The Call of Duty franchise dominates the world, thanks to last year's Modern Warfare setting a new standard for the FPS genre. When it was announced that the next game in the series would head back to World War II, plenty of us immediately cried foul. Hadn't we fought and won that war a few thousand times already? What new could possibly be done that we hadn't already seen before?
Turns out the answer is nothing – and everything. Call of Duty: World at War doesn't necessarily reinvent anything we know about the WWII shooter. What it does is take every piece of the puzzle, and raise it to a level rarely, if ever, witnessed. Few games of this generation pack the whallop to the gut that Call of Duty does, from the wonderfully excruciating single player campaign (made doubly raucous by a co-operative mode) to the intense multiplayer experience. Simply put, World at War is a must-have next-generation title.
If you haven't already sunk your teeth into World at War, you're definitely missing out on a top contender for 2008's game of the year.
One of the reasons that the return to a familiar time and place works are the particular choices for combat in the single-player campaign. As a confessed World War II junkie, I can't imagine that it was anything other than a very deliberate selection to stage the majority of the two stories smack dab in the most viciously contested battles of the entire war – Berlin and Okinawa. Both struggles were prolonged, pitched fights featuring defenders bitterly clinging to the land with a desperation borne from raw survival. In Berlin, the Germans knew that allowing the Soviets to take control meant not only the end of the war, but the end of the German civilization as they knew it. Meanwhile, Okinawa was the last land base the Americans would need to stage the final Battle of Japan, so losing it meant the obliteration of all they had worked and died for.
Naturally, in settings like these, many of the rules of war (such as they were) were tossed out. World at War does not brush these aside, either, as you will see. Summary executions, wanton destruction of civilian outposts, and savage tactics are all on display. By the end, you'll wonder how anyone could have possibly survived. Many didn't, of course.
The single-player campaign follows the well-established conventions of the franchise. This means loads of ground-based infantry combat, interspersed with occasional tank and air-based missions. The Japanese chapters are heavy on the use of the flamethrower, a devastatingly powerful tool you use often with horrific effect. You'll also employ plenty of grenades, machine guns, rifles, and explosives depending on your task at hand. The missions are fairly diverse in both locales, from bitter house-to-house combat to snuffing out island caves and mountain artillery fortresses. From start to finish, the visuals and sound are spectacular, and the default level of difficulty is more than enough to serve up smart and tough enemies. The final pitched battles at the Shuri Castle and Reichstag are some of the most memorable combat experiences I've ever had. By the time I'd ground through the fifteen or so levels that complete the affair, I was emotionally spent.
Call of Duty may be more about the multiplayer though, and World at War doesn't disappoint there either. It borrows heavily from Modern Warfare, and while that does serve up a rock-solid experience, it may not differentiate itself enough from its predecessor to warrant a mass exodus. The underlying mechanics feature Modern Warfare's addictive character building model, allowing you to gain experience points, which then get translated into interchangeable perks and bonuses. As you move up the ladder, from a newbie to a grizzled veteran, all sorts of avenues are opened up to allow you to build out your experience in a dizzying variety. Even better, if you're teamed up with a few buddies in a clan, the interchangeability of all of these options can create a devastating group if you coordinate properly. There were plenty of times I was served up as an unwitting pawn, being nothing more than rifle fodder for well-orchestrated tactical strikes as I scurried across the war-strewn maps in search of a safe place to hide.
Despite the overall familiarity of the game, there are a few new ingredients. One key differentiator is World at War's all-new cooperative mode, which allows up to four online players to participate in the campaign. While this would be nifty if that's all that it was, the best aspect of co-op is a competitive aspect that rewards participants for scoring kills and assists, which contribute to your multiplayer experience points. Genius!
Another stroke of brilliance is the Nazi Zombies mode, unlocked upon completion of the campaign. To me, this came completely out of nowhere, as its monster-movie theme contrasts completely with the gritty, somber tone of the rest of the game. Basically, you (and a few friends if you choose) are locked in a house and are being stalked by, yes, Nazi zombies. The more you kill, the more points you get, which open up new rooms and fresh opportunities to get better weapons to kill even more of the evil undead. There is no winning, but just like pinball or car racing, top scores are always fun to chase.
Considering Modern Warfare remains one of the most-played titles on either console a year after release, World at War had a lot to live up to. Surprisingly, it holds its own. World at War doesn't do too much that's new, but what it does offer up is a supremely tight, taut, and emotionally charged experience that ranks near the top of anything I've played this generation. If you haven't already sunk your teeth into World at War, you're definitely missing out on a top contender for 2008's game of the year.