Call Of Duty: World At War
Whether or not Call Of Duty: World At War has overstepped the mark in its level of violence is all a matter of perspective. For years, games based around World War II have largely eschewed the realistic grotesquery of real war in favour of a sterile reproduction. Shooting a Nazi has always been greeted with little more than some floppy ragdoll physics, some German swearing and a polite sanguine eruption. Scenes in which you were captured were depicted as light-hearted affairs in which gruff German-accented SS commanders strolled around in front of you, camply monologuing on the virtues of giving up information. And lines of soldiers would be so well-behaved as to pop up and down out of cover indefinitely until you get round to shooting them in the face.
Right from the outset, World At War wants you to know that it is an entirely different breed of World War II experience. The opening scene depicts your interrogation by a group of Japanese soldiers. You’ll be made to watch as your friend’s throat is brutally cut, dashing claret into every corner of the tent. You’ll gaze, equally shocked as said interrogator’s innards go the same way as your buddy’s jugular a split second before you’re about to receive the same treatment. World At War does a fine job of forcing you to feel exactly how you should about such situations. You don’t want to watch. You want to be untied from the chair. You want to get out.
And cannily enough, this is precisely how you’d feel if you were really there. War movies provide a great allegory, because over many years we’ve witnessed a similar evolution. As the decades rolled by, the gung-ho adventures of The Dirty Dozen gave way the likes of Apocalypse Now and, more recently, Saving Private Ryan. These films had a message: war is filthy, random, brutal death. The Nazis aren’t comical, leather-clad nancy-boys. Your enemy is not faceless. To kill is to feel.
It’s not a direction we can see all war games taking, or indeed succeeding in as well as World At War has. But through the simple act of carefully researching the tactical aspects of the game, the brutality of its players and what happens to the average leg when hit at close range by a shot from a Browning automatic rifle, it forces you to feel differently about your normally casual slaughter.
Treyarch has actually been pretty dumb to be this clever. Other games, such as the recent Brothers In Arms: Hell’s Highway, spend their not-inconsiderable budgets on far too many ‘when we get home, I’d like to buy you a beer’ cut-scenes. The hope being that somewhere along the line you’ll actually begin to care about them, at which point, they’ll be detonated, along with the obligatory ‘Nooooooooo!’.
Instead, Treyarch has simply attempted to reproduce war as best it can, carefully including all of the elements it could garner from the history books, as well as personal accounts. The upshot is that by mashing together each individual detail from their checklist, the developer has entirely succeeded in creating human drama without needing to force it upon you. You’ll care about what happens to your buddies – you’ll care that they live – but you won’t at any point be forced to watch as one or all of them exchange extraneous information about their wives and kids in a way that says ‘just paint a target on my f***ing head and get on with it’.
Videogames, as a rule, can’t be held responsible for the way in which people enjoy them. There is nothing irresponsible about the violence of World At War, but we’d stop short of calling it ‘fun’. The word implies, in its most obvious connotation, a magic rainbow-land with pink elephants and talking gophers. More than anything, it’s a sign that videogames are coming of age. Rather than, as some may take it, another in a line of violent experiences that just goes to show (we’re bashing a copy of the Daily Mail rhythmically on the table as we say this) that videogames are going too far, and is this really the sort of thing we should be allowing our children to play?
The feeling among non-gamers is that we can’t tell the difference between our actions on-screen and real murder. That, because we’re taking pleasure from playing the game, that may carry over into real life, because our feeble minds are incapable of telling the difference. This is, of course, nonsense; just because we enjoyed Schindler’s List, it doesn’t mean we would describe it as ‘fun’, just as we wouldn’t use the term to describe World At War. The game provides a different kind of enjoyment – one with both historical and experiential resonance.
Infinity Ward’s predecessor, the uber-successful Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, as with previous outings from the developer, held the player’s interest using the simple mechanism of variety. One running and gunning level never followed another, and two tank levels were never back-to-back. Each section saw you doing something completely different. As well as adopting COD 4’s brilliant engine, Treyarch, after their last attempt, the incompetent COD 3, appears to have learned this lesson. You’ll take control of both an American and a Russian soldier alternately; the former attempting to take a small pacific island from the Japanese, the latter on a vengeance march to Berlin.
Japanese fighters used some very clever tactics to stave off occupation by superior numbers. Ambushes involving playing dead, booby-trapping friendly corpses and using camouflaged fox-holes and trees as points of attack were all in the Japanese guerilla repertoire. It’s easy to feel like it’s you and your men who are the victims when you find yourself at the sharp end of these tactics. Later on, though, the tack changes as, armed with a flamethrower, you’ll have the unenviable task of burning hundreds of enemies alive. The inclusion of stock footage between missions of this actually happening brings horror to the point of guilt, as each tap of the trigger is greeted by another screaming polygonal effigy.
In 1945, after the Russians had sustained losses of nearly 1.3 million troops in Hitler’s push to take Moscow, the Germans found themselves too thinly spread and unable to maintain their front. The Russians, gathering what was left of their armies, drove the Germans all the way back to Berlin. With such great losses to Russian soldiers and civilians alike, their vengeance was brutal. Real-life accounts of their treatment of the enemy once they had them on the back foot and hoofing it back to Germany make shocking reading. Again, World At War grants you every opportunity to play a part, first in giving you a taste of what your enemy is capable of and then by allowing you to unleash your vengeful stampede.
But this is, after all, just a videogame, and as such, we feel that a little more recognition needs to have been given to its very nature. Because, even despite us falling short of describing World At War as ‘fun’, it still needs to remain entertaining. And occasionally, the game favours realism over satisfaction. Grenades, for example. Maybe in real-life warfare, they do pour down on you like rain. In all honesty, having never fought in any real wars, we couldn’t really tell you, but that’s exactly how it often seems in World At War.
Many sections of the game are rendered completely free of any required skill in favour of chancing it through the hail of grenades and bullets, because taking cover will get you blown up. And unlike COD 4, where the grenade indicator gave you a reasonable amount of time to react, whether that be to leg it or lob it back, something has gone badly wrong in World At War.
Locating the grenade is almost impossible – as is getting out of range at full sprint when you see the grenade land. Worst of all, you’ll often get shredded by one without so much as a blip from the warning indicator, and getting snagged on scenery or NPCs in your attempt to get clear is frighteningly common.
The game also suffers from that old COD stalwart: infinite enemies. Finite numbers are for wusses, so you’ll have to get used to shooting enemies not to win a battle, but to make possible your run to the next piece of cover. Moving forward is the only way to make progress. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just pulled off 600 consecutive headshots, they’ll keep coming until you stand on an invisible marker a couple of metres into no-man’s-land. It occasionally makes sense when you’re on the frontline and your enemies are pouring over a nearby hill, but not when they’re ceaselessly spawning out of a concret bunker that bears very little resemblance to an old police phonebox.
We never thought we’d hear ourselves say this, but the game is simply too hard in places. Where other COD games make up for the enemy’s superior numbers with superior cackhandedness when it comes to their aim, the AI of World At War are all, bar none, a crack shot. Often this means that if you stick your head up for even half a second, you’ll have it shot off. In a game with no cover system per se, it's simply unbearable. And that’s providing you even have half a second before the half-dozen grenades go off at your feet. World At War is accomplished and flawed in equal measure. A good game. A brave game. But one that could do with some fi ne-tuning in the actual gameplay department.