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Call of Duty: World at War Review

By Jeff Buckland, 11/19/2008

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Call of Duty: World at War launched and found some excellent sales its first week, despite fighting an uphill battle against a bad reputation and some at least partially unfair animosity towards developer Treyarch. Call of Duty is the creation of Infinity Ward, and the reputation Treyarch has had so far is for making poor spinoffs of the originals, thrown at consoles during holiday seasons as cash cows. But now that publisher Activision has decided to put some real effort and resources into making it a yearly franchise with two developers each working on their game for two years (and helping Treyarch to bring up the quality to the level we expect from the franchise), I have found World at War to be worthy to carry the Call of Duty name.

We're back to World War II, but this time things are a little different. Activision has learned from the successes of CoD4 and have included much of what makes that game so fun in the online play here. Oh, sure, there's still a sizable campaign that has you fighting back the Germans as a Russian soldier and taking to the Pacific theater as an American private against the Japanese (which in itself represents at least something new for the franchise), but it's the game's online play that really shines. There's the usual competitive gameplay modes with the ability to level up and unlock perks and weapons, but now some maps have tanks as well. There's also the cooperative mode, a first for the franchise, which lets 360 players do a classic split-screen game or either PC or 360 players to jump online for four-player action in most of the single player campaign missions. And if that's not enough, the Nazi Zombies mode, playable on a single map, has you boarding up a house and fighting to keep away the horde of undead Nazis that try to break in and kill you.

Treyarch has done a great job in integrating all of this stuff into both the 360 and PC versions of the game as best they could. The PC may not have split-screen modes (since Windows itself does not actually recognize two separate mice and keyboards as unique inputs), but it does have some excellent LAN action and a proper PC-style server browser and easy-to-use friends list along with an easy system for inviting people to the servers you're playing on. Meanwhile, on the 360 players get full matchmaking services for onlne play and can do two-player cooperative play or four-player versus play in split-screen modes, and go online for all the rest. And in both versions, all of this is tied in by allowing gamers to level up their soldiers by playing in any online mode.

There's more, too. Cooperative play is fun, and having to revive a downed buddy within a minute or so forces players to stay together, but the competitive modifier actually scores players for getting successive kills and not dying. With multipliers, hidden points for taking out specific objectives like officers or searchlights, and the continued need to revive that teammate who charged forward a little too much, the name "competitive cooperative" really does describe it nicely. For even more variety, gamers can collect the Death Cards littered throughout the campaign levels, either when playing alone or online, and use them as extra modifiers in online coop games. Most of them make the game harder in some way, but a few of them also make it a little different and sometimes pretty strange. Put all of this together, and it adds up to a ton of replay value and some great fun when playing together.

That being said, this is a WW2 game. You know what you're going to get: Thompsons and BARs and MP40s, charging through trenches to destroy some AA guns, a really damn annoying sniper mission that once again tries to evoke the movie Enemy at the Gates, and just a little too much pulled right out of the Infinity Ward Playbook of How to Make a Cinematic War-based First Person Shooter. And whenever Treyarch relies on this too much, World at War falters. It happens much less often in the Pacific theater, as Sgt. Roebuck, voiced by Hollywood actor Kiefer Sutherland, leads you and other soldiers in the charge through a few of the major islands advancing against the Japanese. There, you'll have to deal with deadly traps, bayonet-wielding attackers charging at you, snipers in the trees, and more. The use of a flamethrower in some levels to burn the grass to kill your enemies is interesting, but it's even better when you just burn your opposition directly.

This is a tough one to call, because I'm about as sick of WW2 games as anyone, but this is hands down the most fun I've had in any WW2 shooter yet. It lacks the tactical depth of Brothers in Arms or strategy of Company of Heroes, but Call of Duty still does the best job of capturing that cinematic, visceral feel of the HBO show Band of Brothers or the film Saving Private Ryan. If Treyarch had just phoned this in with a decent campaign (and this one is definitely much better than their last entry in the series, Call of Duty 3) and the usual online versus modes, I wouldn't be nearly as excited to play this one. But with the cooperative modes and the slick online interface for getting into them, World at War is vaulted to a level that is almost on par with Infinity Ward's blockbuster hit from last year.

Even if you doubt Treyarch's ability to deliver a winner considering their past games and even if you are tired of the setting, I think that you'll find this game to be a pleasant surprise - but it depends pretty heavily on your ability to break free of the single player action. Get some friends together and do the cooperative play - which does often feel like it's exactly the way the campaign was meant to be played in the first place - and you'll put this one near, if not at, the top of your list for great games this year.

In the end, Call of Duty: World at War is far from the series' best when just played alone, but diving into the cooperative and online modes is what gives this one its charm. From calling the dogs on your enemies in Team Deathmatch to using concentrated fire and just the right angles together to slaughter Axis forces in cooperative action, this one has been made with maximum fun in mind. These game developers make it harder and harder to keep coming back to the tired old WW2 shooter genre, but that's only because the games are so good (and this one is an appropriate step up from the last) - it'd be easy to ignore these games if none of them were fun. But this one is a blast to play, and so I give it a hearty recommendation despite having been skeptical all along about the quality of another Treyarch WW2 game.

Overall: 90%



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