Last week was Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and while there are a number of things I could write about, I feel like other writers out there have covered the major announcements quite thoroughly. Instead, I'd like to focus on something that probably no one else noticed.
In the Career Pavilion, Activision had a huge booth set up with Guitar Hero: World Tour front and center on a big stage, so anyone could show off their chops in front of the rest of the attendees. But meanwhile, tucked off to the side they had an Xbox 360 set up with the latest Call of Duty game, subtitled World at War, which is set during World War II. In case anyone isn't familiar, Call of Duty is a first-person shooter that focuses on intense realism.
I played the game on two different occasions, and each time was a different scenario. In the first scenario, I was a Russian soldier fighting the Third Reich in a gritty urban setting in Eastern Europe. In the other, I was an U.S. soldier fighting the Imperial Japanese Army in the Pacific theater.
What struck me most is how they designed the game to make fighting Germans and Japanese to feel like two distinct scenarios. Fighting the German army involved sneaking through bombed-out buildings and sewers, so I had to be sneaky. By contrast, the fight against the Japanese army took place outdoors, and felt more like a siege. My squad was attempting to take control of a strategic position, so the emphasis was on pushing forward as quick as possible.
Enemy tactics were also varied in the two scenarios, the biggest difference being that the Japanese army had banzai soldiers who would rush straight at you with their bayonets. If you don't kill them before they reach you, or press the melee attack button at just the right time to counter-attack, then you get stabbed and killed.
Now, from a purely design-oriented standpoint, all of this is great. Fighting Germany should feel different from fighting Japan. And the game is fun to play. It has just the right mix of action and challenge to be addictive without being frustrating.
However, the problem I had with the game was this: being about World War II, the events of this game are based on real people, who really lived and died. Many of us probably have living relatives who fought in WW2. What Activision has done is essentially to take those real-life armies and reduced them to green-shelled and red-shelled koopas.
While I was playing, I couldn't shake the feeling in the back of my mind that taking this intense real-life conflict and applying all the familiar tropes of a videogame to it somehow cheapened the reality that it was based on. How would a veteran like to know that all the training and battle experience he went through became reduced to, "Press the melee button when the Banzai soldier gets close"?
But I don't want to sound like I'm knocking the game itself. The game was fun as hell. I just felt like taking a worldwide conflict and slicing it up into "levels" that have their own "enemies" was a weird treatment of the event. Then again, I'm hard-pressed to come up with a better way that they could've done it. I don't know if there's a way to capture both the urge to kill Nazis with a sense of respect for those who lived and died during the conflict, or if fostering a sense of respect is something the game should try to accomplish in the first place.
But maybe this doesn't even matter in the long run. The game is fun to play, pure and simple. So should one even consider if the events of the past have been cheapened through recreation? I'll leave it for the game designers to decide for themselves.