Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: Activision Blizzard
Release Date: November 11, 2008
World War II is fighting a battle that will never end, as game developers are finding new ways to retell the story. When I heard that a new Call of Duty title was in the works and that it would be revisiting WWII, I could almost hear FPS fans gnashing their teeth because they're so tired of bringing the Third Reich to its knees again. Modern Warfare was a huge leap forward for the franchise, thanks to Infinity Ward's daring decision to expand the scope of the series. After something like that, even though I'm a big fan of WWII titles, developer Treyarch's decision to repeat history just seemed dangerous.
While spending time in Europe as a Soviet conscript knocking on the Third Reich's doorstep is part of the deal, Call of Duty: World at War also focuses on the Pacific, a theater that games have usually taken on as strategy titles or flight sims. EA's Pacific Assault and Rising Sun had also taken an FPS look at this part of the war, but World at War feels like the most exciting take on WWII yet because it's backed by the kind of action that has made Modern Warfare a huge hit both on- and offline.
The action focuses on two major fronts of WWII: the war in the Pacific and the Soviet push from Stalingrad to the heart of Berlin at the Reichstag. Sgt. Roebuck, voiced by Kiefer Sutherland ("The Lost Boys", "24"), will be screaming orders and encouragement at the same time as he leads you, in the boots of Private Miller, across exotic locales such as the island of Peleliu to the Empire's doorstep at Okinawa. On the other side of the world, Sgt. Reznov's Soviet accent, expertly handled by Gary Oldman ("Dracula", "The Professional", "The Dark Knight"), will be leading you, Private Petrenko, across the battlefields of Stalingrad as you make your way to a date with the Third Reich in Berlin. Despite that kind of star power, however, the single-player story line wasn't as exciting as it could have been, especially the Pacific side of it. It jumps all over the timeline in "meanwhile" mode, showing what's going on elsewhere and leaving you with little to cling onto. Only the Soviet side of the story comes off a lot better thanks to the always-present Sgt. Reznov.
Famous places from the history books ? such as the Seelow Heights, where a million Soviet soldiers confronted 100,000 Wehrmacht defenders outside of Berlin, to the bitter suicide charges at Okinawa ? provide war-torn stages filled with plenty of action. In between each mission, the history of each conflict is served up with an extremely slick presentation that blends together live, mature footage from WWII archives with impressively animated 2-D pieces that are reminiscent of 1940s-flavored war serials. Just like a big budget Hollywood thrill ride, the action also takes many of the facts for granted, leaving quite a few historical details either lost or, in the Reichstag's case, incredibly embellished, in a design driven by what's fun to play.
Built atop the engine that Infinity Ward had developed for Call of Duty 4, World at War can seem like an elaborate mod with only a new coat of WWII paint to distinguish it from its modern cousin. If it weren't for that fact, however, the detailed work put into every scene can easily seem as if one had nothing to do with the other. There are plenty of movie moments here, so you're never certain where the next bullet can be coming from. Bombed-out buildings shudder under shell fire along Stalingrad's streets, and underground tunnels are filled with desperate soldiers who are hiding in the shadows. The level designers give players plenty of options to explore; there is more than one approach to many of the objectives, with one level even going so far as to make you one of the rotating gunners aboard a PBY Catalina as it participated in a nighttime raid against a Japanese supply convoy, which eventually becomes a rescue mission on the sea.
Along with the occasional dismemberment when high ordnance hits the enemy, the "Mature" label is earned equally in how Treyarch approaches the material without wearing the politically correct kid gloves that others do. Nazi flags sport the swastika instead of the Iron Cross fill-in, Japanese atrocities against prisoners are shown from the start, and Soviet wartime brutality against captured foes is never implied but shown. At some point, the player must make a choice about how to deal with prisoners of war, for better or worse. Perhaps most surprising is that a clip from a Hitler speech is played when an online match is won by the German side. World at War unapologetically makes the most of its WWII trappings.
A pounding soundtrack mixes together cultural pieces and modern touches, so expect to hear Japanese taiko drum sets or Russian chorus alongside rock-flavored riffs. It's not as bad as it might sound, but they lend the game a very modern, Hollywood blockbuster feel, which is probably what the designers were aiming for. Likewise, your speakers will thump and thunder with every firefight, especially with all of the grenade spam you'll be seeing. Some of the guns sound as if they were recorded in a booth, which makes me miss the brilliant audio touches of EA's Bad Company.
