Call Of Duty: Back To The Beginning

A very big house in the country

I am a very Modern Woman. And by that I mean I have only played Call of Duty [official site] campaigns from Modern Warfare 2 onwards. But this year, instead of picking up Black Ops 3 and despairing over the sheer number of gadgets and grenades I must remember, I went back to the very beginning (a very good place to start). I am working my way through the original Call of Duty.

Well, original-ish, it’s whatever the version of the 2003 game is on Steam right now.

I’m over halfway through the American campaign, having just taken out the German artillery at Brécourt Manor and couldn’t help remembering how Adam put that level as one of the best the franchise has ever managed:

“Brecourt Manor has you taking out several artillery pieces and there are desperate moments when you’re clearing out buildings, shooting people up close and personal. There’s no glory in it. It’s bloody horrible. And then you’re pinned down between two buildings, then creeping forward inch by inch, foot by foot, as people drop like flies and their names blink out of existence.

“It’s a really bracing reminder that Call of Duty cared about portraying battle in a way that emphasised the chaos and deadliness of an area thick with bullets. It makes you feel like a person trying to survive an awful situation rather than a person trying to win a war. It’s genuinely superb – more of a standout than the Stalingrad and Normandy missions – and I’m not going to use it as a stick to beat modern Call of Duty (mostly because I don’t play modern Call of Duty so I’d be comparing it to a bogeyman) but it does highlight how brilliant military FPS games can be.”

Obviously I’m playing the game out of context by a dozen years so just bear that in mind from here on in.

Call of Duty is not so far from the franchise as it exists today that it’s unrecognisable. The way people talk about it I’d been expecting it to be as different from its current incarnations as a tomato is from a cheese grater. Your missions have you crawling or running from objective to objective accompanied by the barks of your fellow soldiers. There are fewer graphics (I think original Call of Duty has about fifteen graphics while Black Ops 3 has nine hundred and five) and the missions are shorter but there’s a kernel of “Call of Duty” in there which you’d also be able to excavate from recent iterations.

It’s weird, though. A couple of hours with the original game and it feels like I’ve just been browsing an Activision mantlepiece and found pictures of Call of Duty from when it was an athletic teenager while the rather more portly and pompous Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is getting bored and inviting me to admire all of its most expensive gadgets.

The Call of Duty of 2003 is still an entertainment product but it feels more brutal, less divorced from the horrific side of war than the modern incarnations. John wrote about press briefings for the earlier outings of the franchise and noted that developers had spoken with veterans about their experiences, about how they wanted to tell those stories and do so with respect, as well as offering the spectacle.

(He adds that for more recent Call of Dutys “they spoke to current operatives in current wars, who gave government lines and speeches of patriotism and bravado. Honouring this meant abandoning honesty, because those whose lives they were attempting to portray were in no position to tell the truth.”)

I’m maybe a fifth of the way through the campaign in the first game so my thoughts haven’t solidified yet but here are some preliminary thoughts while I have them in my head.

First is that I’m wondering how much of feeling that this is somehow grittier is because a World War II Call of Duty game can make use of shared understandings or ongoing traditions of remembrance to add a certain amount of gravitas.

It doesn’t rely on that by any means and there are plenty of WWII-themed games out there which prove that simply invoking the names of various locations and operations doesn’t guarantee any level of emotional sincerity but there’s no getting away from the fact the original Call of Duty latches onto a lot of pre-existing brain baggage.

For me there are 31 years of Remembrance Day services and tributes and documentaries. I worked in a museum and part of my work was cataloguing wartime news reports and posters and correspondence – those get invoked too. There are lines of poetry – most from the First World War not the Second but they get used as part of the general remembrance effort – which I don’t think will ever leave me. For one primary school project I asked my grandmother about what she did in the war and she tried to explain about how she and her colleagues were taught to shoot in case the Germans ever got as far as Whitehall. Then there’s Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan and everything else.

