Published November 26, 2008
When news broke that the new game in the "Call of Duty" franchise would be developed by Treyarch, gamers worldwide groaned in disappointment.
The game's predecessor, developed to near perfection by Infinity Ward, had been a transcendent experience, garnering universal rave reviews and breathing new life into the series by moving it into the present day from World War II.
Treyarch was the development studio behind the solid — but inferior — "Call of Duty 3."
Worse still, for the fifth edition of the series they would be returning to WWII, territory that has already been milked so often by video games as to become a cliche.
So now that "Call of Duty: World at War" (Activision Publishing Inc., Xbox 360, $59.99) is out, was the despair warranted?
Yes and no.
"World at War" is a respectable game in its own right, but it's bound to disappoint some fans of "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare," and does little if anything to improve upon it.
As in the previous installment, "World at War" shifts between two playable characters: An American marine battling the Japanese in the Pacific theater, and a Red Army sniper harassing the Nazis on the Russian front.
The single-player campaign is not particularly gripping. "Modern Warfare" had a number of missions that rely on stealth and strategy, but "World at War" is all about blasting your way into one place or out of another. Combat is crucial to any first-person shooter, but it gets monotonous here.
Furthermore, the story is simply not as good. While "Modern Warfare" was populated by a number of colorful personalities, the character development just isn't present in "World at War."
Treyarch splurged by hiring Kiefer Sutherland and Gary Oldman as voice talent, but none of their star power rubs off on their characters.
However, what attracted players in droves to "Modern Warfare" was its dangerously addictive multiplayer mode.
Wisely, "World at War" stuck to a winning formula. All the key elements of its predecessor are here, from the player rankings to the match styles to the "perks" system, which allows players to select special attributes and abilities.
Additionally, "World at War" borrows its predecessor's game engine and controls, which gives its multiplayer mode a strikingly similar feel.
It's basically the same game with WWII window dressing. That's not such a bad thing.
Treyarch did bring a few new wrinkles to the franchise. The artificial intelligence has been updated to differentiate between various enemies: The Japanese attack in death-courting banzai charges, while the Nazis are more methodical, firing from behind cover and fleeing when confronted with insurmountable odds.
There is also the addition of the uniquely satisfying flame-thrower — equally good for clearing out underground bunkers and burning snipers out of palm trees.
And there's the delightfully goofy "Nacht der Untoten" ("Night of the Undead") — an unlockable mode in which players fend off hordes of Nazi zombies.
After the bar for first-person shooters was set so high by "Modern Warfare," perhaps Treyarch can be forgiven for creating a game that's merely good but not great.
But given that "World at War" must compete with other quality first-person shooters like "Far Cry 2" and "Fallout 3," the next edition in the "Call of Duty" series may have some catching up to do.