For Treyarch, third time is the charm.
When it comes to many game franchises I've played, such as ones I'm casually a fan of like Resident Evil, to ones I follow the story mythos heavily like Half-Life, there is one other franchise that I've been a fan of since the first game, and that's the Call of Duty franchise. I got into it way back when in 2004, when Call of Duty 2 was still in development. I recieved the Deluxe Edition Box Set as a Christmas gift, which featured the original Call of Duty and its expansion, United Offensive. It was then that I got hooked into the series. Now, five years later, I own almost every game in the series, barring one console spinoff, Finest Hour; the PSP spinoff, Roads to Victory; and the two Nintendo DS installments. Now we come to the most recent installment in the franchise: Call of Duty: World at War. The third Call of Duty game developed by Treyarch -- the previous games being Call of Duty 2: Big Red One and Call of Duty 3 -- returns to World War II, which I thought that was presumably left behind by Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007.
In this Call of Duty installment, you play as a US Marine and a Russian soldier. Both have completely separate stories that do not intersect during the campaign, which is a bit weird considering the game will switch between each character's campaign seemingly at random. But Treyarch had done this before with Call of Duty 3, switching between each of the story lines of the Americans, British, Polish and Canadian armies. In Call of Duty 4, it at least made sense: Both Paul Jackson of the USMC and "Soap" MacTavish of the SAS were after the same insurgency leaders. In World at War, it just seems disjointed to switch between them without explicable reason. It should have kept the separate storyline approach that the previous Call of Duty games did, where players can choose which storyline they wish to continue from. But this is just a minor nitpick.
Both stories are interesting: The US Marines are fighting against the Japanese armies in Peleliu, Makin Island, and Okinawa; with a side-mission overseas in a fighter plane. The Russian campaign takes place in the final days of the war, destroying what's left of the Wehrmacht in Berlin and Seelow. Both locations show a nice distinctness in both environments: The Americans go through murky swamps and jungles in the day, while the Russians go through forestry in midday and broken down cities at night. There's a stark contrast between them, and it really works.
If you've played the previous Call of Duty games, not much has changed here. You still have M1 Garand rifles, Thompson submachine guns, Mosin-Nagant rifles and the fair share of German weaponry such as the Karabiner 98K and MP40. You have the new Japanese weaponry such as the Type 100 and 99, which seem to be Japanese clones of the British Sten and Bren guns, or at least look similar in design. You still use aim-down-sight for the best accuracy, and go through a relatively linear pathway through the stages. At least in World at War you can take a few branching paths in some of the stages. There are two stages that deviate from the first-person shooter combat a bit: one stage where you're shooting from the air in a PBY Catalina plane, and the obligatory mission inside a tank, a Call of Duty staple. These work out well, and work as great breathers from the standard first-person shooting gameplay.
The game mechanics have changed very little from Call of Duty 4. You still use the left trigger (or similar control equivalent for other console versions) to aim-down-sight, and right trigger to fire. Using the bumpers activate frag grenades, smoke grenades, signal flares, or molotov cocktails, the last two of which are new to the series. The only minor difference is that Japanese enemies will occasionally do banzai attacks and charge at you, sometimes where you have to do a quick time event to prevent your death from a Japanese soldier's bayonet. It's the same as the dogs from COD4, and even the dogs make a return in this game. You can use the directional pad to activate key items when the mission calls for it, such as artillery strikes from above. If you've played previous Call of Duty games, not much has changed from the existing formula. You still shoot enemies until they die, blow up things, and complete objectives. If you were expecting a breathtaking new experience, you're not gonna find it here in the single player campaign.
There is a new game mode, at least a game mode that's new to the franchise: Co-operative gameplay. With two players split screen or four players online, you can play through all but one of the campaign stages with a buddy. You can do it like traditional co-op, or play "competitive co-op," which is co-op mixed in with the Arcade Mode from COD4, where killing enemies and doing certain choices give you points, with multiple items in a row racking up an increasing multiplier. Co-op just adds three more players in the fray, and they can be revived if they take too much damage. Also in private matches with parties over Xbox Live, or with friends on your respective online service, you can use "Death Cards," which act like Halo 3's skulls.
The Death Cards modify co-op gameplay a bit, such as explosive pistol rounds when downed, shooting allies to revive them, damaging enemies only by headshots or even enemies returning as zombies after death. They're nice tweaks, but it would've been nice to use them in a regular public co-op session. Co-op itself is a fun diversion, and I love it when developers put it in games, but competitive co-op is kinda ruined when you have to still revive ally players in combat. If one player dies, only that player should be penalized, not the whole team.
