Call of Duty: World At War has had a rough ride in the four small months it's been in the public eye. At first people were aghast at the fact the game was returning to WWII. Then they were horrified that Infinity Ward had given way to Treyarch as the game's developer. Then hands-on impressions started to filter in, slowly eroding the built-up cynicism and now there's a positive buzz of excitement about the game. So, what is it really like? We've played a sturdy preview version through to the end - one of the few people outside Activision to do so - and we're pleased to report: it's great.
The game starts with torture. You play an American soldier, captured during a raid on the Pacific island of Makin, and you're forced to watch as a Japanese interrogator puts his cigar out in your buddy's eye before slitting his throat. It may be slightly more graphic than the level near the start of CoD4 where you're forced to see through President Al Fulani's eyes as he's executed by Al Asad, but it has the same desperate feel. Mercifully it doesn't end badly for you this time.
As your captor looms he's cut down by a rescuing party of marines, lead by Sergeant Roebuck (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland). From then on it's classic Call of Duty all the way. The Makin level gives you a good taste of what to expect from the rest of the game. It has explosions, sneaky Japanese booby traps, and plenty of manly shouting. Thanks to the fact that this game runs on the Call of Duty 4 engine, the action is smooth, savage and glitch free. The clunkiness and drudgery of Treyarch's last effort, Call of Duty 3, seems a million miles away.
This alone should be all you need to know about the game. Anything that takes the slick combat of what has been universally accepted as the best war shooter of 2007 (Modern Warfare), and dresses it up in a new and interesting setting gets two thumbs up from us. However, there are moments in World At War where the game comes into its own, and dare we say it, even possibly outstrips its predecessor.
The flamethrower is an obvious and well-publicised example of how Treyarch has added its own personal touch to the Call of Duty series. It's a phenomenal weapon, and is bound to be highly coveted in multiplayer and co-op. What really impresses us, though, is the way it's been balanced to ensure it doesn't totally ruin the rest of the game. You can't go prone with a flamethrower, so you're always vulnerable to sniper fire and stray bullets. Take one in the propane tank and you'll die in a messy ball of highly painful flames. A grenade going off nearby? Again, you're toast.
Another way World At War departs from the traditional Call of Duty formula is the way it adds moral ambiguity to the game. There has never been any doubt in previous war titles that you're the hero. You shoot Nazis, you win the war, everyone is happy. In the Russian campaign you're taking the fight to Berlin with a very angry bunch of Red Army recruits.
These guys have had their friends and family massacred, their country plundered by the German war machine a couple of years earlier, and now they're thirsty for payback. At the beginning of one level you see your comrades execute a surrendered German officer, and another whispers in your ear "This is not war. This is murder." At the end of the same stage, after a breathtaking tank charge through the streets of Berlin, with rain sheeting down and lightning flashing above, you find a group of three Nazis trying to surrender in a subway tunnel. Do you burn them with a Molatov cocktail, or let them live? It adds a distinct emotional edge that stays with you long after you put the pad down and switch of the 360.