There was a time when the Second World War was perfectly acceptable pop culture fodder. Movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and video games like Wolfenstein 3D appropriated the icons of WWII — bloodthirsty Nazis, tough-as-nails Gis — with gleeful abandon, and few if any questioned the reduction of the world’s bloodiest conflict to a cartoonish genre.
Then came Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and its sister miniseries Band of Brothers, and books like Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, and WWII became respectable again. Books and films with the war as their subject were judged by their reverence for their subject rather than, say, how cool the villains looked in their SS uniforms. The war and its veterans, now symbolized in most Americans’ eyes by the D-Day invasion at Normandy, were no longer cartoonish but canonized, sacrosanct and suffused with a warm patriotic glow.
In the wake of that shift in public perception, video and computer games with WWII as their setting have become problematic. Is it still in good taste to use the war as material for popular entertainment? Does the idea of playing an infantryman mowing down rows of German soldiers seem more profane than fun in this new era of reverence? It’s interesting that of two games that emerged within months of each other, Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, it’s Wolfenstein, with its Nazi zombies and SS bikini babes, that has faded away while Medal of Honor, with its earnest, slavishly respectful attitude and the imprimatur of veterans’ groups, continues to flourish, with numerous and popular sequels sprouting up annually.
Following Medal of Honor‘s success, a wave of WWII-themed games has hit the shelves, each walking that same thin red line between “honor the veterans” veneration and old-fashioned “blow the Nazis up real good” exhilaration. Call of Duty, developed by Infinity Ward (a team made up of many of the same people who worked on Medal of Honor), is the latest WWII blockbuster to storm the beach, and follows in that earlier game’s footsteps in its tight focus on gritty realism, not just in its graphics and sound effects, but also in its characters and story.
Where Medal of Honor played much like a game adaptation of Saving Private Ryan, however — which is to say, more cinematic in its approach — Call of Duty strives for a more earthbound verisimilitude, downplaying individual heroism in favor of team dynamics and a you-are-there immediacy. If Medal of Honor makes you feel a bit like Indiana Jones, Call of Duty pulls you right down into the trenches with the rest of the grunts.
Call of Duty plays out on a breathtakingly wide canvas, expanding the scope of the narrative to include the British and Russian armies as well as the requisite Americans. The game is divided into three Allied campaigns, one for each nation’s army, with a culminating epilogue giving each army one last turn. To judge from the typical WWII game, it’s hard to tell that any country other than the U.S. was even involved in the conflict, so it’s nice to see the experiences of the Brits and Russians given center stage.
It’s a credit to the writing team behind Call of Duty, too, that these sections of the game don’t feel like the same basic storyline with different character skins and guns, but have their own distinct flavors. The Russian campaign, for example, begins with your character huddled on a troop transport on the way to Stalingrad, being harangued by a Communist Party commissar. The atmosphere of dread and terror is palpable, helped along by some truly stunning visual and audio effects. One of your teammates even jumps ship and is promptly shot. During the ensuing invasion and battle, in an original turn, you’re denied any weapons; instead, your introduction to Stalingrad is comprised mainly of your character running from one bombed-out wall to another, simply trying not to get shot. All the while, you’re immersed in a thunderstorm of explosions, gunfire, and screams, and all you can think is, If this is just a game, how horrible was the actual experience?
Although the game, while deeply immersive, involves scripted missions, there’s a good deal of room for tactics; there are many routes to victory, and saving and reloading rarely results in the exact same situation upon reentry. The enemy AI, while not a whole lot smarter than that of Medal of Honor, at least feels a little more realistic — enemies will miss occasionally, and the snipers aren’t quite as supernaturally accurate. Most welcome, your teammates are much smarter than in MoH, where they’d often block doorways and have you running around in circles in frustration, and will mostly stay out of your way. In fact, they’ll even provide covering fire for you, or even perform some of your objectives in your place if you’re lingering elsewhere. The game’s tagline is “No Man Fights Alone,” and the gameplay reflects that, conveying a genuine team spirit and providing missions built around supporting your squadmates.
Further adding to the realism is a “shell shock” feature where, if a shell goes off nearby, the screen will blur, your character will fall to the ground, and the sound will cut off for a few moments. Call of Duty also shines in its representations of weapons, which not only sound right but feel right as well. You won’t need a force-feedback mouse to sense the difference between a Garand and a MP44, and when you’re firing off one of the big machine guns, you’ll practically feel the vibrations going through your arm.
Call of Duty is simply the best and most realistic WWII-themed computer game on the market. But its realism only revives the question of whether such a game pays homage to or exploits the memory of the fallen soldiers of the war. While there is perhaps no definitive answer to that question, having played the game — though perhaps “survived” is a more accurate term — I can say that I have come out of it with a fresh appreciation of the horrors of war. Being “killed” in a computer simulation may not convey more than a slim fraction of the actual experience of combat, but it does remind you of how comparatively safe and sound you are in the comfort of your armchair.