November 11th is a very special day for me. As many of you know, I am a disabled veteran. I had a ground burst simulator explode inside of a tent, throwing me through the back of a solid wall. I lost the bulk of my hearing, picked up migraine headaches and nosebleeds, and did severe damage to my knee and ankles when I finally landed back on terra firma. I don’t remember much of that day, but on November 11th my brothers in arms are honored for our service and sacrifice. All gave some, and some gave all, but all are remembered – it is a special day for us all.
It is certainly a seemingly auspicious day to release a game like Call of Duty: World at War. Admittedly, the last Call of Duty outing with Treyarch didn’t meet with as strong of scores as they might have hoped, so readers were messaging me almost every time I was on Live to try to find out if World at War managed to meet the lofty expectations set by Modern Warfare. Both real and virtual veterans can rest easy – Call of Duty: World of War is not only good, it is shockingly good.
Activision Blizzard has long had a practice of sharing assets internally. The folks at Infinity Ward build a fantastic engine to power last year’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and they were kind enough to lend it to Treyarch to use on World at War. World at War has been in development for over two years, and as a result the visuals in the game are fantastic. The environments are incredible and often ‘interactive’ (more on that in a minute). The foliage obfuscates the enemy, whether they are lying prone in the grass or waiting to ambush you from the top of a tree. The buildings have sustained incredible damage from enemy shelling, gutting them and exposing their superstructure. Instead of destroyed textures painted onto surfaces, the guts of the buildings lie strewn around, the support beams of the walls extend like skeletal remains. Dust collects in the air and realistically grimy hands grip weapons rough with use and heavy combat. The smoke blew me away in Call of Duty 2, but with every iteration it just gets that much better, but let’s talk about plants.
Call of Duty: World at War takes place in the Pacific Theater of World War II, so Treyarch had their work cut out for them modeling the lush vegetation of the island locations of the war setting. They have delivered in a big way. Grass as tall as a man sways in the light breeze as smoke grenades swirl through the blades. Palm trees hang heavy around you as you carefully make your way through the varied environments. It isn’t until you hit that tripwire, are instantly blinded and disoriented, and then finally regain your wits that you realize that you’ve been staring at incredible danger the entire time. Enemies pop up from the grass wearing Ghillie suits, soldiers drop from behind the oversized fronds of the nearby palm trees, and you are very much surrounded. It is in this moment that you’ll be happy to have the power of fire at your fingertips.
Turning the flamethrower on the grass sets the entire field ablaze. Throwing a jet of fire into the nearby palm tree stops incoming fire from that direction as the enemy shrieks and falls from his perch, ablaze and dying quickly. The fire effects in this game are as incredible as they are deadly.
There is only one area that is somewhat confusing on the graphics side of things – 2 player co-op. When you play 4 player co-op the screen is split four ways, but when you play 2 player co-op the screen is split, but not exactly in half. The boxes are smaller and slightly offset from each other. I’m not sure if this was done to keep the framerate stable, or for some other aesthetic reason, but either way you slice it it’s somewhat odd.
Call of Duty: World at War has two high-powered actors to lend their voices to the game. Keifer “WE’RE OUT OF TIME!!!” Sutherland plays the main character, a Sgt. Roebuck. On the Russian side of the conflict is Gary “Four stones, four crates – zero stones, ZERO CRATES!” Oldman plays Sgt. Reznov. Sutherland’s performance carries weight and he seems to get progressively more worn as the conflicts take his friends and brothers. Oldman gives a great performance as Reznov – an iron-willed soldier who mentors you after saving your life from the invading Nazis. The supporting voice actors give decent performances, helping flesh out the other characters in your squad – when you lose some of them, you’ll feel it.
The sound effects in World at War are pretty familiar – we’ve heard them in just about every World War II game we’ve played in the last decade. The sound of the strike plate popping off the top of your ammo clip, the gas recirculation of the receiver on a German MP40, the heavy wood and iron sound of the Japanese Arisaka rifle – once again it sounds like the developers have gone all out to record the real sounds of the weapons to include in the game.
Rather than going with Japanese caricature-style voices, Treyarch brought on Japanese speaking voice actors to give us a more authentic enemy. Japanese soldiers call out battle tactics to each other, and they roar war cries as they charge you with their katana swords drawn.
