Following up last year’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is not an easy task. With developer Infinity Ward responsible for that version, an exceptionally high bar was set for the series with the game’s exceptional use of first person shooter conventions to immerse the player not only in the battlefield but also in some questions that the visceral and kinetic genre does not normally slow down long enough to consider.
While that game did not necessarily reinvent the genre, it — like so many of last year’s most interesting games (I’m thinking of Bioshock and the fist person puzzle game, Portal) — experimented with the way that stories can be told from this particular perspective by letting the player experience some unusual events (such as the death of a Marine in a nuclear blast) from directly behind the characters’ eyes. Additionally, owing to its interest in modern warfare, it posed some intriguing questions concerning the relationship between video game technologies and the technologies that drive contemporary battle. Despite its overarching plot of global conflict, all of these moments were again captured in a deeply personal manner as a fragmented narrative was generated by placing the player (via that first person viewpoint) in the shoes of a number of soldiers from various military backgrounds and in various places around the globe. These characters were charged with executing missions that would serve to resolve the larger concerns of national and international interests that the game’s plot focused on. Thus, the political resolved itself into the distinctly personal by accessing war from the perspective of each of these individuals in the trenches.
In some sense, this patchwork methodology of storytelling has also been adopted by Treyarch in the newest Call of Duty, albeit in a less successful way.
Treyarch has returned to the series’ roots as a historically-based shooter located in the theatres of the Second World War. Like CoD 4, though, the player finds him or herself confined not to a single identity but largely within those of two soldiers in this global conflict, a U.S. Marine battling the Japanese in the Pacific and a Russian who nearly died in the German invasion of Stalingrad but who later becomes part of the force that takes Berlin from the Nazis.
Shuttling between hot spots in the latter days of the war and these two campaigns does provide an interesting perspective on the differences between these two Axis powers and their approaches to warfare, which is represented by the AI of the player’s opposition. The Japanese enemies feature Banzai warriors who suicidally charge into battle as well as nearly invisible guerrilla combatants that literally emerge from the very undergrowth of the jungles of the Far East. The campaign in Germany is for its part marked by urban combat and foes that tend to dig in to hold their positions in a more traditionally strategic approach to warfare.
This decision to feature differing combat experiences is refreshing (the plot trades off every few chapters or so between locations, which allows for a bit of variety in a genre usually focused on a pretty singular style of play, not to mention tactical shifts as the player grows all too familiar with the tactics of his or her opponents) but also seems frustrating. It is somewhat disconcerting as the player is forced into this readjustment of tactics to more reasonably combat the forces of the Japanese and the Germans. The necessity to “re-learn” how to fight a very different style of opponent reminds the player of the dissonance of inhabiting the persona of two individuals confronted with two very different environments and never lets the player fully inhabit the role of either one as he or she shifts back and forth in tactical mindset in order to best respond to the situations posed by their very different enemies.
This fragmented style of narration apes that of CoD 4, but does so for less clear reasons. While the two narrative lines that follow the American, Pvt. Miller, and his Russian counterpart, Pvt. Peterenko, share in common an experience of the closing days of the war and the final victory of the Allies, the plot fails to provide much more reason for these two narratives to stand together at all.
There is a kind of thematic similarity, perhaps, that might unify them. Miller’s campaign begins following his rescue from the hands of the Japanese by his fellow Marines. The player witnesses some brutal handling of the prisoners by the Japanese and these sequences seem to serve as some impetus in encouraging Miller and the player to feel motivated to respond in kind to his captors and feel some antipathy towards this particular arm of the Axis over the course of his story arc. Killing hordes of Japanese military, if one assumes that they are like the savage soldiers encountered in the first sequence, seems like a not unreasonable course of action. Plus, it provides payback for those soldiers maimed and tortured by the Japanese in that earlier scene. Likewise, Pvt. Petrenko’s introduction as he attempts to hide among the bodies of his fellow soldiers in a mass grave in Stalingrad serves as a motivating force for the player to seek vengeance on the Nazis. In other words, both of these catalysts for combat personalize the brutality that the player will mete out on the Axis by dehumanizing and “othering” the Japanese and the Germans as barbarians and monsters (of course, such othering of the Nazis seems to have long been the standard for video games — from the Wolfenstein series to the Call of Duty series, the Nazis have been providing video game players a sufficiently inhuman monster to kill for years).
This justification for carnage then sets the stage for the levels that will follow as Miller, Petrenko and their fellows grind their way to the heart of their opponents’ homelands. Maybe providing such righteous resolve, though, is necessary for a game set in 1945. As the game itself reminds us through cutscenes composed of newsreel images of atrocities and various facts and figures concerning the mounting body count of the war, both the Japanese and German military are on their last legs at this stage of the conflict and grinding an already crippled army into dust (as the player is charged with doing) does not feel necessarily all that heroic on the face of it. Necessary? It would seem so. Romantic and noble? Harder to imagine.
Given this almost exclusive focus on the Americans’ and Russians’ most successful year of war, the game attempts to also layer on some additional pathos for the winning side by killing off some members of the squads that these men belong to, or at least to provide glimpses of the marks of their suffering as a result of the war’s previous years (as is the case, for example, of seeing the now fingerless sniper who helps Petrenko escape death in Stalingrad near the beginning of the game). Human suffering is trotted out to serve as drama in the plot, but it is drama that feels warmed over especially in light of the last Call of Duty. Unlike CoD 4‘s effectively romanticized death sequences, the ones in World at War lack real emotive power since the characters are much less deeply developed in relation to the characters inhabited by the player. When one of the major NPCs in the game is killed, it feels like a mere rehash of one of CoD 4‘s most tragic moments. For that matter, though, such dramatically staged deaths also just feel like warmed over moments from other retellings of World War II mythology like Band of Brothers.
Thus, the game seems to grasp at presenting gravitas through storytelling conceits made recognizable due to its audience’s familiarity with other nostalgic images of World War II heroism in other media. By reminding us near the end of the game that the war would end with over 60 million dead is indeed a horrific factoid that conjures up the weight of the loss that this war resulted in. Following this fact, the player is also informed that the game is dedicated “to those who died to defend liberty,” which, again, would seem to lend that traditional gravity to the events that we have just experienced by reminding us of the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation. Like earlier dissonant moments in the game, though, this attempt to evoke a nostalgic response to the war effort does feel a bit jarring given the interest of the player in meting out vengeance on a crippled foe over the course of the game’s few chapters. The experience of the gameplay is more a celebration of carnage than a meditation on such horrors as the first-person shooter is a style of play that revels in efficient tactical decisions and quick and brutal execution.
Likewise, following the rolling of the credits with all of its martial music and the seeming dignity added to the proceedings by dedicating it to the defense of liberty, the player is greeted with a mini-game called Nazi Zombies. While not a bad game in and of itself (it is a challenging little survival horror mini-game that is fairly good at evoking suspense through the limitations of the first person viewpoint — are the zombies sneaking up behind me while I attempt to rebuild barricades to keep them out?), the overall silliness of such an episode seems, again, incredibly dissonant with the presentation of the game’s other subject matter — the “real” horrors of war. Given the manner in which all the game’s enemies are made monstrous and other in these “real” sequences in the earlier game, though, maybe Nazi Zombies are more consistent with this vision of World War II than not.