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Playing the Call of Duty World War 2 games on Veteran Difficulty

The original Call of Duty made a big splash when it came out on PC back in 2003. Call of Duty has since  become one of the biggest franchises in gaming. Even though most of the money is now earned from multiplayer and even though the series has long since moved on to modern day and futuristic settings it still visits World War 2 occasionally. I recently had the opportunity to play through most of the single player World War 2 Call of Duty games on veteran difficulty and I would like to share my thoughts and comparisons. 

I have middle aged reflexes and I am far from a leet gamer but I chose veteran (the hardest) difficulty  because I have replayed these campaigns several times over the years and it makes sense for me to up the challenge. I also think that playing a 2003 game on a modern PC makes things easier. I remember jerky response times making it hard to aim and survive during the frenetic battles scenes way back in the day. A modern gaming PC can handle those early games with buttery smoothness. I don't recommend veteran difficulty for a first playthrough of any of these games however. The games are not balanced for veteran difficulty and your experience of the game will be marred by difficulty spikes that require cheesy strategies to overcome. Better to play on normal or hardened for a first playthrough to get the experience as the developers intended. 

I will list the games in order of release even though I didn't play then in that order. I started with World at War (2008) then Call of Duty United Offensive (2004), Call of Duty (2003), Call of Duty WWII (2017) and finally Call of Duty 2 (2005).

Anyway in order of release: 

Call of Duty 1 (2003) was very difficult to get this game running on a modern PC even though I still possess my original disk copy. I believe that safedisk copy protection is the main cause as it is no longer supported but I also seemed to be missing sound files from my disks which makes no sense. In the end I had to resort to the darker corners of the internet to get the game working. It is a sad state of affairs that one has to rely on dubious activities to preserve the digital heritage of gaming but there you have it. 

Anyway the campaign itself is still surprisingly good. Graphics are crude by modern standards but the campaign missions are challenging and exciting. The difficulty is punishing particularly given that two hits will usually kill you and there are no health packs available on veteran (this was before the days of regenerating health). However the game still feels very polished and balanced. When you find yourself under withering fire there is almost always a pothole or piece of cover nearby to dive into. Cover works and the controls are flexible enough to allow you to take advantage of it. The game allows for and encourages careful methodical game play, relying on your squad mates to do their bit before you advance. The overall difficulty is also balanced by the fact that you can save anywhere. In the toughest missions I used multiple save points to make incremental progress. The game does have quick save but it is too easy to quick save the instant before an unexpected bullet kills you so carefully chosen manual saves are essential. I believe that when this game was released on consoles they did not allow you to save anywhere. That combined with the generally weaker aiming on console must have made the games far more difficult and I would not enjoy that. Most commenters at the time regarded the Russian Campaign as a highlight of the game and I still agree. Crossing the Volga into Stalingrad and being ordered at gunpoint to charge into entrenched German machine fire without a weapon of your own is still shocking and exciting in equal measure. The post apocalyptic grey rubble of Stalingrad has been done to death in many games since but it was still fresh back then.  

Call of Duty United Offensive (2004): Strictly speaking this was an expansion pack for the original game but it has its own full campaign and deserves its own review. It shares many of the strengths of the original game and it is has even more explosions and excitement. However on veteran mode it is even harder and not in a good way. The game feels less polished and less balanced overall. While the original game almost always had a convenient wall or pothole to hide from enemy fire United Offensive regularly leaves you exposed relying only on the random number generator as to whether you live or die. The final mission where you are in a train station fighting off Tanks, Stuka dive bombers, snipers, MG42s and hordes of enemies is an extreme example of that but it crops up throughout the game. You have to expose yourself to enemy fire in order to pick up the weapons you need to take out the enemy.  You are relying on RNG chance as to whether or not you survive. After much trial and error I eventually found a few hiding spots which allowed me to cheese out the mission but that is not fun game play.  My least favourite bit of this game was a Russian Campaign  mission where you are confronted by a tank bursting through the walls of a warehouse you are clearing out. The only anti tank weapon available is a Panzerschreck in full view of both the tank and the accompanying squad of infinitely respawning Nazis. It takes multiple shots to take out the tank and you need to pick up a new Panzerschreck each time while under direct enemy fire. Not fun. 

