COD: World at War
After the refreshing change that was the superlative COD 4: Modern Warfare, the Call of Duty series returns to its well-trodden roots of WW2. But is there enough new material in there to fill a landing craft, or has it all been thoroughly riddled with bullets even before it hits the beach?
Things looked promising with the initial focus on the Pacific campaign, fighting the Japanese on small islands, facing jungle ambushes, and winkling enemies out of tunnel networks is all very different. The jungle terrain is a welcome change to the usual “French Fields and ruined cities” WW2 fare. Unfortunately, it wasn’t far into the game before we were back in Stalingrad…. Didn’t we do this in COD2? The game follows COD4’s lead in having two central characters, whose stories are alternated as the game progresses. Initially you play as Pvt Miller of the American forces in the Pacific. Then you jump to Pvt Dimitri Petrenko, of the soviet army initially in the loss of Stalingrad to the Nazis, and then jumping 3 years later to follow the Russian march on Germany. The player alternates chapters from these two stories as they play through the game.
Though we are re-tracing well trodden ground, it must be said that the focus of the Russian levels is darker and grittier than before. The emphasis on the hatred that the Soviets had for the Germans, and the burning thirst for vengeance that drove them as they took Berlin helps one to understand a little (but never justify) why they committed such atrocities against the German civilian population later on. It makes for quite grim playing in some parts. The Russians are there to exact payment in blood, and they’re not taking prisoners…
The level of visceral realism has been turned up a notch. A suitably PC warning is issued at the start, that the game “contains graphic content and historical footage which some players may find disturbing…” All very helpful, and I suppose the short historical clips that are used between chapters could be considered sensitive since these are actual people being shot there… But really, war IS brutal, and if I’ve bought a war-simulation type game, I’m hardly likely to be offended by someone losing an arm in a messy fashion (especially if I’m the one causing said amputation…).
While there aren’t any Private Ryan style eviscerations in-game, there is plenty of blood, and people do get the backs of their skulls blown off (mmm brains) and a head-shot does elicit a suitably realistic blood spurt followed by a rapidly widening puddle on the floor. I initially believed that this level of realism was only found in scripted events, and that in actual gameplay, we would have to content ourselves with a quick red splash, and no visible damage to the body afterward. But this was mainly due to the fact that I was using small arms for the most part and although they are quite deadly, they aren’t so destructive. A heavy machine gun, however, will mince enemy troops nicely, and later, when I got my hands on a large calibre sniper rifle, I discovered that I could in fact blow arms and legs off in a most satisfying way (a shot to the mid-riff makes a real mess). Although rag-dolling is very nice (and pretty much standard in FPSs these days), I would have liked to see a little bit of gibbing in man-versus-grenade encounters – but that’s just me…
A couple of vehicle levels are thrown in here and there, but mercifully this is not over-done, not is it ever frustrating as it was in COD3. You only get to drive once, and that’s a tank, so no complaints there. The other one is a mission where you man the guns on a Catalina aircraft which is actually quite enjoyable as you rain down high calibre fury on enemy planes and ships.
Even playing this game on the standard difficulty setting, prepare to be frustrated often as you die and die and die again – often for really stupid reasons. Apart from the usual COD fare of grenades arriving right next to you when you have no room to manoeuvre out of the way, and being shot by enemies that you couldn’t see (fairly standard hazards in wartime I guess), there’s the added frustration of team-mates that generally aren’t the sharpest bayonet in the drawer. Sure they look the business when pushing forward in mostly scripted sequences (after you’ve crossed that invisible line that tells them to do so), but when it comes to the bread and butter gameplay of waiting behind cover shooting the enemy, and looking out for their buddies: frankly, they suck.
They get in your way when you are trying to target the enemy. They stand behind you and sometimes block your retreat options – you pop out from behind cover to let off a few shots, go to duck back again and find that some total clod is now standing where you were and you can’t get back in cover (at one point I had backed into a corner behind cover to re-load, and one of my team-mates goes and stands in front of me blocking me in – and wouldn’t move – I had to knife the silly idiot in order to get free). Enemies will walk up to your position and stand there calmly shooting the seven bells out of you while surrounded by your allies who seem to be oblivious to the threat and stand there like dummies while you get shot. They also have the strange tendency to run into an area just after I’ve thrown a grenade there… (oh well, one way to improve the virtual gene-pool).
On one mission (Eviction), a glitch occurred which essentially made it impossible to finish. Partway through the mission, you enter the underground metro network, and after fighting your way through several dark, Nazi-filled corridors, you end up in a flooded subway tunnel behind an un-crossable barricade, facing off against another barricade a few metres away which is manned by an endlessly re-spawning group of enemy soldiers. This is usually a “wait for something to happen” situation, but after a considerably long period, during which I used up all available ammo (and was down to just harsh language), the situation remained unchanged. A door to my left seemed to be a possible exit, but there was no way to interact with it. Having run out of things to try that might trigger the next event, and unable to re-trace my steps (because evidently soldiers in this era were unable to climb up onto a waist high platform that they had just minutes ago jumped down from), I stood up and let myself be shot so I could re-start from the checkpoint. Went back through, and when I got to the same spot – same problem. Frustrated, I popped the game out and played COD4 for the rest of the evening…
Next day, and one Google search later, I found the problem. There’s an NPC, that let’s you in to the metro, who can get stuck in the doorway, and if this happens, he won’t be there to trigger the escape sequence later. And, because this happens just BEFORE the checkpoint, when you re-load, the problem is already there… (I did re-load, and sure enough, there he was, standing in the doorway, stuck in an animation loop motioning for non-existent troops to pass through). The only way to fix it was to re-start the whole mission from the beginning, and it doesn’t usually happen twice. It didn’t, and I was able to continue. Point being, this should A): have been picked up and fixed before the game’s release, or B): fixed in the update that I had to download as soon as I put the game in for the first time; since enough people online have encountered the same problem.
