During the late nineties and early-noughties, the vast majority of shooters had one of two thematic genres: World War II and Sci-Fi. It was a time of seminal titles like Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Medal of Honour: Allied Assault, Doom 3 and Quake 4. Of the various post-millenial WWII shooters that would grace our computer and TV screens , perhaps one of the most groundbreaking and influential was the Call of Duty franchise. The first Call of Duty game, released in 2003, was adored by critics of the day and set the precedent for the franchise’s future instalments to be every bit as influential in the multiplayer FPS genre. And influential they were, as 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare changed the game entirely. With its deep and complex multiplayer and politically relevant story unseen in prior games, the release of Modern Warfare marked the death knell for a genre that had existed almost since the advent of the first-person shooter genre as a whole. And so in 2008, Treyarch decided now was the best time to send off the World War II shooter – and they did so with a bang.
Call of Duty: World at War was not like the games that came before it. It was not a pure power-fantasy shooter, despite having that element as other titles did. It wasn’t Indestructible America vs. Those Wacky Nazis (and in Wolfenstein’s case, their zany black magic). World at War did something different: rather than romanticise WWII as games before it had, or merely provide a quick backdrop for multiplayer combat like Battlefield 1942 did, Treyarch decided to do something different: they portrayed the war for what it was. True enough, it did have a very good multiplayer mode, building off the foundation that Modern Warfare left, as well as effectively kicking off the zombies trend in videogames today, but what I’m focusing on is the game’s campaign.
Medal of Honor: Allied Assault begins with a tutorial, putting your character through a basic training course. Similarly, Return to Castle Wolfenstein opens with B.J. Blazcowicz having just escaped prison, ready to kick Nazi-hide and make a passing acknowledgement of Agent One’s death a few minutes prior before getting right back to the ass-kicking. Call of Duty 2 opens with you throwing potatoes at things. However, World at War is nothing like this. In the beginning, you are being held captive on Makin Atoll, and the first thing you see is the leering face of a Japanese soldier while one of your comrades is punched and abused in the background. He’s defiant to the end, and for his trouble, the rescue party that comes for you is a second too late to stop him from having a cigarette put out in his eye and his throat slit right in front of you. You’re helpless, you’re scared, you’re feigning toughness, and you are the one that has to be rescued.
This is repeated later on when the perspective shifts to the Soviet front fighting against the Nazis in the Battle of Stalingrad. You’re lying in a drained fountain. On your left and right, the dead bodies of your comrades. To the front, Nazi patrols finishing off anyone unlucky enough to be left alive, and a solitary raven picking at those already dead while dead trees and buildings broken by war all smoulder around you. Above you, an ashen sky blackened by the fires and the German bombers rolling oppressively overhead. All you can do is crawl around in the filth and the blood of your comrades until you find Seargent Reznov. Unlike the American campaign however, nobody comes to your rescue yet. It’s you and the injured Sergeant, alone amongst the dead, and it’s damn lucky that Reznov knows what to do, or else you’d likely be left for dead by your incoming allies.
I love how these two scenes as a whole demonstrate, in more ways that mere words could, the true horror that ground troops in the Second World War would have faced. Very few WWII games, both before and since, have the same tangible sense of tension, fear and horror that this game exudes. It immerses you in the role of a WWII soldier by not only giving you an actual reason to hate your enemy, but also by showing you first-hand the frightening and horrifying things that Imperialist Japan and Nazi Germany were capable of. And through these scenes you know that they would not hesitate to do that to you again if you weren’t armed and shooting them.
And make no mistake, from those moments on, World at War pulls no punches in making everything look downright scary. Following the introductory shock in both the Soviet and American campaigns, it’s you against the world and Murphy’s Law is very much in full swing. The storming of Peleliu in the second mission goes completely wrong, with one inexperienced private being shot in the head before you even land on the beach, and at any point when it feels like you might be about to catch a break, everything heats up once again. During the US campaign, Banzai chargers pop up from the bushes and rush you. The airfield you just captured is suddenly rushed by a swarm of Imperial infantry. Whilst sneaking through Stalingrad to avoid the Nazis in the Soviet campaign, you’re spotted by a Nazi patrol and an entire public house is burned down to smoke you out. It’s only the intervention of the Red Army that saves you from a painful execution by flamethrower at the hands of the Nazis without a hint of mercy. And amongst it all, when you ARE fighting, your friends will be dying around you and enemies don’t just just flop down like rag dolls when you shoot them. Hit them in the arm, they’ll clutch the bloody stump before bleeding out. Hit their head, it explodes into gore. Shoot them a few times in the chest, they’ll cling onto the last few vestiges of life before expiring.
