Saturday, March 12, 2022

Call of Duty: World at War (Xbox 360) Review

Call of Duty is a series you either love or despise.  You either dig its explosive action, or you think its a big, fat cow Activision has proudly milked since its inception in 2003.  Personally, I like Call of Duty, but I don't love it.  I've played most of the games and enjoyed them, but at the same time, I realize there are far better options when it comes to first-person shooters.

Although new Call of Duty games are as inevitable as death and taxes, back in 2007, the series charted a new course with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.  Up until then, it was a World War II series that gave Medal of Honor a run for its money.  With Modern Warfare, it reinvented the franchise and revitalized people's interest in military shooters.

With its globetrotting campaign and addictive multiplayer, Modern Warfare gave military shooters a shot in the arm, and the game was a worldwide phenomenon.  Although people assumed this meant the end of World War II shooters, this wasn't quite the case.

Treyarch, who had previously developed Call of Duty 3 and the underrated Call of Duty 2: Big Red One, would give World War II its swan song with Call of Duty: World at War.  Rather than have players storm the digital beaches of Normandy for the umpteenth time, World at War explores the United States' efforts in the Pacific and the Russians' fight in Europe.

Somebody order a flamethrower?

World at War follows Private Joseph Miller and Private Dimitri Petrenko.  One is a marine fighting in the Pacific, the other is a soldier in the Russian army.  Miller and the men in his unit are taking part in an island-hopping campaign with the intent of freeing the Japanese's grasp on the Pacific.

Miller's squad includes Corporal Roebuck and Private Polonsky.  During a raid on Peleliu Island, their commanding officer is killed, and Roebuck becomes squad leader.  Roebuck guides his men through Peleliu and Okinawa, where they storm Shuri Castle, a fortified position filled with Japanese soldiers and mortar crews.

The Russian campaign follows Petrenko, who narrowly cheats death and finds an ally in the form of Sergeant Victor Reznov.  Reznov has been hunting General Heinrich Amsel and with Petrenko's help, he succeeds in his goal of killing the Axis general.

Three years pass, and the Russians successfully push the Germans back into their homeland.  Reunited with Reznov, the two participate in a large-scale operation to liberate Berlin from Axis control, a mission that takes several lives, but also leads to the fall of the Axis in Europe.

From the opening title screen, World at War strikes a chord different from previous World War II games, Call of Duty or otherwise.  The game is dark, gloomy, and shows us how World War II was a brutal fight where both the good guys and bad guys didn't hold back.  In war, there is no black and white, only a grey area where violence is the only means to an end.

Previous World War II shooters and even ones that came after World at War tend to treat the conflict as an action spectacle where America is the hero, and the Axis is the villain.  Not the case here.  The Russians and Americans are as relentless as the Japanese and Germans are.  That's the best way to describe the game, relentless.

The Pacific levels show the Americans fighting an uphill battle with an enemy that's smarter than they expected.  The Japanese use tactics like banzai charges, surprise ambushes, and camouflage to catch Roebuck and his squad off guard.  This adds tension to the in-game action knowing the enemy could pop up at any moment and try to skewer them.

After their CO is killed, Roebucks finds himself in an uncomfortable position.  His squad is relying on him to get anything done, and the environment is a hot, humid jungle where making progress is harder than it should be.  You want to see them succeed despite the odds they're faced with.

The writing does a good job at getting you invested in these characters.  Treyarch knows how to write likable characters, and then kill them when the player least expects it.  My only issue is the Pacific campaign feels more episodic compared to the Russian campaign.  It's not as overarching as the Russian campaign, and while I like Roebuck, he doesn't match the mighty Victor Reznov.

The Russian campaign is a tale of revenge.  When the Axis tries invading Russia, they stir up the hornet's nest that is the Russian army, which includes on Victor Reznov.  Reznov views the Axis as an evil that must be squashed, no matter how many lives are lost.

Call of Duty: World at War's story isn't groundbreaking, but it explores the psychology of war and what it does to the human mind.  In Reznov's case, it makes him merciless with a capital M.  He shows no mercy and doesn't think a single Axis life should be spared.  Take for instance a moment where you come across a subway entrance where a squad of Germans are cornered.

You can choose to kill them, or let your troops burn them with molotov's.  Choosing the former causes Reznov to comment on how Demetri sets an example other Russians should aspire to.  Dimitri might be silent, but Reznov is impressed with him, and by extension the player, with how well he does in combat, not to mention his ability to survive perilous situations.

Call of Duty is often criticized for having campaigns that are the gaming equivalent of popcorn flicks, but World at War tries to make a point, and it mostly succeeds.  It's not Spec Ops: The Line levels of deep, but at the end, it motivates you to want to study World War II, and learn how the horrors of that war can teach us to avoid making the same mistakes now and in the future.

The Japanese soldiers do not fool around.  You should always try pushing forward, less you want
to end up on the end of a bayonet.

On the surface, Call of Duty: World at War's gameplay is nothing new.  If you played any COD game released after Modern Warfare, the gameplay feels familiar.  Aiming down the sights is quick and snappy, the guns look and feel solid, and there's a flamethrower, and you can't go wrong with a flamethrower.

