There is a sense of apprehension – the next Call of Duty isn’t being handled by Infinity Ward and is returning to World War II. Those two details don’t exactly lead to an open embrace from fans of the series and relative newcomers. Treyarch – the developer this time around – if anything, is set on making this Call of Duty more than just a placeholder in the franchise’s history. “We’re going to own the World War II market,” says Treyarch Studio Head Mark Lamia. But is there any vitality left in the World War II genre?
The key – the developers outline – is to retain the gritty narrative put in place by Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. In a sense, this won’t need to be forced. This time around, the focus isn’t squarely on the Western Front but rather the Pacific theater and Russian campaign. The brutality in those areas is more front-and-center: the Japanese (during World War II) were known for their to-the-last-man tactics and the German assault on the Soviet Union led to 23 million Soviet casualties (this figure includes both soldiers and civilians).
The more ruthless source material is apparent as soon as the development team loads up a level from the Pacific campaign. From the perspective of a captured American P.O.W., you see only two to three things in your immediate surroundings: the inside of a hut, a fellow P.O.W., and some Japanese soldiers marching in your direction. Stuck on the floor, you can only watch as a Japanese soldier lights a cigarette and extinguishes it in the other P.O.W.’s eye. However, rescue comes quickly, as a team of U.S. soldiers kills your captors and leads you out of the hut. It’s here where the game enters FPS mode proper – you’re thrown in a squad and forced to fight your way out of the Japanese camp and escape into the jungle.
Even though the level is set during nighttime, graphical details stand out right away. For one, the game (even in an unfinished state) runs at a consistent framerate (thanks, no doubt, to the Call of Duty 4 engine). Other small touches are there as well; the moonlight hits the top of waves causing a shimmer effect, and tree branch shadows stretch out over the ocean. But the star of the show is the fire effects – exemplified by the flamethrower. You can spray any part of the environment and the fire will react realistically. For example, you don’t need to light an entire field on fire, wasting all your ammo. Instead, you can just spray a small patch of grass and the fire will spread. “Fire will be used as a tactical element,” says Lamia. During our demo, the fire spread over a field and found some unsuspecting victims – a couple of Japanese soldiers completely engulfed in flames rose out of the grass and rolled around the ground in a panic.
In Call of Duty 4 the narrative changed from level-to-level. This was accomplished by keeping you in a constant first person perspective and doing away with the notion of a main character – your goal was to be a particular character for the length of a level in order to move along the story. Treyarch is borrowing a page from Infinity Ward’s book and replicating that technique in World at War. While the first demo level we were shown featured a U.S. soldier, the second level switched fronts – it put you in control of a Soviet soldier in a sniper unit. Stranded in the middle of a town square, the sniper wakes up to find most of his fellow comrades dead, being picked apart by crows. A group of German soldiers arrives and empties a couple rounds into the Soviet bodies and then moves along. The sniper is spared and proceeds over to the other lone survivor – an older sniper. The next bit played out like a scene from the 2001 film “Enemy at the Gates” – the sniper waited for airplanes to commence bombing runs and then, with the help of the convenient sound cover, took out a small squad of German soldiers.
Multiplayer is another area where you can spot parallels to Call of Duty 4. Features from that game – such as the kill cam, gun unlocks, and kill streaks – will be included, as well as a squad leader way-point system. Treyarch wants to minimize the number of spawn kills and is working on a system that they claim will make sure players don’t spawn next to a rocketeer or directly in front of a sniper’s scope. Treyarch did not list a full vehicle set for multiplayer, but tanks were mentioned. Co-op will be available in multiple configurations for the single-player campaign – there will be two-player split-screen and four-player online co-op, as well as co-op specific challenges. Playing co-op with friends should net XP, which can be carried over to online unlockables.
While the Call of Duty 4 engine has helped Treyarch hit the floor running, the biggest factor on their side is time. Their last effort – Call of Duty 3 – had an incredibly short development cycle – it was pushed out in under a year. This time around, the team has had two years, and that’s allowed for more creative latitude. The game is scheduled to ship on nearly every major platform, but our guided demo showcased just the 360 version. The release date is still up in the air and that’s okay – Treyarch seems to be taking its time to produce a polished experience. Call of Duty: World at War looks to be in very capable hands.