Call of Duty: World at War Hands-On

Co-op makes its series debut in World at War, and we take it for a spin in the Pacific and Berlin.

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With Call of Duty: World at War, developer Treyarch is aiming to bring the series back to its old stomping grounds while simultaneously venturing into unfamiliar territory. In addition to exploring the frequently overlooked Pacific Theatre, World at War will be the first in the series to offer co-op gameplay. It's a feature that will support up to four players online and two-player split-screen offline. We recently had the opportunity to see how this addition to the series is coming together by taking a spin through one Pacific level and one Berlin level.

Our most recent look at World at War began where the game does, during an escape from Japanese captors on the Makin Atoll. As the game's introductory level, this one had the player going on a tense hike through darkened jungles where guerrilla Japanese soldiers would frequently pop up from unexpected hiding spots. This time around, we got to see a very different chapter from later in the game. Based on the Battle of Peleliu, the Pacific battle with the highest casualty rate from the entire war, this level features a massive fight complete with tanks, autocannons, and more than a few inappropriate uses of the flamethrower courtesy of our first gleeful hands-on session with the game.

Join forces with a friend to play co-operatively in the Battle of Peleliu.
Join forces with a friend to play co-operatively in the Battle of Peleliu.

The Peleliu level begins with a relatively quiet walk through a swamp before building up to a full-scale battle. You and your team are trudging through knee-high water when they notice a downed plane. One soldier goes to inspect the remnants for any survivors when a sudden ambush of Japanese soldiers comes spilling out of the vegetation. The squad fights through this scuffle and makes its way out of the swamp and into a wide-open field of tall grass and the occasional palm tree. This is where we got to take over a controller, and we immediately felt at home with Call of Duty's familiar, responsive control scheme.

One of the ways Treyarch is looking to put a twist on those familiar controls is by giving you access to previously unseen weapons. Right from the beginning, our character was equipped with a flamethrower to flush out enemies hiding in the trees and tall grass. We put it to use early and often, torching everything in sight and watching the tweaked Call of Duty 4 engine handle flaming scenery as blazing grass slowly gave way to charred earth. The flamethrower is a lot of fun to use, though we have the sneaking suspicion it may be a little overpowered. Much of that is because there's fuel gauge for it; you simply wait for it to cool back down when you've been using it for too long. Either way, it's a blast.

Peleliu is a textbook example of Treyarch's desire to showcase some of the more epic battles from World War II. It almost caught us by surprise how quickly this chapter escalated. At one point we had to clear enemies out of a wrecked building, only to emerge on the other side in a full-blown tank battle. Staying alive required hiding behind the friendly Sherman tanks as they slowly inched forward, then jumping into the foxholes to find rocket launchers to take out the enemy tanks. A moment later, we rushed a group of soldiers stationed on an autocannon and wound up using it to take out nearby antiaircraft guns. At random intervals throughout this conflict, we'd see airplanes come crashing down to earth, trucks on fire zooming past us, and general mayhem at almost every turn. It's clear Treyarch is aiming to push the limitations of the current-gen hardware as far as it can in order to deliver massive, chaotic battles.

The actual co-op doesn't seem to change the way you play the game very much. You won't encounter any puzzles that require specific roles from each player like the spotlight scene from Gears of War. Rather, you're helping one another out through good, old-fashioned teamwork. Because the difficulty is ramped up in co-op, you won't be able to run around Rambo-style quite as easily as in single-player. You'll need to stick close to your teammates in order to survive, working as a group in close proximity.

After completing Peleliu, we had the chance to turn our co-op attention toward Berlin with a chapter called Eviction. Ironically, despite the return toward a more traditional Call of Duty setting, this level gave us better insight into some of the new directions World at War is headed. Right from the beginning, your squad of Russian soldiers encounters a few of your countrymen, who clearly have less than friendly intentions. They have a German soldier surrounded, pleading for his life, but just as quickly as you stumbled upon this scene, the Russian in charge of this other squad takes out his pistol and puts and end to the German's pleading.

This cannot end well for the German.
This cannot end well for the German.

A darker retelling of World War II's brutal realities is one of Treyarch's primary goals. In addition to these heartbreaking scripted moments, you'll notice more realistic violence. Damage models have been enhanced to display the loss of limbs, blood will flow more freely, and enemies will writhe in agony when caught on the bad end of one of your Molotov cocktails. A further boost in realism is provided by the Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare engine, which expertly renders the effects of bullets passing through various surfaces. This means you have to be suspicious of every cover you hide behind, especially wooden ones. At one point we tried taking a breather behind an overturned wooden table, only to see an area dangerously close to our face erupt in splinters and sawdust courtesy of a nearby German's shotgun.

As we progressed through burned-out Berlin apartments and underground tunnels, we eventually made it out onto the streets. The skies above Berlin were dark and gray, dumping rain onto the fight below. It was a bit of a surprise, having just come from a sunny Pacific setting, but not as much of a surprise as the music that began building up as we pushed deeper into the Nazi-filled streets. Rather than the triumphant, orchestral score we've all come to expect from Call of Duty games set in World War II, this particular scene was accompanied by a gritty industrial rock track. It was a little jarring at first, but we wound up being pleasantly surprised by how well this music worked. The dark, aggressive feeling of the music was a great accompaniment to the dreary and violent look of this scene.

In addition to basic co-op, another, more incentive-based option will be available. Known as competitive co-op, this setting borrows all the customization and rewards from the multiplayer and places them in a story setting. Points are awarded for killing enemies, you can use your perks, and everything you unlock here is carried over to the multiplayer side. Seeing the points pop up above an enemy's head is a little startling in a story setting when you first try out this mode, but it should go a long way toward adding replay value to the campaign.

Our hands-on session with World at War has revealed to us a game that feels at once familiar and shockingly different. The action is pure Call of Duty, that familiar blend of sprinting, hiding behind cover, and looking down the sight of your gun to blast a group of enemies. But from the way those enemies react to gunfire to the ways they plead for mercy when all hope is lost, this is a different depiction of World War II from what we've all previously seen. It's a little more brutal, a little more grisly, and generally more realistic in the way it portrays the horrors of war. It's clear this isn't quite the same World War II we've come to expect. Whether or not that novelty can hold up for the duration of an entire campaign is something we're eagerly waiting to discover.

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