Call of Duty: World At WarShawn Drotar

Posted on December 3rd, 2008 in Gaming, Xbox 360, PC Gaming, Playstation 3, Reviews, Opinion by Shawn Drotar

The Call of Duty franchise keeps on rolling forward, but the latest iteration takes gamers backward in time once more. After last year’s well-received Modern Warfare, the series returns to its World War II roots with a gripping, intense experience that’s hard to find fault with.

Call of Duty: World At War is a finely polished first-person shooter that borrows liberally from its predecessor, despite the 65-year difference in the games’ settings. The game’s controls are essentially identical, which isn’t a bad thing at all, and the game instantly feels like a Call of Duty title. The consistency of this series is remarkable, both in terms of feel and quality, which is all the more impressive considering that development alternates between two studios.

Infinity Ward created 2007’s Modern Warfare, while Treyarch handled 2008’s World At War. While many fans of the series insist that Infinity Ward’s versions of Call of Duty are far superior to Treyarch’s, it would be difficult to quantify that here. While there’s no doubt that Treyarch follows carefully in Infinity Ward’s footsteps, their remarkable diligence in doing so is also praiseworthy. Treyarch doesn’t try to fix what’s not broken, and they add a few new wrinkles to boot.

World War II has become long-fertile ground for game developers, and it’s fair to wonder if publisher Activision wasn’t going to the well once too often when revisiting the 1940s for Call of Duty’s latest adventure. But Treyarch intended to tread new ground, using the brutal island-to-island fighting in the Pacific and the long Russian push into Europe as the settings for the game’s twin storylines (though there is a single ocean-bound mission set apart from the two main tales), and the result is a blend of remarkably varied and lush set pieces on which the drama is played.

Oddly, the game’s two storylines don’t coincide, time-wise, but that hardly matters - the point is to present two different perspectives of the great conflict, and the game does so effectively.

As American Pvt. Miller, the gamer will be thrust into the nightmarish Pacific Theater, where American and Japanese forces fought, inch-by-inch, to retain small jungle islands in a pivotal tug-of-war that ended up determining the fate of the conflict. These levels can be harrowing, with enemies springing from spider-holes and camping in trees, ready to cut you down. The combat is harsh and brutal, and the game quickly earns in “M for mature” rating, even without hearing the salty speech of your fellow Marines.

As Russian Pvt. Petrenko, the gamer will experience the Russian rally, and help mount attacks in ruined cities on their way to the assault on the Reichstag in Berlin itself. The Russian part of the game is notably and sensibly dreary, using an incendiary red and yellow color palette which is in sharp contrast to the Pacific’s green and brown.

The game’s two “looks” help to delineate not only the different parts of the world, but the tenor of both the conflicts, and there’s some real artistry at work in the game’s level creation. Adding to that are actors Kiefer Sutherland and Gary Oldman, who voice your characters’ mentors and leaders. As Sgt. Roebuck, Sutherland’s clipped, terse delivery is very effective, while Oldman’s world-weary gravitas plays very well as Russian Sgt. Reznov. Unfortunately, Miller and Petrenko themselves are silent throughout, and while this is likely intentional, in an effort to allow the gamer to inhabit the character, it seems that fleshing out these two characters would have brought deeper emotional resonance to the game, and it’s an opportunity missed.

In the end, playing World At War’s single player mode is uncomfortable, though it’s not due to controls or difficulty. Treyarch has done a brilliant job conveying the desperation and bleak outlook of the world’s darkest days, even though your character seems detached from that world. It’s really quite an achievement, given that the first-person shooter genre doesn’t generally lend itself to introspection.

On the technical side, most everything’s pitch-perfect. Controls are refined and intuitive, and the game runs without a hitch. The game’s multiplayer mode, which I previously detailed here, is outstanding and will extend the game’s lifespan far beyond the single-player experience. It’s worth noting that co-op play is available in the campaign mode - a welcome addition.

There’s even a bonus mini-game that’s unlocked and begins immediately after completing the single-player experience; a creepy-but-arcade-derived “Nazi Zombies” level that has the gamer (or gamers, it’s a multiplayer mode) fending off hordes of zombies in an abandoned building. Points can be earned by blasting the zombies, which can then be spent to repair blockades that will help slow the invasion.

Meant as a light-hearted diversion, the mini-game is actually quite entertaining, but it’s also wildly out of place here. In a game that genuinely attempts to humanize this horrific conflict, it seems almost distasteful to trivialize it immediately thereafter. It detracts from what Treyarch had accomplished, despite the fact that, from a gameplay sense, it’s fun. When games start pressing up against the door of art, it’s going to be important, going forward, to recognize that certain themes must be maintained throughout for the dramatic thrust to be effectively driven home.

That said, the “Nazi Zombies” level is merely a blemish, a slight stumble that doesn’t knock World At War off course. The game is unflinching, and challenging to more than just your fingers. While it’s not for everyone - the violence and language assure that - it’s certainly worth playing. This genre is evolving, and the Call of Duty series is at the vanguard. While World At War is a dark and foreboding experience, there’s a brave heart to be found there, too.

One Response to 'Call of Duty: World At War'

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  1. SV Narine said,

    on December 5th, 2008 at 10:08 am

    My biggest gripe is just how cheap the A.I. is. For some reason, on the harder difficulty settings, the bullets of the AI seem to gravitate to your character, even though there are tons of other soldiers shooting at the AI. Also, the teammate AI nearly always makes you take “point” which is kind of irritating as well.

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