The frustration of endless re-starting is only heightened by the sometimes vast distance between checkpoints. A small mistake (or random, unavoidable incident), near the end of a long hard slog through an area will often mean being sent right back to the beginning to go through it all over again. Now, I consider myself to be a competent player, and I’m not asking for a game to be super-easy (I like a certain amount of challenge), I’m just saying that dying because your team-mate got in the way, or because you are spammed with three grenades while in a hole with nowhere to go, and then having to go back through the last five minutes of battle all over again… for the fifth time in a row… is not fun…
Endlessly re-spawning enemies gets tiresome after a while. You take great risks to grenade the occupants of a machine gun nest so you can advance further without being cut to ribbons, only to have another crew magically appear in their place. It doesn’t matter how many Nazis you expertly snipe in the head at the barricade, you’ll never clean them out as there’s an endless supply of them to take their place. It’s an old strategy that gets fallen back on far too often in games of this genre – keep re-spawning enemies at some location until the player moves forward enough to cross an invisible line that triggers the game to move the re-spawn point further back, repeat… There are some points in such games when this is a valid design feature (to create a feeling of being heavily outnumbered, or to have an endless supply of foes to fend of while something important is happening), but it is really over-used in WAW. This is further worsened by the level design that actively discourages creative thinking when assaulting enemy positions.
Despite appearing to be fairly open, a lot of the levels are annoyingly linear in their design, which hampers creative strategy. Often I would be attempting to sneak around the flank of an enemy position, only to be stopped by the dreaded invisible wall (despite there seeming to be open jungle right there in front of me). The same goes for small obstacles or ledges that could easily be climbed in real-life but are protected by the same invisible barrier (honestly if you don’t want us to go there, then block our way with something substantial – gamers are used to a higher level of interactivity with their scenery and if it looks like we could go there in real life, then we want to be able to in the game). Often, the only way to progress in a level, would be to mount a suicidal charge at enemy guns – a frustrating and ultimately very unrealistic exercise.
Visually, the game looks the business. The smoke and blood of 20th century warfare are well-simulated. The soldier models are detailed (even down to the grime and stubble) and generally well-animated. There is enough variety in faces and bodies that you can have quite a sizeable squad and still not notice any clones.
Soundwise you can’t really fault the game. All the usual cracks, bangs, and booms are there. From the staccato chatter of a Thompson SMG to the throaty cough of the Browning M1919 heavy machine gun, the audio is crisp, clear and suitably loud. I would have liked a bit more variety in the enemy trooper’s phrasebook though, as the same handful of comments gets a bit repetitive after a while.
Two-player co-op with split-screen is a great feature that is too often absent in today’s games. The lack of screen real-estate is a small price to pay for actually having another human player to team up with – although annoyingly you can’t get any achievements playing the game that way. There’s also a 4-player co-op if you are online or system linked (but not everyone has a gold account, or mates who own their own hardware). 4-way split screen multiplayer is available as well, which is great for those of us who like to have their opponents in the same room (for shared snacks and trash-talking), or like me your gaming friends don’t own their own consoles (poor students mostly). Plus, all the usual dismemberments are available in multiplayer, which makes for some quite satisfying moments with friends – those who “get” the unique kind of male bonding that results from repeatedly shooting one another with virtual weapons will understand what I mean.
An excellent bonus feature that becomes available only upon completion of the main story, is the extra mission where you have to survive ever-increasing waves of Nazi zombies (this is also available on co-op online, but sadly, not with split-screen). Shooting zombies is cool enough, but Nazi zombies… that’s a whole new level of cool. The mission puts you in a small building, which is the focus of a major undead incursion. A simple but clever system lets you upgrade your weapons (from the initially weedy pistol), re-build defensive barricades and open up new areas in the location – so long as you kill enough reanimated Nazis to earn the necessary points (just don’t forget to pick up extra ammunition if you don’t want your frontal lobes nibbled on later in the game).
Overall, my opinion of COD WAW is this: it’s still a good game, but denied greatness by poor interaction with the environment and irritating team AI – not to mention a couple of inexcusable bugs. The co-op option is a very welcome addition (especially as it is offered in split screen) and new to the COD franchise. 4-way split-screen multiplayer (found in all COD games to date) is deserving of praise in this day when so many developers are pushing x-box live as the only multiplayer path (and thus alienating those of us who’s rather play against their mates in the same room, than tackle the hordes of nihilistic, abusive, racist American teenagers that plague online servers). The afore-mentioned AI issues, overused re-spawning enemies and linear gameplay detract from what is essentially a solid title. Players should not find themselves stuck and unable to proceed because an NPC got himself stuck on some scenery at the start of a mission. But, if you want a game that gives you a chance to blow your mates’ limbs off – you won’t find better.