The Call of Duty series is one of the most successful first-person shooter franchises in history. Beginning with the first game back in 2003, the series has gone on to multi-platform success. To date, the franchise has spawned an expansion pack, four sequels, and three unique console games (not including cross-platform titles). The first three games (and its console cousins) all took place during World War II. Last year’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare shook things up by setting the action in modern times, to great success. Nominated for – or winning – numerous Game of the Year awards, CoD4 set the new standard for shooters. Its riveting single-player campaign combined with a deep and rewarding multiplayer system left many wondering how the series could top itself.
Just a year later, we’ve got Call of Duty: World at War. Before proceeding, it helps to learn about the series’ development background. The first two Call of Duty games were developed by Infinity Ward, who also developed Call of Duty 4. All three games were lavished with praise by gamers and critics alike. The widely accepted “weak spot” of the series was Call of Duty 3. Developed by Treyarch, the game’s single-player campaign was considered a bit flat, and PC gamers were disappointed by the fact that the game was released on consoles exclusively. While CoD3 still garnered respectable ratings, some Call of Duty die-hards became wary when they found out that Call of Duty: World at War would be put back in Treyarch’s hands.
So how does the next installment of Call of Duty measure up to its predecessors? Was Treyarch able to live up to the high expectations set by CoD4? Perhaps the biggest question – can we really go back to World War II after experiencing modern warfare?
The Call of Duty series has always had terrific graphics, but World at War once again raises the bar. Running on a slightly modified version of the Call of Duty 4 engine, WaW adds additional new graphic bells and whistles such as destructible environments and the ability to burn foliage (and your enemies!). Developers have stated that they pushed the limits of the engine, and I have to agree – this is by far the best looking Call of Duty game to date.
Environments are incredibly detailed, and almost startlingly realistic in some spots. Lighting, smoke, and flame effects are terrific. Foliage is also impressive. This is good, because the game will take you through the Pacific theater where you’ll have the opportunity to trudge through plenty of tropical jungles. These segments of the game were particularly interesting because the setting had not been used in a Call of Duty game before.
Character models also look great. Through the game’s many scripted sequences you’ll be seeing a lot of allies close up – which means you’ll be able to admire the realistic facial expressions. World at War also ups the gore factor. You’ll be able to shoot off limbs or blow holes through the back of someone’s skull, and witness every visceral moment. Fortunately Treyarch erred on the side of realism. While the game does seem decidedly more violent due to the gore effects, I never got the feeling that enemy soldiers were gratuitous exploding blood bags.
Multiplayer looks better than ever. The thirteen new maps are every bit as detailed as those in CoD4, and will assuredly have players dissecting every nook and cranny for the best possible advantage. You’ll experience bombed out train yards, ruined airplane hangars, quiet fishing villages, and war-torn towns. Each map is loaded with detail – from the functional – (stacks of crates to hide behind, old garden sheds to tuck into) – to the decorative – (flowers bravely blooming in the midst of chaos, pond lilies floating in a castle moat, or gently streaming waterfalls). Even after playing some maps nine or ten times, I was surprised to occasionally run across rooms or back alleys I had never seen before. The maps also tend to adhere to the formula used to great success in the previous title – make sure every room has two entrances so that you never feel safe.
Map design isn’t the only thing that has been given a makeover in World at War. New environmental effects also help create the illusion of being stuck in the middle of combat. Smoke billows from bombed out buildings, flames shoot from rooftops, and bits of ash and debris float through the air. Despite this eye candy, the game still runs briskly in multiplayer – if you can run CoD4 multiplayer well, then chances are you’ll have no problems with World at War. On the game’s highest settings you won’t get quite the FPS as you did in CoD4, but players with older systems should be able to compensate with a few tweaks here and there.
Another selling point of the CoD series has been its outstanding audio. For World at War, Treyarch brought in some A-list Hollywood actors to bring the game to life. Kiefer Sutherland voices Sgt. Roebuck, and also shouts phrases in the multiplayer portion. Gary Oldman plays the Russian sergeant. Suffice it to say there were plenty of Jack Bauer jokes during our multiplayer sessions, and cries of “Let’s win this one for Kiefer!” The rest of the voice acting in the game is up to the same high standards, further enhancing the game’s reputation for being a cinematic experience.
Multiplayer is vocal as well, and not just at the start and end of matches. Occasionally canned “smackdowns” will appear when you’re killed, as if the other player is verbally humiliating you. We laughed a lot at these verbal assaults during our multiplayer matches. Be forewarned, however – the language is *definitely* on the mature side. If you’re going to play with Marines, you’ll have to get accustomed to hearing them swear like Marines. Another great addition to multiplayer is a tell-tale “ping” when you get a headshot. This really helps if you’re a challenge freak like me working on those weapon unlocks.
