Sitting down for a live demo of Call of Duty: World at War's cooperative campaign, it took me about one minute to appreciate the effects a new engine and lengthier development cycle have had on the quality of the game. Instead of cranking out a cookie-cutter World War II sequel in a matter of months, as it did with Call of Duty 3, Treyarch has had a respectable two years to make World at War into its own beast. It's also had total access to Infinity Ward's impressive Call of Duty 4 technology, which was in no small part responsible for placing that game on top of numerous game-of-the-year lists late last year.
The visuals have a similar look to them too, owing to a combination of well-placed lighting effects, cinematic flourishes (depth of field and the like), and--most important to my mind--an unwavering devotion to a steady, fluid frame rate. (Well, it wavered a little in the demo, but that might change in the next three months. The game mostly seems to be hitting 60 frames per second, at any rate.) Relatively few developers are prioritizing frame rate over image fidelity on this generation of consoles, but to me speed and fluidity are two of the most crucial elements of a good shooter, so it's reassuring to see that's still a focus here.
In short, it's an oversimplification but also not inaccurate to say that World at War is looking a lot like Call of Duty 4 with a World War II-themed coat of paint. There are way worse sources of inspiration, at least. I think Treyarch has layered in enough new mechanics and unique touches to make the game stand on its own, though.
Coming off this demo, the particular historical setting was the only real downside I could come up with. Hey, this is still World War II. Remember that? Perhaps you've played it before. I'm probably more interested in that short period of history than the average dude, but even I can only shoot so many virtual M1 Garands and 1911s in one gaming career.
At least there are a few new destructive implements in here, like a wicked flamethrower. This thing is impressive when you see another player using it to burn Japanese snipers out of palm trees; it emits not a modest little puff of fire but instead a flame jet dozens of feet long. I found it a little harder to use hands-on, though: it was tough to gauge its range from directly behind the flames. The game's environment is pretty flammable, and fire will propagate from one surface to the next. Amid all the devastation, it was more than a little disturbing to see the grisly charred corpses of enemies killed with the flamethrower. The game isn't skimping on the blood effects, either.
This is the first time a Call of Duty game has featured co-op integrated with the core storyline, and Activision was ready to show off one mission from each of the two theaters the game takes place in. The first mission had me and a small squad creeping through a thick jungle on the Pacific island of Peleliu, investigating a downed fighter plane and getting ambushed by a group of take-no-prisoners Japanese soldiers. Later we joined up with a larger squad in an ongoing effort to overtake a strategic airfield. That brought about the most memorable scene of that mission, where a battalion of American tanks went up against a line of enemy armor, and I had to run from tank to tank for cover from bombardment until I could make it to a line of trenches, grab a bazooka, and fire back.
Activision's made a lot of ballyhoo about casting Kiefer Sutherland as your commanding officer in the Pacific campaign, and why shouldn't they? His name will obviously help move units. (Also, who doesn't love saying "ballyhoo?") I expected the guy to stand out like a sore thumb, like Jack Bauer somehow time-warped back to 1944 and landed on a Pacific island, but he really worked in the demo level I played. He's got the right amount of grit and gravel to pull off Hardened Military Commander Guy without feeling out of place in this or any other war.
The Peleliu mission demonstrated World at War's cooperative campaign mode, which is basically you and up to three friends playing through the story missions in order. You'll pick up experience points in co-op, and there will even be co-op-specific perks for this mode (though Activision is mum on their exact nature). The game will take not only the number of players but also each player's experience level into account when determining how to ramp up the difficulty in this mode.
Competitive co-op is the other mode, which is basically a multiplayer version of Call of Duty 4's arcade mode. Here you rack up points per downed enemy, with score multipliers coming into play for getting several kills in quick succession and things like that. At the end of the level, of course, everyone's score is tallied and compared. Activision was using this mode to show off a mission from the other campaign, which casts you as a Russian soldier participating in the final push into Berlin in the weeks before Germany's surrender. Expect more traditional house-to-house and street-based urban fighting in this campaign, in contrast to the less orthodox, jungle-heavy combat of the Pacific theater. There were a couple of moments where the German soldiers were lining up like a shooting gallery; I can't say if that was due to the arcade-style mode we were playing or not.
The flow and presentation of the campaigns borrows another page from the COD4 playbook. The two storylines don't intertwine like they did in COD4, but nevertheless missions from the two will leapfrog each other in a similar fashion. You'll play a level or three on steamy, confined island fortresses in the Pacific, then head halfway around the world to hit the Third Reich where it lives, then back again. Treyarch is even employing the same studio that did the between-mission videos in COD4 to do similar animations for World at War, though this time around they'll employ old black-and-white newsreel footage and give a wider historical context from the era. They use a lot of snazzy, newfangled motion graphics to convey this information; it all looks nifty.
Man, how did this get so long? I guess World at War must have impressed me more than I expected. It's taking most of Call of Duty 4's best elements and adding enough new doohickeys and whirligigs that I'm actually finding myself somewhat interested in a World War II shooter again. I didn't think that was possible anymore.
Call of Duty: World at War is slated to drop November 11.