Review: Call of Duty: World at War (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Call of Duty: World at War
Publisher: Activision Blizzard
Developer: Treyarch
Genre: Shooter
Release Date: 11/11/2008


At this point, the Call of Duty series is old news – COD2 was one of the Xbox 360’s flagship games at release. First person shooters set in World War II are extremely common. Even the Call of Duty series gave WWII a rest with COD4, set in modern times. Now, the occasionally maligned Treyarch development team took the reigns of the series back and returned to 1945.

This time out, the series takes place in the Pacific and Eastern fronts and adds a few new gameplay modes and a much less linear progression in single player mode. So, does Treyarch manage to step away from some of the negative criticism thrown at their previous COD title? And is this a welcome return to the “great” war, or just another flogging of a long dead horse?

Read on to find out…

Story/Mode

This incarnation of the game follows two campaigns and, thus, two stories. You begin as Private Miller of the US Marine Corps as a captive in the Pacific front. The story starts out frankly and brutally – the opening cinematic is watching a fellow Marine POW get his throat cut. The player is next on the chopping block when Corporal Roebuck heads a rescue mission. You then play various battles throughout the Pacific theater in Roebuck’s unit. First the Makin Islands under Japanese control, then the assault on Peleliu, and finally Shuri Castle at Okinawa. On the Eastern front, you play as Private Dimitri Petrenko and follow Roebuck’s Russian counterpart, Sergeant Reznov, through first a vengeful sniper attack and later the Russian push east through Seelow and, finally, the assault on Berlin culminating at a battle for the Reichstag. There is also a single mission with a third character, Petty Officer Locke, who is a weapons officer on a PBY Catalina. That particular mission is a hell of a lot of fun.

I found the grim beginnings of both main stories appropriate and interesting – you begin the American campaign about to be executed and the Russian campaign hidden among your recently executed squadron. The game as a whole involves a much more grim, brutal, and mature approach to the war than previous installments in the series. This does seem largely fitting given the settings – the Pacific front in general and the Battle of Peleliu in particular were absolutely devastating for American GIs, and the Russian assault on Seelow and, ultimately, Berlin brought new meaning to the word “revenge.” While the other games in the series allowed the emotional detachment and simplification garnered from a “Nazis are evil” approach, World at War takes the time to examine the complexity of morals involved in the Battle of Berlin – sure, Nazis are evil, but 10-14 year old boys as a last line of defense? Examining the amorality inherent to a war generally considered a moral necessity is a step in a much more interesting direction for a video game company.

Although I think most people that play these types of shooters may not particularly care too about a deep story, this one is well done. There is a light touch to character development and the plot of a 60 year old war is obviously well known at this point, but the game’s approach to personal involvement in the war is very well balanced against an over-arching sense of history.

Gameplay modes have improved over previous installments with one simple addition – co-op mode. There is, of course, the standard single player campaign, vs. mode, and online multiplayer already familiar to fans of the series, but co-op mode is definitely a welcome addition to the series. My favorite part of co-op mode is the method for reviving a fallen teammate – morphine! When your comrade is killed, he goes into a quasi near-dead mode, where the only usable weapon is a pistol (much like the end of COD4, actually) and he has a limited time before he expires for good and both players must start at the last checkpoint. So, when he falls, you hit him up with some morphine and he is good to go. Of course, I see a bit of humor, but the method is actually very intelligent and appropriate – it takes time and energy to revive a fallen comrade and it gets damned near impossible if he died in an area still under heavy fire.

And then, of course, there is the unlockable “Nacht der untoten” mode. Zombie Nazis. You hole up in a fortified house alone or with friends, either local or via Xbox Live, and defend against a never-ending horde of German undead. The more zombies you kill, the more points you get to unlock new weapons or ways to fortify the house. It is a hell of a lot of fun, even if it is gimmicky.

Now that I’ve gone back and played some COD3, I can see where the criticisms hold up. The gameplay of 3 is extremely linear – you get pulled into every situation largely regardless of personal choice. Not so with this new entry. There are quite often multiple ways to solve the same problem and considerably more freedom of movement in the maps.

Graphics

The graphics in this game are absolutely stunning. COD2 was the game to show off when you wanted anyone to see the HD capability of the 360 at launch, and the graphics on this game have improved the already great engine from COD4. The physics engine now allows much more detailed interaction with background objects. You can shoot holes in walls to climb through, and when you start a fire with the friendly flamethrower, it will actually burn grass, books, and whatever else is around – and will continue to spread an a logical fashion. The improvement over 4 is mostly background interaction, as the game itself looks very similar, but, hey, 4 looked awesome.

Sound

The sound is again excellent. The full use of 5.1 surround combined with some great weapons fire samples make for a very immersive experience. A few more days playing, and I should be able to identify enemy location and armament just based on the sound of their guns. The voice acting is also excellent – the marines certainly do talk like marines – and Kiefer Sutherland does quite well as the American Sergeant Roebuck. One-upping Sutherland, though, is the always stellar Gary Oldman, who plays Reznov. The music was generally well done, but one big problem I had was an occasional disregard for period appropriateness. While the soundtrack does an excellent job at flexibility and situational awareness – it gets tense when the situation gets tense – it seems like hard rock may not be the best choice. I’m aware that pure martial music may be beyond cliché at this point, but the near-metal pulled me out of immersion and had me a little confused. This seems like it would be more appropriate in COD4 – metal and rap abound on marine iPods, but heavy metal in the 40s? I don’t think so.