Another way in which World at War shines among its genre is in its music. A far cry from the military drums of previous games like Medal of Honour, World at War’s music ranges from atmospheric to tense to intense, and in all honesty would feel just as much at home in a horror movie as it does in this game. Take for instance the aforementioned scene in the Stalingrad fountain. Just as you gain control of your character, you hear a nightmarish screech straight out of a horror-film soundtrack that slowly gives way to atmospheric tones and the baleful, desperate choral cries of a woman, calling out in German: “Brave soldier, die with me.” As if to bookend that, just as you begin storming the Reichstag during the final mission, “Hell’s Gate” which plays in the background to that mission’s opening, opens with a hellish scream from the underworld and carries you into the Reichstag amidst a wave of heavy, doomy guitars. All this, I feel, adds to the darkness, grittiness and fear which underpin the game’s main theme.
An element that World at War has that perhaps other games don’t as well is a distinct feeling of passion amidst all involved. Everyone here is frightened, panicking, but outwardly driven by a desire for revenge and victory. This is evident in the way that the characters act in combat. Modern Warfare and its sequels have a sense of urgency in their interactions, but nothing rivals the passion that is displayed by the soldiers in World at War. The American soldiers shout and scream as they mow down Japanese infantry. Reznov rallies the Soviet troops with promises that they will stamp out the Reich and take revenge for Stalingrad. Even the enemies too have visible passion seemingly missing in other games, the Japanese soldiers, in a pinch, will run at you with passioned cries of “Tennouheika banzai!” (translation: “Long live his majesty the Emperor!”) , and when faces with the Red Army’s assault, the Nazis will scream “Komminusteeeen!!” (“Communist!”) at the top of their voices. Even in the muluiplayer, American soldiers fighting the Nazis or Japanese will sometimes scream “Die, die, diiiie!” (by which we do not mean the German for “the, the, the”). The handlers for each side panic when you lose the lead, or the enemy activates a killstreak, and will bark at you when something goes well, as if to say “Good, keep it up!”. All this serves to evoke the passion each side had in the war, thus immersing players even further. You’re there, your comrades’ rallying cries all around you, and the panicked screams of the enemies as they drop like flies are like music to your ears.
I’ve described the game in the introduction to this article as a “send-off” to the WWII shooter genre, and so I think it’s quite appropriate that the game ends with the end of the European theatre of WWII: the storming of the Reichstag. Private Petrenko struggles over to the Reichstag’s flagpole, Soviet flag in-hand, fending off attacks from lingering Nazis before finally planting it beside the German flagpole. The European theatre is over, the most notorious enemy of the Second World War is defeated, and so too does its genre come to a glorious close. A fitting end for a genre that endured since the humble shooter’s beginnings all the way to 2008.
There have been WWII shooters since then, but arguably none have managed to capture the same level of interest as World at War did. Activision’s own Wolfenstein reboot for instance, developed by Raven Software and released a year later, was met with middling response from players and critics alike, and dismal commercial performance. Even more modern games haven’t quite managed to capture the same spirit. Starbreeze’s Raid: WWII was met with general disinterest and a mediocre critical response, while Sledgehammer Games’ return to the era, Call of Duty: WWII from the same year, was sadly lumped in by most gamers with the rest of the entries in the series, left to be washed away and largely forgotten by the time the next Call of Duty came out. WWII is now an era occupied by other genres – grand strategies like Hearts of Iron 4, more gameplay-focused third-person shooters such as Sniper Elite and its Nazi Zombie Army spinoffs, and indie titles such as This War of Mine and WARSAW, which I myself reviewed recently.
Many, many people will likely have strongly-held beliefs as to what they think is the best WWII shooter of all time. To me, Call of Duty: World at War takes that spot easily. In 2008 it served as a glorious swansong for the WWII genre, a way for Call of Duty to say farewell to its World War 2 roots and take its definitive step into the era of the modern warfare shooter all the more confidently, and by extension a final goodbye to a genre that was at the time dying out. Maybe one day the genre will get a proper revival, and time will tell if they return in full force or remain a shadow of their former self, like the perhaps unintentionally prophetic Nazi Zombies of World at War’s mode of the same name. Until then though, World at War remains a landmark, an all-out farewell to the World War II shooter that goes in and out with a bang.