Drive back Axis forces across the various theaters of World War II.
PC Release: November 11, 2008
By Ian Coppock
Although Battlefield 1 is far and away superior to Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, it doesn’t contain any sort of new gameplay despite its antiquated World War I setting. Players have access to automatic weapons and grenades just like in modern Battlefield games, and its biplanes handle just like the TIE Fighters in Star Wars Battlefront. So while the game is technically a period piece, its gameplay makes the World War I setting only skin-deep. What then, might Battlefield 1 have looked like had it adhered more to the conventions of its time period? What might authentic “period” gameplay in a shooter look like? To answer that question, additional shooters set in past conflicts must be consulted and reviewed. Perhaps Call of Duty: World at War has an answer to this conundrum.
Call of Duty: World at War is first-person shooter and one of the most venerable Call of Duty titles ever made, at least to hear the fans tell it. Unlike Modern Warfare and the series’s most recent installment, Infinite Warfare, World at War was not developed by Infinity Ward. Rather, World at War is a product of Treyarch, the Call of Duty studio best known for developing the highly successful Black Ops series of CoD games. World at War was released one year after Modern Warfare and, rather than continuing that game’s contemporary combat theme, opts for a World War II setting.
Call of Duty: World at War features a single-player campaign split between two different protagonists in two different fronts of World War II. The first story stars Private Miller, a U.S. Marine fighting in the Pacific against the Empire of Japan. The second narrative focuses on Dimitri Petrenko, a soldier in the Soviet Union’s Red Army, as the Russians push westward through Nazi Germany. Miller and Petrenko are both silent protagonists, but Treyarch called in some top talent to voice each soldier’s commanding officer. Private Miller’s squad leader, Sergeant Roebuck, is voiced by Kiefer Sutherland, while Sergeant Viktor Reznov of the Red Army is voiced by the one and only Gary Oldman.
The gameplay in Call of Duty focuses on one goal and one goal only: grab a gun and shoot the bad guys. Players fight their way through a series of linear maps, taking out any and all resistance as they go. There are usually plenty of opportunities for cover, but almost never for tactics. A few levels get a bit more creative, like a stealthy sniper mission set in the ruins of Stalingrad, but most are the all-out shootfests that Call of Duty puts out like clockwork year after year. World at War does shake things up a bit by letting players drive vehicles, but this ability is relegated to two heavily scripted missions.
That said, World at War does a much better job presenting gameplay true to its time period than Battlefield 1. Whereas Battlefield 1 drops players in with unrealistically high-powered weaponry for the 1910’s, World at War gives players a bolt-action rifle, maybe a pistol, and a bayonet for stabbing bad guys. The game will occasionally dole out trench guns and semi-automatic weapons, but most levels start the player off with the most common weapons of the World War II era, which does wonders for its immersion.
The nice thing about World at War is though its shooting gameplay is nothing but conventional CoD firefights, each campaign’s environment and enemies present a different challenge. The American campaign demands careful attention to detail, because the in-game Japanese infantry are fond of the same jungle ambushes and tripwire grenades that were used during the actual campaign in the Pacific. As Private Miller, players can’t just charge recklessly from island to island, but must instead move carefully to disarm traps and fire back at enemies that spring from cover. As a result of replicating actual World War II tactics used by the Japanese, the American campaign presents a more visceral sense of danger.
The Soviet campaign is larger scale with louder explosions, but is much more straightforward, consisting of repeated breaks through Nazi lines as the Red Army roars to Berlin. In stark contrast to their East Asian counterparts, the German infantry rely on heavy armor and large contingents of men rather than crafty environmental tactics. As a result, this segment of World at War falls much more in line with other Call of Duty games. This facet of gameplay changes somewhat once players arrive to Berlin and engage in furious street-to-street fighting, but not all that much.
Despite leaving Call of Duty‘s core shooting mechanics well enough alone, World at War presents enough attention to detail in its gameplay to feel like an authentic period shooter. One of the biggest problems with Battlefield 1 is that its enemies do not rely on any sort of tactics and all fight the same regardless of different nationalities. In World at War, the Japanese and Germans each employ a roster of completely different tactics that are not only true to their historical origins, but also help keep the gameplay feeling fresh. World at War switches between the two campaigns every 2-3 levels, so players can’t get complacent fighting one type of Axis enemy for too long at a time.
