Remember when Call of Duty 4 managed to topple the mighty Halo 3 from the online gaming throne? This may yet prove to be a pivotal moment in the evolution of the venerable wartime shooter, or so it would seem from the first glimpse of Call of Duty 5's multiplayer component. It's familiar, you see. Very familiar.
Obviously, you'd hope that a Call of Duty game would feel like a Call of Duty game, yet it's hard to quell an initial flicker of disappointment when you realise that, in almost every area, this is identical to Modern Warfare's multiplayer with the exact same perks and weapon modifications retitled and repurposed for a World War II environment. Is this inherently a bad thing? Arguably not, particularly for the millions of players who loved Modern Warfare's fast and visceral online matches. It does rather leave World at War looking like a mod and map pack for the previous game though, rather than a distinct sequel in its own right.
What do the lucky beta participants get to play with then? Five play modes, first and foremost, ranging from a standard free-for-all Deathmatch, two Team Deathmatch variations, Capture the Flag and War, which is Domination by any other name. These modes are played out across three maps, drawn from the game's dual focus on the US war in the Pacific and the Russian push against the advancing German forces. Roundhouse is a sprawling, ruined train yard, full of mangled carriages for cover and with sniper-friendly raised walkways at the centre. This is also the only map in the beta trial to feature the entertaining tanks. Control is a little sticky but this may just be realism, since 1940s armoured vehicles weren't known for their nimble turning circle.
There's a machine gun turret on top of the tanks, so another player can hop aboard while the driver controls the main turret. I soon found that sniping these over-confident gunners as they trundled around was a very satisfying experience. Taking down a tank seems to require at least three or four explosive hits from a bazooka or satchel charges, certainly not impossible with some smart teamwork and shared resources, but a real challenge in a free-for-all deathmatch. Roundhouse also currently features a pretty nasty bug, which allows players to sink through the floor of the level and take other players down from their impervious vantage point beyond the borders of the map. I got sniped a few times in this fashion, the bug revealed by the post-death kill camera which shows where your assassin struck from. Still, it's a beta.
The other maps are Castle, set in a Japanese fortress with lots of open courtyards, close-quarters interiors and several sniper towers, and then there's Makin, a rural fishing village which forms a low, meandering rat-run. All the maps are generously proportioned, with action hot-spots that never quite turn into problematic choke-points. None of them is particularly inspiring or exciting though, with Castle being my current favourite purely for the variety on offer.
There seems to be some trouble balancing the maps for the different modes of play, however. The capture points in War, in particular, don't make much strategic sense. There's no obvious tactical reason to capture them and they're often difficult to defend as a result. One of the capture points in Makin, perhaps the weakest map anyway, is just tucked away in the corner. It's hard to imagine why an army would need to hold this otherwise pointless patch of land, since it offers no obvious benefits in battle. Rather than holding elevated positions, or assaulting a strategically useful building fortified by enemy troops, you're often left with the feeling that the capture points were picked at random on maps designed for more general deathmatch play.
In fact, balance is the key issue with a lot of the features. The weapon-set can often be counter-intuitive, with bolt-action rifles proving less accurate and powerful as you'd imagine, while the old-fashioned machine-guns are far more precise than you'd expect. On one memorable occasion, I sniped an enemy in the back with a rifle from a distant high window, only for them to turn around and kill me instantly with a few shots from a machine-gun. Given the firearms of the time, and the distance involved, it should have been an impossible shot - yet there it was. The post-death camera view reveals a lot of these "WTF?" moments, not all of which can be adequately explained by your own lack of skill or bad luck.