Veterans traveling back in time from Modern Warfare will find that the controls are pretty much the same. One thing that is a notable difference between the two is the lack of any real boot camp sequence. World at War throws you right into the action, which isn't so much of a bad thing, but it can come as a surprise to green recruits when they die in the first mission. The enemy AI is pretty relentless, if not predictable, but Treyarch has injected a few surprises to keep armchair soldiers on their toes, such as banzai charges, snipers in trees and camouflaged ambushes.
Missile strikes, antiaircraft cannons, decent AI backing you up, and plenty of weapons ? including one of the best flamethrowers since Wolfenstein ? give you the edge that you need. Fortunately, there's no friendly fire to kill your progress, but you can expect the enemy to fill in for it. The clown car spawns that were too obvious in Treyarch's previous foray into WWII, Call of Duty 3, have been replaced by spawns that are a lot more subtle and make more sense in how they occur. It's often possible to exhaust the number of soldiers coming to attack you, but at least they'll be coming out from bunkers, buildings and across the street instead of a tiny house that may have been plucked from Gauntlet.
The multiplayer segment is almost a bit-for-bit copy of the experience found in Modern Warfare, only with a WWII theme and Kiefer Sutherland's voice on the American side. UAVs are replaced with recon planes, artillery takes over for airstrikes, but the best switch-up is with the dogs that you can unleash after scoring so many kills in a row. Modern Warfare may have helicopters, but nothing is more chilling than hearing the other team call out the dogs to hunt you down, wherever you might be. Everything else ? such as levels earned from the experience you gain in battle, the perks that can give you an edge in battle such as improved aim or health, game types ranging from regular deathmatch to objective-based tug-of-wars, the challenges for each weapon, and all of the other unlockables that make multiplayer a battle royale grindhouse ? keep World at War fresh long after the single-player campaign has been completed. It's still somewhat disappointing to see player count limits that are as low as they are for many maps, when a title such as Resistance 2 easily brings together 60 players.
The multiplayer maps send players through a Japanese castle, wrecked train station, trenches, devastated towns, and provide plenty of action, whether you feel like sniping your foes or going in with a trench gun. Tanks are also a part of some maps, giving an armored edge to anyone who decides to drive one. Fans who remember Call of Duty 3's vehicle-heavy multiplayer maps will find that the way vehicles are handled in World at War are almost the same and can easily be dealt with, thanks to the perks that players have at their disposal.
Campaign co-op is an exciting new feature for Call of Duty's multiplayer segment in World at War, which works by sticking together up to four players in the single-player campaign. Downed players can be resuscitated to keep the game going, unless it's a tank level, and the story is shared between everyone without any changes. It can also be played competitively, where each player goes for the highest scores to see who is the best. Additional difficulty levels also keep things exciting for veterans who find the usual 10 or so hours of single-player gameplay too short for their liking.
When you get tired of fighting with the living, there are always the Nazi Zombies. It can be taken on solo or with friends, as wave upon wave of undead fascists come to eat your freedom-loving brain. Unlocked after finishing the main campaign, it starts you off in a blasted building with boarded-up doors and windows. Killed zombies earn points that can be used to repair barricades, buy better weapons, open doors to safety, or even move barricades aside. The more waves that you manage to survive, the worse the next one will be. It's an entertaining diversion, but it feels tacked on, and part of me wished that some of that effort was spent on making the rest of the multiplayer stand out even more from its modern peers.
The problem with World at War is that some players may feel that it is too much like Call of Duty 4, only set in the 1940s, which may not be enough for them to leave their Prestiged characters behind, especially if they're not fans of the genre. Other problems, such as how it's easy to miss hearing some of the scripted in-game speeches or how obvious some of the combat scripting is, to how some of the spawn zones overflow with more soldiers than what Chesty Puller had to deal with, can be hard to ignore especially when much of this was seen in Treyarch's previous effort.
If you don't care what era your action takes place in, then Call of Duty: World at War manages to be an exciting addition to the series. It can sometimes feel like a makeover that is only skin deep, and FPS players who want more out of their favorite series may see little reason to leave Modern Warfare. But then, they'd be missing out on one of the best reasons for any player signing back up for another tour of duty in WWII.
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