A special series playthrough review – Part One, Call of Duty I & II
In this mega playthrough, FBT signs up for no less than 13 tours of duty
It seems as if Call of Duty has always been here. Since 2003 there’s been 14 main games plus some 10 spin-offs. But to me, there’s only ever been one CoD game. And I don’t mean one so good it eclipses the rest, I mean they’re all the same. Since Modern Warfare, CoD has been the same game rebadged, the story-mode reduced to a tutorial for the multiplayer. I could read the review of a CoD game and think “Haven’t I played that already?” Now Activision has finally dropped the pretence with Black Ops IIII; it’s multiplayer only. Those Fortnite band-wagon-jumping sellouts.
While I had no intention of playing BOIIII even if it had a story-mode, it got me thinking. Is story really that important once you get a gun in your hand? It’s the story that drives you through Bioshock but who cares when there’s a Big Daddy charging, while Doom has less of a plot than porn but I never complained about that. Do I really care why or what I’m shooting once the cut-scene ends? If I’m honest, for all my bleating on about immersion I am a fan of the ‘skip scene’ button. Is story really important if the shooting’s good enough?
What better series to test that theory than CoD? If I play enough plotless CoDs and enjoy them for what they are, I’ll accept story doesn’t matter; Private FBT reporting for duty, sir.
CoD I – This is it, where it all started. Released in 2003, it looks it, and plays it. Running on the good old Quake III engine, we’re in classic pre-Half Life 2 mode. After a now-quaint tutorial mission we’re split across three campaigns; as a US private clearing Germans out of towns and taking out anti-aircraft guns and emplacements, a Soviet solider doing basically the same but with NPCs calling me comrade instead and as a British chap doing sabotage and intelligence gathering. By clearing towns and taking out emplacements.
The add-on for CoD I, United Offensive is more of the same, but works well because we stay within single short campaigns. We battle through the Bastogne conflict before a plane gunner gets shot down and must escape occupied territory then make a last-stand as a Soviet solider holds a town until his pals with tanks can arrive. UO is actually a great little add-on, full of action and nice moments.
On the face of it, CoD I is just a regular post-Doom shooter that happens to be in a war setting – hold this area, rout troops, knock out AA Guns, find the documents, and lots of ‘isn’t there anyone else who can do this’ like suddenly being in control of tanks or being the only one who can snipe. Why are all FPS heroes odd-job men? There’s zero story beyond mission objectives, but CoD I has one important edge over other shooters of the era; watching old war films on a Sunday afternoon with your grandad.
CoD I is pure old war movies; The Damn Busters, The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far – it’s not about historical accuracy it’s about good old heroic grit and exciting set-pieces; we’re sent in cars to deliver messages while Germans try to take us out, firing bazookas at Germans on motorbikes, blowing up bridges, taking out Stukas, liberating soldiers from prison camps, sneaking onboard German boats, desperate last stands; we even have a mission at the dam the bouncing bombs took out. It just feels like we’re in an old war movie rather than war itself; I might be playing multiple characters, but I’m John Wayne.
I don’t get behind any of the characters or really understand half of what we’re doing, and the missions are compartmentalised with no bearing on each other; we’re just fighting through levels not a story. But I didn’t actually miss a story because I’m having a lot of fun. Almost every mission had a nice bit of adventure to it that I got caught up in and happily went along with. CoD I, Story 0. Maybe porn had the right idea.
CoD II – The first thing you notice about CoD II is how more advanced it is to CoD I. It’s almost unrecognisable from CoD I to look at; and to play it’s almost unrecognisable too.
There’s a lot of advancement here – our silent heroes have consistent comrades that actually stick out from the other NPCs charging about, health packs have been replaced with replenishing health and the Germans are a lot more tactical and aggressive. The levels have great complexity and detail for the age – Germans emerge from smoke drifting up from explosions, there’s splinters and debris and the weapons have a meaty, realistic feel. It’s got a nice desperate panic to it. CoD II is a huge improvement. But it’s not nearly as much fun.
The British campaign is set in Africa where we’re putting down overwhelming German odds – early on it’s like we’ve wandered into Serious Sam as dozens of them rush the town we’re attempting to hold. The American campaign, which includes an element of storming Normandy on D-Day is more close-quarter re-enactments while the Soviet missions are often desperate skirmishes trying to push out embedded Germans. Again, there’s no story to speak of, just more real-world battles to act out, but without that derring-do that CoD I had, it’s lost that flair, the war-movie feel. There’s a nice Soviet level where we infiltrate a factory via steam-pipes which the Germans shoot at if they hear us, but in the open you notice the repetitiveness of it, that we’re largely confined to arenas where Germans respawn until we fulfil the same parameters over and over. How many emplacements do the Germans have?
It is action-packed but it gets a bit wearisome, especially when it falls back on Odd-Job Man so often; guess who’s the only one who can attach sticky bombs to tanks? I get that I’m here to be the hero, but I don’t feel like a hero. We just shoot. We’re interchangeable and there’s no personal story – we’re also jumping into another soldier on occasion, which is a first. And unfortunately, not a last. I’m surprised; I held the originals up as brilliant games that the MW ruined, but CoDII has all the makings of what irritated me about CoD. Still, it’s a bloody good shooter; as soon as I got my orders I was off and gunning. It’s just missing that Guns of Navarone tone. It’s missing a story, a purpose.
Both CoD I & II were good shooters and I did get caught up in the events, but I’m still not convinced there’s no need for a narrative in FPS. The war had one, but I didn’t. Maybe that’s part of the issue for CoD’s setting; no one person won the war, it’s not like CoD could have taken the Wolfenstein route and had a boss battle with a chain-gun wielding Hitler. It just never felt personal, like I was building towards something; every character ended just how they began. Then again, most shooters pre-Half-Life 2 were exactly the same so maybe it’s the era not the games. So what’s Modern Warfare’s excuse?
Next week, read part two of FBT’s call of duty playthrough as he signs up for The Modern Warfare Trilogy; a war that hasn’t happened. Yet. That will take some explaining surely…