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Call of Duty: World at War (Xbox 360) artwork

Call of Duty: World at War (Xbox 360) review

"World at War is a mature and pragmatic representation of World War II."

During the opening scenes of Call of Duty: World at War we’re shown documentary footage of a Japanese solider shooting a man in the back. I’ve seen similar footage in countless History Channel documentaries, but somehow this feels different. Being made to watch a grainy, black-and-white clip of a wartime execution in the opening sequence of a video game is a shocking statement of Treyarch’s intent. The scene is over in an instance, but the very fact that this is the first Call of Duty to include such a blunt film clip should give you a pretty accurate indication of the tone this game strives for. Make no mistake, this is a mature portrayal of the Second World War. Not just because it dares to show this scene, but because it tries to move beyond the pure triumphalism that has characterised previous Call of Duty titles. This is why the execution scene never feels gratuitous, because it’s shown alongside other frank and unflinching archive footage that stresses the suffering and devastation caused by the War, on all sides of the conflict.

World at War downplays the idea of “winners and losers” for a more measured and responsible look into the horrors of World War II. As early as the second level, during the American assault on the Japanese island of Peleliu, the grim realties of life at the front are made brutally clear to us. After successfully landing on the island’s beach, an air-strike is called in to deal with the Japanese infantry that are dug in on the flat ridge just beyond the sands. The noise is deafening as US bombers annihilate their target with a volley of rockets that actually cause the screen to shake violently. When you eventually climb up onto this ridge the sight is disturbing: badly burnt Japanese soldiers collapse onto their knees, before falling face down in the scorched earth. In the words of your fellow solider, “shit…”

These are scripted scenes, but they carry a grim sense of despair that persists throughout the entire campaign. World at War is an FPS that revels in “the pity of war,” subjecting the player to a gauntlet of sombre and arduous struggles. Trudge through damp, muddy trenches that are made damper and muddier by the constant rain. Look on in guilt as the beautiful island of Peleliu is burnt to a crisp by your own flamethrower. Crawl through the dismal streets of Stalingrad and then Berlin, cities that have been reduced to rubble by five years of war. The harsh battlegrounds of the Eastern Front and the Pacific Rim are depicted with stunning, almost photorealistic detail. These environments are far from being “pretty,” mind you. The bleak realism evokes an oppressive, morose atmosphere that seems very appropriate for a game that makes war truly seem like hell. World at War does not pull any punches. Watch as German and Japanese soldiers murder your comrades right before your eyes. On the battlefield combat has been given a gory overhaul so that headshots now look gruesome and instead of vanishing, dead bodies merely pile up on the cold, hard ground.

World at War is a powerful, intense representation of World War II. Treyarch’s desire to avoid the sanitised manner in which this brutal, global conflict has been portrayed by countless simplistic shooters is noble. The only question is whether this staunch and unflinching realism makes for an enjoyable experience.

Gaming is an interactive medium that provides satisfaction through a sense of progress and promise of reward or recognition, but World at War refuses to reward its players. I persevered because I felt the urge to complete this FPS, but the only feeling I was left with at the end was relief that it was all over. The only reward for my perseverance was a solemn reminder that “60 million people died as a result of the Second World War.” This is message that should never be forgotten, but does that mean that progress in World at War has to be so bloody hard? Call of Duty 4 on Veteran difficulty was an intense struggle, but it was always a fair challenge. World at War is just a nightmare. It’s very, very stingy with checkpoints. It abuses grenades as a cheap method to increase the difficulty. And the computer-controlled allies are so inept that any illusion of an “allied war effort” is broken by their inability to provide adequate cover or actually kill enemy soldiers. You have to do everything yourself. These problems are most obvious on Veteran, but they’re still apparent on the Regular difficulty. Regardless of the statement it makes about the hopeless misery of war, being pinned behind cover by an endless barrage of grenades is a frustrating experience that I never want to endure again.

The structural flaws that undermine this adventure deepen the problem. Call of Duty 4 was a success because it delivered a cohesive narrative and constant action that injected a sense of excitement into what had become a stagnant formula. World at War fails to rejuvenate the old Call of Duty gameplay in quite the same way because it lacks the same thrilling momentum. Although it does have a narrative, there’s little sense of progression because it relies heavily on its epic set-piece battles, such as the violent confrontation inside the tattered remains of the Reichstag. These battles are marred by the incompetence of your allies and the incessant grenades, but they’re still impressive in their scale. What’s not so impressive is the way they’re strung together by a large number of forgettable sequences that involve moving from Battle A to Battle B though dreary corridors and passages. This is a fragmented structure that causes the action to ebb and flow, unlike Call of Duty 4, which maintained a consistent, engaging intensity throughout.

It’s hard to deny that Call of Duty: World at War is a disappointing game. The inconsistent structure and infuriating gameplay make it a fairly weak FPS that will provide more ammunition for Treyarch’s many detractors. Personally, I think it’s lazy to slam Treyarch for violating Infinity Ward’s beloved series. World at War is a mature and pragmatic representation of World War II. It’s a brave approach which proves that Treyarch are at least trying to do more than rehash Call of Duty 2. It’s unfortunate, however, that even those who find merit in this harrowing depiction of the War will find their enthusiasm ground into the muddy trenches by its relentlessly bleak vision and flawed, monotonous action.

JANUS2's avatar
Community review by JANUS2 (July 15, 2009)

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