Version tested: Xbox 360
So it's come to this. Right at the very start of World at War, you're a helpless prisoner of the Japanese, saved from execution at the last second by a rescue squad of US Marines. Handed a rifle, you begin to exact your payback. As you move from hut to hut, one of the game's many scripted moments occurs. Directly in front of you, a Japanese soldier, his uniform ablaze, bursts out at a fellow US soldier. Should you manage to shoot the assailant quickly enough, and thus prevent your team mate from burning alive, you're awarded your first Achievement or Trophy - Saved Private Ryan.
It's an obvious gag, and a revealing one. World at War, it seems, is not a game concerned with avoiding the obvious. Quite the opposite in fact. For a game that goes out of its way to rub your nose in the grisly underbelly of war (opening, rather tastelessly, with what looks like real archive footage of Japanese military executions) it nevertheless nestles snugly inside the predictable comfort zone already established by over a decade of similar WW2 shooters.
That's not to say that World at War doesn't impress. Much like its predecessor, Modern Warfare, this is an exhilarating and painstakingly designed journey through the smoke, flames and dust of armed combat. It's linear and scripted, as all shooters must be to some extent, but the series has always succeeded by hiding the strings better than most. That success wavers here, but there's still plenty to enjoy for those who enjoy shock and awe more than surprises.
The dual storylines follow Private Miller, an American soldier in the Pacific and the subject of the opening rescue, and Red Army soldier Private Petrenko, pulled from the rubble of Stalingrad by the grizzled Sergeant Reznov, brilliantly voiced by Gary Oldman. It's the Russian story that is most interesting, tracking the Soviets as they push the Germans out of the motherland all the way back to Berlin for the climactic assault on the Reichstag. The American story, on the other hand, feels a bit piecemeal and offers a less than satisfying conclusion.
There are thirteen levels in all, although thirteen set pieces may be a more accurate description. If the early Call of Duty games were aping Spielberg, this is videogaming in the Michael Bay style. Each level seems designed to drop you into an instantly thrilling combat scenario, delivered with maximum speaker-rattling intensity and all the particle effects the game engine can muster. When it works, it's as ferociously thrilling as ever. One level, seemingly unrelated to either story, finds you scampering up and down a US seaplane, manning the various turrets to fend off Japanese gunboats and fighters. At one point, you land on the water and must pull the survivors of a Navy convoy to safety while explosions rattle the fuselage.
But when it doesn't work, the game can feel disjointed and disconnected. Levels are connected by swooshing animated segues, which are presumably inspired by the opening credits to the George Clooney thriller, Syriana, but it doesn't do enough to explain who your characters are, or why they're hopping from one location to another. That the levels rigidly herd you in the right direction, only triggering the next sequence once you've passed some invisible trigger, only heightens the artificiality of the scenarios.
Call of Duty has never been about freedom, though. It's a theme park ride, and if you keep your eyes in the direction the game is herding you then you'll get the full effect. Try and deviate from the prescribed path and the illusion is broken, with AI team mates who only advance once you've killed an unexplained number of specific enemies, respawning soldiers that only stop appearing when you trigger the next section by moving in the right direction and lots of other tricks of the trade.
Call of Duty isn't alone in disguising its corridor construction with this sort of thing, of course, and there's a lot of skill in the way the game directs your gaze and engineers staged pseudo-spontaneous moments, but it does seem more reliant on these methods than other shooters. We've seen and beaten these tricks too many times before, and while it's easy to be entertained by the dramatic flourishes we're no longer fooled by the construction, especially when playing through the same section for the fifth time thanks to crude sudden death moments and checkpoints just harsh enough to frustrate.
Grenades are a recurring problem, often landing close enough to kill but too far away to be reached and tossed back safely. That your character has a habit of snagging on small objects as you try to backpedal away from the blast zone simply makes these moments even more annoying. The game also brings back the timed reaction tests from Call of Duty 3, with Japanese troopers screaming "Banzai!" and trying to stick their bayonet in your warm fleshy bits. As the levels get wider, and the battles larger, it's easy to be caught from behind by these guys, at which point you have a split second to bash the button to counter their otherwise instantly deadly attack. The timing is fiddly, and the whole concept still feels cheap, especially since your team mates rarely do anything to help.
