Rambos Need Not Apply
As far as first person shooters based on actual events go, World War II should be receiving commission and sitting pretty for the number of games that have been based on its events. I have stormed the beaches of Normandy more times than I can remember, each one seemingly trying to come as close to replicating Saving Private Ryan as possible. Call of Duty 2 follows suite in this same vein, however, it does inject an interesting take on the battle by not having it as the first level of the game. Unlike most other World War II titles, which recall the story of the war from a strictly American perspective, Call of Duty 2 provides a tri-prong narrative structure where the player occupies the role of a Russian soldier, a British soldier, and an American soldier. Rather than suggesting the war was won solely by one nation’s efforts, Call of Duty 2 draws attention to the fact that multiple wars were fought on multiple fronts.
Along these multiple fronts comes the opportunity for the player to test their metal with a variety of weapons used during the war. From the Russian PPSH to the German’s Kar98k to the American’s M1 Garand, Call of Duty 2 offers a plethora of authentically reconstructed weapons for you to retake Europe and Africa with. And you’ll need to practice a steady aim with them, because many of the battles will leave even the most hardened armchair combat vet with a grimace of frustration during their hairiest moments. The battle for Hill 400 toward the end of the American campaign is an excellent exemplar; having taken the hill, you must now defend it from wave after wave of German troops, halftracks, and Tiger tanks. Negotiating the various infiltration points around the barricades and managing them each sufficiently left me feeling harried, rushed, confused, and enthralled all at once. The satisfaction experienced after successfully pushing back a wave of enemy troops with a coordinated effort among your squad mates is immensely gratifying; and although Call of Duty 2 is certainly not the first game to deliver such an experience, its superior graphics (superior in the sense that they do an excellent job of recreating the reality they desire to) and incomparable sound help it to deliver the experience in a believable and immersive way.
Not only does Call of Duty 2 reflect the multitude of armies that took part in the “greatest war ever fought”, but the thousands of individual soldiers. Instead of a single, nameless soldier, the player controls a particular character and fights alongside the same soldiers throughout each country’s campaign. Each time the player places their cursor over a soldier on their side, a name and rank appears, creating (at least at a superficial level) a sense of a unified, personable army. The troops move according to enemy positions, covering fire, and available barricades and cover, eliciting a feeling of camaraderie between the player and the computer-controlled troops. There are certain soldiers, such as your troop commander, that can never die, suggesting a superhuman level of warfare competency that can be achieved if one kills enough enemy troops. Of course, I realize that the narrative structure is reliant upon certain character’s survival, prohibiting an opportunity for their death. However, the implications that arrive alongside this narrative necessity include an unrealistic portrayal of heroes on the battlefield. In all fairness, the in-game counterpoint to this criticism is the infinite number of soldiers that follow the player into combat and are gunned down by enemy fire just as easily as the player is (if not easier).
Despite the emphasis on realism and teamwork, Call of Duty 2 still realizes that it is a game with a single human player. Even though you’re never the captain of a squad, the game still relies on you to progress to certain points on the map before other members of your squad will move forward, refocusing the game on the player as individual instead of team member. Such an emphasis is, seemingly, an inherent element to any single-player video game. It will be quite some time before video games (in their single-player campaigns) design a fully functioning world that doesn’t contribute to the narcissistic, center-of-the-universe experience that is seemingly a key component to video games. That is, no matter how much teamwork is involved in the battles, the action still progresses only as far as the player will let it.
And that progress won’t be terribly difficult to actualize. Call of Duty 2 is certainly more concerned with making sure that the player experiences war on a visceral and aural level rather than as a skill-improvement game. The ease of the game is indicative of the game’s emphasis on narrative conveyance rather than testing the gamer’s repertoire of acquired skills. I played through it my first time on “hard” with minimal difficulty and frustration, thanks especially to the frequent save points and “catch-a-breather” health system. Call of Duty 2‘s health system is as double-edged as they come. Your soldier doesn’t have a health bar. Instead, when shot, a red haze appears around the edges of the screen, encouraging you to get to cover as quickly as possible and let your damage repair itself while you collect your senses. It works very much like Getaway‘s health system. You can do this as many times as you need to, making it very possible to work your way through a level without dying at all. Of course, if you don’t get to cover quickly enough and are caught under heavy enemy fire, be prepared to see one of the numerous quotations concerning the essence of war from famous generals, presidents, poets, and authors that fade into the screen as you take your final virtual breath. The health system works well to discourage Rambo-like tactics that many FPS players are prone to, but also distracts from the realistic aspects of war (I’m assuming here, of course) that Call of Duty 2 produces so well. I feel that this health system would benefit from injuries as well. When a player is shot and makes it to cover and survives, they may return to the battle. But the bullet lodged in their arm should affect their aim or the one in their leg might hamper their walking speed.
War is hell—we all know the phrase. Call of Duty 2 excels at immersing the player in a vast array of virtual elements that constitute war. What it lacks in originality (we’ve seen these weapons, scenarios, and events before), it more than makes up for in its presentation of these components. Herein lies the issue with not only Call of Duty 2, but practically every war game on the market. As games become more and more sophisticated mechanisms of storytelling, they should be able to tackle many of the more complex issues surrounding affairs of war. Instead, as I suggested before, they continue to rehash most of the same formulaic depictions of battlefield combat. As the plethora of WWII games allows us to remember and appreciate the numerous sacrifices soldiers made on the battlefield, the sheer number of games serves to potentially desensitize us to their accomplishments and bravery. The constant retellings—often from below average games—turns the “last great war” into a mediocre romp through the magical world of Nazi-ville, a land completely cut off from the rest of the world, leading to an extremely narrow view of WWII (and any war for that matter). I imagine a game about the war that tells the story of a soldier on the battlefield, but also the story of his family and friends back home. Consider the impact on one’s understanding and interpretation of war that playing as a solider during the storming of Normandy’s beaches, and then playing as his son back home, juxtaposing the two stories with one another over the course of the game. The result would be quite a different understanding of war and its implications than current games allow.
I may sound like I dislike Call of Duty 2, which is not true at all. I merely want to examine some of the derivative ideologies that the game espouses, and it is certainly not alone in this. As a game, it towers above all other WWII FPS titles on the market through its meticulous technical design. I only wish that the developers had spent as much time on the narrative as they did on the kick ass sound effects.