“You’ll never get the purple heart hiding in a foxhole!”
-Capt. Henry P. “Jim” Crowe, USMC
When I got my Xbox 360 this summer, the two games I got with it were Kameo and Table Tennis. My parents were visiting at the time, and my dad got into watching me play virtual ping pong. It didn’t take long, though, before I wanted to explore the other content available for the system. So I proceeded into the live marketplace and started to download any demo that seemed remotely interesting. Having heard good things about Call of Duty 2, I downloaded the demo and started playing. My dad was sitting on the couch watching me. “Why would you want to play a war game?” he asked. It’s a fair question. My family and I have some difficult war related memories. As such, I’d never played such a game before. Well, at least not one based on a real war. Need me to mess up some aliens? No problem. But having to play a game that attempts to realistically render the brutality of war was never something I thought I would enjoy.
I wondered at the time what it is about these games that make them so popular, though I must admit that after a couple of hours with Call of Duty 2, I was hooked. It was an experience that I found myself wanting to be more and more immersed in. Since I don’t have a surround sound setup, I bought a pair of gaming headphones, so I could at least get stereo, and hear bullets whizzing past my head. I didn’t care about the story at all. I’m not really a history buff, particularly not with respect to military history. But somehow I was completely engaged in the moment—a moment in the past.
When I stumble into a franchise a little late, I don’t normally go back and play the entries that I missed. It’s generally too depressing taking the steps backwards in polish and innovation. So instead, I waited for Call of Duty 3. I waited for another opportunity to enter the war. To hear the screaming and explosions. And to wonder, again, what it was that made it so fun to recreate something so horrific. It’s easy to say that Call of Duty 3 is fun, in much the same way that Call of Duty 2 was. I definitely enjoy playing it, and fans of WWII shooters likely will as well.
What makes this review somewhat difficult, however, is that even with the change in developer (Treyarch, rather than Infinity Ward), the vast majority of the play mechanics are the same as the last iteration of the franchise, making reviewing them seem somewhat redundant. There is a different story. We’re now focusing on the Normandy Breakout of 1944. But again, this is a story that will be compelling to some, and completely uninteresting to others (myself included). Perhaps if it were told more interactively, you would be pulled into the narrative. But it’s told like a history lesson. I always fell asleep in history class. On the other hand, perhaps not feeling emotionally connected the story being told is good. Either way, reviewing the story doesn’t make any sense, since it’s simply a recounting of historical fact. It’s what happened.
Rather, I’d like to revisit what I was talking about earlier -– what it is about this kind of game that captivates people. On the surface, it would seem that a game like this would be difficult to play. This isn’t a game in the Tom Clancy vein. There’s no cyber-elite-squad-espionage here. Even though those games are ostensibly “ripped from the headlines”, there’s a degree of distance granted by the fact that in real life, the shoes being portrayed on screen are only ever filled by a very select few. In WWII shooters, on the other hand, you’re a grunt, albeit the grunt that almost single-handedly wins most of the battles.
Why have games about Vietnam not been nearly as popular? Maybe it’s because there’s more distance. The events in WWII games seem less real. Maybe it’s the fact that the drama is tempered by the fact that the player (hopefully) knows that at the end of the day, WWII was won by the Allies, whereas such a clear cut victory is not present in the narrative of Vietnam. What will the games based on the Gulf War(s) be like? Another factor may be that in the face of the realism of these games, the enemy is almost universally disdained. You’re killing Nazis. Maybe that helps remove some of the moral boundaries of killing them indiscriminately.
I guess what I’m arguing, here, is that as far as war game developers are concerned, WWII represents something of a sweet spot. The weapons and technology were present in that era to make the player feel like they’re blowing something up or firing rapidly, as opposed to bayoneting the opposition and taking a minute between shots to tamp down a musket. In other words, it’s as far back as you can go and still have modern weaponry. Furthermore, it represents something real. This is a re-creation of real events, as opposed to a fictional past, future, or present. That too is somewhat unique to this subgenre of games, and certainly is a selling point. There is an advertisement for the game with the tagline “Get Closer Than Ever”, the word “Closer” in a subtly larger font, to cue you to the fact that you’re really zooming in on the action, and are on the front lines, instead of viewing this from an overall strategic historical perspective.
In this case the marketing doesn’t lie. You do feel like you’re in the middle of an important battle. Graphically, the game meets the high expectations set by Call of Duty 2. The audio is similarly exceptional. It’s the sort of game that makes me drool even more for a surround sound setup. Nowadays, with the majority of their play mechanics significantly fleshed out, first person shooters live and die by their degree of presentational polish, and Call of Duty 3 is presented very well. Further, as the only quantitative metric that really matters in a game review, Call of Duty 3 is certainly a great deal of fun to play. At the end of the day, I’ll still wonder why a little bit—even so, that won’t stop me from looking forward to Call of Duty 4.