War, as Fallout 3 so famously puts it, never changes. While the weapons and tactics may differ, it's still about chaos and fear and the overwhelming of the senses as adrenaline surges through your veins. That's a hard experience to capture on a screen, but the Call of Duty series comes close thanks to its constant redefinition of what "11" is in terms of intensity for first-person shooters. Last year's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare delivered an awesome and varied single-player experience that was matched with an even better multiplayer suite, and it made for some really big shoes for Call of Duty: World at War to fill.
If you've been living in Antarctica the past year and haven't heard, then yes, World at War returns back to the series' World War II roots. This has caused no end of grumbling from fans of Modern Warfare's contemporary setting, as well as the fact that this installment was done by Treyarch, a sister-studio to Call of Duty-creator Infinity Ward. Treyarch did the somewhat-maligned Call of Duty 3, but the studio looks to atone for that by delivering a game with an impressive amount of content. There's a solid single-player campaign, co-op play, a huge multiplayer suite, and even a fun, silly mode featuring zombies.
Video Review - Watch or download here (HD available).
It certainly helps that World at War focuses on the less popularized theaters of World War II. Instead of serving up Normandy and D-Day for what would have been the umpteenth time for World War II shooters, the game covers the island hopping campaign in the Pacific as well as the Red Army's reversal of the tide at Stalingrad all the way to the Fall of Berlin. This provides some interesting new battlefields set on sun-bleached coral atolls in the Pacific. You will see some more familiar spots with the bombed-out cities and farmlands ofthe Eastern Front missions, but it's still well done.
War tends to be a savage affair, but the Pacific and the Eastern Front were especially so. In the game, Japanese soldiers swarm out of the brush, erupting out of spider holes to charge straight at you in an attempt to run you through with their bayonets. They'll play dead and wait for you to walk into the middle of a trap. Though set outdoors, it feels like close-quarters combat much of the time. Meanwhile, the Russian Front is full of merciless moments; there's plenty of gunning down of wounded and unarmed soldiers by both sides, and sometimes you're asked to pull the trigger yourself.
This remains a Call of Duty game through and through. What that means is that the action is fast and fluid, as well as rigidly scripted. The success of the franchise proves that there's a vast audience for that, and this won't change anyone's mind. Enemy soldiers and your computer-controlled teammates respawn endlessly until you advance far enough to hit the triggers to make them stop reappearing. Then you advance to the next firefight and repeat the process over again. The thing is, you're far too busy shooting and ducking and dying to really notice much of the time. The sense of immersion is pretty complete.
There are plenty of deafening, large-scale set-piece battles, but there's also variation to change things up. Case in point is the PBY mission, where you man the guns on a Navy aircraft. At first glance, this seems to be a mirror to the Spectre Gunship mission in Modern Warfare; in both missions you rain fire down from above. But the Spectre Gunship mission has a cold detachment to it; those tiny blips on the screen that are human beings die from a foe that they cannot see and fight back against. In World at War's PBY mission, you're in the midst of a raging air and sea battle, taking damage and fighting for your life. Or there's a sniper mission to whack a German general that doesn't quite have the cat-and-mouse feeling of Modern Warfare's sniper level.
The campaign does suffer a bit due to its broad scope; the narrative skips over months at a time, showcasing the major battles of the war. The result is that the sense of story doesn't seem as strong as it did in Modern Warfare. It probably doesn't help that we all know how the war eventually turned out; Modern Warfare had the advantage of a fictionalized story with plenty of shocking twists and turns.
All told, the single-player campaign is about as short as that in Modern Warfare, but it doesn't drag on. Plus, there's considerably more replayability here because the bulk of the campaign is playable in cooperative mode with up to three other players. I say the bulk because a handful of missions are missing, notably the sniper mission and the PBY mission; the former wouldn't make sense with four snipers, while the latter doesn't have enough room in the narrow PBY for more than one player to scamper about. Not only is the campaign in co-op, but there's also a Death Card system reminiscent of Halo 3's skull system. Scattered throughout the campaign are death cards that you can find. Each one unlocks a different capability, like Sticks & Stones, which only gives you a knife and dud grenades. Sure, it might seem strange, but it lets you have fun if you want to challenge yourself.
