommend wholeheartedly. If you're a first person shooter fan, or, even better, a fan of World War II shooters, you should absolutely jump all over COD3. But with just a little more care and love and it could have been the game of the year. As it is, Call of Duty 3 just falls a bit short.