Additionally, the weaponry and tools in World at War are much more realistic in their function and their allotment. Bolt-action rifles are quite common while submachine guns and other comparatively high-tech weapons are rare, true to the times of World War II. None of us will ever know what fighting in World War II felt like in real life, but Treyarch’s uncommon attention to the military tools and conventions of the time, instead of just handing out the highest-powered weapons and enemies for everybody, is highly commendable.
A lot of Call of Duty players look back to World at War because of its narrative, which is interesting… because this game doesn’t really have one. Sure, players are given an objective to fight through in each level, but that’s not a story, that’s just a guide rail. Miller and Petrenko never talk during the campaign, and though their commanding officers are voiced by top talent, neither experiences meaningful character development. Instead, they regurgitate the same platitudes about heroism and sacrifice that are present in every Call of Duty game. The pacing of each campaign is also quite strange, presenting two prologue missions set early in World War II, then jumping like five years ahead to close to the war’s end. Treyarch could’ve crafted something more compelling, but settled for “get to the checkpoint!” instead.
To be fair, World at War provides a bit of exposition in its narratives, but this is all crammed into the cutscenes between missions and all deals with numbers of things. Number of people killed in World War II, number of shells fired at Berlin, number of bratwursts the Nazis ate at the Seelow Heights, etc etc. Some of these numbers are terrifyingly impressive, like the two and a half million Soviet troops that descended upon Berlin at the end of the war, but these numbers are rarely distilled down to the characters’ personal experience. Instead, they serve as more of an abstract factbook that players can look at for two seconds and then immediately forget once the shooting starts.
What else can players look at? A diverse palette of environments ranging from burning Pacific islands to war-torn European countrysides. One of the main reasons that Call of Duty went back to its roots with World at War‘s World War II setting was to reintroduce that conflict in the then-new IW Engine. World at War doesn’t look bad by contemporary standards, but like Modern Warfare, its environments are way too clean and glossy. Even the dirty tank battlefields in eastern Europe look like someone laminated the mud. Character animations and indeed the entire game are quite smooth, but the environments are painfully sterile. Some environments, especially the jungles in the Pacific, employ too few colors, blending together into a single shade of mustard brown.
Luckily, the fact that World at War is an older game means that it’ll run on pretty much any PC today. Be it a potato or a high-end rig, World at War can be depended upon to be bug-free and stay at a consistent 60 FPS, even during the hairiest fighting scenes. The game employs a pretty conventional options menu and will most likely open in a horrendously outdated resolution setting, but these issues can quickly be fixed.
Call of Duty‘s multiplayer is as pedestrian as ever in World at War, with the same small maps and same low-IQ, shoot-everything gameplay that the series has been churning out for years. Of course, World at War has been on the market for eight years now, so its multiplayer community is basically dead. Players looking for a multiplayer rumble in the jungle will probably want to give this a miss.
World at War was also the first Call of Duty game to feature a zombies mode, which is now a mainstay of every Call of Duty title. As far as can be discerned, this mode is set after the main campaign and features a foul-mouthed Soviet survivor fighting off waves of Nazi zombies. It’s the first iteration of Call of Duty zombies, so it’s nothing fancy, but that’s what makes it surprisingly fun. Shoot zombies, board up windows, rinse and repeat. It’s just a shame that this mode has changed so little with subsequent Call of Duty games. Infinite Warfare‘s zombie mode is virtually identical to the one here.
Call of Duty: World at War does not reinvent the franchise or add anything that players won’t be able to pick up immediately, but it does feature a surprising attention to detail. Treyarch put a lot of effort into adding historically accurate weapons and situations to each of its single-player campaigns, and these help make the game a “play at some point” recommendation for shooter fans. History nerds looking for a visceral rendition of World War II and shooter fans looking for something different will get a kick of some size out of World at War. At this point, a shooter without drones and cybernetics makes for a nice change of pace.
You can buy Call of Duty: World at War here.
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