Last time I logged into Call of Duty: World At War on Xbox 360 (just prior to writing this review, actually), there were 149,111 players online. The most I've seen online at once has been over 180,000. Given the game is only a week old, that's a pretty awesome feat.
When I reviewed Call of Duty: Modern Warfare late last year, I focused heavily on the single-player portion of the game. At that stage I really hadn't tasted the fruit of Infinity Ward's multiplayer labour, and while I had certainly given it a good bash, I recognise now I just hadn't fully 'got it' yet.
Since nabbing World At War, however, I've been focusing more heavily on the multiplayer (after realising just how good Modern Warfare's multiplayer was throughout the year). The reason for this is, World At War's single-player is very much the same as Modern Warfare. It uses the same engine, looks just as good and plays just as well. It still has predictable enemy AI that can be memorised and overcome and it's still riddled with scripted gameplay, congested enemy bottlenecks and big, awesome explosions.
In fact, beyond the additions of the likes of four-player co-op (which is hella fun, I might add), the flamethrower and a few other tidbits, you're not really getting much more than another Call of Duty WWII experience amplified because of all the great stuff Infinity Ward crafted with Modern Warfare.
None of that should take anything away from what Treyarch have done though. They've competently utilised the CoD 4 game engine to great effect with plenty of their own stuff going on, and there's no denying they know how to craft an intricate story with great narrative, pacing and action. But the reason you'll keep playing World At War is its multiplayer, especially since like Modern Warfare, World At War's single-player campaign can be put to bed in around six short hours.
There are some key differences beyond the cosmetic that totally differentiate World At War's multiplayer from Modern Warfare. Where the latter was played with ferocious tenacity through most base match-types (Team Deathmatch, Free-For-All, Domination etc), World At War carries with it a slower, more methodical design approach.
Most of the maps are bigger with less runway rumpus areas for insane fire-fights (ala Shipyard, Killhouse, Wet Work, Countdown or Bog from MW), and there's a clear divide separating most play areas through the implementation of vehicles.
It's also a slightly darker game with more room for the camping types to pitch up tent and serve to frustrate the rest of us, but in saying that the counter balance is the ninja potential; sneaking around while crouched through the shadows only to come up behind said camper and deliver a swift blade of melee justice. And then there're the dogs.
There might be plenty of hiding space, but a seven-streak kill count gives a warrior the chance to "Release The Dogs", unleashing a number of blood-thirsty attack dogs (differentiated for you by looking Alsatian if friendly, and jet black if not). You can kill them, but their single goal is clear - hunt out the enemy - no matter where they're hiding
- and go for the jugular.
If the ever-closing sound of dogs barking isn't enough to rattle your senses, the eerie Banshee-like wail of falling bombs from a five-streak kill count induced artillery strike will. Cleverly, Treyarch have kept some of the key balance points of base multiplayer games from Modern Warfare despite the more primitive WWII setting, and it really works.
Things such as the recon plane and artillery strikes are pulled right from the bonuses of Modern Warfare, but mixing it up with the attack dogs just adds a nice touch of awareness. There's nothing modern
about World At War, and that's where its charms lay.
Treyarch have also approached a few things Modern Warfare simply hasn't bothered with. To begin with (and most importantly for Australians), is the option in the Find A Match lobby to set your server destination to Locale or Local (on the consoles, at least). One will quickly look for a close connection while the other will find the strongest local server for you, no matter the wait (and with more than 100,000 people playing worldwide most nights, waiting for an awesome connection is a much better option than fighting both Americans and lag).
You can also see how many people are online, which is something MW doesn't do. It gives you a good indication of how long the waiting potential is which is pretty cool.
Another interesting element is the post-game wrap up. You'll get a stat list of how you did in the last game, like number of kills and deaths with a K/D spread stat based on these. You can see how many headshots you made and it even points out who killed you the most or who you killed the most, offering you a post-match nemesis
to keep your eye on.
For the most part, these stat additions aren't game-changing, but they're thoughtful inclusions for those of us who spend a lot of time fighting the good fight online.
There are some issues though.
Level design, for the most part, is really very cool, but there's heaps more snagging in WAW than in MW, and backing up and away from an enemy, only to constantly find yourself glitching and clipping because of some aesthetic rock or piece of debris, is just really frustrating (especially if you're sneaking behind cover only to find you've been raised about 50cm above said cover and are now in plain sight because of a stupid part of the environment).
There are also a few niggly animation glitches here and there (like floating dead bodies, or trampoline physics), but a lot of this will likely be fixed in the first round of patches.