Control & Gameplay

If you’ve played any of the other COD games, you’re familiar with the gameplay. The move/look analogue stick combo common to just about every shooter these days is once again in effect here. You can run, walk, stand, crouch, or crawl with varying effects on stealth and speed, and the trigger buttons serve your main weapon’s sights and trigger, with the saddle triggers useful for grenades. It’s a tried and true button configuration, and it certainly works well here. What I did find a problem with, though, is getting physically stuck on top of the AI. When I ran to a cover spot and crouched, if someone had snuck up behind me, I would be stuck there – and usually under fire. I could get out of it, but only by jumping up and down for a bit. Not the best way to hide in a foxhole.

Replayability

Having the addition of co-op mode definitely does a lot for the replayability of this game. Redoing missions with a buddy adds new challenges, as I found out running co-op mode. Just like in war, you need to watch out for yourself AND for the poor guy next in line. The zombie mode is also a lot of fun and will call for a lot of replay with my bandmantes in the near future. Of course, for those of you that enjoy the devolution in humanity that is otherwise called Xbox Live play, the game offers some nice, new maps and weapons, complete with all the standard trimmings of capture the flag, deathmatch, etc. There is also a sort of leveling system for online play, which allows for unlocking of new weapons. The variety of off- and online modes does make for better replayability. There are also some collectable death cards in the game, but I’m not real sure that’s enough incentive in and of itself to redo missions. What DOES make for some appeal is the previously mentioned mission flexibility. You are not obligated to only use one successful tactic. There are often multiple paths and multiple strategies as available options and it’s always fun to try the other way.

Balance

The balance on this game is well done, although it seems minded a bit more for experienced players. There is no tutorial mode as there was in previous installments and I found the game more difficult overall than the others I’ve played in the series, but this does make some sense considering the tactical shift involved in these particular battles. The Japanese were known for being very patiently conservative with ammunition during the Battle of Peleliu. They would hide and wait for a squadron to get near enough to inflict maximum damage. This was an extremely effective technique historically and it is no less effective here – very difficult to counter. Add to that the bonzai attack method and snipers in trees, and you’ve got a bitch of a battle. That said, the difficulty settings allow for enough wiggle room to please both greenhorns and veterans.

Originality

Well. This is the fifth entry in a series about a long-discussed war in an extremely popular gaming genre. So…it doesn’t rank high on originality. The addition of a Nazi Zombie survival horror level is fun, but another case of well-trod territory. Games placed in the Pacific front are rarer, however, and the historical worst of the American fronts does make for a good game. It’s merely a slight variation on a theme, but so were the Rolling Stones.

Addictiveness

I am an absolute sucker for World War II related anything – Band of Brothers, Axis and Allies, Call of Duty, etc., so take my opinion here at a positive bias, but I am hopelessly addicted to these things. The single player campaign mode isn’t particularly long, but it is an improvement over COD4. All told, I think I spent about 12 hours for my first run through. The game is definitely engrossing and addictive to the point where I wasn’t satisfied until I had planted that flag on the Reichstag.

Appeal Factor

Appeal factor for a game with a mature rating is naturally limited, and historical shooters are not for everyone. That said, this game should appeal to anyone that enjoyed the WWII era COD games in the past. It is an excellent and natural extension to previous titles in the series. If you don’t like shooters, or you’re sick of WWII, move along, otherwise pick it up.

Miscellaneous

An interesting thing I’ve noted is the dichotomy between coarse language and a sidestepping of ethnic slurs. The old slurs for the Germans have largely been intact in these games – Jerry, kraut, etc. Not so for the Japanese. The one slur they repeat is “Tojo,” which is not one I’ve even encountered before. I neither agree nor disagree with this decision, I merely find it interesting that, while one of the first words said in the game is “fuck,” you will never hear any of the more…colorful terms for the Japanese soldiers, even in spite of a few soldier models looking awfully close to the old propaganda stereotypes. It’s impressive that the deliberate non-use of some of the fouler ethnic slurs made me think about language. Not a side effect you often expect from a shooter.

The Scores:
Story/Mode: Classic
Graphics: Unparalleled
Sound: Above Average
Control & Gameplay: Above Average
Replayability: Great
Balance: Good
Originality: Pretty Poor
Addictiveness: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Decent
Final Score: VERY GOOD GAME

Short Attention Span Summary
It’s Call of Duty – you know it, you love it. Treyarch does an excellent job of expanding the engine from 4 and returns to World War Two without falling prey to overly rehashing the other games. The addition of co-op mode and a fun, unlockable zombie game make up enough quirk to make World at War stand out from previous installments. Finally visiting the Pacific front introduces a greater maturity and brutal depth than any of the other WWII CODs.

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