Call of Duty 2 (2005) was a launch title for the Xbox360 and is a significant step up graphically from the earlier games. Regenerating Health has replaced health packs and checkpoints have replaced the ability to save anywhere. The controls are very tight on PC with plenty of flexibility to crouch and peek when required. I particularly like the fact that even on veteran difficulty you are not immediately targeted by every enemy in the game. Apart from the fact that this makes combat in general easier than earlier games it also allows you to use fixed gun emplacements without instantly dying like in every other Call of Duty game. This game is usually a lot more forgiving than the earlier games and it allows a more aggressive play style which is fun. However there are several extreme difficulty spikes near the end and in these cases the difficulty is almost always down to one mechanic: Infinitely respawning enemies. There were a few examples of this in the earlier games but CoD 2 takes this mechanic and doubles down on it. Enemies at a particularly barricade or strongpoint will keep respawning endlessly until you progress to a certain physical location which usually requires you to expose yourself to withering enemy fire to get there. I hate this mechanic. On veteran difficulty it requires you to play cheesily, running forward to trigger the point which stops respawning before retreating to cover so you can pick the stragglers off one by one. It turns a shooting game into a running game which is not fun. You won't even know when this mechanic applies or where the magical trip points are the first time you play the game. As an example there are several instances in the American Campaign where you have to clear houses. In one mission these houses have infinitely respawning enemies where you must get a toe in the door to stop the respawn. In the next mission the houses are packed with non respawning enemies and the smart play is to pick off as many enemies as you can before you venture in. The following video from oddly rambunctious on Youtube sums up my own experience of infinitely respawning checkpoints in the final mission pretty accurately: Despite this frustrating mechanic this is still my favourite of the World War 2 games. I love the prettier graphics. I love the tight controls. I love the slightly easier game play. I particularly liked the colourful British campaigns set in the North African desert. The desert tank mission was great. In most CoD tank missions you inch your way through an urban landscape trying to avoid Panzerschrek wielding soldiers lurking behind rubble. Here you speed around the desert taking pot-shots at  German tanks. I don't think the Churchill was a particularly speedy tank but the conceit is that the German tanks have longer range so you need to keep moving quickly to close the distance. It all feels very dynamic and great fun.  My least favourite part of the game was one ridiculous Russian mission where I had to chase a tank around a square to plant a bomb on it. The tank was fully aware of my position and kept circling away while pelting me with shells and machine gun fire the whole time. 

Call of Duty 3 (2006) This was a console exclusive so I have never played it. It was originally released in the PS2/ original Xbox era but I believe it can also be played on PS3 or Xbox 360 both of which I happen to have. I will look into this and update later if I get my hands on the game. 

Call of Duty, World at War (2008) ups the ante once again with better graphics, more explosions and more action. It features a Pacific campaign for the first time which is refreshing. The Japanese you face have a habit of popping unexpectedly out of trees and out of holes in the ground which makes the game feel very tense. It uses the same infinitely respawning enemies mechanic as Call of Duty 2 which is a pity but seems to have become a staple of all CoD games since. A lot of pundits rate this the hardest campaign in all of Call of Duty on Veteran. I think United Offensive is probably harder but in UO you can cheese the save system to incrementally force your way through. In this game you only have checkpoints so if you fail it is back to the checkpoint to try over. Where this game definitely tops the list is in the ludicrous amount of grenade spam. On veteran if you stand still for more than a second you will be pelted with multiple grenades from all corners of the map. Sometimes you can thrown them back. Sometimes you can dive for cover but sometimes you are just surrounded by grenades and die. I guess this is to encourage to play aggressively and keep moving but it does often get ridiculous.   This expletive laden video from Kyle JW will give you a good idea of what it is like: The second last  mission "Heart of the Reich" is often cited as the most difficulty mission in Call of Duty history but for some masochistic reason I actually loved it.  It took me dozens of attempts to get through the hordes of infinitely respawning grenade spamming Nazis to the door of the Reichstag  but I still replayed the mission to experience it all again. Even though I love that stupidly challenging mission and like the game overall I still prefer the more leisurely pace of Call of Duty 2. 

Call of Duty, World War 2 (2017) is a bit of a conundrum. It is by far the most cinematic of the games with fabulous graphics and a strong storyline. Unfortunately it makes several huge compromises in gameplay to achieve these cinematic effects. The most egregious of these are the regular quick time events. A dramatic event happens in game, perhaps a building collapses or you are ambushed, the screen pauses momentarily and a pattern of mouse and keyboard commands appears on screen. Press F now to not die. Thankfully they are mostly fairly forgiving but some of them have short time windows and took me multiple retries. I think quick time events like this absolutely suck. They rob the player of all agency. I guess the creator of the dramatic falling building scene wanted to make sure you were forced to look at it instead of running away like any sensible player but I still hate it. I would actually prefer a simple skippable cut scene. If the cinematography is a great as they think it is then I will watch it. If it isn't don't force me to. This isn't the only problem with the gameplay unfortunately. The controls are inexplicably worse than in earlier games with less flexibility for crouching and peeking. There is supposed to be some kind of auto peek mechanism when aiming but most of the time it doesn't work. This is a big deal because the game is full of inadequate cover which is not tall enough to adequately protect you but still too tall to allow easy shooting over. In a nod to the earliest Call of Duty games World at War does not have regenerating health but uses health packs instead. There is a decent supply of health packs (and you can earn them from a companion by killing enemies) but I don't think the system works as well in this game because it has checkpoints instead of save anywhere. This is not the only thing it borrows from earlier games. The Omaha Beach mission is a very obvious homage to Medal of Honour Allied Assault. Overall I enjoyed the game, particularly the cinematics but I rate it down heavily because of the poor gameplay.  

Call of Duty Vanguard (2021) I am waiting for a good discount on this latest WWII game before I buy it. Activision have have always been Nintendo like in being very slow to discount older Call of Duty games. The strength of the CoD brand has allowed them to get away with it but it does mean that stingy gamers like myself have to wait. 


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