Like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the sound effects and voices in the game take great advantage of a Dolby 5.1 surround sound setup. If you’ve got the rig for it, the game will reward you with a rich audio experience to go with the incredible graphic engine.
Just like Call of Duty 3 and 4, the controls in Call of Duty: World at War are rock solid. Everything that worked so well in previous titles makes its way across to the new title. If it isn’t broke, then don’t fix it. The controls are laid out pretty much as you’d expect – you use the sticks to control movement and camera controls, while the face buttons handle things like switching weapons, reloading, and jumping. Triggers and bumpers give you grenades and guns, as well as aiming down your sights. There is a light auto-aim function that makes the target somewhat ‘sticky’, but it is so slight that you’ll likely not even notice it. What can I say? The controls work.
I have to pay a special thank you to Treyarch. After slamming Call of Duty 2, 3, and 4 for their lack of independent sound controls, Treyarch has introduced finer controls allowing you to adjust the voice, music, sound effects, cinematics, and master volume, as well as a subtitles option. In addition, they also let you adjust brightness, how much blood and guts you’ll see, look inversion, vibration and aim assist toggles, thumbstick sensitivity, three button layout configurations, and four stick layout configurations. This level of customization is sure to have something for almost everyone. Major kudos to Treyarch for this advancement!
Just like my review of Fallout 3, I have to say that it would be almost impossible to review everything there is to do in Call of Duty: World at War in a reasonable length review. Although Treyarch borrowed the Call of Duty 4 engine, they didn’t borrow much of anything else. The enemy AI has clearly been rewritten, and this will be apparent in the very first battle. The best way to illustrate this is to go on the night raid mission. Your team stumbles on a field full of dead Japanese soldiers. As you begin to make your way past the mass slaughter one of your team hit a trip mine which instantly blinds everyone in the area – everyone but those Japanese corpses which suddenly rise from the ground brandishing katanas with murder in their eyes. A vicious tactic to be sure, but a great illustration of the new enemy tactics you’ll have to face.
Another aspect of the war in the Pacific was the use of the flamethrower. I talked a little bit about how fantastic this weapon looks in action, but it really changes the way you’ll approach certain objectives. Emptying out a bunker in previous Call of Duty titles meant whipping a grenade ahead of your advance and gunning down enemies one at a time. In World at War you can thrust the tip of the nozzle into the doorway and unleash a jet of flame that’ll fill the entire space from floor to ceiling. A few more well placed blasts clears out the bunker with far less danger.
There is another fantastic improvement that really acts as a game changer – destructible environments. We’ve seen games on the PC that simulate wood and the ability to penetrate it with high caliber weapons, but Call of Duty: World at War brings that to the fore as a gameplay changer. Hiding in the grass and wooden huts won’t protect you any longer. Huts and fences can be destroyed and set on fire, creating new paths and enemy opportunities. The single player game doesn’t benefit from this nearly as much as multiplayer obviously, but it really makes you consider what you hide behind.
The biggest change for Call of Duty: World at War is the addition of four player cooperative play. While the single player storyline is roughly the same length as Call of Duty 4: Modern Combat, World at War is more compelling. Since you can team up with three of your friends, you can take a more tactical approach to the higher difficulty levels instead of simply running and gunning. There are a few missions in the campaign that are cut (for example, the PBY-5 Catalina mission is cut, as is the sniper mission. Both are ‘one man job’ style missions and wouldn’t make a lot of sense in a multiplayer capacity), but it does allow you to enjoy the experience as a team otherwise.
The Call of Duty games have been a fairly linear affair, and this title is no different. There are a few divergent path options, but for the most part it is a straight and narrow path from beginning to end. While the story is a bit more predictable than Call of Duty 4, it doesn’t make it any less compelling. There is no doubt that the focus for this title was to bring the compelling multiplayer experience of the previous title forward (or backwards, depending on how you look at it) to this one.
I mentioned that you can play Call of Duty: World at War in cooperative mode, but I didn’t mention the Death Card system. Somewhat of a throw-forward to the Gulf War, there is a deck of cards for co-op players to collect. Throughout the cooperative campaign you can find cards that expand your gameplay experience. For instance, one card toughens the enemies by making them take less damage from bullets, while others reduce explosive damage, enemies popping back up after being killed, and other ‘cheats’ to make the game more challenging. It is very similar to the skull system in Halo 3.
