Call of Duty 2: Big Red One

Call of Duty 2: Big Red One

Written by Dave Gamble on 11/29/2005 for Xbox  

The first WWII game that I ever played all the way through was Call of Duty.  I've never considered myself to be a very good military tactician, and typically find myself at a dead end in the more advanced stages of games that require it.  That said, I also never had much of an attention span for games that made me feel like I was standing on a conveyor belt moving through some fixed scenery, picking off automaton targets as I went by.  Call of Duty was the first game that allowed me to completely suspend disbelief and truly get the feeling of involvement in epic events.  It draws a near perfect balance between being led down a path while still providing the feeling that you have some autonomy in deciding exactly how to do so.  The well-timed scripting of the other characters, both friendly and enemy, and of momentous special effects keeps the action flowing and the adrenaline pumping right to the end of the game.

However...

That Call of Duty was on the PC.  I'd tried console-based first person games before, and found them to be extremely frustrating to play when compared to the more precise controllability on the PC.  There's just no substitute for the mouse as a precision pointing tool, and the analog sticks on the Xbox don't even come close.  The controls are so twitchy, at least to my old frayed nerves, that often as not I would get killed by an enemy that I had been ping-ponging my gunsight over for a relative eternity.  When Call of Duty 2: The Big Red One was released for the Xbox, I wondered whether or not it would offer the same levels of believability and fun play as the PC version I had been so thrilled with.  As it turns out, the answer is a qualified yes.

Call of Duty 2: The Big Red One on the Xbox has many of the same elements that made the PC version feel like a portal to circa 1940's live combat.  You start each mission with a briefing telling you the overall strategic picture and what your contribution to the effort is going to be.  It may be a matter of taking a building or piece of ground from the enemy, or conversely, it may be defending a militarily valuable commodity from falling into the wrong hands.  Armed with at least a general understanding of what you need to accomplish, but well aware that goals can change from moment to moment in the confused cacophony of a battlefield, you join your squad and begin your mission.

I didn't do exhaustive research on the topic, but it seems that your usual weapon of choice is the trusty M1 Garand semi-automatic rifle.  You will be going up against machine gun toting German soldiers, so having only the single-shot M1 may seem to be a huge disadvantage, but such is not necessarily the case.  To understand why, you need to know about the "Aim Down the Sight" (ADS) mode. To enter ADS mode, you simply pull back on the left trigger on the Xbox controller.  This brings the gun up to your shoulder and aligns the gun sight with your virtual eye.  It also provides two other essential things: first, it zooms the view to some degree, helping you to get a good look at your target.  Second, it slows the response rate of the analog stick used to aim the gun.  Slowing the aiming response rate alleviates the twitchiness that I found so frustrating in past console-based games like this.  Releasing the left trigger immediately returns you to the normal mode, which you will need to do if you need to re-aim the weapon quickly.  The response rate in the normal, non-ADS mode can be adjusted in the game settings if desired, but the ADS mode felt more realistic to me and using it for precision aiming rather than slowing the rate for non-ADS mode allowed me to retain the option of being able to make much faster corrections in the normal mode.

Now, why is the M1 sometimes better than a machine gun?  Simple: it provides a higher level of zoom in ADS mode.  This makes the M1 more useful for targeting distant enemy soldiers.  It's not quite a sniper rifle (which, by the way, you will get an opportunity to use a couple of times as you work your way through the campaign) but it does allow you to take out difficult, well entrenched targets from greater distances.
The M1 is by no means the only weapon you will use, though.  As you progress across North Africa, you will have to jump in and replace a fallen comrade on various heavier guns like turret mounted .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, and believe it or not, the chin, belly, tail, and top turret guns on a B-24 Liberator bomber.  Note that while shooting down German fighters from a B-24 was fun, as was dropping its bomb load on an oil refinery, these missions are a pretty harsh break from the normal ground-pounding one would expect from an infantry troop.  It simply defies belief that a foot soldier would ever find himself in the role of aerial combatant, so you really have to work to maintain the suspension of disbelief you have been able to keep going in prior missions.  Again, the B-24 missions are tremendous fun and very well done, up to and including the requirement to walk through the length of the bomber to get from the gun and bomb sight in the nose to the tail gunner position, but they do seem out of place in the overall game.

What made Call of Duty so special on the PC was the cinematic experience of feeling like a participant in major battle without the additional challenge of trying to figure out exactly where you were and where you needed to be, and that feeling is preserved in Big Red One.  As you make your way across the battlefield, be it an open field or a claustrophobic village, there are countless peripheral events taking place that give the feeling of reality.  Bombs and artillery shells are going off, enemy armor is moving into place, and other troops are shouting to each other pointing out enemy positions (which can be very, very useful to you!).  As explosions rock the ground, dust and smoke fill the air, sometimes causing difficulty in seeing the enemy.  Shots kick up dust clouds at your feet, encouraging you to keep moving or to find cover.  It can be very hectic indeed, which again adds to the reality quotient.  It was often the case that I became completely lost in the maelstrom and could only proceed by finding and following other troops in my squad.  Good thing they weren't looking to me for leadership!

This led to one of my biggest frustrations with the game, though.  It wasn't uncommon to come up against a battlefield situation that took repeated efforts to get around.  There's nothing wrong with that, but because of the design choice to only allow for the saving of a game position after a mission is completed it was often the case that I had to ban younger family members from using the Xbox for hours at a time.  As you work your way through a mission, you will cross multiple checkpoints.  If you are killed in a battle, you are returned to the most recent checkpoint crossed.  That works well, assuming that you have hours to devote to a single mission.  If, on the other hand, you have spent an hour getting to the most recent checkpoint and events in the real world require your attention, you are faced with the difficult decision as to whether you want to relinquish control of the Xbox knowing that you will have to work through all of the previous battles just to get back to where you are now or fight off hordes of kids that want their turn to play.  Allowing the player to save the progress at each checkpoint would have made this decision far easier and gone a long way towards preventing familial civil war.

I had one other major frustration, although I cannot be certain that it was entirely the fault of the game.  The problem I had was the overall darkness of the screen on some of the maps.  There were many occasions when the screen was so dark that I couldn't see the enemy soldiers, and at times couldn't even see the path I was supposed to follow.  On the PC, there would have been a gamma correction option to allow me to lighten up the screen so I could see what was going on, but I was unable to find a similar configuration option on the Xbox.  I was playing using a pretty good TV, so although I can't stated with any absolute authority that the problem was with the game rather than the TV, I can say that I'm pretty sure that that was the case.  In any event, these were the times that I more or less allowed my computer-driven squad mates to take the lead and I followed them to the best of my ability.

Call of Duty 2: Big Red One stresses visual appeal, cinematic-style scripting, and immersive graphical environments to provide an entertaining tour of WWII battlefields.  The combination of multiple sensory inputs allows for a very believable environment and is the primary draw of the game.  That said, if you are a fan of tactical challenges and enjoy commanding troops as you struggle with a resourceful and challenging enemy, you should consider something along the lines of Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood.  If you want to while away a few hours immersed in the world of WWII combat, though, Call of Duty 2: Big Red One is the appropriate choice, and a very good choice at that.
Call of Duty 2 : Big Red One will more than likely be the final version of this well-respected title for the Xbox. While it probably uses everything the aging Xbox platform has to offer, and it corrects at least some of the complaints from the previous version, it can't compete with the sequels available for the PC and Xbox 360. Perhaps titling it Call of Duty 1.5 would have been more accurate.

Rating: 8 Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.

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About Author

I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.

My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.

While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.

My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.
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