Call of Duty can’t rely on my knowing those things for success but I think that having been shown/explained/told the horrors of the two World Wars in so many different ways and through so much different media I’m primed to see the grit and the awfulness in a way that I simply haven’t been with more recent conflicts, with modern warfare. To be clear, that warfare is still horrific, but we treat the World Wars as something different.

Secondly, I really appreciate the lack of bloat so far. I was saying over the weekend that I sometimes wish games could be more like short stories or things the length of a movie. I’ve started to feel dread when faced with larger games, knowing that unless it’s for a review or other work project I’ll likely never finish them before I need to take on something else.

This first Call of Duty feels satisfying in the entertainment it delivers but doesn’t outstay its welcome. In that sense it feels refreshing – even faintly rebellious. I’m giddy over possibly finishing something!

Sometimes the paciness has a cartoonish quality to it. I’ve just done a proper on-rails mission where you’re leaning out of a window shooting at soldiers like they’re ducks at a fairground but that has been the anomaly so far. I’ve been pondering the other campaigns and I’d say that the closeness of the objectives is important. So far the play space has generally seemed pretty small but that makes sense because you’re gaining ground by inches rather than striding into enemy territory. The next objective might be only a few feet away but you’ll likely have to crawl on your belly to get to it, painfully slowly and with bullets whizzing overhead.

Thirdly, I like that the factions can be confusing. Generally the enemy seems to be dressed a bit greyer and is often aiming at you. Allies are a bit more khaki and have names when you move your crosshair over them. But I’ve had moments of genuine confusion, not known if the guy kneeling in front of me is on their side or mine or hesitated when someone darted across my field of view because I didn’t want to get chucked back to a checkpoint because “friendly fire will not be tolerated”.

In another game it would feel like a clumsy UI decision or like I’d been playing wrong but here it works. I feel like there should be confusion, that is should feel like people fighting other people who happened to be wearing different clothes and speaking a different language.

That’s all for now but I’ll post some more concrete thoughts – possibly even a CHAT with Adam once I’ve finished the first game.

56 Comments

  1. mbp says:

    I hope you stick with it to the Russian levels. Crossing the Volga astounded me when I first played the game but I worry that it will seem tame to a modern gamers eyes. Looking forward to hearing your views.

    • LionsPhil says:

      The Russian chapter is amazing but I feel I shouldn’t say what aspects of it yet because Pip is currently in a situation to enjoy it sorta-blind.

      • Guvornator says:

        It is amazing but, well, don’t watch Enemy At the Gate is all I’m saying. Call of Duty lifted a surprising amount from a variety of war films, and the Volga sequence is a prime example.

        • LionsPhil says:

          I’m OK with this, frankly. Most creative work involves standing on a lot of shoulders.

          • Gap Gen says:

            There’s standing on shoulders, and there’s hacking off someone else’s shoulders and messily attaching them to your own torso. And again, I didn’t really mind the borrowed scenes, although the Soviet blocking detachment scene isn’t particularly realistic and borrowing it contributes to that myth, but again, eh.

    • aircool says:

      Yes, I don’t think that feeling has ever been recreated anywhere else.

    • Gap Gen says:

      There is the problem of them wanting to be cinematic to the point of cribbing entirely from scenes of films, but yeah, the early Call of Duty games nailed spectacle, and the balance between spectacle and not overloading you with stuff (contrast this to United Offensive, which felt a bit too full-on at times?)

    • Siimon says:

      Blew my young mind.

  2. machstem says:

    CoD defined the FPS for me. First game I remember having iron-sights, and the multiplayer was (and still is) fantastic.

    Then they released United Offensive which not only offered another set of amazing campaigns, but even better multiplayer that still stands up tall to this day.

    If the WarChest on STEAM could drop lower than a 50% on sale, I would buy it immediately. My disc copies are stored away nice and neat and I don’t intend on unburying them, but even looking at the cover art for both of the aforementioned titles, I am left wanting to play the multiplayer again and again. Brecourt was an amazing and well designed map.