As I mentioned earlier, the multiplayer game is based heavily on the efforts of Call of Duty 4. Just like in that title, players will start off at Level 1 and work their way up. Just like Call of Duty 4, successfully killing or contributing to the combat will yield experience points. These experience points give players levels which unlock new perks, as well as old favorites like Juggernaut and Stopping Power. Vehicle perks like Greased Bearings make an appearance, giving players the ability to turn tank turrets more quickly, or the Water Cooler perk which helps your machinegun fire for a longer period of time before overheating. In the end, the focus is still heavily placed on the tools of war. Weapons start off with no accessories, but soon you’ll be able to attach a bayonet, an upgraded scope, or even just popping the stock off of your shotgun for a bit more damage. More powerful weapons unlock as you complete challenges, just like in Call of Duty 4. Interestingly enough, I completed my knife challenge to level 2 before I managed to get any other challenge completed – infer what you will. At the higher end of the spectrum are the new fire-based weapons. Molotov cocktails can be selected as a special grenade and flamethrowers as a primary weapon at level 64. Seeing these terrible weapons in action in the single player gave me an idea of how devastating they would be in multiplayer – the first time I saw a flamethrower unleashed on the field told me a different story. The kill counter on the side of the screen shot up rapidly as several players succumbed to the six foot wall of flaming death heading their direction. Cover disappeared instantly under the blanket of fire laid on top of it. The flamethrower is absolutely devastating in multiplayer – but it is also like strapping a giant bomb to your back. The players that picked up the flamethrower usually didn’t last long enough to run the show, but they certainly wreaked havoc for the short time until their death. Players who move past the level cap will find a new “Prestige” system where they can earn a shiny badge next to their name, as well as other perks.
The multiplayer vehicles in Call of Duty: World at War are slow and lumbering behemoths. Just like their real counterparts, the tanks are slow to turn, slow to reload, and very slow to move. They are also very hard to kill. I was able to complete several rounds without leaving the tank at all. They can turn the tide of a conflict, if you can get them to the destination.
Treyarch introduced a mode called War in Call of Duty 3. It is essentially a capture and hold system where two teams battle over control of five flags. It has been revamped a bit, but in my opinion, broken. Players who get kill streaks can now capture flags faster, meaning that they can take over subsequent flags very quickly. This means that veteran players (or the addicts who live in their basement and never see the sun) are given an advantage on top of their skills, meaning less veteran players stand even less of a chance. If anything, it should be reversed.
Once you’ve completed the single player game, you’ll be given access to a co-op mode where you can kill Nazi zombies. If there is anything that gamers are taught to kill on sight it is Nazis or zombies – combined they are clearly the super-threat and must be destroyed. Wave after wave of zombies will crash against your fortifications, and your team has to crush them. Killing zombies nets you points that you can use to fortify your position, as well as granting you new weapons. It reminds me of the popular flash game “Last Stand”, and that is a big compliment.
I’m sure the folks at Treyarch played Call of Duty 4 to death, and it seems to be reflected in the new maps. Each map is very detailed and populated. There are sniping positions, ambush positions, and fantastic chokepoints throughout the level, negating some of the camping points that we saw in Call of Duty 4. In addition, the kill streak bonuses have been updated (backdated?) – three kills will net you a recon plane scan, five kills nets you indirect artillery fire, but seven kills will unleash the hounds. The dogs replace the powerful helicopter power, and they change the game far more than I thought they would. When the dogs are unleashed, you can hear them barking from across the map, and you tend to abandon that sniping position and you begin to watch the doorway for incoming dogs. During several occasions I saw soldiers shot from a distance as they turned their back against a crumbled wall to watch for dogs, only to expose their back to a nearby courtyard. I think Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare players will be happy with the transition. If only the single player wasn’t so short.
I didn’t want to play another World War II title. I didn’t want to revisit a theater that has been done to death. Thankfully Treyarch’s sophomore effort has changed my mind. Call of Duty: World at War is a fantastic title. It brings together the best efforts of Infinity Ward, as well as some new additions. While I lament the change in the online War mode, and the short single player campaign is criminally short, I fully expect that the game will hold the multiplayer crown until we see what Infinity Ward has for round 6.