Music in the game follows the traditional sweeping, epic orchestral scores of previous titles. The game is exceptionally good at ratcheting up the tension with the music at key moments. While one could turn the music off to enjoy a more “realistic” experience, it would be a shame to miss out on the dramatic atmosphere the score provides.
Call of Duty developers have always gone to great pains to make the weapons in the game sound authentic, and this time around is no exception. Every gun sounds different and true to its real-life counterpart. With every thud of the BAR you can almost feel the impact. Those with good sound systems are in for a treat, as playing the game sounds as good as a blockbuster war movie. All of the game’s audio elements – voice acting, music, and sound effects combine together to form a soundscape that will keep your heart racing.
Veteran Call of Duty players will be happy to learn that the controls of the series have been left intact. This is particularly important to multiplayer players who often have their hotkeys optimized for maximum efficiency. Never fear – you’ll be able to recreate your CoD4 setup quickly and easily. Even our most nitpicky CoD4 clan members were up and running like World at War experts after only a few minutes.
PC players will be pleased that the feel of the game suffers from no “console-itis.” Everything about the game feels like a PC title from the ground up. The only caveat to that is the checkpoint system in the single-player campaign, but that is a very minor complaint considering the system works so well. In all other respects, PC players will feel right at home, and have the ability to customize hotkeys and mouse buttons to their hearts’ content.
The Call of Duty series has always had a single player and multiplayer aspect, but not until Modern Warfare did the multiplayer game essentially become a game in its own right. In fact, one could argue that multiplayer has now become the primary mode of the series, with the single-player campaign now relegated to the backburner. I’ll tackle the gameplay of each of these modes separately, as each is good enough to deserve its own review.
First up is the single-player campaign. Once again the series follows the formula of following multiple perspectives of the war by letting the player experience events in various theaters. World at War focuses on two theaters – the Pacific conflict between US Marines and the Japanese, and the Russian/German conflict towards the end of the war. While players of previous titles may experience a little déjà vu with the Russian missions, the Pacific missions are a welcome addition to the franchise and provide some nice variety.
Players start out in the role of Private Miller, a US Marine on a mission to rescue some POWs. The game puts you right into the horrors of war with a graphic torture sequence, setting the tone for the rest of the campaign. Make no mistake – this entry into the series is by far the darkest one yet. As you play through the missions, you’ll experience the loss of many a good man and witness the terrifying reality of war firsthand. Private Miller’s adventures alternate with turns as Russian soldier Dmitri Petrenko, lone survivor of a massacre which left his unit decimated. There is a third playable character, but he only shows up in one mission in which he is attacking a Japanese naval fleet.
The game relies on the traditional mechanics we’ve seen in previous titles. Medkits are still gone – instead the game uses a fog of flashing red to let you know you’re injured and need to take cover or die. The grenade indicator is back, but thankfully grenades don’t seem to be as aggravatingly abundant as they were in CoD2 and CoD3 (either that, or I’ve just gotten a lot better at throwing them back!) Objectives are still clearly marked on your HUD, but World at War goes back to a more linear approach. You won’t see many missions in which you’re free to tackle objectives in any order. The game also uses a checkpoint system, but it works very well. Checkpoints are so frequent I never really got the urge to manually save my game. The other good news is that checkpoints “rewind” you back a bit, so that you won’t run into situations where you cross a checkpoint and save just as you’re getting blown to bits by a grenade.
The single-player campaign offers the same variety we’ve come to expect from the series. In addition to the traditional first-person shooter missions, you’ll also get to command a tank, shoot planes, and destroy naval vessels. While these types of missions have been seen before in previous games in the series, they’re all polished to perfection in World at War. In many ways I felt I was playing through a “greatest hits” package of the best types of missions the series has offered to date. One aspect that got an extra coat of polish was the scripted sequences. There are some absolutely gripping scripted events throughout the campaign that rival the intense sequences in Modern Warfare.
