War is hell and all that, but deep down you desperately want to know what it was actually like. Call of Duty 2 might be the closest we doughy civilians will ever come to the real thing, assuming King George doesn’t institute a draft. It’s an intense though frequently enervating experience that probably won’t have you headed to your local recruitment office anytime soon. That’s not an insult.
World War II games are a dime a dozen these days, but Call of Duty 2 stands apart. (Don’t confuse it with Call of Duty 2: Big Red One for current-gen consoles; that’s a different game from a different developer.) It has one goal: to overwhelm you with the immensity of combat. There’s a sense of scale here rarely seen in first-person shooters. Although the campaigns place you in the boots of a Soviet grunt, a British tank commander, and an American Army Ranger, all three make it clear that you are a tiny part of a much larger conflict. Surmounting the blunt, 100-meter cliffs of Pointe-du-Hoc on D-Day brings you to a wide-open field behind which are hedgerows that give way to a French town that would be charming if it hadn’t been reduced to craters and rubble — all without load times or hitches in gameplay.
The game is a tour de force, to be sure, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the sound design. Usually game designers focus exclusively on graphics — and the visuals here are superb, particularly as a showcase for the capabilities of the Xbox 360 — but the aural world Infinity Ward has created is the real star. The war is about you at all times, whether you’re face to face with a screaming Nazi or simply hearing the distant pounding of 88s. Your comrades shout orders, plead for covering fire, and all too often shriek in pain. With the volume turned up (and the volume should always be turned up), the sonic assault becomes something you can actually feel.
The nonstop screaming and booming become a little too realistic at times, and that’s when the patently unrealistic aspects become apparent. At the beginning of the D-Day scenario, the concussion from an artillery blast knocks you to the ground. Through blurred vision, you watch one squad after another get wiped out before they can disembark from the landing craft. It’s a visceral, emotional sequence that exemplifies some of the best of interactive storytelling. But how does that square with your ability to heal, Wolverine-like, only seconds after taking a bullet?
This isn’t idle philosophizing. When Call of Duty 2 insists on pushing treacly quotes from history and literature about the nobility of war at you every time you die, you wonder whether you aren’t supposed to think of it as an elegy for the war dead. After my first session, once my heartbeat had slowed to a normal pace, I attempted to describe it to a friend as “what real war is like.” I can only imagine what the reaction would be if I’d said that to a veteran.