Saturday, January 3, 2009

Call of Duty: World at War (Xbox 360, 2008)

Having never played much Call of Duty 4, I am likely exactly the kind of reviewer that Treyarch wants for their latest foray into WW2 shooters, Call of Duty: World at War. Someone who is fresh to the experience and won't see everything through Modern Warfare-tinted lenses is a rather unique thing, as the previous game from Infinity Ward was tremendously popular, and likely lead to a lot of the interest in World at War. In a rather amusing twist, World at War is so good that it's made me want to play Modern Warfare next.

I have never been much of a console shooter player. I was a semi-competitive Quake player back in the day, and played in Cal leagues for Counterstrike in my post-high school years. Firmly entrenched in my PC roots, I saw no reason to move to inferior control schemes, bad multiplayer matchmaking, and an insurmountable lack of mods for the likes of Halo. Call of Duty: World at War is the first real console FPS that I've enjoyed in a very, very long time.

The singleplayer campaign isn't fantastic, but it does have it's moments. Slinging lead in the Pacific theater as Private Miller, you'll be treated to Japanese Banzai attacks, hopelessly doomed beach assaults, and the iconic voice of Kiefer Sutherland as Corporal Roebuck guiding you through it all. The Soviet missions have you taking on the role of Private Dimitri Petrenko, whose superpower is apparently immortality coupled with an amazing ability to never get promoted despite accomplishing feats of warfare that would make the great generals of history weep. The Soviet missions tend to be a bit more urban-oriented, and I challenge you to recognize Gary Oldman as the voice of your snipin' Sergeant Reznov.

If you feel yourself swaying more towards the "buy it" side of the fence, allow me to give you a short exercise that will increase your survivability a thousandfold in World at War. Pick up a 360 controller and hold it as you would while playing any FPS game. Now, hit the right bumper button. A lot. Keep going. Yep, keep going. Do this for a few solid minutes, until your finger is about ready to rebel and attack your soft, fleshy parts with a vicious mutiny of nail-scratching fury. The cause of all this bodily strain? Grenades. Call of Duty: World at War requires that you can hit the RB within milliseconds of an on-screen indicator showing up in order to stay alive. It's a great idea in theory; you can throw grenades back at your enemy and stay alive in the meantime. However, the system relies on a grenade detection warning flashing up on your screen that simply does not always work. Equally annoying are the number of times in the singleplayer campaigns where you turn a corner into a grenade that the seemingly clairvoyant AI threw at you just long enough ago to make it explode the moment you try to pick it up.

World at War is an extremely unforgiving singleplayer experience on it's harder difficulty settings. Priding myself on my background with shooters, I decided to at least jump in at the Harder (though not quite Veteran) level. Though easy enough at first, some levels had me throwing the controller around the room and pulling out what little is left of my hair in frustration. I wasn't dying because I was playing badly, I was dying because there simply was no chance to live amongst the torrential hail of grenades the enemy kept throwing my way. If I knew now what I knew then, I would simply skip the singleplayer campaign and go right to the excellent multiplayer offering, but I was lured in by the fact that almost all of the achievements are for singleplayer. Yes, you read that right. Call of Duty: World at War has very few multiplayer achievements of any kind. There are a few co-op ones and a couple of multiplayer ones scattered about, but the bulk of the achievements are for the singleplayer campaign, and a rather large portion of THOSE are for playing on Veteran difficulty. Not my cup of tea, thanks, but it does speak to how highly Treyarch thinks of their own singleplayer experience, I suppose.

The bulk of my time with World at War has been spent in the multiplayer. I haven't had this much fun (or frustration) with a multiplayer console shooter since the original Gears of War, and certainly not with any other FPS. Perhaps it's because this is the first time I've been introduced to the enthralling levelling/class/perk system, which allows the player to gain experience points by killing enemies or completing challenges in multiplayer matches in order to customize their loadouts and abilities. Perhaps it's because I love World War 2 weapons and using them on the virtual battlefield. Perhaps it's because every time I hear the cheesy ass announcer screech "VICTORY FOR GERMANYYYY" when my team steamrolls some Cossaks I get a chill up my spine. (Side note - do the Japanese really always have to talk about shame and dishonor? Come on guys, you can do better than that.) Perhaps it's a combination of all of those things and more, but the point is that World at War does console multiplayer right.

There are some nicks on the surface, though. At the start, you're going to feel dramatically underpowered compared to everyone else. They all have better weapons than you, better perks than you, and they're going to be running circles around you on the maps that you don't know yet. It can be a little intimidating, but a few games in and you'll be hooked, trying to unlock the damned STG 44 that's killed you a dozen times in the past three minutes. The maps, while fantastic setpieces for a firefight, have some problems. Since they have multiple pathways which allow for deep flanking maneuvers, you're either going to be giddy as a schoolboy to sneak up on your enemy snipers unawares, or about to burst at the seams with rage because you just spawned right on top of three flanking enemy soldiers and didn't even have a chance to fire your weapon before they blew you away. Just when you think it can't get any worse, you'll respawn just close enough for their movement to catch you a second time, or for their grenade to land right at your feet as you come to life, eager for revenge. This happens a little too often for my tastes, and means that sometimes you're going to lose, and you're going to lose hard. The attack dogs that you or your opponent can call in after a seven-kill streak seem to be capable of Matrix-style bullet dodging, and your connection most definitely will affect how well you will play more than I like in any game that doesn't let me pick my own damned server.

No matter the problems, though, World at War accomplishes something that I, the great game cynic, never thought possible. It sucked me into a really fun console shooter with multiplayer, and impressed the living hell out of me. In spite of my gripes and preconceived notions about console shooters, I've played it almost every day for the past couple of weeks, and I have no intention of stopping any time soon. Treyarch have produced the pinnacle of modern (ha!) WW2 shooters here, and it's not to be missed.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10] (Seriously, fuck the STG)


is this your life? said...

achievement whooooore

autothrall said...

I was going to get this for my father for Christmas, but I went with the cheaper Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2.

Might pick it up when the price comes down. It's on PS3 too, right?

frank austin said...

Yeah, it's on PS3 as well. It was $35 on Amazon over the holiday, at least for 360 (don't remember about other platforms) so I wouldn't be too shocked if it comes down in price again. GRAW2 was the last console shooter I enjoyed, interestingly enough.