I'll be honest; I had a number of trepidations going into this year's Call of Duty installment. My biggest concern was the game's return to the 1940s fighting a war that we've fought over and over again in countless World War II shooters. Last year's Call of Duty 4 proved to be something of a revolution, what with its brand new settings, original story, fantastic weapons and amazing storytelling. After seeing how good a modern Call of Duty could be, it was hard going back to a war of yesteryear. Thankfully I could get past my initial World War II fatigue, because Call of Duty: World at War proves to be an exciting action game full of all the highs and lows you've come to expect from the series. It's nowhere near as good as Call of Duty 4, but this does enough new and original to keep my interests long after the game is over.
There are certain things you have come to expect from a Call of Duty game. For one thing you expect it to be a rollercoaster ride, where you're in the driver's seat witnessing some of the most significant battles of all time. Another thing you have come to expect is a story that is told through multiple characters, generally from different countries and sides. The good news is that all this has been incorporated into World at War at great success. By the end of the game you will feel like you've really experienced something big, while at the same time it doesn't feel like you're doing the same thing over and over because you're constantly changing from one person to another.
Call of Duty: World at War is told through the eyes of two different soldiers, each on entirely different sides of this battle. One thread has you taking the role of an American soldier, fighting the Japanese as they try to take over the Pacific islands. The other thread has you playing a Russian soldier, pissed off that Germany invaded your country and looking for a little revenge. In one thread you'll be fighting in the lush jungles, while in the other thread takes you from Russia all the way to Berlin. In either case, these are two very different storylines that are new to the Call of Duty franchise.
The gimmick in this Call of Duty is that you always have a superior officer giving you useful information. No matter where you are or what you're doing, that guide is always there telling you what you need to know. On the American side that superior officer is none other than Kiefer Sutherland, apparently looking for something to do after scrapping this year's season of 24. On the Russian side it's none other than ... Gary Oldman? Sure I love Oldman's work (who else can go from Sid Vicious to Beethoven?), but it's kind of jarring thinking about him as a Russian soldier. Either way, the voice acting is top notch and it makes me feel warm inside hearing Jack Bauer bark orders at me.
For the most part World at War plays like all of the other Call of Duty games; you are mixed in with a group of soldiers who are looking to advance through a set number of objectives. To do this you must kill off the waves of bad guys, then move to the next safe point, kill a bunch more bad guys, and then keep advancing little by little. As is true with all Call of Duty games, if you just sit there killing bad guys and never advancing, then you'll get a rude wake up call. You see, you'll quickly discover that the enemies have an infinite amount of bad guys in their arsenal. That means that you'll just be killing wave after wave making no progress. What the game wants you to do (more than anything) is get to the next checkpoint, and then from there you kill a bunch of people and try to make it to the next checkpoint.
Thankfully World at War has learned a few things from last year's Call of Duty 4. For one thing, they have figured out a compelling way of teaching you everything you need to know about the upcoming skirmish. They also have learned a thing or two about adding diversity to the action, so you're not just going from one level to the next running and gunning. Perhaps the biggest lesson they've learned is how to harness all of the power of the Call of Duty 4 engine. While it doesn't look much better than Call of Duty 4, there's no doubt that visually this game is light years ahead of Call of Duty 2 or 3. Never have you seen World War II come to life quite like this. It's almost worth going back to the 1940s just to see how amazing everything looks. Almost.
As I mentioned earlier, the developers have learned a thing or two about cutting up the action in a way where it doesn't feel like you're doing the same thing over and over. You won't notice this at first, but towards the end of the game you'll appreciate every time the game takes you out of the first-person perspective and makes you do something fresh. Sometimes this is nothing more than driving a tank. But there's one moment mid way through the game where you are a gunner on a small airplane. It's your job to rush from one side of the airplane to the other getting to the guns and taking out the Japanese merchant ships. Although this section doesn't last long enough, this is definitely a fun diversion from the standard run and gun action.
But not all of the diversity is that noticeable. One thing I noticed is that every time I got bored using my guns, the game would switch me over to the American side where I was expected to burn down the forests with my trusty flame thrower. You wouldn't think that a flame thrower would make that big of a difference, but it was just enough of a change to break up the gun play and make me appreciate the game's pacing. And just when I got sick of burning everything in sight? The game switches me back to the Russians where I'm sneaking, stabbing and gunning my way to victory.
