Genre: First-Person Shooter
Release Date: November 11, 2008
Call of Duty: World at War is a game that's often called Call of Duty 5.
Activision doesn't like it when you call it Call of Duty 5, although otherwise, the game isn't really an expansion or spin-off. It's a stand-alone title with extensive co-op and multiplayer support, which takes the much-praised Call of Duty 4 engine and moves the action back into World War II. This time, though, the game follows the course of the war's Pacific theater, eschewing famous battlefields or nuclear moralizing for a gritty depiction of the brutal realities of jungle combat against Japanese soldiers.
What the developers at the hands-off demo session wanted to emphasize most is that nothing from the CoD4 or prior CoD German enemy AI has been retained. Enemy AI has been redesigned from the ground up, with the goal of letting it perfectly recreate authentic Japanese battle tactics, and the game is also clearly designed to be friendly to players who prefer the Xbox 360 pad to the traditional mouse and keyboard.
The other main innovation is in terms of the environment. The Pacific theater in World War II saw battles taking place in types of terrain inconceivable in European battles, so players in World at War can now move through areas that once would've been off-limits. In addition to dense jungles, movement through water and swimming will now be a major mechanic. Characters moving through water will be slowed, but may get certain other tactical advantages. One of the weapons being reintroduced is the flamethrower, last seen in the United Offensive expansion pack, but in World at War, it is more of a tactical advantage than mere weapon. In World at War, the jungle foliage around you will be burnable. You'll be able to use your flamethrower to ignite areas that Japanese soldiers may be using for cover, flushing them out so team members can cut them down with machine guns or other fire.
The new mechanics seem to demand a very different style of play than previous CoD titles. Some parts offer the traditional fast-paced emphasis on covering more ground, but in others, you see how the omnipresent threat of a jungle ambush changes the mindset of the player. Suddenly, it seems smart to slow down and burn out every single bit of foliage, or to make sure you kill every single enemy in an area before moving on. Likewise, doors and wooden constructs can now be damaged by machine gun fire, making it possible to pass through certain types of obstacles that might have been impassible in previous offerings in the series. You can shoot through ropes, if you're accurate enough. Fire slowly blackens foliage, giving enemies time to leap out and ambush you (while possibly on fire). If you're swimming, then you get to see how bullets and grenades begin to behave oddly when tossed into watery areas.
The Japanese army's new AI also forced a lot of changes. Sometimes, they'll emerge in camouflage from foliage only a few feet away from you, with no previous signs they were there. Other times, they'll bury themselves in pits called "spider holes" or under shallow beds of dirt or sand from which they can suddenly spring up. You'll even see Japanese troops pretending to be dead, purely so they can spring up and fire at you once you've passed by. The numbers on the Japanese side are dense, and they're absolutely willing to fight to the last man and throw sheer weight of numbers at impossible tactical situations. It's the sort of game where you're going to start worrying about your side having manufactured enough ammo to have a shot at taking down all of the enemies arrayed against you.
If this sounds like an exceptionally cruel way to fight, even by video game standards, bear in mind that the AI for the Japanese soldiers you're facing would be just as ruthless. In the demo session, you could see Japanese soldiers in melee range using their swords to decapitate soldiers. The developers described a tactic that involved Japanese snipers hiding in trees and intentionally wounding a member of your combat team, so when others came out to help them, they could all be picked off with headshots. Players will be expected to adapt to situations on the fly, and also to using the most relentlessly efficient tactics possible. Typical FPS stop-and-pop tactics aren't — or, at least, shouldn't — going to work well in this context. In fact, there will be multiple routes through each area, allowing different players to advance with different types of tactics. A ferocious player might want to charge through a beach, while a player fond of using the flamethrower may instead choose a jungle or grassy route he can control with burning.
The demo session didn't cover full details of the game's story, for obvious reasons, but it was established that the famous battle at Iwo Jima would not be covered, nor would the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead, the story begins with your main character as a POW in Japanese hands, held in a hut on a jungle island. You see Japanese captors mutilating and beheading other prisoners before American reinforcements arrive to rescue you, the player character, from sharing such a grisly fate. The scenes are unflinching depictions of the torture of American soldiers, complete with a cold-hearted Japanese soldier putting out a cigarette in the eye of a helpless victim before slitting his throat. It's ugly, grotesque, and more than a little politically incorrect as game content goes, but there is a feel of grim historical accuracy to it. Such a brutal establishing scene does make the well-worn WWII genre feel a little fresher, at least at the outset.
There has been a lot of fannish dissatisfaction with the idea of World at War being developed by Treyarch rather than CoD4's Infinity Ward, but thus far, World at War doesn't seem to be suffering for the change of developer at all. The game is crisp and beautiful on the PC, with enormously detailed backgrounds and startlingly realistic character models. Treyarch has had two years to work with the CoD4 engine and learn how to turn it toward the difficult task of representing the tactics and look of an entirely different historical era. At times, the title has a bit of a "black and white" look to it, which then makes huge bursts of flame and the deep green of the jungle a more startling contrast. The voice-acting for the various squad members is excellent, and even in the brief demo, there were some amazing combat set pieces involving mounted machine guns and burning huts full of Japanese soldiers. There also seemed to be more opportunities for melee combat, and the developers mentioned they were bringing back all of CoD4's melee options and were still playing around with some new alternatives.
Where Call of Duty titles really shine is with their implementation of online multiplayer, and World at War seems to be no exception. It's going to be the first title in the franchise to offer the long-awaited option of full four-player online co-op play. This will notably support either four separate online terminals, or up to two players per terminal in split-screen mode. The co-op and versus campaigns will be somewhat connected, allowing players to "level up" using a perk system based on CoD4's in both modes. You'll be able to hone and improve characters both by playing in cooperative and versus multiplayer modes, allowing for fun options such as taking a powerful multiplayer character and using him to take an inexperienced friend through the full game campaign in co-op. Of course, the game's difficulty level is designed to adjust itself to the skill of the various players involved, so you won't be able to lean on a highly skilled friend when it comes to beating the game or acquiring particular perks. The enemy will spawn with more aggressive AI and more potent weapons when the computer realizes a truly badass player has joined the fray. A standard array of WWII vehicles will be available in multiplayer game modes, along with the new addition of armed boats in levels with significant water areas.
There was a lot of content in Call of Duty: World at War that this brief, first-look demo didn't touch upon. There was no sign of the promised Russian campaign, where you get to lay siege to Berlin, or of any multiplayer game modes. That said, the game does seem to be very polished and complete, and it stands a good chance of pleasing finicky Call of Duty 4 fans when it finally streets this fall. It may even convince a lot of players who thought they'd never enjoy a WWII game again to get interested in the challenge of fighting the Japanese Imperial Army. For all that we've been playing World War II games for longer than the conflict actually lasted, there's plenty of history related to the fight that's never managed to make its way into any title, let alone one as high-profile as a new Call of Duty.
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