Do you remember your first gaming memories? Those first bouts of excitement and enthusiasm from deep in your soul? Those first few games you remember now so vividly? The long and elaborate skirmishes in Age of Empires, the swatting of headcrabs and the clanging of Gordon Freeman’s crowbar give us the rawest of all these pleasures. Don’t you think they all seemed so perfect compared the mass produced, committee-made follow-ups? Well it’s time to remind ourselves that no matter how nostalgia may blind us; even our most beloved things have maggots behind their masks.
Today, I’m going to replay a game I played as a child in a cold attic on a computer that ran slower than a geriatric tortoise moonwalking through sludge. This game I played so intently was not among the first to introduce me to video games, yet Call of Duty 2 is definitely the game I remember the most vividly from my childhood. I remember my brother bringing it home one day and how I used to peer over his shoulder, watching him blow chunks out of the enemy. I would sneak around trying to play the game without my brother finding out, sitting for hours just running around in the game before re-enacting my victories in the garden with some twigs. My nostalgic affection for Call of Duty 2, and my wish to preserve that childish glee, makes me terrified of playing the game again as an adult. Oh bugger it, let’s hammer another nail into my masochist coffin and boot up the game.
When revisiting a beloved game from the past my first reaction is usually to recoil in horror at the graphical abomination on the screen, as in the case of Mafia or Morrowind. For a game released in 2005, Call of Duty 2 holds up surprisingly well and looks visually decent. Of course, it lacked the realism we are now accustomed to, for example the lip sync was noticeably awful; this does affect the immersion of the game, though I can forgive this as I am reminded of my beloved, late goldfish, Josephine. The game begins in the Russian field so familiar to me as we are taught the basics of warfare. This appears to be the usual tutorial, except news quickly spreads that a huge counter-attack is being launched against your front. From there it’s straight into gameplay, refreshingly without any unnecessary filler. This differs from the 30 or so minutes it usually takes to start a game now, accumulating pointless achievements for loading the game, moving your character successfully, not putting your controller in the oven and so on. The game just lets you go for it, and within minutes of starting you’ll be sneaking through streets, flanking tanks, clearing out houses and shelled buildings and basically shooting anything that looks vaguely Aryan.
When I first played this game I remember gleefully running around the map casually flinging grenades and spraying rounds like a sprinkler on a waltzer. It really felt like I had free reign of an open map. After playing again, open is a word I would no longer use; it feels more engineered than open. For each large bit of the map there are 3-4 corridors of adversaries to march through to get to your target, meaning you don’t notice the small and limited maps. This became a bit of a drag and it seems unnecessary when there are bombed out building I would rather walk through rather than cut through streets filled with bloodthirsty enemies with machine guns.It is reminiscent of the modern Call of Dutys whereby the game is just some narration accompanying one long path of under-armed, unmotivated troops being gunned down in the name of conspiracy.
Anyway, let’s get back to the battlefield. After a short while, I noticed an odd flaw in the game’s AI. The spawning appears somewhat inconsistent, for example Captain Price – an undefeatable character – spawned in enemy infantry rather than by my side. He then went Full Metal Jacket and rifle-butted 15 unlucky soles to death, one after another whilst more enemies spawned around him. On a separate occasion, enemies began to spawn behind our lines which lead to the AI becoming confused; charging into corners of the map and talking about non-existent artillery piece which apparently needing taking out. I’ve also been stuck inside multiple walls and been hit many times with the butt of a gun when I could have easily been shot and progressed through the level.
Despite its flaws, Call of Duty 2 has plenty of enjoyable features that are worth revisiting. For example the American campaign in which you fight, from the Normandy beaches, through trenches and towns, foot by bloody foot, spurred on by the rousing words of General Pattern. You begin to think victory is in your grasp only to be forced to fall and retreat as the superiorly armed opposition push you back and force you to watch your men die around you and your ammo dwindle. As you’re sitting there with your back to a cliff and 120 adversaries trying to blow you out of your foxhole, I noticed how fun it was to be forced to defend for once. Even through my cynical adult eyes I had fun with this scene, almost as much as I did as a sugar powered child, but after 3 minutes it was over. Some planes flew overhead, killed everyone who wasn’t on our side, and claimed victory. What? 3 minutes? That’s it? Can’t the planes do something else for a bit? I don’t want another mission I want to struggle on defending with my doomed comrades!
The main problem with Call of Duty 2 is that it rarely seemed to play to its strengths. For example, the game would litter some of the maps with giant artillery pieces for you to play with. While this was a nice touch, you soon realise having a cool gun means nothing in an uninhabited warzone. I waited and waited for something, anything, to spawn … but it was not to be. These giant, cool weapons usually only become available once you’ve already killed everyone, which seems like a strange decision for the developers to make. I must have repressed this memory as I don’t remember the artillery; I probably got sick of waiting for the opposition to blow up and wandered off to find sandwiches and someone else to annoy.
I do recall from my childhood, and not so fondly, the tagged on vehicle missions that the game throws at you. I sighed a couple of times, hoping there would be a way to avoid them, but this was to no avail. My younger self may have been gullible enough to grind through this horror and get back up, persevering when everything went wrong, but now I am simply unwilling to give myself a peptic ulcer. At one point I was stuck in a truck and I was meant to shoot at something, but I didn’t know what. What am I shooting at? And why am I in this truck? Just as I decided to fire randomly, a tank pops out. Finally, I know what I’m doing! But then the game reprimands me for my random firing, telling me ‘you shouldn’t have done that’ and making me restart the level. Well, since I didn’t want get in the truck in the first place, I think I’ll just bloody well walk.
Call of Duty 2 used to be enjoyable, a game I turned to in order to emulate the emotions and the rush of war. However, after playing it again with a fresh, older and less cute face, I can now see it is not a gift from the gods but rather just an average war game. The paragon of enjoyment it isn’t, even though child me would insist otherwise. It’s a game that’s good at putting on a show, so that your memory fades out the ever present feeling of annoyance. She says it’ll be fun and things will always be the same, but when you go back you’ll realise what a horrible mistake that was.
The Benefit of Hindsight: What was once an open world of excitement is now a forced corridor of tedium. It’s still alright though, I guess.