Call of Duty: United Offensive

Call of Duty: United Offensive
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Game Name: Call of Duty: United Offensive
Platforms: Windows XP
Publisher(s): Activision
Developer(s): Gray Matter Interactive
Genre(s): First Person Shooter
Release Date: Sep, 2004
Notes: CoD Deluxe Edition, some War Chest compilations, and just plain Steam.

The first outing for the Call of Duty series achieved quick popularity in PC circles, so like the DLC of today, an expansion pack was no surprise. Gray Matter Interactive (now folded into Treyarch) was brought in to develop this expansion. If you’re looking for three more stories from the three major Allies, United Offensive certainly has a variety of sights to see, and some excellent additions in the multiplayer realm.

Once again, you take control of three different protagonists, tackling their respective campaigns in order. You’ll start as a member of the 101st paratroopers holding out in the Battle of the Bulge. Next, you’re an RAF turret gunner on board a B-17 Flying Fortress. After being shot down over Holland, you’re picked up by the Dutch resistance and eventually brought into the SAS. Finally, you play a Soviet conscript fighting battles near Kursk, including Ponyri and Karkov. It hits some major historical highlights the first game missed, while also giving you some new visuals to see – from the wintry lands of Belgum, to some lovely Russian countryside.

There are only four levels per character, which seems short until you see that each level is absolutely huge and entirely seamless. The start of the American campaign has you on patrol in the woods of the Ardennes when you come under attack. You rush back to your jeep, and have about a 3-5 minute ride through hostile countryside to your HQ. You’ll hop out of the vehicle and get sent immediately to the foxholes at the front lines. Now you’ve got to push back the advancing troops you encountered – along with a large contingent of German Panzers – until you’re rescued by armor of your own. There’s not a single loading screen for this entire run. This isn’t a one-off either, it’s how most of the missions in the pack are – from pushing up to and then capturing entire towns, to a similar trip at the start of the Russian campaign. It was unexpected, and very impressive. You pay for it in steeper system requirements than the original, but that should be a fart in the wind for today’s computers.

One possible downside is that many of the pack’s best missions tread very familiar ground. An American assault on the town of Foy is lifted from HBO’s Band of Brothers (using haystacks for cover and all), and the SAS mission to knock out coastal guns in Sicily is mostly The Guns of Navarrone verbatim. It’s also got a cheesy war movie vibe far more than the original did. Expect lots of “Sarge! Dey got Joey!” cries, and rallying speeches like “We just took this camp! There’s no way we’re gonna let them take it back!” The philosophical pontifications on the nature of war and humanity are still there to greet you upon your death as well, and seem just as out-of-place.

War is hell. Seriously, none of this is even slightly neat. You shouldn’t even be having fun.

One definite downside is what feels like slightly buggy implementation. AI friendlies readily shove you out of the way to steal your cover. There are far more instances of friendlies standing around and waiting to be triggered than there were in the original. It could be explained by a second team coming in and using the first team’s tools, but it’s certainly noticeable. There’s also many more open fields without cover, instant-kill explosions (mortars?  tanks?  hard to say), and general areas where it seems impossible to avoid taking damage. I can’t imagine playing this one on Veteran; without the benefit of health pickups.

There’s also some bits of dummy design. My favorite example is when a wounded soldier falls at the base of the hill you’re on. Without so much as a word of warning – just a quick “COVER ME!” as he’s halfway down – your Sergeant hops toward the entrenched Germans and rushes out to save your fallen compatriot. The Germans absolutely will shoot him on his way down, and as he slowly trudges back with the wounded guy on his shoulders, and it’s all your fault if he gets killed. Yes, if Sarge dies, you’re forced to restart the checkpoint. Other highlights include being told to plant explosives on some tanks, but not that you already have said explosives in your invisible inventory (cue minutes of searching around), and being told to shoot a sniper while your comrades take out the rest – you guessed it, that won’t happen and you’ll need to shoot everyone.

Other than the new missions, the major additions are some new weapons, and a sprint feature on the Alt key. You can’t fire while sprinting, but you will move at about twice the speed. This makes it useful for popping from cover to cover. That’s about all it’s good for, as your character will get winded after four steps – literally, I counted, four steps. This might get you from one side of the street to the other, but overall, it’s incredibly unreliable. I barely used it, and having my guy stop in the middle of a field of MG-42 fire to catch his breath was enough to seal that decision.