Look underneath the hood, and you'll notice several tweaks and enhancements to give the gameplay its own zest.  With two campaigns come two types of enemies to fight, the Germans and the Japanese.  Fighting the Germans is nothing new.  They're tough but behave the same as they have in other World War II shooters.  They shoot, take cover, flank, and love to pepper your position with grenades.

Fighting the Japanese is a whole new ballpark.  They hide in the grass, use banzai charges as a last attempt, and climb into trees to snipe your position.  The banzai charge alone is enough to make you jumpy, not to mention give the kamikazes from Serious Sam a run for their money.

The weapon roster is a mixture of familiar and new.  On the Pacific side, there's the Thompson, the M1 Garand, the flamethrower, the bazooka, as well as Japanese weaponry like the Type 100 and Type 99 rifles.  The Russian campaign features German mainstays like the MP40, Kar98K, and the STG 44, plus Soviet guns like the Mosin Nagant and PPSh-41.

Each gun has its advantages and disadvantages.  Rifles like the M1 Garand and Mosin Nagant are great for medium to long range, while the Thompson is more useful for mid to close range combat.  The weapons aren't 100 percent accurate when shooting, which adds a feeling of authenticity that comes off as natural not forced.

The level design is linear, but not railroaded.  The game tells you where you need to go and lets you figure out how to get there.  While the four-to-five-campaign is filled with lots of shooting, the game makes an active effort to mix things up as much as possible.

The first level in the Russian campaign is about stealth and patience.  Dimitri and Reznov must sneak by enemy patrols and use the sounds of passing planes to mute out their gunfire.  At one point, they are pinned by a sniper hiding in a hotel.  On Normal, you only need to kill one sniper, but on Veteran, you need to eliminate three snipers.

In a series known for its "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality, its surprising to see World at War try something different and pull it off so well.  A couple of vehicle levels give you the chance to pilot a B-17 bomber and a Russian tank equipped with a flamethrower.

Did I mention this game has a flamethrower?

The campaign takes between four to five hours to beat.  It's short, but every moment is well-paced, and I never got the feeling that no level was too short or too long.  Heart of the Reich is hard, yes, but it's the final mission, so storming the Reichstag isn't going to be a cakewalk.

The gameplay isn't perfect.  While the AI is good, you will notice how scripted their behavior is.  During the final assault on Shuri castle, a new batch of allies conveniently shows up when your current squad dies, and this repeats until the castle is brought down.  Little moments like that don't happen frequently, but it does break your immersion.

"Vendetta" is the highlight of "World at War's" campaign.

Once the campaign is over, there's multiplayer and zombies.  I'm not going to discuss multiplayer since I'm not interested in a mode populated by frat boys and 12-year-olds with too much free time on their hands, so let's talk zombies.

Playing this first incarnation of zombies feels surreal.  Those only familiar with the mode from later entries might be surprised by how basic the original zombies is.

Your only objective is to hold out against as many waves of the goose-stepping undead as possible.  Points are earned from killing ghouls and boarding up windows.  You then use those points to buy guns and unlock areas.  Every now and then, zombies drop power-ups like double points, insta-kill, or a nuke that wipes out all onscreen foes.

The longer you survive, the more aggressive and numerous the undead get.  It's simple, but fun.  It reminds me of old-school arcade games like Robotron 2084, where the only goal is to earn the highest score possible.  It's a stark contrast to how later games turned this mode into "I Can't Believe It's Not Wolfenstein," what with the emphasis on crazy abilities and hidden lore.

Sometimes, less is more.

Despite being 14 years old, the game has held up visually.  Yes, there is brown and grey a plenty, but it uses its drab colors to show how war is bleak an turns once thriving cities into ghost towns.  The gunplay is gory, but not excessively violent.  The framerate is super smooth, and I didn't encounter any game-breaking bugs.

Sound is excellent.  The voice cast is bolstered with A-list talent, including Kiefer Sutherland as Roebuck and Gary Oldman as Reznov.  Neither one phones it in and overall, the voice acting is good.  Weapons sound powerful and the music is diverse.  There's rocking guitar, haunting choirs, and epic orchestral pieces, all used to set the mood appropriately.

Gehirne!  Gehirne!

Call of Duty: World at War breathes new life into World War II shooters, a genre that had been beaten to death thanks to iterative sequels and too many games clogging the market.  Mixing top-notch gameplay with solid storytelling, World at War shows us the darker side of war.

This was a time when a horrendous evil threatened to stomp out all that was good and for the rest of the world, there was no choice but to stand up and fight.  The writing delves into how war affects the mind, and what lengths men will take to defend themselves and their country.

It's not entirely original as it does borrow heavily from movies like Flags of Our Fathers and Enemy at the Gates, but considering how stale World War II games had become, World at War's attempt to deliver something more thought-provoking is commendable.

The gameplay is familiar, but with enough changes to make it feel refreshing.  It's intense, difficult, and features enough unique set-pieces to keep the shooting from becoming boring.

Call of Duty: World at War is something both the hardcore, Monster Energy drinking Call of Duty fan will enjoy just as much as the person looking for a good military shooter.

Final Score: 8/10

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