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Platform(s):Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Wii
Reviewing Call of Duty: World At War feels like a lot of reviewing the latest Madden game: one has to evaluate the game as a unique product when it's really an updated version of a game that came out the year before. Those who call World At War a World War II mod of Call of Duty 4 would not be far off - WaW and COD4 both follow the same blueprint. WaW, because it stands on the shoulders of the previous game, ends up better on paper because it adds a few new features. But does that mean it's actually a better game?
Like COD4, WaW has a single-player campaign split between two different characters. For half of the campaign you'll play a U.S. Marine in the Pacific theater and the other half you'll play a member of the Red Army. Both characters' stories take place during the later days of World War II and they both shoot a lot of Axis soldiers - but there's no real connection beyond that. I was sort of hoping that in some way they'd manage to pull the two characters' stories together as the later stages of COD4 did but it never happens. Ultimately, by the end I felt like I had watched two separate documentaries on World War II.
Even if the overall story never gelled for me, the individual gameplay scenes work well. Though the game clings to the somewhat worn out Call of Duty formula of waves of enemies who stop their constant respawning only if you move forward, there's some great moments in the campaign. Defending an airstrip from a Japanese counter-attack and fighting Nazis on the floor of the Reichstag both stick out in my mind. There's also one "rail shooter" segment where you control a gunner on a flying boat bomber that ambushes a Japanese convoy at sea and it's arguably the high point of the game. The COD4 counter-part, the AC-130 gunship scene, was also a lot of fun but the flying boat scene in WaW pulls you into the actual battle and is a much more exciting experience overall. The biggest gripe with the actual gameplay of the campaign is that the A.I. can be suspect at times. The Japanese soldiers are hyper-aggressive and sometimes charge you with bayonets - which presents new challenges but sometimes they'd charge past me and my comrades and just hang out behind us. There were other times where an enemy and friendly soldier would crouch behind opposites sides of an obstacle and then just stay there.
A big addition to the single-player campaign is that, well, it's not necessarily single-player. You can play any of the missions with one other player via split-screen or three other players online. The best part of the co-op is that you can revive downed players, which makes enemy grenade bankshot kills a bit less annoying. Unfortunately, playing the levels with a party of four does get a bit too easy, which makes me think that it's probably perfect for two players. Four players is, however, great for competitive co-op, where you and your teammates try to outscore each other in maps by racking up the most kills, revives, headshots, etc. It degenerates into you and your teammates being suicidal jackasses and charging into rooms of enemies by yourself to rack up kills. With four players, usually at least one person will survive these kamikaze charges and keep the game going. It's a breezy, fast-paced game mode. Littered throughout the campaign missions are collectibles known as "death cards" which can enable special cheats during co-op. One of these cards lets you wield a pistol that shoots grenades when you're downed. You'll still eventually get tired of the campaign missions but the possibility of dicking around in them with friends with death cards extends the shelf life. Adding to the appeal of the co-op is the fact that it nets you experience points to boost your regular multiplayer level.
The regular multiplayer is where WaW becomes harder to distinguish from COD4. There's different perks and weapons to unlock, and different special abilities from kill streaks (you unleash a pack of dogs instead of an attack helicopter) but it's the same exact feel. If you're experienced with the Call of Duty 4 multiplayer, there is nothing new to learn here. Some maps have controllable tanks, which you'd think would change the dynamics of multiplayer but the maps are about the same size and there aren't any other types of vehicles besides tanks so the effect is limited. All you need to do is stay out of the open (which you need to do in COD multiplayer anyway given how easy it is to die) and have at least one person on your team carry an anti-tank launcher.
While discussing the multiplayer, it's impossible not to mention the Nazi zombies. After you beat the campaign once, you unlock the "Nacht Der Untoten" mode in which you and three players must defend a building against waves of undead Third Reich devotees. Shooting zombies and rebuilding the barricades over windows earns you cash to buy new weapons to keep you well-equipped for fending off the increasingly tougher and more numerous zombies. There's only one map, the action starts off a bit slow, and it unfortunately doesn't net you any XP. Still, it's a lot of fun and more importantly, it's new. I wish there were more things in World At War I could say that about.
Playing World At War reminds me a bit of reading the Da Vinci Code - it's entertaining but I don't want to give the person who made it much credit. The substance of Dan Brown's book comes from others' research and Treyarch's game carries with it much of the content introduced by COD4. That being said, it's a fine game and Treyarch has proved that it's capable of upholding the Call of Duty pedigree - I just wish they had chipped in a little more to the series with this game. I can't really blame them, though; I can count the number of first-person shooter sequels that featured substantial changes to the original's gameplay on one finger with a Half-Life 2 tattoo. Furthermore, you can't expect big changes when the previous game was only released a year ago. Activision has stated that they plan on releasing extensive DLC for WaW and push back Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 6 so we hopefully we won't end up with another sequel that only polishes up the previous installment and adds a feature here and there. World At War's a good game but this is a cynical way of making games.