It's been almost five years since the original Call of Duty was released. The subsequent sequels have built on what was always a brutal, fast paced shooter that had realism at its very core.
The franchise took a vacation from World War II with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and despite the incredible success of this concept, developer Treyarch has gone back to basics again, albeit this time concentrating on the Pacific campaign towards the latter stages of WW2. This may be simply what they're more comfortable with, as Treyarch last worked on the console exclusive Call of Duty 3, and although Call of Duty: World at War uses the same graphics engine as Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the similarities end there.
Activision showed us two levels from World at War ahead of the November 13th release, and despite being evaluation code the game appeared to be largely completed. The introductory cinematics, whilst not as detailed as the likes of Call of Duty 2 for example, still adequately set the scene using real footage from the war coupled with a to-the-point narrative of the campaign you're about to participate in.
The Pacific campaign could never be described as pleasant by any stretch of the imagination, and although it's been covered before many times (probably most noticeably by the Medal of Honor series) it hasn't quite been done with this level of brutal honesty. Whilst trekking through some unnamed jungle, presumably in Burma or some place equally unappealing, we were set upon by hordes of Japanese soldiers with absolutely zero warning. The AI involved here isn't like previous titles, if you stand still and take time to aim carefully, you'll be hacked to pieces by a screaming member of the Japanese Imperial Army, and forget about taking cover - swamps don't tend to have a lot of burnt-out tanks to crouch behind.
After managing to survive the Japanese onslaught, we ventured further away from the swamp to participate in some hut-to-hut combat. We seemed to be perpetually low on ammunition, which may or may not have had something to do with letting off a couple of dozen rounds any time a leaf twitched, so it was with great relief that we happened across a flame thrower. This weapon has to be seen to be believed.
The Japanese were well known for their relentless attacks and refusal to surrender, and this appears to be a core part of the Pacific experience in Call of Duty: World at War. Despite picking off enemy soldiers inside heavily fortified gun emplacements they were soon replaced, so using the flame thrower soon became crucial towards breaking through the line and reaching the next checkpoint. Upon equipping the weapon and deploying it, a huge jet of flame engulfed the gun emplacement, killing all inside in a fairly grotesque display that definitely shows why this has been rated "M" in North America. Barbeque, anyone?
Speaking of gore, the Activision folks were eager to show us the revamped shotgun. You can't appreciate such a fine weapon without close-quarter combat, so we left the Pacific region and instead started on the Battle of Berlin during April 1945. Playing as a Russian soldier who survived Stalingrad (no mean feat in itself) you need to move from room to room inside bombed-out buildings and generally shoot anything that speaks a different language than you. The shotgun has a massive blast radius that can empty a room pretty swiftly, and anyone or any limb that happens to get in front of it tends to disappear rather quickly in an impressive shower of blood. Although we had many weapons available to us at this point, from the classic PPSH sub-machine gun to the trusty infantry rifle, none could put a smile on our faces as easily as the shotgun.
If you think this is just going to appeal to solo players or those who have to have their online fix, fear not! For the first time you will be able to play with up to four people in a co-operative mode. Even better, your achievements will carry over to the full online multiplayer experience, meaning you can get a helpful walk-through from others who are more experienced and have more unlocks than you, then hit the internet and deal out some serious damage.
We played a bit of this co-op with some of the other journalists, and despite struggling at first to avoid shooting each other (the Australians seemed rather good at this, for some reason) we managed to clear an entire level, reviving each member of the squad as they fell in combat. We had a few moments of panic when three of our squad were down due to some exceptionally good shooting from the AI, but we managed to pull it back and see the lot off with a volley of grenades.
Treyarch has a lot to live up to with World at War. They've seen how it should be done with Modern Warfare and must be positively desperate to make this the definitive WW2 shooter for the next few years. This is reflected in their almost Rockstar-esque secrecy surrounding the plot and the identity of the voice actors, and in our hands-on session we clearly exceeded expectations, as upon breaking through a German defensive position the controller was gently wrestled from us with the polite insistence that anything past this point was not to be seen by anyone prior to release.
It's clear that something has changed within the franchise. It has moved beyond the initial stages of simulating pseudo squad-based warfare where each decision you make is essentially on rails, and has merged seamlessly with the survival horror genre to create a more mature and worthy sequel. But more than this, and from what we've seen, Treyarch could really be on the verge of producing a game that Call of Duty 4 fans will appreciate, too. World at War looks to be every part as thrilling as Modern Warfare, and we can't wait to bring you a full review ahead of the release on November 14th. Keep an eye on this one.
We've mirrored the latest co-op trailer for Call of Duty: World at War over at GP Downloads. Check it out here (152MB).