In fact, the AI in general is spotty. When you're doing what the game wants - carefully dashing from cover to cover and playing whack-a-mole as the enemies pop up from the same places - the computer controlled troops move and fight convincingly. Break from the routine, advance faster than you're expected to, and you'll start to see enemies standing blindly by as you stand next to them, sniping their comrades, or friendly soldiers angrily shooting walls and rocks.
Despite these hiccups, it generally looks phenomenal, providing you're looking in the right places. This isn't a game where physics plays much of a part and it instead uses similar tricks to Burnout - depth of field, peripheral blurring - to make sure you get the most satisfying view of the action as you barrel onwards. There's now a flamethrower weapon, which apparently provides realistic propagating fire. It rarely works out that way though. Flames flicker on items after the gushing inferno has died away, but they soon sputter out like the automated textures they are rather than becoming a living part of a dynamic gameworld. You can also shoot through things like wood and cloth, even though rockets and grenades have no effect on rickety huts or stacks of boxes. As much impact as the gameworld presents on the surface, with its flurries of black smoke and thundering explosions, it's still a very fixed and scripted place to be.
So, ultimately, we've got all the highs and lows that have come to define the Call of Duty experience but made less enticing this time around simply because we're back in World War 2. For all the eye-popping bombast and cinematic presentation, we've played variations on these scenarios dozens of times already, in this and other wartime franchises, and the effect is dimmed as a result. Dashing up yet another beach is no longer the heart-stopping experience it once was. As with the blockbuster movies it so slavishly models itself on, World at War's solo campaign is an undeniable thrill, but a shallow one.
Of course, solo play is only half the story when it comes to Call of Duty, and World at War finally introduces co-op play to the series. Playable online, in split-screen or even via a local LAN network, it allows you to dip back into any of the levels with up to three friends, playing together or competing for more kills. You can also spice up the gameplay by finding Death Cards, helmets on stakes with a playing card tucked into the band. Thirteen of these are tucked away throughout the game, each unlocking a different cheat for co-op play. They're basically the same as the skulls in Halo 3, although the effects are often more inventive. One card ensures that headshots make people explode. Another turns you into a vampire, with constantly dropping health that can only be topped up by making kills. Others make enemies tougher to kill, or makes your soldier more vulnerable.
Also available in co-op mode is Nazi Zombies, a bonus game unlocked upon completion of the solo campaign much like the score multiplier mode in COD4. Once you get past the rather jarring incongruity of the po-faced sombre "war is bad" captions at the end of the game and the giddy "YOU'VE UNLOCKED NAZI ZOMBIES!" that immediately follows, what you have is essentially a self-contained survival game. You're trapped in a ruined cottage, with barricaded windows. Nazi zombies try and get in, and for every one you dispatch you earn credits. These can be spent on new weapons or to open up new areas of the cottage. It can be played solo, but there's no realistic way that a lone player will be able to cover all the points of entry. The zombies just keep coming until you die, so it's limited in scope, but it's still a real hoot when played with friends and for PS3 owners unable to enjoy Left 4 Dead, it's an acceptable bonus alternative.
Sadly, the competitive multiplayer component still features most of the flaws highlighted in our recent hands on. It's a decent enough spread, offering all the features and game modes that frag-fans expect, but the weapon balancing remains off and with much the same format, yet less consistent firepower, it's hard to imagine it keeping people away from Call of Duty 4 for very long. Also, those bloody dogs. For a series that had attracted such a massive online fanbase, this represented the chance to innovate and evolve the multiplayer experience, further cementing Call of Duty as the online benchmark for console shooters. No such luck. This is your bog standard multiplayer mode, with a perks and levelling system carried over from the previous game. It's the deathmatch equivalent of treading water and, while it will no doubt have its fans, it too often feels driven by obligation rather than inspiration.
It's easy to be impressed by World at War. It's a game designed for maximum initial impact and, while it wobbles along the way, it delivers precisely the sort of carefully stage-managed carnage that fans will expect. The addition of a robust and varied co-op option helps to mitigate the disappointment of the by-the-numbers traditional multiplayer modes. However, looking back to Kristan's review review of Call of Duty 3 you'll find the exact same complaints being raised two years ago. Corridor gameplay. Outdated features. Flaky AI. They're all still here, albeit masked by even more whiz-bang effects than ever before. World at War certainly benefits from Modern Warfare's beefier graphics engine, but when it comes to the crunch it lacks the crucial innovations - both in gameplay and concept - that made its immediate predecessor so deservedly popular.
8 / 10