Friendly AI has been improved quite a bit. It was extremely rare that I ever found my AI squad mates getting in the way of my line of fire. Your squad is an effective fighting force this time around. Whether you’re leading them or following them you’ll always feel like an independent player working with a team. At no time did I feel like a babysitter for a bunch of braindead greenhorns, nor did I ever get the feeling that I was an unimportant pawn sitting in the back while the computer did all the work. Treyarch did a great job finding a nice balance in the friendly AI. Enemy AI is decent; while for the most part it played an effective game, there were occasional lapses. Because the game is all about taking ground and crossing trigger points to stop respawning enemies, I’d sometimes run into instances where I went so far forward that the enemy AI went braindead and didn’t see me even though I was flanking them or even behind them. These instances were few and far between, and certainly didn’t impact my enjoyment of the game, but it is worth pointing out that my squad mates seemed quite a bit smarter than my opponent.
There are a couple of minor complaints I had with the single-player campaign. For starters, it’s very short. I completed it in about 7 hours on normal difficulty. The challenge level did not seem to be quite as difficult as Modern Warfare, and I spent very little time replaying sequences. Veteran players may want to bump up the difficulty a bit to stretch the value. My other complaint is that the Russian missions seemed a little “been there, done that.” We’ve already done the fall of the Reichstag, and while it was fun, it felt a little repetitive. While the great story and scripted events make this Russian outing quite a bit more fun than previous excursions, it’s a little disappointing that we had to retread such familiar terrain alongside a novel and exciting Pacific theater campaign. Despite these gripes, the campaign is still a fantastic experience that should not be missed. While it may not quite achieve the same heights as the outstanding campaign of Modern Warfare, it comes close – and can certainly stand toe-to-toe with the previous WWII campaigns.
Multiplayer is the real heart of the game, and Treyarch wisely decided to retain almost everything that made CoD4’s multiplayer so outstanding. All the familiar features are here – Create A Class, Perks, Challenges, and the leveling system. However, experienced players will find a few new features that differentiate World at War from its predecessor.
The first thing players will notice is that a couple of new game types have been added, even as their old favorites are retained. Headquarters, Sabotage, Free-For-All, Team Deathmatch, Domination, and Search & Destroy are all back. The new additions are the much-asked-for Capture the Flag mode, as well as a new mode simply called War.
Capture the Flag is the standard game we’ve seen in countless shooters before. Capture the opposing enemy’s flag, bring it back to your base, score a point. No frills, but it’s a great deal of fun in World at War and seems to be a very popular game type. War is the newcomer, and works a bit like the old Battlefield games. Scattered around the map are various neutral flags that must be captured and held. The team with the greatest number of flags at any given time gets a “momentum” boost, and is able to capture flags faster. Under the right circumstances, this mode results in a fun “tug-of-war,” usually resulting in a couple of flags on either side being held securely while the two teams battle it out for the last remaining flag. Problems often arise, however, because the winning team always has the advantage in capturing flags – which gives them more flags, which gives them even greater advantages, etc. The result is some very lopsided matches – and situations in which it is almost impossible to come back and win a match after being down in the flag count. So far the War mode hasn’t been quite as popular as I thought it would be, I’m assuming because of this imbalance. Hopefully some tweaks will be made to make the game mode a bit more forgiving for the losing side.
Another new addition is the introduction of vehicles – tanks, to be exact. I know many experienced CoD players groaned when learning that vehicles would be introduced into what has always been an infantry-based war game. However, Treyarch wisely kept vehicles limited in both their availability and their strength in order not to impose a severe imbalance. Tanks are only available on the larger maps, and control just as they do in the single-player campaign. One person can drive, and one can ride along using the machine gun turret. Tanks are slow, lumbering beasts, though certain Perks can increase their effectiveness. For instance, one perk increases turret rotation speed, while another increases the tank’s main gun reload time. Even with these measures, these vehicles are a dangerous place to be. They can be taken out with bazookas, satchel charges, and even sticky grenades. Players in turrets can be sniped right out of the top. Operating a tank is typically a very dangerous and short-lived occupation. While they are great fun to play, I haven’t yet seen tank availability truly make the difference between winning and losing. Good tank drivers can certainly rack up some kill counts, but on the flip side good infantry players can easily counter or avoid them altogether.
The new multiplayer maps are every bit as compelling as the acclaimed maps of CoD4, and some dwarf even the biggest CoD4 maps. Locales are taken from both the Pacific and Russian campaigns. On the Pacific side you have maps like Makin, which take place in a tropical fishing village at night. Wooden structures provide lots of cover, but little safety. Then there is the bombed out Airfield, full of crashed planes and rubble-strewn bunkers. The Russian side has some very large maps such as Downfall, which is a huge expanse outside the grounds of the Reichstage. It also has the game’s smallest map, the Dome of the Reichstag which takes place entirely on the top floor (beware the hole in the floor that leads to a lethal fall to the ground level!)
