Butchery and Bias | Call of Duty: World at War at 10
We’re conditioned to see the Allies as the heroes in World War 2. In fairness it’s pretty clear why. With that said there are no real heroes in war as Spec Ops: The Line will clearly tell you. With Call of Duty: World at War developer Treyarch managed to make the best piece of World War 2 propaganda since, well, World War 2. The American and Russian characters are the heroes of our story as they tramp across Europe and the Pacific butchering the savage Japanese and Germans for Uncle Sam or the glory of the Motherland.
The game’s dual story lines are set roughly around the same time as each other beginning in 1942 and ending in 1945. US Marine Private Miller is rescued by Corporal Roebuck – Kiefer Sutherland at his gruffest – and joins the Marines in the Pacific Theatre. Private Dmitri Petrenko wakes up in a fountain at the height of the Battle of Stalingrad and with the aid of Sergeant Reznov – Gary Oldman doing his best impression of an ageing Russian death metal singer – stages a near-perfect reenactment of the Jude Law film Enemy at the Gates. From there the stories flash forward to 1945 to take in the Battle of Berlin and the conquest of the Okinawa Islands by the Americans.
Call of Duty: World at War posits itself as an interesting game where you travel to interesting places, meet interesting people and then shoot them. The violence of Call of Duty: World at War was a step above anything seen in the previous IP Modern Warfare. Machine guns and sniper rifles blew limbs off bodies, grenades turned the enemy into open, red meat while flamethrowers burnt foes into pink and black lumps like rare steak. It was a real shock to my fourteen-year-old self and I consider it a milestone in desensitizing me and probably a lot of my generation to that kind of violence.
Ostensibly this was all in the name of historical accuracy and realism but it hadn’t been seen so realistically recreated except in films and TV shows like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. Now not only could you watch a German soldier lose his legs and lie there screaming while he died of blood loss but you could be the one to do it. Admittedly there is one voice of reason in all this: Private Chernov.
Chernov is Sergeant Reznov’s right-hand man. Clearly a recruit rather than the career soldiers Dmitri and Reznov are Chernov is constantly distressed at having to participate in battlefield executions and the brutal fighting the Russians often engaged in. By the time he is burned to death in the final mission it is clear that Chernov doesn’t really represent anyone. At a time when America was losing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Activision were producing games for the US military Treyarch were never going to be allowed to make an anti-war game whether they wanted to or not. Call of Duty: World at War isn’t interested in telling a story about the horrors of war. It’s only interested in butchery and bias.
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If historical accuracy was what Treyarch were going for – and I doubt it was – then why not accurately represent the people the game sends you to kill? In droves the Japanese enemies charge at you, screaming and hollering before being shot down in their suicidal banzai charges. The Germans often run in the opposite direction, always on a defensive retreat, and Reznov encourages you to shoot them in the back. That’s accurate enough so far but if we consider who made up the Japanese and German armies in 1945 then that accuracy begins to peter out.
By 1945 the Nazi’s once proud Wehrmacht and SS divisions had been brutally diminished by the Allied invasion and the punitive Russian counterattack. Defending the streets of Berlin then in 1945 were the boys and girls from the Hitler Youth and the League of German Maidens alongside cripples and old men. Much like their eastern Axis allies the German troops were ravaged by disease, malnutrition and low morale. It paints a sad picture of the final days of the war but then killing sick children isn’t very fun or heroic so Treyarch replaced them with fit, strong and berserk men.
Admittedly the Call of Duty campaigns had always been on a bit of a downhill slope. They lacked the gut punches of Gears of War and the brightness of Halo. They made up for it with their multiplayer modes. If Call of Duty: World at War did one thing well in 2008 it was first-person-shooting. The guns all felt and sounded real and the violence they wrought was a lot easier to parse when it was dished out on your friends. Being called a “Fucking asshole” down a headset definitely limits the psychological effects of watching a realistically animated human having their legs shorn off.
From Modern Warfare onwards the Call of Duty series knew where it was going. The campaigns gradually took more of a backseat though they remained fun and detailed enough that I kept going back to them. That ended with the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 this year with the campaign being dumbed down to some beautiful and brutal cut scenes and a couple of training missions. Where the campaigns have failed the ever-present Zombies mode has stepped up.
First introduced in Call of Duty: World at War the mode has moved on and mutated from that simple four room house layout in ‘Nacht der Untoten’. It now includes multiple character rosters, a weird body-horror sci-fi story and more types of zombies than you can shake a Wunder Waffe at. Still, despite all it’s jingoistic and dehumanizing bluster, I miss the Call of Duty: World at War campaign. We may never see it’s like again which is both good and bad. Following on from World at War the campaign modes began to lack the intensity and variety that had made them famous. Even the uber-controversial ‘No Russian’ mission in Modern Warfare 2 was just a flash in the pan.
Comparing the decade old Call of Duty: World at War with last year’s Call of Duty: World War 2 and the cracks are clear. World War 2 is toothless, not even the late game discovery of a German prison camp can elevate things. World at War had fangs and it used them in pursuit of glorifying a war fought by men long dead. For good or for ill it remains one of the few World War 2 games that actually had some bite to it.