Given the benefit of hindsight, we can look back at Call of Duty 4's incredibly popular online multiplayer and see what a big factor the addictive XP and perk system played in its success. At the time, so much fuss was made about the move to modern day weapons and hot zones, and while that certainly played a role, what really pushed CoD4 to the top was its bold refusal to let the player's experience grow stale. That's good news for Treyarch as it looks to borrow these features for Call of Duty: World at War, the series' return to World War II. We took a hands-on spin through World at War's multiplayer component to see how Treyarch intends to adapt the formula for 1940's warfare.
At the very moment you dip your feet in World at War's multiplayer offering, the structure holding everything in place feels warm and familiar. For every kill, assist, and goal completed in battle, the game throws a handful of experience points your way to progress through a series of military rankings, each new level unlocking a new upgrade. Complementing holdover perks, such as extreme conditioning and martyrdom, are a smattering of new unlockables that fit within the framework of WWII weaponry. To name a few: shades gives you protection against the blinding effects of flares, gas mask reduces the disorientation suffered from chemical weapons, and flak jacket helps you withstand close-but-not-too-close grenades.
Despite the absence of modern technology, upgrading your guns remains a big focus of the leveling system. Rifle barrels can be done up with old-fashioned glass scopes and bayonets to offer some insurance against running out of ammo, while shotgun barrels can simply be sawn in half to provide an extra bit of thump for each blast. With the return of vehicles, you'll also be able to upgrade your abilities on mounted turret guns--perhaps none more effective than the water cooler ability, which reduces the amount of time it takes a machine gun to overheat.
Enhancements to the leveling system extend into the long term. Committed players who find themselves turning over the clock again and again by going prestige will now see a slightly more tangible reward for their labors. In addition to the flashy prestige icon situated next to your user name in game lobbies, you'll be given achievement points and gamer pics (or trophies and PSN avatars--take your pick) for compulsively climbing the military ladder. Of course, changes have also been made to very short-term rewards, with vicious packs of German Shepherds replacing helicopters as the third-kill-streak reward in battle (radar and air raids remain the first two).
If perks and XP are the familiar glue linking battles together, individual matches are where you'll see World at War sway more toward the unexplored. New gameplay modes abound, including a revamped take on War from Call of Duty 3. Teams play tug-of-war on a series of five flags, but Treyarch has introduced a momentum system where kill streaks increase the speed at which your team captures flags, giving you the opportunity to blitzkrieg your way through flags at two and three times the normal speed. But just as with the perk system, these additions live side-by-side with such CoD4 favorites as Domination and Ground War.
Likewise, vehicles feel different from their most recent appearance in the series. Gone are the nimble motorcycles and jeeps that allowed players to zoom across maps like frantic bumblebees. Now, you'll be using heavy-duty tanks to slowly creep across ruined battlefields as opponents focus on rocket launchers or sticky grenades to peel away at the steel-armored plating acting as the safety net between you and death.
Cycling in and out of our session were five maps spanning the distance between burned-out Berlin streets and Pacific beaches. Castle is a map that takes place in a Japanese garden complete with cherry blossom trees and ornate wooden architecture. Courtyard is a map similar in appearance, though it is unlike the relatively flat and dense castle. It offers more vertical diversity with sprawling stairways and raised buildings in which snipers can hole up. Makin is the beach map taken from the introductory campaign level, a nighttime collection of wooden huts flanked by dense jungle on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. The two Berlin levels are Roundhouse and Dome. Roundhouse is a blown-out mess of rubble that was once a collection of railways and industrial facilities, while Dome is a similarly run-down husk of classical European architecture.
According to Treyarch multiplayer lead David Vonderhaar, each map has been designed in such a way that you're never more than one full sprint away from the action. For the most part, that design philosophy holds true. Makin might be the most chaotic map with its sparse wooden huts, which provide both ample sight lines and paper-thin cover. Roundhouse might be the most slow-paced map with its fallen collection of stone buildings, though the two tanks patrolling the rubble tend to make open areas pretty messy.
The big wildcard in multiplayer is the introduction of fire-based weaponry. Molotov cocktails and flamethrowers (unlockable at level 64) have a distinct tendency to slosh around the normal ebb and flow of battles. A large group of teammates might be making good progress through the flags in War, but if an opponent strapped with a flamethrower comes storming in to light them up like Christmas morning, he can collect a kill streak that instantly turns the tide in his team's favor. While this fire can be intimidating, it does seem like an interesting new addition. Time will tell if the flamethrower is a bit overpowered, though.
When Treyarch announced the continuation of CoD4's massively multiplayer online-like bells and whistles in World at War, we readily admit that we were initially skeptical. However, after several hours of seeing how these features have been retrofitted for WWII, we'll happily say that skepticism was ill-founded because it all works surprisingly well. Although the overall leveling structure remains largely intact, the addition of new perks, weapons, modes, and vehicles lends a distinct air of freshness. That word may seem like a bit of a paradox considering the return to the series' old stomping grounds, but if there's one thing we learned while fighting it out with the aid of perks and fully customized weapons, this isn't the same World War II you've already seen.
You can expect to see Call of Duty: World at War arrive on all major platforms on November 11.