Because the game takes place during WWII, some aspects of gameplay had to be tweaked a bit. Air strikes have been replaced by artillery strikes, which are in many ways more lethal. You’ll feel every detonation (complete with shaking screen) if you get too close. Helicopters have been replaced by the ever-hilarious attack dogs. These dog packs spread across the map seeking out enemy throats to rip out. If you’re on the wrong side of a dog attack you’ll be able to kill them by conventional means such as bullets or knife stabs, but they’re very quick. Get two or more dogs after you, and you’re likely to go down. While the attack dogs have their detractors, I do feel they are a bit fairer than the helicopter. Since everyone can kill them, you don’t have folks hunkering down in corners slowing down gameplay. Special grenades have been tweaked a bit too. There are signal flares which act like flash grenades, and tabun gas, which stuns and slows enemies. Overall Treyarch did a terrific job adapting CoD4’s features into a WWII setting.
Weapons deserve a mention as well. Obviously you won’t be running around with assault rifles and laser sights, but you will have access to some cool weapons. There are rifles, bolt-action rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, pistols, machine guns, submachine guns, heavy machine guns, etc. True to CoD’s focus on authenticity, they all behave more or less like their real-world counterparts – complete with their own reloading animations, sounds, firing rates, etc. Stats on each weapon are available in-game, which really help when choosing weapons for Create a Class. The granddaddy of weapons in the game is the Flamethrower, which is unlocked at Level 65. Usable just as it is in the single-player game, the flamethrower spews a deadly flume of fire which can incinerate bunker interiors and set grass ablaze. While you may be going back to iron sights for the most part, CoD4 players shouldn’t worry about a lack of weapon variety – there are more here than ever, and they are all unique and fun to use.
One aspect of multiplayer that has not been mentioned is the ability to play through the campaign cooperatively with up to three other players. Treyarch added a unique twist to this co-op play in that while players will be cooperatively killing enemies to advance, they’ll also be competing against each other for score. Point values are assigned for various actions, and scores are tracked both for bragging rights and for unlocking special co-op challenges.
Those who are interested in just the single-player campaign should be prepared for a short but satisfying game. If you’re going to shell out fifty or sixty dollars, however, it would be a shame for you to miss out on either the co-op or regular multiplayer modes. Just as in CoD4, you’ll be able to level your profile, unlocking new weapons, new challenges, and new weapon accessories. There are dozens of challenges available, from low-level ones such as achieving a certain number of headshots with a particular weapon type, to high-level challenges such as pulling off insane multi-kills. These add a tremendous amount of value to the game, and will have you playing for literally hundreds of hours after the campaign has been completed.
There are a few things that keep single player/co-op interesting as well. While playing through the single-player campaign you can find hidden “Death Cards.” These unlock “cheats” which can be used in co-op play. “Cheats” is in quotes because many of these unlocks affect gameplay in a way that makes it much more challenging. For instance, one might make enemies take less damage, while another limits you to using a knife and rocks!
At the risk of being a bit spoiler-y, there is a bonus mode that is unlocked after finishing the single player game, and it is awesome. Called “Nazi Zombies,” this game mode puts you in a building being assaulted by the undead. As you kill zombies you accumulate points, which can be used to buy new weapons, rebuild reinforcements, or gain access to new areas of the map. The waves of zombies never stop – it is simply a challenge to see how many waves you can survive, much like the popular Flash web game The Last Stand. This game mode is a blast, and well worth playing through the single-player campaign to unlock.
There are going to be detractors who say that World at War is simply a WWII mod for CoD4. It’s a valid point, if a bit short-sighted. There’s no question that Treyarch borrowed heavily from what worked in CoD4. The game is definitely an incremental step forward for the series, and not a revolutionary one. However, my job is to judge the game as an individual title, and in that respect Call of Duty: World at War is another outstanding addition to the series.
The single-player campaign, while short, is a terrific wrap-up of everything players have loved about the Call of Duty series since it debuted. It once again raises the bar for scripted dramatic storytelling in the franchise, and is a highly entertaining experience that no shooter fan will want to miss. Multiplayer is again among the best to be found on the PC. The deep leveling system, excellent maps, and huge variety of game modes all add up to a game that will provide entertainment for months.
It could not have been easy to follow on the heels of CoD4’s success, but Treyarch really stepped up to the plate this time around. Delivering a game that will please fans of the WWII setting without alienating fans of CoD4, they have created a product that deserves to be judged on its own merits. While not an entirely new experience, World at War is a highly polished iteration of all that has come before and well worth your gaming dollar.