Times were simpler in 2003. No kill streaks, experience points or Call of Duty Elite. It was just the rolling hills of virtual France, some gruff soldiers and a LAN connection. Activision could only dream of what its new First Person Shooter franchise would become.
At the time Infinity Ward was an unknown name - all it was famous for was for being a collection of petulant developers who dared to break away from leading series, Medal of Honor. No-one really knew if Call of Duty would survive, but judging by the bombastic opening of earlier rival Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, it was likely it would.
Yes, that opening. Amid the carnage of Omaha beach, what could Call of Duty possibly do to upstage its pseudo parent? Sure, it threw players into the hell of Stalingrad with a carbon copy set piece from recent 2001 film, Enemy at the Gates, but with every standout single player set piece it showed off, Allied Assault answered back, even a year after it was originally released.
The real star of the show was Call of Duty's multiplayer. At the time it wasn't clear just how important it would become. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the original Call of Duty can genuinely be labelled as groundbreaking.
Band of Brothers
It's not as though Call of Duty was the first FPS to exist or even the first to do multiplayer well, but it came along at the right time. A new type of connection was lurking in the shadows, threatening to consign modem dial tones to history.
It was called broadband and with it came the promise of lag-less gaming against real people anywhere in the world. The delay that accompanied early Internet connections had kept people huddled in social LAN cafes, at home playing against friends or offline completely.
All of sudden you were able to take the fight to people globally. However, this wasn't enough; Call of Duty needed something more, a secret weapon if you will. Tucked beneath its WWII trench coat was just that; an addictive, perfectly designed arena for dealing virtual death over and over again.
Internet Killed the LAN Star
Carentan. The sleepy town near the D-Day landings was a key thoroughfare and designated imperative to the advancement of the invasion. The virtual fight for it would turn out to be just as bitter as the historical equivalent.
Just why was it so good then? Thoughtful design, that's the answer. In Carentan you're never far from someone, neither is there a perfect place to camp. For every nook, cranny and cubbyhole to hide in, there's a counter position designed to flush you out.
On Deathmatch, Carentan was good, but it was on Team Deathmatch it chose to really come alive. The western house became the chokepoint of 2003 gaming.
The repetitive patter of the deployed machine gun watched one side, the other approach protected by sniper-friendly windows - for defenders is was a paradise. The only easy way in was a ground floor assault along the hill ridge which kept you out of range from the heavy calibre weapon.
Tactical French Assault
It became a tactical game, a jostling of power as one side would regain the house only to see it yanked from their grasp moments later. On a high population server, things became even more enjoyable.
The hill positions were countered by the cafe. The backyard in turn flanked the cafe. The backyard was subject to eastern flanking, which could be protected from the underused house; in turn taken out by grenades from beneath.
It was a map that naturally flowed between teams; the score to-ing and fro-ing throughout the match. It was never the same game twice and it was always close.
Impressively it wasn't just Carentan that threatened to steal the WWII shooter crown from Medal of Honor. Call of Duty had an incredible roster of supporting maps.
The Other Guys
Brecourt was another gem – a collection of undulating hills littered with trenches – while Harbor gave Carentan a serious run for its Team Deathmatch money. If it was sniper action you were after you had no choice but to wage war in Pavlov.
This is where the men were separated from the boys. If you turned up with a standard SMG or heavy machine gun you were gunned down instantly. Pavlov was all about the long range battles, a deadly ballet of shifting snipers keen to rotate their vantage points.
Depot, Chateu, Dawnville, Stalingrad, etc., the list goes on. It’s incredible really. Very few games since have included such a collection of excellent level design. There’s always one or two preferred maps in the latest Call of Duty, but you could genuinely pick any from the original and be guaranteed it’d be balanced, feverous fighting throughout your time on the server.
The only other series of the time mimicking this genius of multiplayer level design was Valve with Counter-Strike: Source, which is cheating because it was a reskin of the original 1.6.
When we look back, it’s not surprising to see what Call of Duty would eventually become. It’s also heartening to see that, at least up until the original Modern Warfare, the series continued its innovation in multiplayer gaming. Perks and reward streaks are two great examples.
The series may be waning in quality, but it doesn’t look to be losing any fans. Some would argue it’s become formulaic, almost akin to a sports franchise which adds some new players and updates the statistics.
This doesn’t matter because the past is the past. Nothing can change what the original game in the mega-series did for gaming. Neither can it eradicate the days of fun it provided to a generation, whether in person down the local LAN centre or across the internet, shouting and heckling on Teamspeak. We salute you Call of Duty.
We salute you Call of Duty.
Turning Back Time: Call of Duty Retrospective
16 November 2012 | By Marco Fiori