It might be because I'm paranoid, it might be because I'm a cynic, or it might be because I'm horribly myopic. I'm convinced nevertheless that every time the Treyarch team heard the name 'COD4' during their recent demonstration of the fifth Call of Duty game, their eyes narrowed a little, their lips pursed and a distinctly frosty tone crept into their voices.
Be this unhappy body language real or imagined, I could hardly blame them. Every other question from the curious throng of games journalists in attendance concerned Infinity Ward's mega-hit FPS, and the words on the lips of World at War's potential legion of players are much the same. Will it do this like COD4 did? Will it fix this thing that annoyed me about COD4? Will it have this and this and this and this? Imagine a new girlfriend constantly comparing you to her ex. Why don't you comb your hair like him? Why don't you wear the same aftershave? Oh, don't eat with your mouth open like that - it reminds me of him. That's no way to start a healthy relationship.
On the other hand, it's rather hard to look at COD:WAW without certain presumptions. Unkind presumptions, frankly. With COD4 developers Infinity Ward off either working on something else (the smart money's on another COD: Modern Warfare game) or busy swimming in money-fountains, internal Activision studio Treyarch pick up the hugely successful baton. That's the same Treyarch who made COD3 and Big Red One - stopgap, arguably mediocre sequels between IW's main events. So will WAW suffer the same cursory treatment?
It seems not. While those games were cobbled together in around eight months, Treyarch say it's been working on this one since COD3 - that's two years and counting. It immediately shows. Though the use of a modified COD4 engine makes for some immediate visual similarities, it's quite clearly its own game, and not just a bunch of new levels for an existing title. This is, Treyarch point out, the first time a period COD game has been rated Mature rather than Teen. The developers on-hand don't hesitate to demonstrate the freedom this accords them, playing a grisly in-engine cut-scene in which a Japanese commander horrifically blinds a captured US squaddie with a burning cigar, before having his own throat slit by his victim's vengeful fellows. It's not pretty, it's not noble, it's not Band of Brothers. It's not your daddy's World War II game.
Yes, we're back in World War II - a revelation that's seen some sniffing from those COD4 players who think every war's irrelevant unless it's the one on terror. Treyarch is convinced this won't suffer from Yet Another World War II Shooter ennui, mostly because much of the game is set in the Pacific theatre rather than Europe. It's been done before, most notably by EA's leaden Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault, but there's a single phrase which defines this new approach - 'survival horror.'
Your Japanese enemies are not simple reskins of COD4's insurgents - they're a different type of foe entirely, with their own devious AI, designed to evoke the fearlessness and unflinching dedication of the Imperial Japanese Army. Think the Vietcong, but in the 1940s. This indefatigable foe lies in wait, in pits and in trees, not moving a muscle until an unaware Yankee passes. If faced with insurmountable odds, rather than staying behind cover they'll suicide charge the enemy with bayonets - they might only take down one guy in the process, but that guy might well be you.
While CODs to date have favoured a bombastic shooting gallery of pop-up baddies charging in waves, the idea in WAW's Pacific levels is that every scrap of scenery is a potential trap. Paranoia will be your main driving force. Every corpse could be faking it, every tree could hide a sniper, each patch of long grass is a potential death-trap. Which is why flamethrowers are so important. Oh yes, flamethrowers. Traditionally a preposterous archetype of sillier shooters, in WAW they have an accurate and essential purpose. In an oppressive locale of dense trees and tall grass, fire is your best hope of flushing out hidden threats. Which means new hotness for the graphics engine - palm leaves wither and collapse, their burning branches igniting the grassland below when they hit the floor. Wooden barriers are vulnerable and destructible too, which should mean a canny evolution of COD4's shoot-through-the-scenery shtick.
It's not all in the Pacific - the traditional COD multiple campaigns return. The single-player game's other half puts you in the shoes of a Russian soldier towards the end of the war, joining the climactic assault on Berlin. Reinforcing WAW's fire theme, Molotov cocktails and flame tanks will play a part in this war-ending siege. While Treyarch is pretty tight-lipped on details for now, this was a time when the vengeful Russians were positively baying for German blood - couple that with WAW's mature rating and we're likely in for a dramatically more brutal take on the WW2 FPS.
Treyarch refused to share details on the plotline (beyond hinting there'll be some celebrity voices), but it seems unlikely the Russians' path of murder and rape across Germany will be entirely reflected. Similarly, the Japanese seem a bit of a faceless, inhuman enemy in what we saw, but hopefully the full campaign will add some depth. Whether WAW's able to recreate any of COD4's impressive approach to narrative remains to be seen, but there were strong hints the story wouldn't be as impersonal as previous WW2-set CODs. Indeed, one thing Treyarch emphasise over and over is that we should stow our preconceptions about World War II. Even the presentation is markedly different - there's a real sense of grime and darkness, while your NPC fellows are more like (understandably) angry, foul-mouthed thugs than the unflappable stiff-upper-lippers of yore. This is war, not tea for two.
Actually, it's tea for four. Co-op play is coming to COD at last, as either two-man split screen or four-player online. We only saw a brief flash of this in action, but it appeared to fit remarkably naturally into the COD formula, only with the invincible or disposable buddies of the past replaced with a real guy. Treyarch has two goals for the co-op play - firstly to make sure it's not too easy or just takes the lazy route of enemies with more hitpoints, but rather that it'll scale specifically to you. If you're a tight, well-armed squad, expect your enemies to be toting deadlier weaponry than the average bear.
The other purpose is as a middleground between single-player and the otherwise somewhat newbie-harrowing multiplayer. Experience points earned in co-op play carry over to multiplayer and vice-versa, which should mean there isn't quite such a gulf between multiplayer veterans and their million unlocks and someone who's aim is a little rusty. Treyarch's keeping a veil over most of the multiplayer itself for now, but do promise vehicular combat. Is COD set to go toe-to-toe with Battlefield?
There's much left to see, in fact, and you get the sense all the secrecy is at least partly because World at War is a huge deal for Treyarch. This is its chance to earn its own vaunted reputation. WAW might have 'Call of Duty' in the name, but for once it really does feel like Treyarch's making its own game, not simply carrying someone else's luggage. That the team's chuffed to bits about this was plain to see. Their eyes may have narrowed whenever COD4 was mentioned, but they went wide and excited when they talked about the Pacific theatre, the veterans they'd spoken to during their research, and about that flamethrower. The numbers are gone - this is not Call of Duty 5, and apparently there will never be one. No doubt there's some nonsense, focused-grouped marketing reason behind this, but the message it sends in this case is clear. This is no churned-out, bank-balancing filler game. This is a whole new Call of Duty.
Call of Duty: World at War is in development for PS3, Xbox 360, PC and Wii, and will be released in Q4 2008.