Multiplayer is definitely an area where World at War shines. Modern Warfare had arguably one of the greatest multiplayer suites in recent history, and World at War builds on it. There remains the create-a-class and rank system that lets you unlock perks, weapons, and upgrades that you can then mix-and-match to create different load outs. Many of Modern Warfare's perks are here, adjusted for the earlier age. For instance, what used to be the UAV Jammer is now Camouflage to keep you from being spotted by any spotting planes the enemy calls in.
There are also about a dozen new perks, about half of which are associated with vehicles for the four huge vehicle-enabled maps. And while tanks can deal out a lot of punishment, they're also very vulnerable to infantry antitank weapons and other tanks. Driving around in a tank is cool, but you'll realize just how slow World War II-era tanks are. Just like in real-life, you need to coordinate infantry and armor together for maximum effectiveness, and it's nice that the PC version has built-in voice chat. Fans of Modern Warfare on the PC had to set up third-party voice systems out of game to talk to one another.
The reward mechanic in World at War is also similar, but it does have a nice twist. Three kills in a row gets you a spotting plane rather than a UAV, five kills gives you an artillery strike instead of an air strike, and seven kills without dying lets you call in my favorite new feature: dogs. Yes, you unleash the hounds of war, a pack of killer dogs that will make a beeline to the enemy (helpful in spotting where they're hiding) as well as tear their throats out if they can. The dogs are difficult to take down, because they'll swarm you, and if you're busy shooting at the dogs you're often not paying attention to the fact that an opponent is lining you up in his sights.
All the popular modes from Modern Warfare return, like Headquarters (each team battles to seize a point on the map; the team that does doesn't gets to respawn if they die), search and destroy, team deathmatch and the like. There are also two new modes, war and capture-the-flag. The former is similar to Battlefield's conquest mode; there are five points on the map that must be seized. The kicker is that only one point is under contention at a time, so it focuses the action. (And, yes, Call of Duty 3 fans will recognize that it had war mode as well.)
And then there's the icing on the cake, a silly-yet-fun bonus co-op mode called Nacht der Untoten, or Night of the Undead. It's also referred to as Nazi Zombies, and it's a last stand against waves of oncoming zombies. You and up to three others are holed up inside a bunker; the zombies try to break down the barricades at the doors and windows and you have to kill them. Each wave becomes harder by throwing more zombies at you or making the zombies faster or both. You gain points for killing the zombies and for rebuilding the barricades, and these points can be used to purchase weapons, ammo, and access to other parts of the bunker. There's even a mystery box that can serve up a ray gun straight out of 1940s pulp fiction. Still, eventually the zombies will kill you, and the goal is to survive as long as possible to compare your performance on the leaderboard.
Given that it uses the Modern Warfare engine, World at War looks every bit as good on both the PC and the Xbox 360. I've always been impressed with the level of detail on everything; walk up to a fellow soldier and you can see the seams in their clothing. The most memorable visual in the game for me has to be the arterial blood spray that happens when a human body gets torn apart by explosions and gunfire. The dark red of the blood is in stark contrast to the dust and smoke in the air. And the frame rate is Call of Duty-smooth on both platforms from that I saw. (For comparison purposes, the PC I used had a Core 2 Quad processor with an 8800GTX and 2GB of RAM. All detail settings were set to maximum at 1920x1200 resolution.)
Activision tapped Hollywood's top talent for the voice acting. Kiefer Sutherland does his part for the Marines, while Gary Oldman is the main voice for the Russians. Sutherland's voice is so distinct that it's easy to imagine him in the recording booth, bellowing his lines into the microphone (that must have been some recording session). Oldman, who has made a career out of being an utter chameleon, is almost unrecognizable in his role, and he delivers a convincing Russian accent. The rest of the sound effects are as authentic as we've come to expect; when you hear the metallic thunk of various machine guns you know that the sound guys spent a lot of time shooting and recording those World War II guns in a desert somewhere. Yet it's the mixing of all these elements that makes a Call of Duty game; there's so much audio erupting all over the place, from gunfire, explosions, guys yelling out commands or warnings, the whistle of artillery above, to the rumbling of vehicles nearby. It all combines to create a rich soundscape comparable to those in movies.
©2008-11-11, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved