After a wildly successful tour of duty in the modern era, Activision's Call of Duty series heads back to the 1940s with World at War, a WWII-focused shooter that attempts to do many of the same things that the previous game did, but in a different time period. It's interesting to watch those different facets of a modern game as they're molded to fit into an earlier conflict, and it works better than you'd probably think. At times, though, it still feels like a knockoff of a better game.
The game's campaign splits time between two different fronts. For half the game, you'll play as an American Marine taking on Japanese forces as you push from their forward island bases all the way back to Okinawa. The other half puts you in Russian boots as you strike back against the Germans, pushing them out of the motherland and sieging Berlin. You know, just like the real thing! Like the previous game, the campaign jumps back and forth between the two perspectives. So you'll play a level or two as one guy, swap to the other for a bit, then swap back. This keeps up over the course of the game's 13 missions.
The campaign provides a good amount of first-person shooter variety, but it excels when the levels are wide open and all hell is breaking loose around you. There are more than a few moments where you're charging against an entrenched enemy, and the game does a good job of making these moments feel appropriately chaotic. You'll also see the requisite vehicle sequence and some up-close indoor battles. Overall, there really aren't any surprises coming out of the single-player--it's a quality single-player campaign from beginning to end.
You can also play the campaign mode cooperatively with up to three other players joining you via system link or over the Internet. Most of the cues for this aspect of World at War seem to come from Halo 3's co-op. You can enable competitive scoring, which makes you want to kill everyone before your partners can. You can also find and unlock "death cards" in each level. Each one you collect lets you enable a little modification in future co-op matches. These are, essentially, the skulls from Halo 3. Some of these cards let you fire explosive pistol rounds while you're downed, or make it so your enemies only die when you shoot them in the head. This gives the co-op some pretty decent options. Still, it's a little jarring that the game dumps you back to the lobby after every mission, instead of letting you just keep on playing with no breaks.
The competitive multiplayer probably has the best chance of roping you in for hours and hours. This portion of the game feels like a really well-made mod for Call of Duty 4 that replaces all of the modern stuff with World War II stuff. Most of the things from COD4 are represented in some way. Instead of calling in radar when you get a three-kill streak, you can call in a recon plane... which has the exact same effect of showing dots on your map that represent enemy locations. Since helicopters and World War II don't mix, they've been replaced by dogs. Calling in the dogs on your foes is pretty funny and useful in multiple ways. While wily players can stick the dogs with a knife or gun them down before getting ripped apart, you can still follow your dogs to find the enemy. It's a clever addition.
The game has the same sort of player customization and experience point system as last year's release. So as you play, you'll gain levels, which in turn unlocks additional items and configuration options. You'll be able to set perks on your player--these are special skills and enhancements like the ability to reload faster, or a gas mask perk that makes your soldier able to withstand the effects of gas grenades more easily. There's also a new vehicle perk that lets you give your soldier enhancements like faster turret turning speeds.
Some of the multiplayer maps contain tanks, which let one player drive and another work a machine gun turret atop the tank. The tanks are probably going to be a dividing inclusion. While I like rolling around and gunning down enemy soldiers from the relative safety of a tank, I really don't like that the vehicle levels have to be open enough to accommodate the tanks. While only four of the game's 13 multiplayer maps contain vehicles, these maps seem like they come up in the rotation a bit more often than the others. If you're setting up private matches, that probably won't matter to you at all. They just feel too large, like you're having to hunt around for the action.
Fire seems to be a big visual theme in Call of Duty: World at War. Large portions of the campaign are devoted to running around with a flamethrower and burning as many Japanese soldiers as possible. You'll run through burning buildings. And if you play long enough, you'll be able to unlock that flamethrower for use in multiplayer. The fire effects, thankfully, are good enough to warrant their featured position. The flamethrower snakes around as you wave it and burns up most nearby grass and trees as you go. Creeping through dark, but still-burning buildings shows off the game's terrific lighting, as the soft glow of the flames reflects and flickers onto the nearby walls. All of the lighting, really, is well done. The game has a really dingy, dark look to it that helps make everything you're doing feel at least a little dreadful.
You'll get a bit of Hollywood-style voice acting via Keifer Sutherland and Gary Oldman. Both play characters that guide you through most of the campaign mode, making sure you're pointed in the right direction and giving the general sort of wartime orders you'd expect to hear out of your sergeant. They also serve as announcers in the multiplayer mode. The multiplayer mode feels a lot more chatty this time around, as most of the soldiers will curse and/or shout about something whenever they get a kill.
The rest of the game's audio is fine, too. The weapons sound period-accurate and the battlefields always sound pretty intense. There's a lot of modern-sounding guitar rock on the soundtrack, which kind of makes the whole game feel like some kind of poorly-edited YouTube video. It's like what I imagine would happen if you asked a 15-year-old to make World War II footage interesting or something. It serves its purpose by picking up alongside the action and fading down for the quiet, creeping times. But it still feels out of place. The developers changed the clinky, weird noise that grenades make when they land. While this might sound more realistic, it also has the maddening effect of forcing me to retrain myself to hear the new grenade noise after killing someone online. So the martyrdom perk, which has soldiers drop a live grenade every time they die, is, at least until I can get used to the new sound, way more effective. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, mind you. In fact, that chintzy grenade effect from the previous game always seemed a little out of place.
Of course, these are all pretty minor points in the grand scheme of things. Call of Duty: World at War is a perfectly competent game with exciting multiplayer options and a campaign that's worth playing. But in most of the ways that actually count, last year's game was better.