World War II games are so common these days, one might wonder how often the same material can be retread. How often can you go through the motions of the Omaha Beach landing before you want to snap your Saving Private Ryan DVD in two or block the History Channel from your television? Ironically, the History Channel never seems to run out of new material to cover most brutal war ever known to man. In terms of gaming, what it all comes down to is staging and atmosphere. The chaos must be as convincing and realistic as possible. You've got to feel like you could be killed at any moment as a storm cloud of bullets thunders right over your head. As many veterans could confess, a simulation will likely never be as purely emotional and intense as real combat, but that doesn't mean that video games can't provide some sense of the respect that those who have served in war deserve. Treyarch has attempted to put you right in the shoe's of WWII's toughest infantry, the First Fighting Division, aka the Big Red One (due to the large, crimson numeral worn on their armbands). Out of 40,000+ men, around 20,000 died, another 20,000 receiving medals.
First things first, Big Red One should not be confused with its big brother Call of Duty 2 (minus the BRO subtitle) for the Xbox 360 and PC. They are fundamentally different games, with vanilla CoD2 covering the Russian and British fronts of the war, too. In contrast, Big Red One is concerned solely with the American effort as you join the First Infantry on its journey through three major operations of the war: Operation Torch (North Africa), Operation Husky (Invasion of Sicily), and Operation Overlord (the epic battle on the French coast). The real life BRO played important parts in all three missions, as will you.
As mentioned before, creating a believable war-like atmosphere is essential in a WWII game and CoD2 cuts no corners here. It tackles both the task of constructing peripheral and building a personal relationship with your brothers-in-arms. Their personalities are somewhat stereotyped: the outwardly-stoic-but-inwardly-caring Sergeant Hawkins, the wisecracking "Brooklyn," the book-smart Private Kelly, etc. That doesn't necessarily make them any less endearing, though, especially considering that they're voiced by cast members from the series Band of Brothers. Not only do they do the voice acting, but they do the motion capture for the characters, as well. One of the best fictional adaptations of WWII to date, fans of BoB will find that they're already familiar with the characters. In terms of gameplay, they'll be supporting you all the way. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, though. It's nice to have backup when engaging in an intense firefight, but the AI isn't that great, perhaps intentionally so. Your AI partners could literally be right next to an enemy, both firing away, and neither getting hit. This seems to be a convention that the game uses to prompt the player into combat (if your buddies did everything, it wouldn't be any fun), but it comes off as too obvious and a tad sloppy. With a game so concerned about realism, it doesn't seem to be able to handle AI actions very well when they aren't explicitly scripted. Sure, they'll get your back and take out a few guys here and there, but it's completely up to the player to push forward throughout the level. That is, unless you happen to be blocked by a door, which brings me to my other problem – linearity.
See, while your AI partners aren't always handy in battle, they also dictate when you can or cannot access the next area. As if your soldier didn't have opposable thumbs and is instead firing his rifle with his teeth, you aren't allowed to ever open doors or gates. Once again, it's understandable that Treyarch was just trying to create a well-scripted game, but a lot of elements seem too hands-off. You can only move forward when the game lets you move forward. There's no dodging out of combat and proceeding to the next area of your own accord. Also, the levels themselves are fairly linear. Most FPSes do enforce a sort of constraint on your environment, but there are some arbitrary invisible walls scattered throughout the game, disallowing you access to places that look like they can be traversed. All this considered, as Big Red One progresses, individual shoot-outs do provide more places for you to hide and shoot from. Thus, while the linear progression wasn't exactly thrilling from the outset, it was alleviated later on in the game.
Getting back to the greater aspects of level design, though, there is a great attention to detail in the environments. Most of the locales in the game are based off of real-life maps of the regions and cities. Each new mission feels fresh enough from the last, even though many of them take place in the same general area. The peripheral details are often amazing, though. There is always something going on in the background, from planes flying over head, to distant explosions, to search lights panning the sky, et al. When you look across the riverbank in one mission and see a completely different squad taking down the enemy, it's a sight to behold. Treyarch really attempted to make you feel that, even though you're a hero as an individual, you're still only a small cog in the greater machine. This is war – each soldier is as important as they are significant, and it is your actions which dictate in which way you will ultimately be regarded years down the road.
Sound also plays a large role in the atmosphere. The developers even got to test fire all of the weapons in the game, some hard to get your hands on these days, and recorded the gunshots on-site. Every noise that comes from a gun is absolutely authentic. Likewise, the war sounds as chaotic as it looks. Often, there is simply so much going on that the option to turn on subtitles is like a god-send.
Actual combat recreates the anarchy quite well, but it does slip in some areas. Nazis seem to almost endlessly spawn in some areas, unless you complete a certain objective, which isn't always as crystal clear as it should be. Much of the time, you'll find an objective listed on your pop-up screen (accessed by hitting select) that you didn't even know you had to accomplish yet. Chaos is a virtue in Big Red One, but that doesn't mean your goals have to be. Even with the next objective being displayed on the radar, getting to it can be needlessly vague.
Back to the Nazis though. Though the animations of your squad-mates is good enough, those of the enemies are sometimes rough and awkward. Watching them attempt to climb over walls or get around a barrel can be painful at times, not to mention finding a spawn point. I recall watching enemies just popping out of a solid, concrete wall. It takes you out of the game a little.
Controls are alright and pretty much what you'd expect for a First Person Shooter on the PS2 at this point. Left analog stick controls movement, while the right one controls the view. Circle and Triangle are used to change your stance between standing/crouching/prone positions. R1 is fire, L1 sends you into sight mode – a zoomed in view which allows for more controlled aiming though your movement is slower, and L2 will toss a grenade. Square will manually reload your current weapons (you can only carry two at any time), and the digital pad will switch between them or allow you to lean around walls. It's par for the course, but the aiming felt like it needed to be a little more precise, and there only seemed to be the option to invert one of the axes. It would've been nice to invert both.
Multiplayer is a fun experience. Many of the maps are taken directly from the game, though a few are modified in certain ways (one North African stage now takes place at night). However, actually playing through them feels fairly basic. There just aren't many options here and the modes aren't original. Even though you can have up to 16 players at one time, there is sometimes an inexplicable amount of lag. If you're really hankering for some CoD multiplayer, you might might be better off with the PC titles. In Big Red One, it feels more like an obligated tack-on than anything else.
There isn't much in the way of replay value, unfortunately. If you want to replay any of the exciting set pieces you might have encountered along the way, you can instantly access any of the completed missions (there are 14 or so). Some of them are shorter than others, especially the last couple, while others seem to go on forever. In the same vein, some levels feature frequent checkpoints, while others are spread a bit too far apart, leading to a bit of frustration at times. The game does feature a catalog of characters and weaponry, gradually unlocked through level completion and the Collector's Edition has several featurettes that, though interesting, are fairly short. While the action is, most of the time, quite exciting and frantic, the linearity of the game prevents you from seeing anything new the second time around. Call of Duty 2: Big Red One isn't quite as robust as Call of Duty 2 for PC and the Xbox 360, but the excitement is still there. The more I played, the more I enjoyed playing. That said, sometimes a little scripting is needed to bring such an important historical event to life, but decisions made on the field, in the heat of combat are what won the war. The next time around, it'd be nice to see a bit more of that flexibility in the progression of the game.