The SVT-40 sure beats charging into Stalingrad with only an ammo clip.

The new guns are some late-war weapons that aren’t radically different from the first game’s kit, but which do fill useful roles. The Tokarev SVT-40 (and its German counterpart, the Gewehr 43), both give semi-automatic rifle capabilities to more than just the American campaign. It makes sticking with bolt-action rifles more a preference than a necessity. Bolt actions still do more damage, so they might be the better choice for mouse marksmen. Bazookas appear, giving a reloadable anti-tank weapon. Now you won’t be forced to run back to the box of respawning Panzerfausts each time a tank shows. Finally, the very deadly German MP-44 assault rifle is more common here, thus giving you enough ammo to actually use it, almost making it a new weapon itself.

Also included are portable machine guns and a flamethrower. The flamethrower barely gets used in the campaign (appearing only late in the Russian missions, and with hardly any ammo to boot), but it does what it says on the tin. The machine guns introduce the MG-34 and the American 50-cal as weapons you can pick up and haul around. You can’t fire them from the hip, and must go prone or stand next to a flat surface (windowsill, usually), hit the right mouse button to deploy the bipod, and then rock and roll. Hindrances are ungodly reload times, and the simple fact that anywhere a machine gun would be really useful is already taken up by an emplaced, infinite-ammo turret version. Both are neat additions, but aren’t very practical in the campaign. Multiplayer might be a different story.

However, one universally-brilliant tweak is the ability to cook off grenades. Call of Duty’s enemies are sharp enough to flee from grenades, or pick them up and hork them right back if they have the time. In United Offensive, you can click the right mouse button (while holding left to charge the throw) to start the fuse. Count to three, lob the grenade, and you have a room full of enemies that can’t do anything about the explosive justice coming their way. Count to five, however, and reload your save.

Graphics are excellent, both in technical execution and in artistry. Amazing work is done with lighting and backgrounds, from the lovely sunset in Sicily to the dark ashen skies of Karkov. The skies of the B-17 section are as beautiful as they are deadly, and being able to move around the interior of the plane (as pieces get torn out by flak and fighters) is especially neat. It’s not all battlefield vistas though; the detail work on the new weapons is similarly top class. You’ll see bullets still visible in the magazine of the SVT-40 if you reload early, and an empty mag otherwise. Serial numbers and similar markings are clear and readable. Similarly excellent texture work makes up the surrounding environments. Snowy Belgium and its dense forests are a particular highlight here.

Zone Capture with tanks is right out of Battlefield.

Call of Duty’s rather generic multiplayer gets a huge update in United Offensive; worth covering more for the historical aspects than any expectations that you’re going to play it. Vehicles are introduced, along with large maps to support them. Tank battles are now possible, as well as having an additional crew manning different weapons (surely in response to Battlefield 1942’s gameplay). Capture the Flag, Zone Capture, and Base Assault are added, the latter requiring an attacking team to use artillery and tanks to level a defending team’s positions. Smoke grenades are added to give extra support capabilities to teams in these modes.

Finally, a “battlefield promotion” system is included. It only lasts per-game, but each player ranks up through 5 levels by earning enough points through kills, flag captures, or zone defense. Ranked players carry more equipment and grenades, as well as unlock special equipment – binoculars, satchel charges, and finally, artillery strikes at the highest rank. If you’ve recognized the humble beginnings of modern Call of Duty’s killstreak rewards – congratulations! You can now impress your friends with some useless trivia!

I think it’s fair to say United Offensive’s greatest contributions were in multiplayer, and that’s just not going to be as important today. Regardless, it’s still got a great single-player campaign that hits some highlights the original didn’t, and despite some hiccups, is still fun to play. Worth a playthrough on the cheap.

 

The Good

Gorgeous new areas with huge maps. Plenty of variety in the campaign. Some useful new weapons. Follows three different soldiers, just as the first.

The Bad

Excellent additions to multiplayer that just don’t matter today. Some AI and scripting delays. New machine guns are technically neat, but not terribly useful. Short-ish, but the huge individual maps make up for it.

 

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