The biggest change to this game isn't the flame thrower or the hot new graphics; instead it's the way the Japanese soldiers fight. After fighting nothing but Nazis, I was starting to feel like I could predict what the bad guys were going to do. But that's not the case with the Japanese warriors. Instead I was met by a brutal regime that wasn't afraid to run right at you and use every booby trap they can think of. From the get-go you know that these guys are serious (and vicious). The game definitely doesn't sugarcoat the Japanese actions, especially when it comes to how they treat their prisoners of war. All this was certainly eye opening, especially after so many games where the Nazis true nature isn't on show. I've gotten so used to mowing down witless Nazis that it's strange to see another side with a completely different agenda.
In all, the single player story is a bit longer than Call of Duty 4. The game sports more missions and quite a few different locations for you to shoot up. Unfortunately there aren't many moments as outright memorable as what we had in Call of Duty 4. That is, even though it's been a full year I can still think back to all of the amazing moments in Call of Duty 4 as if I just played the game yesterday. I have a hunch I'll never forget that opening with the assassination, or the flashback mission, or the moment that nuclear device goes off killing everybody. These are moments I will never forget. There aren't many moments like that in World at War, which ultimately gives it a throwaway quality. Sure the locations are nice and the story is interesting, but without those big memorable moments the game just doesn't feel like it's on the same level.
There is good news, though. Even though the game doesn't have a ton of those amazing sequences that will stick with you, you will probably want to go through the game more than once. Why? Because developers Treyarch (taking over for Infinity Ward) has added a fun co-op mode that improves the game in immeasurable ways. The game even gives you a few scenes where you can split up, helping each other from afar. Sadly there aren't enough scenes like that, but it's nice to see Activision adding co-op into their first-person shooters.
As much fun as the online (or split-screen) co-op is, it pales in comparison to the online multiplayer modes. Like Call of Duty 4, this is the thing that will give World at War legs long after people have grown tired of the so-so story mode. In truth the World at War multiplayer is almost exactly like that of Call of Duty 4, which certainly isn't a bad thing. There's a reason Call of Duty 4 was so popular, and that's because leveling up your character is awfully addictive. Leveling up your character isn't just for ranking purposes, it's the only way you can unlock new multiplayer game types, customize your weapons and even play as certain classes. The only real difference between World at War's multiplayer and Call of Duty 4 is the setting, which actually works as a strength in this year's installment. Throw in some cool new powers (like calling out the dogs on your enemies) and the ability to drive tanks, and you have a multiplayer mode that you'll be loading up well into the New Year. Heck, people are still playing Call of Duty 4's online multiplayer, so we could see people still fighting World War II long after the next Call of Duty hits store shelves.
When you're not playing through the story or leveling up your character in the multiplayer, you can always take on a nasty group of Nazi zombies. You read that right, they are zombies AND they are Nazis ... talk about a scary combination. You can play this either with friends or by yourself, but no matter how you play it the game is essentially the same. You are stuck in a shack with hundreds of zombies trying to get in to eat your brains. For each zombie you kill you get points, which you can use to buy items (better weapons, help, etc.). This mini-game proves to be one of the most entertaining parts of Call of Duty: World at War, especially when you're playing it with a friend. Sadly you can't play this mode until you've beaten the game, but the story mode is interesting enough to keep you going regardless of the rewards.
Treyarch has certainly pulled off the impossible; they've made me excited about World War II again. But at the same time, this absolutely needs to be the final Call of Duty set in this era. I can understand the appeal of this particular war, but it's time to move on. I don't care if you set the next game in Vietnam, the American Revolution or even the Civil War; it's time to end World War II once and for all. The game's ending even feels like it's closing the chapter on World War II, though that may be more me forcing my interpretation on a historical speech. Either way, it's time to take us out of the 1940s.
Call of Duty: World at War isn't going to blow you away the same way that Call of Duty 4 did, but it's still a solid action game. It has a solid single player mode that can be played with a friend, the online multiplayer is among the best of the year and the presentation is absolutely stunning. This is definitely a great game. Unfortunately as new and interesting as the locations and stories were, I couldn't get over the fact that we're still fighting the same war we always fight and that it all seems so futile. Thankfully I had Gary Oldman and Kiefer Sutherland guiding me through. All in all this is a solid shooter that is only marred by the unoriginal war we continue to fight installment after installment.
World at War is a fun rollercoaster ride that is every bit as good as Call of Duty 2 and 3. Unfortunately after the success of Call of Duty 4 it's hard to go back to World War II, even when the game looks and plays this good. Treyarch has definitely learned how to tell an interesting story and give us good pacing, but I still can't get over the fact that we've fought this war a few too many times for my tastes. If you can get over that then you'll be rewarded with an amazing action game with one of the best online multiplayer modes of the year!