    • zat0ichi says:

      Brecourt :sigh:

      I think that was the last fun I had on an MP map.

    • Gap Gen says:

      I sort of remember being sniped over and over, but I did enjoy it when you could move round the back and get some kind of motion going to the map.

  3. Risingson says:

    Oh, it’s a fantastic game (second time I say this today). Be ready for some really long, difficult and epic battles.

    • machstem says:

      Yes exactly. We would spend 10 min just trying to break through a well defended choke point and win the game by capturing that damn flag. Rhinevalley. The map with the huge factory + church separated by a chokepoint up a hill (united offensive for both)

      Son many good times and because the maps were so well designed, they could hold up today.

  4. crowleyhammer says:

    On the subject of identification of the enemy, I loved playing IL-2 without that on, trying to work out who was who was often more challenging than the actual air combat until you learnt a to tell a plane by its very distant silhouette and even then….

    I remember playing as a diving out of the clouds over the pacific and joining what I thought was my squadron only to notice after about 5 minutes that my “wingman” had the meatball and was heading back to their own carrier after presumably trying to spot ours. This turned into a fatal mistake because once I broke contact and vectored back towards roughly where I should have been headed I realised I didn’t have enough fuel.

    I have completed COD 1 with the russian campaign being my favourite part, i still think COD 2 is my favourite though.

  5. ansionnach says:

    Fair play – like going back to missed older games and checking them out. I’ve only played Modern Warfare 2. Thought it was a lot of fun but don’t have much interest in seeing more Duty. Like the The Sound of Music reference – may have seen that film more times than any other. Had it on tape and used to watch it over and over again with my sisters growing up.

    • machstem says:

      I applaud you for comparing your feeling of a game, to The Sound of Music. That’s something you don’t read everyday.

    • GWOP says:

      Oh man, if you wanted to play one modern CoD, then you should have gone with the CoD4:MW. It basically set the groundwork for all subsequent modern military shooters, but remain the most consistent and coherent of them all.

      • Siimon says:

        I keep hearing this, and partially agree, but MW2 was still the more fun one of them to me.

  6. vorador says:

    I bought it on launch day on 2003. It was really really good, the best WWII FPS yet. Later rebought it on Steam with the expansion i never got on it’s day.

    The game is separated on three campaigns ( Americans, British and the Russians last if i remember well) and while some missions are quite hard, the last mission of every campaign is brutal, specially the very last mission. Some hard fought battles.

  7. McCool says:

    I recently watched Band of Brothers again, and somehow noticed for the first time that Call of Duty for the most of the American campaign follows it so closely it feels like an adaptation they lost the rights to at the last moment.

    I’ve always looked back upon the original Call of Duty fondly, it felt fresh and daring back then, like the first major FPS from another studio to learn Valve’s lessons. We had no idea what would happen next.

    • JFS says:

      We were gamers then… and young.

    • Ross Angus says:

      I recently rewatched The Pacific, while playing through Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault (which was made six years earlier). Those were two very different experiences. The Pacific, while focused very clearly on the American experience, takes a pretty unflinching look at PTSD and some of the morally dubious choices made by both sides. Medal of Honor … not so much.

    • fulcrum89 says:

      Band of Brothers and the first American campaign in Call of Duty both are based around the same regiment, so it makes sense that they have very similar stories. I’d be shocked if someone at Infinity Ward hadn’t read Band of Brothers and used it as inspiration for their characters though.

    • Siimon says:

      That it followed BoB fairly fresh after the show came out made it so much better to me when I first played it. Loved the show, loved the game. Most memorable was probably the beginning of the Russian chapter (as others above have mentioned).

      The BoB continues in the United Offensive expansion: “The “Bois Jacques” and “Foy” missions of Riley’s campaign are reminiscent of HBO’s Band of Brothers episodes Bastogne and The Breaking Point, respectively.”

    • brainbukt says:

      that might be because both the game and the tv series follow the same company the 101st airborne division. and as a result can only draw on the mission records available. you might remember the scene where they enter carantan with the blown out building just after a rise this is from a very very famous war photo from a reporter attached to the 101st.

  8. RacerX says:

    I still have my original install CDs for CoD1 and CoD2. I had downloaded the demo and played it over and over again. The sound design was amazing. I had the speakers and subwoofer cranked. The anti-aircraft guns chattered and the bomb explosions shook the room.

    The winter setting for the Russian campaign was incredible. Great game! I need to install it and run through it again.

  9. SuicideKing says:

    I missed the originals. Played the demo for CoD 1 I think, and played a bit of CoD 3 on a friend’s PS2. Should get the WWII CODs on sale.

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    Sinomatic says:

    I remember the original CoD (and Medal of Honor for that matter) to be somewhat gut-punching affairs. Incorporating spectacle, yes, but also horrifying, all the while filling me with a deep sense of gratitude that I would never (hopefully) have to experience war like those people did.
    When we got to later games, it was more ‘look at me with my fabulous array of weapons and gadgets to kill folk with. Now let’s blow these fuckers sky high’. I don’t know if that’s just my nostalgia talking, or whether by the time it got to later games, that I’d just grown too accustomed to playing war games, but I don’t think so.

    • Baines says:

      The older Call of Duty titles had a punch not just from setting, but from simply looking a bit rougher. Simple, deadly weapons. Modern titles, with their “near future” and beyond settings, indeed feel like tech show outings.

      Kill streaks and support are another factor. It was just guns and grenades and maybe some player-driven vehicles at first. Then you got UAVs and the attack chopper in COD4. And from there, the games became as much about kill streaks (and support streaks and score rewards and whatever else the concept gets tweaked into) as it did the regular guns and grenades. And of course the streak rewards got more out there… packs of dogs, remote controlled drones, attack planes, super armor… The skies would get so filled with everyone else’s rewards that sometimes you’d have to wait a minute or two just to call your own.

      The areas themselves are part of it too. Maybe it is just that the desert settings of modern shooters look a bit flat and sterile, or maybe it is a cultural thing, but throwing in some damaged walls and buildings doesn’t really make them look like major wars are going on the way that the levels of the early Call of Duty games feel. Even when they might actually be more realistic, modern levels can feel more staged and artificial.

    • cpt_freakout says:

      I remember feeling quite terrible after every second mission or so – at the time my teenage self wanted spectacle, but it got something that felt horrifying instead. I took my time with CoD, and I still remember some of those grand, anxious moments vividly.

      While the first MW got close at certain parts, like others have commented below, for me it still failed to portray the terrors of a detached sort of violence overall – as players we’re pretty much used to a degree of detachment. CoD 1 and 2 grounded players through sheer level design, making things quite personal, and so in many ways easier to dwell on horror, but MW couldn’t ever offer that sort of continuity in a detached form, at least not for me.

  11. Zankman says:

    Truly excellent game, both CoD and CoD: United Offensive.

    As you imply, the Campaign just hits perfectly between gritty and realistic re-telling of WW2 and spectacular, movie-like action… Yes, it had some very on-rails moments and was definitely linear, but, it executed that linearity in a great way, making it fun to play, progress and see out the story.

    I really, honestly, nostalgia-glasses aside, do remember playing through both CoD and COD:UO (twice per game, I think) and genuinely enjoying my time. Sure, I was younger and it was “a different time” in oh-so-many ways, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.

    One of these days I’ll go back and play them again, for sure. The graphics and aesthetic hold up.

    I’ve never played the single-player in CoD 2 and, amusingly, have never played the multy-player in CoD and CoD:UO.

    I played a lot of CoD 2 MP (my friends still sometimes do) and it is very fun, no doubt. I haven’t spoken to any “CoD veterans” so I don’t know whether CoD 2 MP is worse or better than the original’s MP. From what I can gather, it’s the same thing, just a bit better and with a fresh paint of coat.

    Not sure about the Campaign either; I don’t know the consensus on CoD 2’s single-player, be it the contemporary one or a would-be one made in retrospect.

    • Premium User Badge

      Grizzly says:

      FWIW, I enjoyed COD2’s campaign quite a bit more then COD1’s. COD1 has a few sections borrowed from it’s older brethren. COD2 breaks with a few of those traditions and is stronger for it, and I personally feel it’s the highpoint of the franchise SP wise…

      … But I have not played the things beyond MW2.

  12. EhexT says:

    MW4 was the last great Call of Duty game. It was the last time they attempted to do anything unique and break new storytelling ground with the franchise and it worked pretty well. They even had some of the horrors of war stuff in there, but their teenage dorm room audience mistook it for “awesome” instead of seeing the underlying horror and evil of it – especially the Gunship scene.

    • Erithtotl says:

      I’ll agree. CD4: MW was the last CoD game I played and I still rave about the single player experience to this day, the way it really was emotionally wrenching and didn’t idealize the experience. I never bothered after that, starting with the next title every review I read basically emphasized how they kept downsizing and de-emphasizing the campaign and storytelling in favor of multiplayer.

      I think the worst thing now are the advertisements, where they show regular folks running around killing each other, which requires such a severe disconnection from reality to enjoy.

      • john_silence says:

        Well said both of you.

        The original Modern Warfare campaign stands head and shoulders above every earlier outing; sadly its influence was appropriated in all the wrong ways, with most subsequent games turning the globe-hopping narrative into a mindless rush edited like a video clip, the gut punches into lousy attempts at plucking our heart strings between set pieces without preliminary characterisation, and the wonderful museum-like toy gallery from the credits into compulsive gadget collectionitis.

        To me CoD2 was the high point of the WWII Calls of Duty, much better than the first one that rang strangely empty, and often saw you triumph ludicrously as a lone soldier against impossible odds. CoD2 made you part of great group manoeuvres and assaults. Sometimes you were just following around like in the recent iterations – but as a helpless, terrified grunt instead of a useless “press x to win” uber-dude.

    • tur1n says:

      Yes, the Gunship! It always gets overshadowed by the bomb – but I found it much more gut-wrenching. It speaks volumes about asymmetry and cynicism in a modern conflict.

  13. TheBuff1 says:

    I was absolutely blown away by COD, the Pegasus Bridge level where you must hold out was a stand out one for me. I remember when the timer gets to a minute or so heroic music starts to play and I must admit I felt quite moved. Something that no modern shooter can ever replicate, bring back WW2 shooters!

    • brainbukt says:

      been replaying through and that mission alone on heroic probably took me 5 hours. i’m just about to hit the russian equivelent with the 4 storey building and must say i am not looking forward to it. i remember how hard it was the first time i did it and i might have only been on easy or normal back then

  14. Shakes999 says:

    Pegasus Bridge is really what I remember from that game to this day. Moreso than any other moment from any of the games. The whole game worked great for really illustrating the horrors of war but that level sticks in my head still nearly 15 years later.

    The feeling of the walls closing in, in a hopeless situation to the relief of surviving what was certain death. It really hit me hard back then and it still sticks with me to this day. COD changed the game. It’s too bad that it was the high point. Even COD 2 didn’t come close.

    • Aldehyde says:

      Oh… Pegasus Bridge… I, too, remember that more than any other map in the game. Though for a different yet somewhat related reason than yours. I had been watching my brother play the game before I started playing and I asked him what difficulty he played on.

      He answered veteran (or whatever the hardest difficulty was) and so I started up my campaign on veteran. Went somewhat fine up until that mission. Now, the main difference between veteran and the difficulty just below it was that on veteran there were no health packs.

      I kept dying and dying and then my brother comes in and watches me play. I notice him stifling a laugh and then he leaves. I don’t think much of it other than just feeling like he was so much better than I.

      A day later I watch him play and I see health packs all the time. The fucker had lied. He didn’t play veteran. I got so mad! Told myself that I’d finish it on veteran or not at all. Finally got through that hell of a map and after that nothing seemed as difficult anymore.

