Review – Call of Duty: World at War

As expected, Activision has pimped the hell out of 2008’s yearly Call of Duty release, World at War. The savvier gamers out there have not been fooled, and have spent their energies trashing it before it even got a chance to prove itself. They know that WaW was developed not by series creator Infinity Ward, but by Treyarch, whose two game Call of Duty pedigree has been viewed as less than stellar.

I assert that this judgment was unfair. Big Red One was developed for last gen platforms, and managed to be very clever given its hardware limitations. As for CoD3, the snarky blog commenters betrayed their true lack of intelligence. It should have been obvious to anyone that the game was a stopgap, a way for Activision to “exploit” a favorite moneymaker with a yearly release. World at War has twice the budget and development time that CoD3 did. If you truly want to judge Treyarch’s ability compared to IW, this is the time to do it.

And the result? World at War is is Treyarch’s best effort yet, but it doesn’t top its predecessor. Infinity Ward made Modern Combat after studying every chapter in the Valve Software book of shooter design, and the result was a startlingly clever campaign mode. World at War lacks the same clever tricks (or mimics them to lesser effect), and it focuses too much on the themes of “war is hell” and “armies of boys were turned into heroes” that Hollywood has milked to death throughout the years. This is a shame, because there are a few instances where the game brings out the darker, grittier depiction of the war that Treyarch once promised in the earliest of previews.

World at War’s main point of attraction is that it is the first Call of Duty game to depict the Pacific Theatre. After years of seemingly endless WW2 games, this is still important, since no one before had really done the Pacific well (Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault might have, but there is no record of anyone being able to get the game to run stably). World at War nails all the items that would be on a bullet list of “stuff that happened against the Japanese,” none of which is particularly striking. You’ve got snipers in the trees, banzai attackers in the grass, soldiers hiding under trapdoors, and American troops torching them all with a flamethrower.

The opening scene, the one that a joystiq editor was too afraid to talk about, involves a cigarette in the eye and a slit throat. If you have read about some of the atrocities actually committed by the Japanese during the war, or of some of the horrors US Marines saw at the time, or spent just half an hour googling images, you would find all of these scenes to be little more than gimmicks.

Initial previews of World at War promised a game that bordered on survival horror, as the player tried to survive against the wily and brutal Japanese. Instead, the Pacific campaign is a fairly standard Call of Duty experience with palm trees instead of the French countryside (even the new Japanese weapons feel like re-skins of other Allied and Axis guns). In terms of scares and gore, you will find better results in films like The Great Raid and The Thin Red Line, and the attempts to make the player connect with their Marine squad are lazy.

World at War makes me question the whole point of these games. On one hand, I do not think I would like to see a game that depicted a more realistic version of World War 2. Seeing six Marines being beheaded by samurai sword, or watching a Marine spend his night flinging coral pebbles into the open, water filled skull of a dead Japanese might be too much, especially when there are still living survivors of such experiences. At the same time, I am disappointed in the Pasty White Nerd edition of “The Horrors of War”, which is ineffective compared to real stories and images. At the very least, Treyarch could have inched closer to a one-to-one mimicking of Hollywood.

Or perhaps not, as is demonstrated when they actually accomplish this during the Russian campaign. Past Call of Duty games spent a lot of effort picking every last scrap of idea from the corpses of works such as Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and Enemy at the Gates. The latter was used extensively as a basis for the Russian missions in the first game, but they missed one very important scene – until now.

Seeing such blatant copy-paste in 2008 almost made give up on the game right then and there, but it does get improve. The Russian campaign does a good job at depicting the horrors of war, by actually making things easier. The whole point of these missions is to show the march of the Red Army into Germany, and as such they consist of an overwhelming Russian force kicking the shit out of the Wehrmacht. There are times where I wasn’t even able to attack anyone because my AI squad mates already finished the job. The Russians are absolutely brutal, using Molotov Cocktails with abandon and gunning down every soldier they see.

Call of Duty has prided itself in the past on making the player feel overwhelmed by an entrenched enemy with superior numbers, which makes it feel all the stranger to see the tables turned. This feeling is welcome, since on a whole this is the third time the franchise have sent us to Stalingrad, and the second time it has asked us to assault Berlin and raise the flag atop a capital building.

The biggest question surrounding World at War’s single player is whether it is better than Call of Duty 2 (It is by all means better than 3). Infinity Ward sadly has a growing legion of fans who follow the same unfortunate trend as some Harmonix zombies, claiming that everything IW touches is gold. In actuality, Call of Duty 2 was a weak game filled with useless friendly AI, few memorable levels, and blatantly intrusive scripting. Infinity Ward can spin a good shooter as well as anyone, but CoD2 was not their finest work.

World at War has some of these problems, but to a lesser extent. Friendly troops will do more than duck in place to dodge grenades, and in most of the missions they are effective at killing some of the enemy. In the later missions this does not hold true, as your comrades stay back shooting wildly at infinitely regenerating Germans until you take the enemy out and rush their spawn point. It is a classic Call of Duty tactic, but it has never felt so blatant as it does in WaW’s conclusion.

Enemies also have an obvious targeting bias to you, to the point where Japanese soldiers would run into the middle of my squad just to squeeze off a shot at me. Dealing with one troop that becomes morbidly obsessed with your death is balanced by the fact that everyone else does not want to kill you so badly. In CoD2 and 3, there were times where it felt every gun was pointed in your direction (likely because they were), but in World at War the enemy often focuses their fire on AI troops, giving you the opportunity to poke your head out and line up some shots.

World at War’s multiplayer uses the exact same level-up approach as Modern Combat, while also adding COD 3’s Conquest mode and the somewhat clever Nazi Zombie mode. If you are still playing Modern Combat, like I am, these additions are no reason to jump ship. Yet if your are looking to jump into the series for the first time, then Modern Combat is still the better choice thanks to its better single player. World at War is only worth it if you find yourself absolutely clamoring for Modern Combat style multiplayer with MP-40’s and bolt action rifles.

Treyarch shows they are capable of using Infinity Ward’s tools to make an experience just good enough to sell copies, but they lack the execution that make IW’s best efforts feel fresh. There is still hope for them yet: for one, Treyarch had multiple games releasing this holiday season, so I am curious to see what they could do with a full staff working on Call of Duty. There are also many stories that have yet to be told, such as Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, and the Battle of Kursk (which would make a fine tank mission or two).

Yet I am not really sure if I’ll be willing to stick around much longer. Despite the mostly high scores granted to the Call of Duty franchise, it has ballooned and festered almost as much as Medal of Honor has. I keep coming back because of my love for World War 2 history, but when your fond memories from a series come from two games, only one of which was WW2 themed, perhaps it is time to reconsider your fandom. Yes folks, the most significant thing I can say about World at War is that it just may be my breaking point for this sub-genre.

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