Activision is being a bit sneaky here.
Despite what the name might suggest, this is not the direct sequel to the gritty war story Call of Duty. The "true" CoD2 has too many next-gen bells and whistles for Xbox or PS2 to handle, so instead they've gotten "jack of all trades" developer Treyarch whip up this kinder, gentler alternative. Big Red One has similar controls and themes to its high-tech counterpart, but under the hood it's a different beast.
As the title suggests, BRO follows the true life journey of the US Army's first infantry, nicknamed "Big Red One," as they enter the bombarded trenches of World War II. This is sprinkled with real war footage and top-notch voice talent, drawn mainly from the actors in HBO's "Band of Brothers" series. It helps that the characters are impressively detailed, holding up to the locked first person view of an unnamed private that most cut-scenes are seen through, though with only minor individual traits its hard to tell your new buddies apart when they aren't yakking.
In gameplay, Big Red One is actually closer to light gun games, such as Virtua Cop, than it is more traditional first-person shooters. While there are expansive environments with running, shouting soldiers to be seen through the pall of smoke and crumbling buildings, in single player you are always limited by invisible walls and other barriers to a relatively narrow pathway, broken up with things like locked doors and other obstructions that are only cleared when you accomplish whatever small objective is required, allowing you to move onto the next and the next until that mission comes to a close.
Objectives can be anything from surviving a barrage of enemy soldiers, to placing explosives on a tank (without getting blow up in the process), to nailing enemy fighter planes with an anti-aircraft gun. As fun as the weapons are, especially using the authentic-looking sights, there are a number of flaws. Auto-aim, which can't be shut off, helps with your aiming a little too much and reduces the feeling of skill when all you need to do if fire in the general directions of the target. Though not much skill is needed against the barely conscious AI, which simply follows scripted routines that can sometimes leave a dozen corpses on the exact same spot as soldiers blithely walk into the path of your bullets. And in many places they'll keep walking infinitely until you move on to the next area, leaving the player feeling his kills don't really matter anyway. Then there's your allies, whose poor marksmanship combined with infinite health (unless scripted to die) leaves them getting in your way more than they come to your aid.
Yet somehow it's still fun. Rushing into an area, popping a few enemy soldiers just as they rear up their ugly heads, and rushing onto the next where you might be driving a tank or firing bazooka rounds at one makes it the videogame equivalent of a summer action movie. You don't walk into it expecting to be challenged, and you won't give a second thought after you step out of the theater, but it was wall to wall explosions and engaging gun fights in between. Though like an action move, don't expect the bangs to last for very long. Even raw recruits can clear the single player campaign in about five hours.
Multiplayer provides a greater feeling of freedom. Sadly there's no support for bots, and oddly no support for split-screen, but Xbox live and even system link are ready to rock in deathmatch and team-based firefights that tend to be more visceral than they are a true test of skill. That's a good thing in my book because not everyone is willing to spend eight hours a day on an online game just to keep their edge in the rankings. The multiplayer isn't startlingly original, but the collection of maps, game types, promotions (that allow you to call in air strikes or make health packs), will keep a group of friends interested as the single player campaign at the very least.
If it had weighed in at half the price, Call of Duty 2: Big Red One would have been a lot easier to recommend, and far easier to forgive its short-comings. What's here is fun, but it just doesn't last long enough to justify full price, especially not $10 extra for the hand full of movies that make up the Special Edition, interesting as they are. As it is, it makes a decent hold over until CoD fans can get their hands on a Xbox360 (or a gaming PC) for the true sequel. Just don't expect a big bang out of Big Red One.