On a functional level, Frag Grenades seem to take too long to explode, and often you can't even hear them (so there's no real closure to your throw). While some of the other explosive weapons also seem to suffer from a similar issue (or just don't seem powerful enough).
Respawning is also a major issue. I assume because of the larger size maps respawning has been set closer to the action, however, it seems really unfair to lose in a fire-fight (where you also dealt some damage), only to respawn not more than 10 meters away and very easily finish off your now wounded enemy. This has happened a lot in most of the games I've played.
Unlocking weapons through completing challenges and levelling up also feels slightly ill-balanced.
It seems as though you're forced to hit the Barracks and complete specific challenges to get what you want, whereas MW gave you an all-round release of weapons through only
levelling up, regardless of what challenges you completed. It adds a bit more depth, to be sure, but also does seem pretty unfair to the newbs that drop in and have no idea what's going on (especially if someone has been methodical enough to actually do the prerequisite challenges and gain all the kickass weaponry).
Perks are back, and these are all very similar to the boosts we've seen in MW. They unlock at a steady pace and I actually found them to feel somewhat more balanced than the previous title (though this could just be in the wake of all the other ill-balanced stuff). Moreover, as mentioned a few times throughout this review, you can now jump in a tank and just roll around the level blowing the absolute shit out of anyone you see. It might seem like anyone in these has an unfair advantage, but learning the lay of the land will show you the maps have been readily balanced to deal with tank-hoarders, and creating your custom class should help you in the fight against the metal behemoths (Satchel Charges work a charm if used correctly).
Other multiplayer highs have been carried over, such as levelling to a point and prestige mode. While the latter has remained unchanged, the cap for levelling up has been raised to 65 (in MW it was 55), giving a lot more life to your charge for elite status.
For the uninitiated, Call of Duty: Modern Warefare and World At War multiplayer both award you XP simply for competing in matches (so you gain in level, no matter how bad you are), of course earning more points and completing challenges will get you there faster, but in MW it was considered a tad too easy to make it to 55, so I'm glad the cap has been raised here.
There's some incredibly diverse fighting in WAW also, way and above the skirmish potential of MW. With the advent of vehicles, and the oft mentioned differences in map size, World At War really gives you a lot in the way of tactical planning.
Seelow, for example is a massive farm with tanks. The middle of the map is a fairly open area, but skittered along its sidelines are various sheds, farm-houses and more. You can therefore approach this map in a number of ways: you can jump in a tank and patrol the middle, shelling the hell out of any red names you see, or you can move silently and stealthily along the border, jumping from cover to cover with only your knife (I've knocked up an eight-kill streak with only my knife on this map with its ninja potential). Or you can choose to camp and snipe utilising any one of the map's amazing vantage points (just be prepared to be knifed in the back, by yours truly should you choose to just that).
On the other hand, Makin is incredibly small, dark and full of the aforementioned snagging. Yet it's potential for intensity removes the ninja and shelling experience, and brings everything back to on-your-toes thinking, and knowing just how you should be attempting to complete the X-ray Vision challenge because 90% of the cover here can be shot through.
Knowing the intricacies of the modern CoD multiplayer experience are going to make this newest one that much more enjoyable for you, and with everything Treyarch have gotten right with it, the annoyances can be overlooked provided they're fixed down the track with patches.
Beyond the addictive multiplayer and scripted-to-hell single-player stuff, World At War also gives you Zombie Nazis. This is a bonus game that sees you fighting off increasingly difficult waves of Zombie Nazis in an eerie setting. The better you do, the more of the mode and setting you can unlock. However, it has also been designed as another multiplayer experience and while you will be able to deal with it on your own for a short while, the challenge eventually becomes too overbearing for just one person meaning you'll need to find some Zombie Nazi-hating friends quicksmart in order to finish the mode. There's really no need for it beyond sheer thrill, and it's super cool Treyarch even added it at all.
Call of Duty: World At War definitely continues the solid tradition of the CoD franchise, and has certainly proved there's more talent in Treyarch's camp than the industry may have ever given them credit for, but it's still not an incredibly massive leap. The WWII stuff is simply gameplay we've handled in one form or another for the better part of the last decade or more, and it really is getting old fast. However, the updates to multiplayer, excellent map design (barring inconsistent, troubling aesthetics) and Zombie Nazi mode do add more than enough value. It's not quite the leap Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was for the franchise, but it's a damn good update.
Now we just have to wait another year to see what the papa bear of the series, Infinity Ward, have up their sleeves.