Call of Duty: World at War holds the dubious honour of being the last in the series to be set during the Second World War. It is is remembered with fondness by those who still see Military Shooters as a historical genre, but forgotten by an audience that felt Modern Warfare catapulted the old war horse into a new league. Contemporary reviews spoke of a weary reluctance to return to fighting Nazis, and now the 360 version is playable on Xbox One, what better time is there to see how the game feels today.
World at War is a game of two halves. It features a campaign of roughly ten hours, and a multiplayer mode that feels more like the star of the show. I am, at heart, a single player sort of guy so I started there. This was a mistake. World at War’s campaign eases you in to the game’s mechanics, but it soon outstays its welcome. It is divided into two locations, the first follows a squad of US troops as they fight in the Pacific campaign. It gets off to a good start, as you fight to escape the heart of Japanese controlled territory. These segments are filled with environments that you just don’t see in war games that often; swamps, fields of flowers, Eastern looking temples. It captures a look and feel that is evocative of the War, but feels fresh.
Unfortunately, that’s about the only strength. There is no narrative to speak of, no characters to get to know. Before and after each level, narration rolls out to tell you what you’re doing next, but it never feels like you’re playing a story where one event leads into another. Each mission is simply a cycle of break down this stronghold, destroy this target, repeat. This wouldn’t be so bad if the level design weren’t so frustrating, but much of the pacific campaign involves running through tunnels or bunkers, clearing hunkered troops, and moving on. Often enemies in these rooms will spawn infinitely in easily defensible posts and progression becomes a case of repeatedly running the same gauntlet until you get just far enough down the tunnel to trigger a checkpoint. I suppose it’s accurate to 20th century war to just throw enough young men at a problem until one side runs out, but I can’t say it’s much fun as a game. There’s no sense of progress to it, no thread running between each stage, it is simply a case of repeating the same types of encounter over and over until you win.
The European Campaign is much better. You play a Russian soldier who is wounded during of battle of Stalingrad. You are rescued and mentored by your commanding officer, Reznov, who guides you from the rubble of Stalingrad and eventually to Berlin. Here is where any and all story in the game seem to hide. It’s hardly Gone Home, but there’s real emotion to Reznov’s desire for revenge; his insistence that the Nazis suffer for Russia’s pain at Stalingrad. One memorable encounter sees you silently observe an argument between two officers, one who lived through Stalingrad and wants to make the Germans pay, another who was not there, and can not understand the other’s brutality. It was a genuine moment in sea of grey and featureless tedium, but it was enough to open up the European campaign in a deeper way.
The gameplay is better too. Dugouts are swapped from real buildings, open squares and city streets lay in ruins, while soldiers from both sides seem lost in the confusion. Everything about the European campaign is stronger but it still suffers from the same fundamental problems.
All satisfaction in the game comes from progressing to the next checkpoint, and when the game decides to throw the brakes on that progression, the gameplay isn’t satisfying enough to preserve the fun. It feels more like hammering nails. It’s fiddly, you hit your thumb a bit, and every so often you get a slight feeling of pride as one goes straight in to the wood. The difference is when you’re done hammering nails, you’re usually left with some tangible evidence of progress.
The shooting works well, particularly the old bolt-action rifles; they don’t cut through enemies quite like the automatics but are incredibly satisying. There’s an authenticity to the look and feel of everything which is to be expected of the series by this point, but is still one of the highlights. Getting shot is less fun, not simply because it knocks back an unreasonable chunk of progress each time, but because its often unavoidable, and unsolvable. You are dead now. You know you were probably shot, but from who or what direction isn’t so easy to find out. I’ll happily concede this might just be that I’m terrible at it, but there are a lot of games utilise frequent deaths and still come off feeling like a worthwhile experience. This isn’t one of them. Each death knocks you too far back, and the route between death rooms (those bits every 3-4 minutes where they decide to put all the enemies) aren’t fun enough to make it worth the time.
Worst of all are the grenades, which developer Treyarch would have you believe the Japanese used more often than bullets. I know the game wants you to feel surrounded, truly at war and under attack from all sides, but somewhere around the millionth grenade death it starts to feel a lot more like there’s no way avoid them. The only solution is to back off and let the squad take care of most of the work. Too often the game sent me scurrying away from the fight as the explosives landed, trotting back just in time to see another one hit my feet. Worse still, you’ll often be trapped in cover, your only choice being to run over the grenade and hope you clear it fast enough or just put your fingers in your ears and accept your fate. I know, I know, it’s war. Grenades happened like that in war. But war isn’t fun, and this is supposed to be.
By the end, it starts to make sense why Call of Duty fans prefer the multiplayer. Here the mechanics feels put to better use. The barrage of grenades stops, and instead you’re free to wreak havoc in open maps. If some of the environments in the game had felt as open, and as varied as the multiplayer maps do, it would have salvaged the experience for me. As it is, Multiplayer feels like the only section to receive extensive play testing. The game modes are all old standards but, the rank and perk system that started in its Call of Duty 4 is still a strong meta game that keeps you coming back for more. Call of Duty has had so many imitators in the multiplayer arena since Modern Warfare, it will very familiar to anyone who has played an online shooter in the last nine years , but it really is as solid and as fun as its reputation suggests. The gameplay is good, but seeing your XP tot up after a game and feeling that “just one more match” effect kick in leaves the player will feeling like they got their money’s worth.
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning the Zombies mode, which sits third on the menu like a bonus feature, but is probably the highlight of the package. In my entire time with World at War I spent more time with this mode than the rest put together. It’s a simple wave-mode shooter that tasks the player with picking of Undead Nazis before they break into your shelter, and yet in execution the balance and depth of it all is so solid that it deserves to be a game in its own right. It’s fitting that in the years since this released, Zombies has gone on to be one of the franchise’s main selling points.
In the end Call of Duty: World at War didn’t break the mould, but for this reviewer, it barely filled the mould. The gameplay works, this is a good engine and a good set of mechanics, refined through years of releases. But it works best in multiplayer where good maps and decent controls are all that matters. The campaign feels empty; hollow and lacking any kind of polish. It was difficult, but it was challenge without fun, just chugging away at the same rough spots ad nauseum. I was glad when the credits rolled, and I could go back to playing Zombies.
(The requirements I set myself for this review were a target of over 1000 words, and a retro-review style that acknowledged the review was being written some time after release.)