Call of Duty: World at War Review: The Modern Warfare Effect

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was a marvel. One of the best, I think, games of last year and certainly one of the best in the Call of Duty franchise's history. So how do you top that?

Certainly not by having someone else do the next step for Call of Duty and having that step be an about face that returns you to the well-trodden mud, trenches and broken landscape of World War II, right?

Not so fast. While Treyarch might be fighting an uphill battle, trying to match the ingenuity and storytelling prowess of Infinity Ward in a played-out landscape, it's not an unwinnable war. The game does find some new grist in the Pacific and mother Russia and there's that cooperative zombie killing. Seriously. So just how well did Call of Duty: World at War fare? Hit the jump to find out.

Loved
High Level of Polish: A lot of care went into the creation of this latest Call of Duty. You see it in the cluttered interiors of the game's many indoor maps, in the sometimes overwhelming and massive sense of scale in battles and in the carefully crafted character models and animation. This is a World War II shooter worth playing.

Pacific, Settings: World War II has become such a familiar stomping ground for shooters that crafting something both accurate and unique must be a challenge. But Treyarch manages to carry it off with few stumbles. In particular the maps set on the Pacific islands are dense, immersive and different. And somehow the developers managed to return gamers to a war torn Europe without making it feel like déjà vu. This is mostly achieved by dropping you in the middle of some of the most historic battles of the tail end of the war, like the capture of the Reichstag in 1945.

Captivating Cut Scenes: Certainly the most disturbing element of World at War is its use of historic footage from World War II in cut scenes. These videos show executions, fire fights and war like a gamer rarely sees it, accurately depicted. And while it can be at times grotesque in its presentation, it is never mistreated or used for cheap emotional context. Instead the developers seem to use it in union with actual dates, numbers and graphics to try and lay out for those playing the game not only the significance of the war, but the way in which it changed those who fought it, perhaps forever.

Disturbingly Realistic Melee and Deaths: Almost as disturbing as that real world video footage of the events of the war are the incredibly graphic and intense death animations and melee combat in the game. Enemies flail on the ground in pain or crawl to safety when shot. Those unfortunate enough to be hit with a flamethrower scream and thrash until they die from the burns or asphyxiation. Melee combat can be anything from a vicious slash of the knife to a drawn out struggle with a dying enemy, each of you impaled on the other's blade. The end result is a game that depicts death in a much more jarring and, while I hate to think of it, likely realistic way.

The Black Cat Level: There are a number of levels in Call of Duty World at War that are both memorable and well-designed, but about halfway through the game you're placed in a Black Cat flying boat and asked to run escort duty. Despite feeling totally detached from the rest of the game, the mission turns into one of those keystone moments of World at War where everything comes together to create one of the most intense experiences of an already powerful game.

Zombie Nazis: Zombies are about as inappropriate a fit for this game as I can imagine. World at War, up until the credits finish rolling, is a serious and dark look at the world's worst war. But seconds after the game wraps up you and up to three friends are tasked with plugging a never ending stream of Hitler-following zombies with your WWII-era weapons. The thing is, it's a total blast to play. In fact, the combination of an increasingly difficult enemy force and the need to patch up the barricaded windows of your safe house makes this one of the most enjoyable co-op modes I've played in a shooter in quite some time. Yes, including Gears 2's horde mode.

Hated
Occasionally Bumbling Enemy AI: Despite all of the game's polish, there are a surprising amount of problems with World at War's AI. Within minutes of starting the game I witnessed enemy and friendly soldiers standing face-to-face, weapons pointing at or over each other's shoulders not doing a thing. And that was not a one off. Banzai attacks sometimes lead to Japanese soldiers running right past me and around the field of battle, screaming until they were shot.

Too Scripted: The Call of Duty franchise has always been marked with heavily scripted sequences. And World at War is no different; though this time around, that scripting can sometimes lead to bad transitions between objectives or even levels. If, for instance, you don't realize that you need to press your front line forward, you could seemingly play certain battles of the game forever, patiently plugging away at soldiers who are, like clockwork, replaced by a similar group of men.

Watered Down Characters and Story: In Call of Duty: World at War you play as two main characters, one a U.S. soldier fighting in the Pacific and the other a Russian soldier pushing through Germany and into the heart of Berlin. The story unfolds through these two separate narratives, but because the characters are faceless and the transitions so frequent it's hard to identify with either. The same can be said of the story of these men and their brothers in arms. Their story seems to get lost in all of the jumping around.

Powerful Message Gets Lost: It feels that Treyarch was trying to tell us something about the nature of war in this, their latest shooter. They deliver that message through those jarring historic videos and through a number of animated sequences that seem to be trying to highlight, well, something. But what? It could be that they are trying to point out the cruelty of war, or perhaps the nature of humanity. Maybe that power, even the power of a pistol, can corrupt absolutely. But the problem is they never really get around to explaining it for us. The game concludes not with words but a number: 60 million. The number they say were killed in the war. (Others say more than 70 million.) While powerful, I think the message would hit home more powerfully with some sort of narrative that concludes in a way that people not daily affected by the strife and death of a world at war could more easily identify with, or at least understand.

There's been a lot made of Call of Duty: World at War's opening. And there should be. It's powerful. It's disturbing. But I think it's there for a reason. War is disturbing, and this game makes no bones about the fact that it isn't going to paint over the atrocities. From its History Channel-esque cut scenes, to the plentiful and gruesome deaths thrust in the gamers' faces, World at War seems to be trying to tell us something. And I find that admirable, but perhaps next time let's not wrap up the experience with a little solider on Nazi zombie action.

This is no Modern Warfare, you can't duck the comparison, so we might as well get that over with straight away. While the game is powerful, the settings dripping with atmosphere and the action non-stop, it's still not the game of the year. That being said, the multiplayer is just as strong, from what I've seen of it so far, as its predecessor and the inclusion of up to four-player campaign co-op is a welcome addition. Also, despite the incongruity of the whole thing, I absolutely love the zombie mode.

Call of Duty: World at War was developed by Treyarch, published by Activision and released on Nov. 11 for the PC, PlayStation 3, Wii and Xbox 360. Retails for $59.99 USD. It was reviewed on the Xbox 360. Completed the single-player campaign alone, tested campaign coop, Nazi Zombie mode and other multiplayer modes.

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