As the eldest child I never had to worry about unrealistic expectations, because there was no precedent. My parents had absolutely no experience raising a kid. So obviously they made some mistakes, but overall I’d like to think they did a good job. However, when my sister came along, she did have to deal with my shadow. The same basic situation is true for video game sequels, specifically those that follow critically acclaimed holiday blockbusters like Call of Duty 4. It’s made doubly worse when you’re the newer developer on the scene and are tasked with revamping a franchise created by another studio. Given Treyarch’s lackluster first-entry into the series in Call of Duty 3, fans were hopeful lightning wouldn’t strike twice, and that they would be able to change their reputation by learning from their mistakes. Unfortunately, lightning did in fact strike twice, and in the process it set the game on fire.
As someone who has followed the Call of Duty franchise since day one, I waited on baited breath to find out where Call of Duty would go after its successes in the arena of Modern Combat. Call of Duty 4 revamped a franchise that felt like it was about to recede permanently into the bargain bins (Medal of Honor, anyone?). Unfortunately, Call of Duty: World at War doesn’t share this sense of soldiering into the unknown, but that isn’t completely a bad thing. While the game’s setting may return to the past, the mechanics of the title continue from where they left off one year ago.
Call of Duty: World at War focuses on the often overlooked Pacific Theater and Eastern Front from World War II. It’s a nice departure from the ordinary, but it’s still World War II, so it’s hard to not feel like we have seen it before — especially the bombed out cities from the Russian segment of the campaign. Being a Call of Duty game, the title follows the same basic formula: players take the role of a young soldier; this soldier is then put through hell in the form of hundreds of enemies and a chaotic blood soaked battlefield. In essence that is the plot boiled down to one sentence.
While the story behind the game is beyond simplistic, Call of Duty: World at War manages to present this in a manner that will keep you from skipping the cutscenes. The title has an amazing voice in the form or artistically rendered designs and historic footage; however, it has nothing to say. In a sense it’s like paying Sean Connery to read the phone book. Sure, it’s interesting for a while and the delivery is awesome, but after the 500th Anderson I’m not going to keep paying attention. The titles enlists two “A” list voice actors in the form of Kiefer Sutherland and Gary Oldman, and while both do a serviceable job it seems like a waste to pay so much for people who say so little.
The campaign’s main strength is the co-op mode. Unfortunately, the entire campaign is not playable in co-op and a few of the missions just feel weird with two people. At one point the game cut to where I and the other player were both occupying the same body, shooting enemies charging at us. It’s moments like these where the game just looks lackluster. (It also doesn’t help that it doesn’t use the full screen.) Still, the game is entirely more fun when you’re competing with someone else and trying to beat their score rather than pushing a story that never gets its own legs beneath it.
The game’s largest strength obviously remains the multiplayer. If you played Modern Warfare and enjoyed it, odds are you going to enjoy this one, too. The experience remains largely the same. In fact, it’s like looking at a picture in a museum display marked “under construction” and waiting for them to eventually bring something new in, only to find out they just planned to change the frame. To be fair it isn’t all bad; the online structure is still wonderfully executed, retaining the accessibility and enjoyability of Modern Warfare.
The core gameplay continues to be excellent, and the title employs most of the successful innovations from the past: perks, create a class system, ranks, weapon upgrades, etc. The majority of the changes involve the implementation of tanks. The vehicular combat adds a new layer to the mix, but that’s about the only major change to the core mechanics. Beyond that the title continues to employ past innovations rather than push forward. Modern weapons are replaced with those contemporary to World War II; Dogs replace helicopters; and bombed out cities and beaches form the new maps. Treyarch also reemploys the War gameplay mode, seen in Call of Duty 3, and the very traditional Capture the Flag.
One really enjoyable innovation is the Nacht der Untoten mode (or Night of the Dead for our non-German speaking readers). It’s fairly simplistic; however, it will add replayability to the title. Much like similar modes in other games (Horde from Gears of War 2, for example) your goal is to survive endless waves of enemies until you eventually succumb to their impressive, ungodly numbers. What makes it more entertaining is that those waves of enemies are zombies. NAZI zombies. It’s not nearly as complex as Left 4 Dead, but when you take into consideration this is something tacked on as a reward and not the main focus, it’s clearly a nice addition.
Because World at War is the same engine as Call of Duty 4, it’s not surprising to see that the graphics remain largely the same quality. As a whole there’s no drastic improvement, which isn’t too bad, seeing as Modern Warfare looked spectacular. There aren’t as many of those “Wow” moments the previous game gave us, but at least it keeps up with it. The most significant change visually is the gore. The past title was a tad more minimalistic, while World at War tends to embrace that oh so red liquid fear. Bodies become littered with the red badge of courage as lead pummels through their skin, and it adds a nice touch.
Unfortunately, the game does have its share of bugs. For example, from time to time you’ll find your feet trapped in an invisible stockade of bad code. This happened to me on multiple occasions over the course of the campaign, which resulted in my partner and I cooking our own grenades in order to be freed by the grasp of death itself.
Despite the issues, though, series fanatics will likely view the game as a success. While the single player may be too basic for those without access to online multiplayer, the multiplayer should be strong enough to keep players attention a few months down the road. The title feels like it’s a tad undercooked, because if it had been given a few more months in the oven we could be looking at a true Call of Duty successor. Instead, it’s more like Call of Duty 4.5: World at War. If you’re a huge fan of the franchise, it’s still worth a purchase. If you’re strapped for cash, though, you’re better off sticking with Modern Warfare and waiting until this one shows up in a bargain bin.