Normally, we’d start a review of a game like this with an explanation of the story – but today we’re not going to. There are two reasons for that.
Firstly, this is World War II (again) and if you need the plot of that explained to you then you’d probably be better off using your time to learn something useful like how to tie your shoelaces. There’s really no excuse for not knowing the basic structure of World War II – especially at this time of year.
All you really need to know is that the game switches you between an American Marine fighting in the Pacific theatre against the Japanese and a Russian soldier who survives Stalingrad and follows the push into Berlin at the end of the war.
The second reason we’re not going to focus on the plot is that it’s much more interesting to think and critique the level of maturity the plot is handled with, mainly because there are several points where World at War seems to go out of its way to be controversial.
Here’s the weird thing about war games like the Call of Duty series – they set out to make some of the most damning and awful moments in all of human history into an interactive artform that people will actually pay to be part of. Viewed on that level it’s actually quite sick, which is why the games don’t generally get published unless they are handled in a mature way.
In brief; there is a line that these games don’t cross as a matter of taste and politic – especially when they are released on Remembrance Day.
Think back. Previous war games, especially those in the Call of Duty series have managed to provide an experience which is suitably gritty, bleak and at least semi-honourable to the sacrifices made by those who fought in the wars – but they never step over The Line. There are no concentration camps or Hiroshima bombings because these aren’t really appropriate scenes to put in a game. Basically though games can do Rambo, they can’t do Platoon just yet.
Call of Duty 5 however seeks to cross The Line immediately. The game opens up with in-game cutscenes of ever-loyal, American all-star types getting their throats slit and eyes burned out by the consistently demonised Japanese forces and it doesn’t stop there. In the needlessly flashy and fast-moving video cutscenes that punctuate the missions, the game displays real video footage of war time atrocities – smouldering bodies hanging from streetlights, mass graves and executions.
And, as human beings if not critics, we’d be at fault if we didn’t question the worth of these images in this context.
There’s an argument to say that art (if we’re judging games as that in even the lightest regard) should be provocative by nature and while we do think that’s true, there should at least be a reason for being that way. World at War doesn’t have that reason.
These images might be OK if the actual structure of the game in some way made them a relevant or important part of the design. If there was a reason for these images and if the game was trying to say something then we’d understand. But this isn’t Saving Private Ryan and there’s not even a basic lesson to take away from World at War other than ‘Don’t jump on grenades, m’kay?’
It’s an odd tack to start a review on, but we think it’s the right one. Despite whatever pleasures the gameplay may hold there’s a definite consensus here at bit-tech that World at War is a needlessly gratuitous and gory game and, given the subject matter and actual footage used, that just isn’t as ignorable as it might be with other games. These are real people the game is dealing with after all and, even if it wasn’t the intention of the developers, they come close to demonising the Japanese in a way they never would with the German army.