Call of Duty: World at War executive producer Daniel Suarez already knows what's on our minds, and he's come armed. "The first question I get asked, is why go back to World War II?" Well, quite. I ask myself a similar question sometimes, since I'm the one who always ends up reviewing WWII shooters. Treyarch's answer is probably the same: old habits die hard.
"We didn't want to go back and make the same old World War II game. [Treyarch] has done it before. [World at War] is their fourth Call of Duty game. They've been developing Call of Duty games for longer than World War II was actually fought." That's either depressing or heroic. Either way, some sort of medal is due. Presumably not of honour. Or, indeed, honor.
"So they didn't want to go back and make another game that you've all played before. They felt very much like you guys do. It's long in the tooth. It's stale." I could take umbrage! "So that was the big challenge: how do they redefine what everyone expects from a World War II game?" War game design 101? Make it gory. Following Modern Warfare's lead into Mature-rated territory, Treyarch is pitching World at War as a "more brutal and more intense Call of Duty than you've seen before". It's not a Soldier of Fortune gib-fest, but "employs a lot of different things from violence to subject matter presented in a way that hasn't been done to date".
The other thing to freshen things up, of course, is to pull the old Medal of Honor trick and turn the attention towards the Pacific theatre - except do it properly, obviously. Still mentally scarred by the horrors perpetrated by the horrendously bad Rising Sun, Suarez and company have a lot to do to make us forget. Undaunted, he reckons "it's a great location" with "a whole new sort of dynamic" involving dense jungle warfare in both night and day conditions.
To illustrate the point, the assembled press are walked through a co-op demonstration of an early mission called 'Hard Landing'. Kicking off in an atmospheric swamp-like setting, we follow a squadron of US marines creeping through a lazy jungle stream for clues on the whereabouts of a recently-crashed aircraft. Flanked by colossal trees with eerily exposed roots, dappled sunlight filters through the dense canopy onto typically detailed uniforms and the team within them quickly discovers a portion of the fractured, still-smoking fuselage on the water's edge.
Within seconds, the tranquil jungle ambience switches from the hypnotic rhythmic thrum of a thousand busy crickets to the angry rattle of machinegun fire as a camouflaged ambush of gun-toting Japanese soldiers rises from the wreckage. "They're a spooky kind of enemy," Suarez reckons, "like Predator". Except presumably without the arm blades, cloaking ability and terrifying triangular lock-on designator. "They're really not afraid to die."
We're promised a set of enemies which, unlike German soldiers who might meekly surrender once they know the game is up, will fight for their emperor until death. Such claims are hard to verify at first glance, but it's something to keep in mind for when we get our hands on the finished article nearer its release in November.
And as well as the promise of a more aggressive, unpredictable enemy, we're told to expect a different selection of weapons and vehicles. Flagged up as particularly interesting are flame-based weapons like the good old flamethrower, as well as molotov cocktails and even flame tanks. The 'spread effect' of the use of fire in-game is also bigged up, with nearby foliage and scenery items charred or set alight, and the delightful prospect of seared flesh to boot. Well, they said it was gory.
Interestingly, World of War doesn't spend all of its time focusing on the Pacific conflict. Concurrent events in the campaign take place from the perspective of the Russians on a "very personal vendetta" against the Nazi war machine. Although no specifics were touched upon during the presentation, this portion of the campaign kicks off in Stalingrad, before climaxing in the push to Berlin. We were told to expect an "unsanitised...no-holds-barred, no mercy attack". The promise is of an ugly, violent, grown-up depiction of what it was actually like.
This more mature approach will even apply to the audio direction. "We've thrown out the classical music score," Suarez confirmed. Yep, finally someone's decided to actually make a WWII game stripped of those smug, sickly sweet strings that have become such a tiresome trademark of the genre over the years. Instead, we can expect "angry" music more befitting of desperate conflict. Sadly, we didn't get a demonstration of what he meant, but Suarez claimed it was a "really cool dynamic the way the music stirs up emotion". We'll see.
For today, at least, the focus was very much on getting us used to/excited about the idea of Call of Duty in the Pacific theatre. More specifically, it also gave Activision a good opportunity to show off the game's co-op mode. In this area of the game, the news is all good. For starters, it supports up to four players online on Xbox Live, PSN and PC, and split-screen on consoles, and four-player hands-on opportunities were one of the centerpieces of the show floor.
The lure of XP has been tweaked too, with one persistent stat encompassing all areas of the game. Whereas some Modern Warfare players might have been anxious not to get left behind their buddies and focused on online multiplayer first, World at War ensure that players will rank up regardless of whether they're playing solo, co-op or competitively. This, Treyarch hopes, will give people more of an incentive to sample everything the campaign mode has to offer from the word go.
Elsewhere, Activision has evidently not been shy in getting the chequebook out for some A-list voice talent, with both Kiefer Sutherland and Gary Oldman confirmed for key roles. During the demonstration it was certainly apparent that Sutherland hasn't just phoned in his lines. Even in a quick ten-minute playthrough, an enormous amount of non-repeating bellowed orders from Sutherland's Sgt Robuck character set the tone for the kind of effort being invested in the general ambience and atmosphere of the title. It's all very typical stuff, like "Everyone move! Go! Go!", and "Stay with me! Keep it together" and "MGs in the bunker up ahead", but somehow when it's Jack Bauer barking orders at you it adds that little extra dimension.
In terms of the progression of the level, it was all fairly standard stuff. After the little fuselage ambush incident, you emerge into a series of bunkers, take out the guys in the machinegun nests, flush out the emplacements, work your way around the remnants of shattered buildings and capture AA guns. To be fair, we've seen this a hundred times, and whether it works depends largely on how it feels and how the enemy reacts. In terms of atmosphere, we're already sold. It looks as chaotic and therefore as cinematically engaging as it ought to, but then again it always does. COD 3 started like a house on fire and failed to kick on from there.
But as Suarez is keen to remind us when we bring up the Infinity Ward comparisons, COD 3 was made in less than a year, while World at War has benefitted from double that. For the first time, it feels like Treyarch has had a chance to compete with Infinity Ward on level terms. But don't call it a rivalry. "We don't see it [as a rivalry]. It's not our goal to replace COD 4 at the top of the online chart. All we want to do is make the best Call of Duty game we can as Treyarch. [I think] they've made the best game of their lives." Let's hope so.
Call Of Duty: World at War will be coming to PC, 360, PS3, and Wii in November. A multiplayer beta is "coming soon".