Activision's venerable franchise returns to the Wii, and WWII, after a brief hiatus.
When Infinity Ward developed Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, they made the bold decision to move the series from a war-torn 40s Europe to a modern conflict where a terrorist organization has acquired the material to produce a nuclear bomb. The game spanned everywhere from The Ukraine to the Middle East. Many people felt it was great for the series and that it brought new life to the franchise.
Activision, the publisher of the series, has made it known that they plan to release a Call of Duty game every year. Alternating between developers Infinity Ward and Treyarch, Treyarch was left with the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of Infinity Ward's masterpiece. What they produced is a solid first-person shooter that falls short of its predecessor.
Call of Duty: World at War returns the series to the fight against fascism. The story alternates between the two theaters of World War II. One half of the story is told as a member of The Red Army; it follows your character from the Siege of Leningrad to the Reichstag in Berlin. The other half of the story is told as a member of the U.S.M.C, and is set in the Pacific Theater, where the story has you island hopping across the ocean.
After the success of Modern Warfare it was a gamble to move back to the already crowded WWII FPS arena. What is impressive is that Treyarch clearly took notes from Infinity Ward. They managed to capture the cinematic feeling of Modern Warfare, while staying loyal to the theme and setting. Instead of computer simulations with wire-frame models, reels of film convey back-story and mission objectives.
The graphics engine is World at War's weakest asset. The aesthetic design is usually top notch; there are architectural touches that make combat in a smoldering Japanese shire complex inspire both reverence and sorrow. When fighting in a burned-out Berlin, you feel as if you are taking part in The End of the Days. The final seconds of the game are some of the most amazingly stylized and well-designed moments I've ever seen in a game (which I won't spoil). However, the models and textures themselves are lacking. The game feels only slightly better than Call of Duty 3, which was roundly mocked for its graphics. Many structures feel flat, and the color palette is so bland that enemies tend to blend in even when they're not wearing camouflage.
The sound fares much better. The game is full of amazing voice talent (including Kifer Sutherland and Gary Oldman) and has some of the best dialog I've ever heard in gaming. In each mission you are lead by a superior who extols you onto victory. Your commander in the Soviet levels, voiced by Oldman, is absolutely hilarious and yet alarmingly unhinged at the same time. The music is also superb, and the sound effects are authentic and jarring. It's very immersive and made me wish I could take advantage of Dolby Surround.
World at War controls brilliantly. With no introduction, I was able to do everything I needed to do. It's point-and-click warfare, and it works. Everything important is mapped to buttons in a logical manner, and avoids the unnecessary use of random shaking some first-person shooters have adopted. It really is gratifying to point, aim, and shoot. Aiming is handled via the pointer, and your reticle moves smoothly without being too floaty. You cycle through weapons by pressing left and right on the D-pad, and up and down are used for jumping and melee attacks, respectively. Movement is controlled via the analog stick on the Nunchuk. The only issue is that accuracy has become a given. Assuming you're not using a full-automatic weapon, you will rarely miss; being able to snipe with a pistol just seems inappropriate.
While the controls work well, the gameplay is mixed. The game is fun to play, but there are elements that just don't seem to be complete. The A.I. is capable, but sometimes becomes almost inanimate. On more than one occasion I stumbled on an enemy without realizing it (because of the color scheme), and despite the fact they could clearly see me, I was able to walk right up and kill them with my bare hands. While the stages are linear, this is in part to accommodate scripted events that add a level of cinematic flare to every mission. It's not uncommon for this series and doesn't really hurt the game.
World at War also features online combat that, from a technical standpoint, works quite well. I never experienced lag or dropped connections, which is more than can be said for the majority of online Wii games. The online modes all amount to free-for all or team deathmatches. There are two "options" for the online modes, but the only difference I could discern was that one had more rookie players than the other. If you play the online modes religiously you can build up Ranks to earn stat boosts and special abilities. It isn't much of a reward, but if you were going to play the game online a lot anyway then it is a "nice to have" feature.
There is, however, a two-player co-op mode that is an absolute riot to play. While all it does is add another reticle on the screen, there's nothing quite like bringing an end to the Third Reich with a buddy by your side. The help does make an easy game easier, but it also makes the missions infinitely more fun.
So what can be said about Call of Duty: World at War? It is the best all-around first-person shooter on Wii. The controls are what really put the game over the top, but they would be worthless without the great design and atmosphere that permeates the game (in spite of its lackluster graphics). The limited number of online modes is disappointing, but still, World at War is a very worthy first person shooter.