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.
And then there are the perks. It's here that Call of Duty 5 seems to be most tied to the Modern Warfare template, changing names and graphics but retaining the same functions, sometimes with distracting results. Some of the weapon modifications tend to strain the period mood, for example, with silencers on machine-guns and reflex sights that are close enough to laser targeting to provoke a confused reaction the first time you use them. Realism should always make room for entertainment, but it feels symptomatic of a sequel where it's easier to rename an inappropriate feature rather than come up with a more suitable alternative.
The kill-streak perks are broadly the same, apart from one major and controversial change. Three kills in a row still earns you a recon plane flyover, so enemy targets are highlighted on the map and radar. Five kills now gets you an artillery barrage rather than an airstrike, though the way the shells seem inexorably drawn to soldiers is a bit strange - particularly when you're the one being blown to bits by a magic homing shell. Finally, there's the seven-kill streak, which now gives you a pack of attack dogs rather than Modern Warfare's gunship helicopter support.
The dogs are already proving to be a divisive addition, and it's certainly true that they need some balancing before they can be considered anything more than a recurring irritation. Seeking out enemy troops, these rather poorly animated canines don't show up on the radar and can maul a player to death almost instantly. You can already hear resigned groans over the headset whenever the incessant barking begins. They're not terribly hard to deal with, but they're not much fun either. The bloodthirsty pooches do have some value, making it hard for campers to ply their sneaky trade, but when such measures end up annoying those who are playing fair, it seems an awkward trade-off. Dog kills also seem to count towards the next kill streak, which means many experienced players can spam the dogs almost as much as other players spam grenades.
Other than that controversial switch, all of the abilities and buffs from Call of Duty 4 remain. Yes, that means Juggernaut is back, as is Martyrdom. There's a Level 11 cap in the beta, but you can see the full list of abilities and there are few surprises to be found. I'm still on the fence regarding the perks. I think they're very useful, but also tend to throw the game off-kilter and can make it hard to find balanced teams. There's also little question that they can alienate new players, forcing them to claw their way up through those first few (admittedly easy) ranks against grossly overpowering foes. More than their mere existence, it's the fact that they don't seem to have been changed or tweaked, beyond some cosmetic swaps, that gives me pause. There's undeniable potential in the perks system, and there are many who love it, but few would argue that it wouldn't benefit from some refinement. Simply transplanting the whole lot into a sequel seems rather unambitious, if not downright lazy.
Provided you enjoyed Modern Warfare's bombastic multiplayer, there's little here that will disappoint. It's essentially the exact same game, in a World War II skin. This means that many of the persistent complaints remain unaddressed - bamboo huts can shrug off explosions with nary a splinter out of place, while the online mechanics remain a touch clunky compared to the competition. There's still no indication as to which player is the host of a match, and there's no host migration. When the mystery host drops out, the game ends.
With only a few weeks before the finished game hits the shelves, it's doubtful that the outcome of this beta will impact the disc in the box. However, if Treyarch can fix some of the balancing issues with a timely patch, World at War should at least hold Modern Warfare's trajectory, even if taken in isolation it does little to dispel fears that Infinity Ward innovates and Treyarch fills in afterwards.
Call of Duty: World at War is due out for Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Wii, PS2 and DS on 14th November.