Call of Duty: World at War Hands-on Preview

It was during a turret sequence, as the repetitive sound of the gun cycled for what seemed like minutes, that I had the familiar thought: "Maybe we really don't need another World War II shooter right now."

I have always dismissed the usual complaints of World War II oversaturation. After all, without more games based on The War, we wouldn't have something like Company of Heroes. Who cares what the setting is, as long as the game is solid?

But do we really need a new version of Stalingrad every two years? How many times can we plant the same charges on anti-aircraft guns, and fire the same bazookas at scripted tanks, before we give up and start to root for the Nazis? Even the Hollywood cycle allows some time between genre exploitation. Sometimes you need a little Blackhawk Down between your Private Ryans.

Treyarch had the same thought. After finishing Call of Duty 3, the studio didn't want to do another World War II game. But after seeing the success of Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4, and admiring the level of polish, Treyarch wanted another crack at the genre--a chance to prove that it could take the Modern Warfare mold, fill it with Thompsons and Nazis, and justify the purchase of another trip to Berlin for burned out gamers.

And after getting my hands on the game, I have to admit--the designers are within reach of that goal.

All Ghillied Up and Nowhere to Go
Call of Duty: World at War takes place across both the Pacific and Eastern fronts, with the player eventually assuming the role of a soldier in both a Russian and American platoon.

Built with the same engine, and with the same design philosophy, playing World at War will feel immediately familiar to Modern Warfare fans. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the level titled "Vendetta," an homage to CoD 4's brilliant "All Ghillied Up."

Much like the original sniper level, Vendetta begins with an NPC ally--Russian commander Amsel--leading you on a mission to assassinate an enemy general. Rather than hiding from an enemy patrol in grass fields as in CoD 4, players will be crawling through the broken buildings of Stalingrad, picking off soldiers in windows with the commander's instruction, and timing sniper shots to the sound of bomber wings.

At one point, as the Russian duo was making its way through a bombed-out storefront, a passing German patrol caught wind of them. Suddenly the building was alight with the violent spray of flamethrowers, furniture flaring up around them as they scurried for an escape.

The sequence was generally exciting, though as I had played "Ghillied," it felt less like an homage and more like a direct copy. I wanted to see a level like "Ghillied," but not the same thing in a different package. When asked whether there would be more stages along those lines, Activision reps made mention of a flying level, but I never got a glimpse of it during my demo time.

V for Vendetta
The stated theme of World at War is revenge, and the reason for it is plainly spelled out; Japanese torture huts and brutal Nazi executions are featured prominently in the story. The enemy soldiers are the obvious villains of this story, and Treyarch isn't afraid to portray them that way--though Treyarch also dabbles in the grey areas.

At several points in the game, players will be presented with distinct moral choices. An example: "Do you execute a group of soldiers in the name of revenge, or let them go?" While the player's decision will not impact the scene itself--those suckers are dead either way--it will, in BioShock fashion, come back to affect the story in some way.

Outside of the scripted sequences, the majority of what I played consisted of standard shoot-em-up scenarios. Progress from this area, take out these troops with this weapon, move out. The set pieces were impressively scaled--massive firefights on the streets of Stalingrad, dive-bombing Zeroes zipping down Okinawa--but nothing stood out as revelatory for the genre.

The shooting itself was mostly enjoyable; stabbing a soldier in the chest with a knife, or using the flamethrower--which conveniently does not require ammunition refills--provided for some entertaining moments, and destructible cover added a few surprises. Treyarch wanted to match the grittiness of Modern Warfare, so combat is bloody--sometimes exceedingly so, with Gears-like splashes of blood splattering after headshots. But where the game really sets itself apart is in the enemy design.

The approach to Japanese enemies seems more akin to an Aliens game than something you're used to seeing in a World War II shooter. The Imperials are often laying in wait, decked out in camouflage. They charge at the player with bloodthirsty cries, snipe from trees, and set off suicide bombs at random. Though unrealistically overdone, they provide some much-needed variety to the regular enemy encounters.

The Nazis were tame in comparison--something you don't expect to ever say.

World War 24
In each of the two theaters, the player will be tagging along with a squad of soldiers lead by a celebrity-voiced figure. Though the Russian counterpart's voice actor has not been announced, I got a chance to listen to the American version--Sergeant Kiefer Sutherland.

It is a little odd to hear Jack Bauer screaming out orders in the middle of a jungle war. At first I couldn't stop picturing a beefy Corporal Tony bringing up the rear, opening sockets as he flamed down kamikazes. I kept expecting Sutherland's character to put down his rifle, give me a big Kiefer-hug, and try to sell me some insurance. But after a while, as his voice became even more hoarse than usual, it blended into the chaos, and ceased being a distraction.

Adding to the chaos was a surprisingly fresh industrial score. Before the demo began, an Activision rep told us to pay particular attention to the music. This wasn't going to be the traditional World War II tunes--no blaring trumpets or snare drums. It takes some getting used to, he said, but the result is worth the risk.

He was right. Halfway through a level, I noticed the music for the first time, steel hammer clangs and disparate female singers. A mix of industrial beats, electric guitar, vocalists, and traditional orchestration, the score was intense. And though it sounded more like music designed for Modern Warfare, it fit seamlessly with the action on screen, pumping me up without being a nuisance.

The multiplayer component will be as straightforward as the singleplayer, following in the vein of Call of Duty 4 and allowing players to level up their skills as they compete in online modes. The traditional multiplayer modes will be bolstered by the addition of vehicles, though no details on the modes themselves have been revealed. Experience can now be earned in cooperative play of the singleplayer campaign, rewarding online soldiers with a little credit no matter what mode they choose.

World at War is already feeling like a polished shooter--a solid game at worst. The question remains whether it will rise to meet Modern Warfare's mark, and provide a large range of stellar, original levels. We'll know more in a few months.

Call of Duty: World at War is set for a fall release on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii and PC.