The Call of Duty series has hit a bit of a slump lately. After the Big Red One meh-ness, Call of Duty 3 failed to pull the series up by its bootstraps as Infinity Ward’s absence left gamers with a decidedly inferior sequel. The series’ first foray onto the PlayStation Portable could have made for a good story – the scrappy portable upstart pulling through a wowing everyone – and it very well might have, had the system been up to the task.
Call of Duty: Roads to Victory is much like its stationary brethren: you guide a different soldier through three campaigns - no longer switching between them throughout as in 3 - as an American, Canadian, and British trooper. There are also the stationary gunner levels that were from 3, which have you blasting at incoming enemy fighters from a flying fortress. In many ways, Roads to Victory is a throwback to the older titles in the series.
Amidst the reels of archival footage is a game that, taken as a whole, is a surprisingly strong experience. In parts, the map screens with no voice-overs or text seem strange next to the loading screen with faux handwritten notes by the soldier you’ve possessed, and the graphics, often glitchy (clipping, soldiers getting stuck and jerking back and forth, etc.), keep from the comparisons to the cinematic style of its predecessors from being too frequent. It is when you are in the thick of it that it really draws you in: explosions are ripping through the sky, bullets are whizzing by, German soldiers are kicking over tables and taking cover, and your squad mates are dashing left and right providing covering fire. The audio does a great job in picking up the slack, and the game manages to pull through and really scale the over-the-top experience down into a handheld form. Of course, there is a good bit of loading to go along with the graphical hiccups, but it can be impressive nonetheless.
The game ends up falling flat on its face though, thanks to poor controls and braindead A.I. With only one analogue stick, the face buttons are required so that the player has the greatest freedom in both movement and aiming. Unfortunately, out of all of the pre-set design schemes, the one that has proven to be successful for first-person shooters on consoles that have controllers with one analogue stick – think Quake 3: Arena on the Dreamcast or GoldenEye on the Nintendo 64 – is strangely absent. Instead of controlling movement with the face buttons and aiming with the analogue stick, the only similar scheme has movement with the analogue stick and aiming with the face buttons, a design that is inelegant and, unfortunately, the best one available; the other control schemes don’t even allow for direct aiming! On top of that, the speed options do little to alleviate the problem of your soldier being trapped in a suit of molasses. To compensate for the obvious lack of precession and sluggishness the A.I. has been dumbed down to Rock Status and an eager targeting system was implemented.
When I say that the A.I. is dumb and that it’s obviously dumb, think about how aggressive and intelligent the enemy is in Call of Duty 2, on any setting, and try to imagine those same enemies being literally two feet from you and either simply not firing or firing so wildly that they miss. This behavior is in stark contrast to their scripted defense movements: soldiers quickly flip over a table just to hide behind it and wait for you to deal with their comrades first, just ‘cause; although, the enemy does have a leg up with the ability to shoot through solid objects, which is a good example of an annoying-positive for balancing. Their blasé feelings about war and death doesn’t mean that the game is any less frustrating though, thanks their ability to shoot from the hip with long-range accuracy far surpassing yours (your bullets won’t even reach), a lack of manual saves and scattered checkpoints, and segments where the developers seem to have taken an almost perverse pleasure in having you pace and compensate for their fussy targeting system.
The targeting system, for all its problems, is still absolutely necessary. Turning the targeting system off causes the game to be unplayable; well, it’s playable, it is just not enjoyable at all, on any level. To use it, you will have to make up for its shortcomings, which often include fighting it so that you aim at the actual danger and not the closest thing moving. The result is something akin to a shooting gallery, where you aim in the general vicinity, hit a button to line up your target (the targeting system then automatically goes to the target once you do this), fire, and repeat. Or, if it’s a more close quarters situation, just run into a room and fire wildly, the second an enemy dies a slight tap will have the auto aim focus on a new target for you to dispatch, regardless of whether or not your gun is even pointed at them.
Once you blow through the three campaigns of – 14 missions overall - and you will blow through them since they take anywhere from 10-20 minutes to complete, you are treated to unlockable goodies like wallpaper, pictures and info on weapons, and rewards (gold, silver, or a bronze star) determined by performance. The game ends once it gets started, and neither it nor the unlockables are strong enough to warrant a replay. I also had a problem on a few occasions where checkpoint saves didn’t really save but instead brought me back to the system menu on start-up, forcing me to restart levels from the beginning. Forcing me to replay something I wasn’t having all that great of a time to begin with wasn’t cool. At all.
There is always multiplayer - up to six players on an ad hoc network with the normal modes, deathmatch, king of the hill, etc. – but with the game what it is, I wouldn’t expect many friends to be clamoring to extend their time with it.
Overall: 4.5/10Call of Duty: Roads to Victory has several severe problems, there is no denying that. For PSP owners though, despite it being a first-person shooter set in World War II, it is in a very small market and offers an experience that does stand out on the system. Granted, the experience doesn’t always stand out for the best reasons, but once you learn to work with the finicky targeting system and accept the weird technical and design flaws, it does manage to provide some solid sessions and atmosphere that manages to elevate the whole. It's definitely not worth its initial asking price though.