War Is Hell

November 11, 2008

The Call of Duty franchise has always been solid, but with last year's release of Modern Warfare, the conflict was brought into the present day and sales skyrocketed. Activision is rewinding the clock and taking the fight back to World War II with Call of Duty: World at War. It's built on the same tech that powered Infinity Ward's smash hit from 2007, but an engine does not a game make. War is hell, but is this one heavenly?

World War II is all but over. The Germans have a scant few strongholds left and the Japanese are digging in for the last battle. You play World at War on these two different fronts. First is the Pacific where you take up arms as Marine Private Miller The second is behind the eyes of Demitri of the Red Army as the Russians attempt to clean Berlin of the Nazi scourge. The series reverts back to its old ways of story telling, with World War II file footage introducing each chapter with narration. The stirring in-game cinema sequences that made Call of Duty 4's campaign so memorable are much less dynamic here. Some chapters have hardly any exposition, but they all have set piece battles.

The dual plots are passable--mainly because no one needs an excuse to kill Nazis or someone running at them with a bayonet. There's just very little personal attachment to it. There's no one antagonist to seethe over, and with the exception of a couple characters, your brothers in arms are never really personified. It does lead you through the end of the war from two very different perspectives, and succeeds at reminding you how difficult it was to survive either one.

There are a lot of different ways to play World at War. The single-player campaign is about the same length as all the games in the series, except this time you can play it with three other friends cooperatively. What's great about it is that it's balanced in such a way that the challenge remains when friends are involved. Be ready to revive and be revived. There's also a competitive element to it since a score is kept and you can get combo bonuses if you string kills together.

No matter how many people are slinging lead, it's designed the same way. You spend a lot of time being herded down corridors by invisible walls until you spill out into epic battles in wider expanses. Even here, the game teaches you that there's really one way to get through the fray. Try as you might, it can be difficult to find two different ways through a firefight. Occasionally there are trenches that you can blast through as an alternative, but otherwise, it's pretty straightforward.

The authenticity you expect is standing at attention. You'll rekindle your relationship with the M1 Garand, and a host of other era weapons, and this is really where you appreciate playing in two different locations. The Japanese have entirely different weapons from the Germans and you'll undoubtedly find a favorite from each country. Stopping power, range, bullet penetration, recoil, and reload time are all parameters of each gun that can easily be felt and quantified. One new addition is the flamethrower, and once you find it, you're on easy street.

As you might expect, the gadgetry is kept to minimum. There are no night vision goggles, laser sights, and the like. You do get frag grenades, smoke grenades, and the opportunity for the occasional air strike, but the time period definitely limits the possibilities.

While the campaign is brief, there's much more to do after the war is won. The most interesting addition is the Nazi zombies mini-game where you and some compatriots are trapped in a bombed-out building under siege by the walking dead. You can play it with CPU assist or with three friends, and there's a money system in place to limit your weaponry. It starts out a little slow, but eventually you'll be scrambling to keep the windows boarded up while watching your back.

The competitive multiplayer modes take more than a cue from Call of Duty 4, and of course, that's a great thing. The XP and perks system has returned, ensuring that motivation persists. There are some new perks, and the prestige option allows you to keep earning insignias and create-a-class slots long after the level 65 cap. Classic capture the flag has returned to bolster the handful of other modes like domination, search and destroy, and sabotage. It's an excellent suite. Kill streaks have also returned-allowing you to call in artillery strikes, mark enemies on the map, or summon a pack of dogs to do your bidding. It's great. You can pilot tanks in the multiplayer this time. It's a nice start, but it still seems anemic compared to games like Halo 3.

There are tons of ways to play Call of Duty: World at War. Taking a cue from Halo 3's skulls, there are even death cards hidden throughout the levels that you can use to alter the multiplayer experience. Yet aside from Nazi zombies, there's nothing that will obliterate expectations. The formula still works, and works well.

On the ground, with gun in hand, things are undoubtedly frenetic and unpredictable. Enemies can come from anywhere. The Japanese will hide in trees or pop up from the ground and rush at you banzai-style. If they get too close you can click the right analog stick and ram a knife into their neck for an instant kill.

The generous aim-assist returns. If you get your reticule close to an enemy and then go to the sight view, you're almost always lined up perfectly for the kill. The flamethrower can be used to burn grass and flush out enemies, or as a spray gun that will keep hordes at bay. It's a little overpowered, but really fun to use.

While the weapons from the era are mundane compared to many of today's shooters, you still get the opportunity to blast through walls and other objects if you have a gun with a high enough penetration rating. Even on the normal difficulty setting, it's a challenge to stay alive. Enemy infantry can drop a grenade in your pocket from 100 yards, which isn't all that realistic, but it ensures that things never get too easy. Real war tactics, like using smoke grenades as cover while assaulting strongholds, are effective. But again, it's a mechanic that we've seen many times before.

The main issue is the artificial intelligence-or lack thereof. Enemies are moronic, locking onto one specific target and completely ignoring everyone else. The same goes for your squad mates, who will stand there completely oblivious to an enemy just a couple feet away picking off your comrades. It can make large-scale skirmishes much more challenging than they should be.

Playing World at War feels a whole lot like playing any other game in the series. There's not much flexibility in how you tackle each level, and it would have been nice to have access to some kind of cover system considering how much time you spend hunkered down. But when you're scrambling up a hill and a machine gun nest is whistling bullets overhead, it's hard to think about the shortcomings.

The Call of Duty 4 engine has held up well, making World at War one of the finer looking games on the market, but it also looks like a cut and paste job. Due to the time period there are far less wow moments bolstered by technology, but the fundamentals are nailed as the game always runs at a steady clip. Clothes have an appropriate sheen when battling in the rain, and the lighting engine is still one of the finest in the business. We're disappointed that so little care was paid to how the exposition unfolds. We can only watch grainy war footage so many times before it begins to lose its impact. At least it's a far more brutal game, with some scenes literally making us cringe. Kiefer Sutherland handles the narration with a nimble tongue, and the dynamic soundtrack rises and falls at all the right times. The sound design is also incredible, planting your butt firmly in the middle of the history's greatest war. The 5.1 mix will make you feel every grenade blast--shaking the sub with conviction.

World War II is one of the most chronicled moments in history in the video game medium, and with all due respect to those who fought and died, the premise is beginning to wear thin. Call of Duty: World at War is a great game that feels all too familiar, yet it's undoubtedly the best shooter based on the conflict. Comparisons between it and Call of Duty 4 are inevitable, but even on its own merits, it's a paint-by-numbers affair. The single-player campaign is intense and the cooperative play is engaging, but the competitive multiplayer, despite some added perks and tweaks, is subdued by the era it so accurately replicates. If you've spent the past 12 months building your prestige with everything the modern age has to offer, you'll have problems finding things to get too excited about. That said, there are still few shooters on the market up to its level of quality, so suit up soldier, and prepare for one last push.