Call of Duty remains the most important installment in the franchise, but also one of the best; a campaign that rerouted gaming history and still holds up today.
This review of the Call of Duty campaign is based on the PC version. It’s a review of the game’s single-player component only.
Call of Duty is a game about history, in ways both obvious and not. Naturally, it’s a first-person shooter set in the Second World War, but that bloody conflict isn’t even half of the matter. While people often lament how the success of this game and its early sequels ushered in a glut of WWII-themed shooters and strategy titles that players rightly got sick of, what they often forget – or never knew in the first place – is that people were already sick of them when this one came out. And yet Call of Duty became the most indescribably prevalent video game franchise ever, its popularity and critical reception never waning to this day.
How did that happen? The answer is, again, history. Since its inception in 2003, Call of Duty has shot to kill. Back then, the period PC shooter landscape was largely dominated by Medal of Honor: Allied Assault; Infinity Ward, who developed Call of Duty and several of its better follow-ups, was largely comprised of people who worked on that game and had become sick of how EA was handling the franchise. Rather than using the creative freedom of a new studio to make a very different game, they instead elected to make a very similar one and have it compete with Medal of Honor directly. This, it turns out, was the games industry equivalent of sneaking into Medal of Honor’s room at night and smothering it with its own pillow.
It seems petty. But this direct competition is a large part of why Call of Duty resonated so strongly with players – its gameplay was, in large part, comprised of all the things you wished you could do while playing Allied Assault but were never quite able to. It retained the same broad arcade style but spruced it up with refinements and minor innovations. Each core mechanic complemented the next. A clear, linear route through the bombed-out battlegrounds presented itself organically, and players marched through it at a just-right pace (you can’t sprint in Call of Duty, but you rarely feel like you need to.) Accurately-modeled period weapons are carried two at a time, with room also for a sidearm and grenades (you have to select them manually in this game – its most dated wrinkle.) You could aim down the sights of those weapons for better accuracy at the expense of movement speed. Three stances – standing, crouching, and prone – each with their own advantages and disadvantages on the battlefield could be swapped between quickly and easily. Not all of these things were brand new – in fact, virtually none of them were – but they hadn’t necessarily been combined in quite this way. For all its surface-level similarities to Allied Assault, Call of Duty had one crucial advantage: It simply played better.
What the Call of Duty campaign also did was eschew the bombastically macho one-man-army style of popular FPS games, instead opting for a sense of being just one unremarkable cog in a very big, lumbering war machine. Across its three campaigns – one for the Americans, one for the British, and one for the Russians, all obviously taking place in the European theatre – you pilot three player-characters so unremarkable that I just had to Google their names to double-check they actually had any. And while they do have names, they have no faces or personalities or backstories or motivations beyond simply staying alive and disrupting the Nazi war effort. There’s nothing to distinguish one from another, which is entirely the point. These are heroes only in the sense that they’re on the right side of history, and that they, by virtue of being in the right place at the right time, get to help in some significant Allied victories.
This three-campaign conceit is a neat way of touring a range of environments and mission styles without having to earthquake the fiction by insisting that the same soldier is somehow participating in all of them. You rarely, if ever, fight alone in Call of Duty. You’re surrounded on all sides not just by enemies but by allies, and a surprising number of both given the game’s age, even if the modeling, animation, and AI have all gotten old in a noticeable way. But it’s mostly for ambiance. The rank-and-file crouch behind cover, bellow warnings and commands and take pot-shots at distant targets. Many of them die. The ones who don’t are largely mission-critical characters who come to define each campaign more than whoever you’re playing as, especially when you recognize their voice actor (look out for Steve Blum, who plays Captain Foley in the American campaign, and Jason Statham, who voices Sergeant Waters in the British one.)
None of this is aiming for realism, per se, which is perhaps just as well, since those important named characters are immortal, frequently getting blown up and shot to bits only to stagger back to their feet as though nothing happened. This might damage immersion somewhat, but it’s the right tone for a game that’s clearly attempting to emulate the operatic action of blockbuster films rather than the details of the history books – even if those details do inform a lot of the campaign’s bombastic set-pieces. But it’s the cinematic aspirations that are clearer and more impactful, evoking everything from Saving Private Ryan to Band of Brothers to, in the first Russian mission, Enemy at the Gates. That latter one is pretty flagrantly ripped-off, as it happens, but it makes for one of the game’s best missions, and one quite different to those that precede it. There will scarcely be a moment in this game that isn’t spent shooting Nazis, yet the campaigns, for reasons like this, all feel memorably distinct.
Returning to Call of Duty in 2020, it’s striking how well so much of it holds up. There are some technical niggles, obviously; some horrendous-looking textures and modeling, woeful AI, unintentionally hilarious animations, and tin-pot reports for most of the weapons, even if some incidental sound effects, disorienting explosions and the game’s approximation of shellshock still work surprisingly well. These things you can largely overlook, though, as consequences of the game’s age and engine, which was dated even at the time. The surprise is in how well it still plays. The absence of a sprint function, while lamentable, isn’t as grating as you might think, and the lack of certain modern convenience features such as hit markers only strengthens a presentation that is striving for a degree of authenticity anyway. Look out for the small, smart ways that Call of Duty gives the player that kind of feedback instead; the helmets leaping into the air after a successful headshot, and the puff of pink mist that gave the game another more adult, less game-y edge over Allied Assault back in the day.
What all this amounts to is obviously the most important Call of Duty game, culturally and historically speaking, but also one of the best, even today. The shape, scope, and style of its campaign haven’t aged at all, and that ballsy sense of head-on competition can still be felt in its biggest, best set-pieces. This is a title that was clearly seeking to take on and surpass what was largely considered to be the best game of its type ever made, something that, these days, most studios wouldn’t dare to attempt. So much of what Call of Duty did here it continues to do to this day, and a lot of what it abandoned is missed. Captain Price, now the franchise’s mustachioed figurehead, features briefly here and is unceremoniously killed off. These days, that feels boldly subversive, and more than a little fitting. At its smallest and most modest, Call of Duty was perfectly content to make a casualty of anyone.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.