Midway between releases, if you’re playing a Call of Duty game at the moment you’re probably playing online multiplayer.
But there are reasons to return to the campaigns, which can yield deeper and more rewarding moments than for which the series, renowned for its high-octane thrills, is usually given credit. The trick to squeezing more life from CoD? Embrace Veteran difficulty, if you haven’t already.
It’s easy to see why casual gamers, eager for a good return on their time investment, may be deterred from maximum difficulty: a run-through on Recruit or Regular may encourage liberal emittance of bullets and grenades, an aloofness to taking damage, and a laissez-faire attitude to cover: three things that will get you killed quickly and often on Veteran. The difficulty setting’s descriptor “you will not survive” is apt, and the prospect of a whole level (let alone campaign) on Veteran might initially feel like purgatory. But adopt a more cautious, tactical approach and the Veteran campaigns will capitulate, and reward you handsomely.
Battlegrounds must be surveyed and analysed. Enemies must be picked off systematically and efficiently. Cover is always first priority. Strafing while prone to find an oblique angle for a sneaky headshot will become habit. Set piece action sequences such as destroying enemy vehicles when available options are depleted, almost become emergent puzzles. Winning feels good.
There’s evidence that the developers have designed in gameplay nuances for Veteran gamers. As far back as the visibly aged Call of Duty 2, The Assault on Matmata begins with a brutal ambush, seemingly unsurvivable on Veteran difficulty. After two or three instant failures you are forced to assess the situation and your assets until a solution becomes apparent. It’s no Braid, granted, but it’s nice when a first-person shooter asks you to stop and think. The ambush is followed moments later by one of the most taxing — but rewarding — shoot-outs in the CoD canon: a level I haven’t played on Veteran in five years or more, but still recall fondly for having persisted with and overcome. No, I don’t get out much.
It isn’t necessary to look quite so far back. Nor is it necessary to take on a whole campaign. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare by the series’ then alpha-developer Infinity Ward, and still the high water mark of the franchise, boasts a number of stand-outs, particularly in the middle act. Chernobyl-flashback and fan favourite All Ghillied Up deservers a mention, but the continuation mission, One Shot, One Kill, poses the serious challenge. What began as a stealth mission ends with wave upon wave of enemy onslaught that you must fend off as you await helicopter extraction. At Veteran, this level demands that multiple approaches are tried, modified and abandoned. Spawn points will be surveyed, traps placed and fingers crossed. Frustrating? Very, but failure is almost always the result of a flawed plan or a rash moment of misplaced bravery. It’s the sense that it’s your fault and not the game’s that encourages persistence. And every failure makes the eventual success the sweeter. Which is just as well as the next level, Heat, is nearly as tricky.
Occasionally, Veteran-level campaign play is frustrating for the wrong reasons. World at War, an otherwise sterling effort from CoD B-Team Treyarch, is occasionally hampered by seemingly random moments of insurmountability. Penultimate mission, Heart of the Reich, set during the Battle of Berlin, asks you to approach and destroy four Flak 88 anti-air guns: a task which a relentless hailstorm of overpowered enemy hand grenades makes all but impossible. Ducking safely behind cover only for three grenade warning indicators to appear, hemming you in and making escape impossible, is even less fun than it sounds. It happens repeatedly. Only sheer bloody-mindedness saw me through, and the experience is not recommended. Mercifully, these moments are few and far between.
Clearly, you’d have to be a special glutton for punishment to wade through the campaigns in protracted sessions, but the relatively brief missions and fact that the levels can be saved at any point means the game is ideal for bite-sized chunks, perfect for a sort of gaming side-project.
But if replaying the campaigns doesn’t appeal (or perhaps you’ve already beaten them on Veteran) smaller, juicier cuts are to be had. Modern Warfare 2’s Special Ops missions may be designed for online co-op, but solo play shouldn’t be overlooked. Delta Missions Terminal and Estate Takedown pose perfectly pitched challenges. The latter is a series high-point, in which you must eliminate 40 enemies from a picturesque country retreat, including camouflaged snipers and the fearsome, damage-absorbing juggernauts with their adrenalin-firing mood music. Again, success demands formulation of a detailed strategy, though enemy AI ensures moments of improvisation are essential. I defy you not to fist-pump upon completion, until you realise what you’re doing and feel suitably ashamed, that is.
But it’s Call of Duty 4 that offers the pinnacle of the series’ single-player experiences. Epilogue level Mile High Club gives you just one minute (on Veteran difficulty) to storm a two-decked airliner and liberate a hostage. The minuscule timeframe available means the usual Veteran tactics are useless: a run and gun approach is essential, but it’s an approach that’s as lethal here as it is at Matmata, Chernobyl or Berlin. Well, perhaps not quite Berlin. Every shot must land, every reload and flash-bang perfectly timed. The closing moments give you fleeting seconds to make a perfect headshot. The level demands sixty seconds of gaming perfection (and a fistful of luck) that took me two hours to refine which culminated in a moment of sheer gaming bliss. This more than made up for the humiliating attempt minutes earlier which saw me miss a doorway, flash-bang myself three times in quick succession (yes, I had to rearm before the third attempt) and collapse into a mess on the floor, both in the game and in my living room. I wouldn’t have minded, except there was a witness next to me in silent, windless hysterics.
Veteran-play won’t be everyone’s cup of coffee, but it’s worth bearing in mind that, played on Veteran, CoD is transformed into a meatier experience that, though sometimes frustrating, never feels like time wasted. World at War’s ‘nade-spam aside, it’s nearly always the good kind of frustration. Except when you flash-bang yourself.