      • 2fangs says:

        Yeah. Pegasus Bridge on veteran difficulty was tough. But fortunately there is an exploit.Just stay prone inside the checkpoint booth near the pillbox where the panzerschrecks are located. You will be bothered by a German soldier once and a while coming from trenches behind the said pillbox. Just keep your gun pointed at that spot and that’s it. When panzerschreck time comes, just make a run for it, destroy the tank and then come back for more shenanigans. If you stay inside the pillbox German soldiers will show up in large numbers and catch you in between reloads. Side note: I also finished the game in veteran mode and bolt-action rifles only :)

    • Thankmar says:

      Seconded. The building-up of the music when the reinforcements are close, but not yet there, was very atmospheric.

  15. Turkey says:

    I played a ton of FPS’ in the early ’00s, and COD is one of the few ones I still have any memories of. I mostly remember the Russian campaign and also being trapped in a building, fending off tanks. Everything else is a blur, tho.

  16. aircool says:

    It’s also the game with the very best multiplayer action. Sure, you start off as a ppsh noob, or maybe the thompson, but you progress.

    It finally comes down to two choices, the one shot, one kill Kar98, or the three shot, from the hip MP44 (aim for the ball, the recoil will kick the next round up and left into the chest and the final round into the head.

  17. melancholicthug says:

    CoD’s ending is one of the best I’ve ever experienced, back in the day. As you moved through the Reichstag, you’d feel the rush of anticipation knowing that the war’s end was near, with just a little push, getting the Soviet flag to the roof as the epic music starts.

    • Turkey says:

      oh, right. It was like an interactive epilogue montage thing. I remember now.

  18. a very affectionate parrot says:

    The first COD was really something different for me, most FPS games I’d played by that time had an emphasis on the ‘lone wolf badass’ so having a bunch of soldiers fighting and dying beside you, feeling like a soldier in a war rather than some god of death was very appealing. (Medal of Honor had some fantastic set pieces but you often ended up as johnny invincible single-handedly saving Europe) That said the first COD I actually bought rather than playing a demo from a PCG cover disk was Modern Warfare, I never even touched the multiplayer due to the 360’s awful lack of wifi but the campaign of that game felt really special, even with the subsequent souring of those memories with the rest of the series.

  19. a very affectionate parrot says:

    (curse the lack of an edit button) The WW2 setting and the ‘shared experience’ with these scripted AI-less soldiers was what made the game stand out for me. Wolfenstein is a fantasy so the invincible hero makes sense, but WW2 itself was fought by millions of people, most of whom had no choice and weren’t beefcake heroes. It seems cheesy now but as a pre-jaded teen I felt somewhat touched by most of the quotes that appeared when you died in Modern Warfare.

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    Al__S says:

    Is there any way of picking up COD 1 & 2 for less than £15 each? I did play them whilst I was a student, but that was when I considered the dark corners an acceptable place to procure games. But I don’t think I can really stomach much more than a fiver for games that old.

    • Siimon says:

      The War Chest (1, UO, and 2) is $17US on that penguin key site. Still overpriced imo, but better than retail and Steam charging $30 for the pack – Ridiculous!

  21. Gap Gen says:

    Interesting point about the ability for games based on older wars to be more accurate than games based on ongoing conflicts (also possibly wars fought by small volunteer forces than large conscript armies? I dunno). My take on it was that they were cribbing from Spielberg stuff that tends to evoke more pathos, whilst cribbing from modern war films for the later games you’d tend to be more gung-ho.

  22. tonicer says:

    Oh man COD 1 and 2 are awesome. I still play my favorite missions every once in a while.

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    burn_heal says:

    This was one of the first first-person games I played, and it blew my mind. I really had the feeling I was just a kid sent off to war battling against the odds.

    It also has one of my favourite soundtracks in gaming. Scored by Michael Giacchino, who now writes film scores for Pixar films such as The Incredibles and Inside Out.