Wednesday, January 21, 2009

IT'S... ALIVE!!!

Activision Blizzard C.E.O. Bobby Kotick came up with an interesting answer to the question: How do you exploit a successful game franchise with yearly titles and have them not turn into watered down crap? Actually it was a question of his making and ‘exploit’ was his term of choice. It wasn’t a move for squeamish gamer purists however, people who might hesitate just because an idea could be considered artistically unsavoury. What he did was take the popular Call of Duty brand and allow two separate developers to work on alternating titles. Each team had two years to make a game and they would be published on concurrent years. The games would get the time they need to ensure a minimum level of quality and yet there would be a new product to push every Christmas. The people who cared about games would be happy and the executive who only cares about money would be happy.

One thing this plan had going for it was Activision-owned Infinity Ward, creator of the original Call of Duty and its sequel. These were the developers that initially captured lightning in a bottle with their tight gun play, intense atmosphere, and dedication to historical facts. All other companies that would make a Call of Duty game, be it for personal computer, console, or cell phone would have an established standard to achieve, to say nothing of their proprietary engine and other essential pieces of game tech.

The catch - and there’s always a catch - is that the other company, called Treyarch Corporation, did not share in equal success. Call of Duty expansions and the number three title in the series were generally considered good but not great. This consensus was exacerbated when Infinity Ward’s next game, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare became a smash hit, one of the highest rated shooters of all time, and a multiplayer power house.

It was at this time when enthusiast gamers began expressing their impatience with the Kotick business model. It was clear that the now revered Call of Duty franchise was at its best when in the hands of Infinity Ward and that Treyarch’s attempts were a distraction. When Activision announced that the next title in the series, the unnumbered Call of Duty: World at War, was not only going back to Treyarch but back from the fresh modern setting to the overplayed World War II theatre there was much dismissal and general disdain. Not to worry, we were told. Call of Duty 3 was not indicative of Treyarch’s abilities, they weren’t given enough time to shine and that would not be the case henceforth.

So now, with the kinks of the Kotick plan ironed out what was the result? How does World at War stand on its own and how does it measure up to Modern Warfare, one of last year’s best games?

The first thing I’ll say is World at War is an unsettlingly accurate clone of Modern Warfare. I use the term unsettling because while playing the game feelings of a Frankenstein transplant were evoked, of a brain being moved from one body to another. I’ll credit Treyarch with this: they managed to make a game that doesn’t feel like they made it.

That said however, they did copy an award winning game and so naturally World at War has a lot going for it. The thing is the game is so much like Modern Warfare that if you read that review a year ago you’re pretty much up to speed on this game. (In truth that’s why I took so much time laying out the unusual history of the franchise rather than talk about the game itself.)

But on to it we’ll go: World at War looks and plays nicely, exactly like Modern Warfare did only with a World War II skin. There have been some minor additions to the game engine like limb damage and flame throwing effects. Other than that it’s a by the numbers Call of Duty with a tank level, a plane level, a sniping level, etc. This isn't the first time we players get to attack the Reichstag in a war game but they do a nice job and it is the first time we get to experience the event in High Definition. The horrors of war are revealed to the player dutifully, from torture to air strike survivors to soldiers on fire falling almost gently to their knees before lying down. You can play the single player chapters in co-op mode but in what must have been a design oversight you have to complete the level in single player mode before it unlocks for co-op. This was an annoyance for those of us who wanted to play with friends right off the bat.

The multiplayer component mimics its wildly popular predecessor right down to the levelling up for new weapons and perks. The expansion here was the addition of tank levels, or levels where tanks re-spawn and can be entered to boost firepower. These levels are larger to accommodate the vehicles which results in more sporadic fighting amongst the infantrymen but I found it to be a nice change.

One value added feature deserves true praise and that is the ‘Nazi Zombie’ mini-game. Nazi Zombies you ask? I say why choose? In this mode you (and a buddy or three if you wish) are holed up in a building while wave after wave of Nazi zombies try to get through the windows and into your sweet, succulent brains. You get points for every zombie you kill and these points can be redeemed for weapons hanging on the wall or to open up new areas. This mode has become a gamer night favourite and is a great example of what other kinds of games can be made with the engine. A full game version of this mode with an expansive haunted mansion to explore would be an instant classic!

So yes, World at War is a good game and yet my usual enthusiasm for titles of this calibre is usually more effusive. I’m finding it strange to applaud a developer whose best effort to date, their crowning achievement, was to become the shadow of another team. Am I being too sentimental in thinking that games should have their developer’s personality within, their sense of style embedded somewhere in the code? Or is cloning success the cost-effective wave of the future? Mr. Kotick, who upon Activision’s merger with Blizzard under the auspices of the Vivendi media conglomerate, now runs the largest video game empire on earth. I would guess that he’s the one with the most say in the matter, at least until he discovers another product with more appealing numbers than video games.

Surely there are other industries worthy enough to be exploited? I hear he likes modern art.

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