Call of Duty: World at War

World War II, Part IV.

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?

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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.

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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.

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