There is also a co-op mode where players hold up in a small bunker (or larger asylum if you have the map pack) and fight off against Nazi zombies, seeing how far the team can get before they get too overwhelmed. This is by far my most favorite mode, despite it was pretty much just a throwaway idea put in towards the end of development. Nothing is more fun than playing through the stage, fighting for you and your buddies lives, trying to beat your record on how long you last before it's game over. Still trying to get beat my record of stage 14...
Like Call of Duty 4 before it, World at War features a robust multiplayer mode that takes the experience system from the previous game and cranks it up to eleven. Every time you kill enemies or complete objectives, you gain experience that levels you up to unlock new weapons, perks, which are game tweaks such as increased bullet damage or more accurate hip shooting; to even new challenges and weapon attachments. It's the same as COD4, except with World War II weapons instead of modern ones. Modes like Capture the Flag and War return from Call of Duty 3, as does most of the COD4 multiplayer repertoire: Domination, Sabotage, Headquarters, Search and Destroy, even Hardcore modes return. The problem is that it seems weird to see Germans holding Japanese weaponry such as the Type 100, and seeing the Japanese have M1 Garand rifles. It would've been nice to see more of a turn to classic Call of Duty, where teams could only pick weapons by their own army. It would've brought an interesting twist. World at War also brings back tanks into multiplayer. It's nice, but the tanks seem to take a bit more hits than what is necessary, making them a dangerous foe in the wrong hands. Thankfully they don't appear in all game modes, Hardcore mode has them removed completely as I write this review.
Graphically, this game isn't gonna push the technical limits of the console you're playing it on. It seems to be at around the same level as COD4 in terms of graphical fidelity, and that's more than enough. A little bit more improvement would've been nice, though. I still see issues with things like grass looking like ugly, blocky textures; somewhat average lip syncing, and animation bugs. I even had suffered a bug where Reznov was stuck in an animation, preventing me from continuing a stage since I needed him for an event later. I had to restart the stage to fix this bug.
The audio is an interesting one. For this installment, they decided to get some famous actors as voice talent. Keifer Sutherland, famous as Jack Bauer on the hit TV show 24, voices American soldier Roebuck. And Gary Oldman gives a wonderful performance as Sergeant Reznov. Other than that, the voice acting is pretty nondescript. Sound effects sound about the same as previous games in the series, even minor things like picking up ammunition sounds are recycled from COD3.
The game's music is hit or miss. While it does have orchestral music as a backing, it lacks the thematic elements of Graeme Revell's work in Call of Duty 2, or even Joel Goldsmith's punch in Call of Duty 3. It has too many parallels to Harry Gregson-Williams's music in Call of Duty 4, and the problem with that is when I play a World War II game, I usually expect a swelling orchestra. The pulse-pounding techno and guitar riffs works in COD4 because it fits that style of game, a modern warfare shooter. That's not to say the music in World at War is terrible, Sean Murray gives a competent score for the game with a few memorable tunes; the music just feels out of place in spots and would belong in a much different game.
Before I finish this review, I must rant about something. Treyarch tend to be a very hit-or-miss company. Sometimes they'll make gems like Spider-Man 2: The Game, or average efforts like Quantum of Solace: The Game, but then they could make utter crap like Minority Report: Everybody Runs. Infinity Ward's three games thus far -- Call of Duty, COD2 and COD4 -- have received nothing but accolades, awards, and praise. While on the other hand, Treyarch's previous COD efforts have garnered relatively mixed reviews. Loads of gamers tend to hate World at War for really silly reasons, which can usually be summed up in eight words: "They are not Infinity Ward, therefore they suck." It ticks me off because it puts this mentality of "If it isn't from this developer, I'm not gonna play it" in people when they decide their game purchases. While Big Red One and Call of Duty 3 had really good ideas, such as different country perspectives and fighting different people such as Italians in Big Red One, the games were bogged down by limited development time and some technical issues. COD3 was made in nine months, and was only made because COD4 wasn't ready yet. And I assume Big Red One had the same problems COD3 had. Had these games been given more time, they could've been just as great as Infinity Ward's installments. This time, World at War got more time than they did with COD3. They got up to par with the last game, and that's all they needed to do. It does not beat Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare -- Infinity Ward had a better sense of style to its single player and multiplayer elements -- but World at War definitely is up to par with it.
I consider both COD4 and World at War to be companion games. I wouldn't personally recommend just COD4 or World at War, I'd recommend both. They're both really good games, and one game has features and concepts the other doesn't. COD4 comparisons aside, World at War is a solid World War II first-person shooter, and one of the best ones I've played in a while. It's certainly better polished and more feature-filled than COD3 or Big Red One, and I think it's Treyarch's best COD game yet.