An exciting Okinawa-based American campaign is what keeps this from being just another tour of duty through WWII.
Call of Duty: World at War consists of two main components: an American campaign that retells the invasion of Okinawa, and yep, you guessed it: a Russian campaign that deals with the Russians pushing the Nazis out of the motherland and all the way back to Berlin; the same story we've played through countless times before.
The Battle for Okinawa is immediately the most interesting aspect of World at War. The Pacific War is something that is often rarely chronicled in game form, and thereby enables it to completely outshine the Russian campaign of World at War. The main issue with the single-player is that it's not actually separated into two separate campaigns. The American and Russian campaigns are intertwined with one another and switch back and forth every few levels. The reason why this is a problem is because of how different they are from one another and how much more entertaining the American campaign is over the Russian one.
The Russian campaign follows a very predictable formula. You have the same enemies, weapons, and types of levels you've fought through countless times before in numerous other World War II games. That's not to say the combat isn't solid, because it is, but the American campaign is so different and unique in comparison that it effectively makes the Russian levels boring every time you have to play them. It seems that due to how different they are, whenever I found myself playing through the Russian levels my main motivation for getting through them was so I could get back to the American ones.
The American campaign is significantly different from other shooters based on history. The Japanese soldiers used significantly different tactics from the western world, and this is the reason why it's so thrilling. It's not often you find yourself wandering through grassy areas only to be ambushed and rushed at by crazed banzai soldiers trying to impale you with bayonets. They also hide in trees, tunnels, and floor traps which makes fighting them extremely unpredictable. That's why there's such a stark contrast between the two campaigns because due to how crazy the combat tactics of the Japanese are, it makes the Germans seem meek in comparison. They actually use cover and traditional battle tactics, rather than suicidally running at you screaming like maniacs.
As always, the guns control nicely - this is a Call of Duty game after all. The weaponry consists of your standard assortment of World War II-era rifles and pistols, but you will also have access to some new Japanese weapons too, as well as a shotgun and a flamethrower, all of which are exclusive to the American campaign. An oddity I found with the weapon loadout in World at War is that you are only capable of carrying two weapons at a time, which isn't that big of a deal but I found it strange considering you generally begin each level with either a rifle or a sub-machine gun, and then a pistol as your secondary weapon. The problem is that you can immediately switch your pistol out for a much bigger and meaner weapon, making the pistols all but useless. Don't get me wrong, I know you can do that in Halo, but the difference here is that the pistol in Halo 1 is actually useful. The pistols in Call of Duty generally have crap accuracy, range, and have significantly lower clips. It just seems a bit odd to even bother giving people pistols when they are such throwaway weaponry compared to the rest of the guns in the game. They would function much better as some sort of emergency weapon to rely on when you run out of ammo in your main weapons and don't have time to reload - similar to how pistols operated in Killzone 2.
Many of World at War's weapons feature bayonets which can be used to impale enemies, but more importantly, the enemies will try to impale you. There will be several instances in the American campaign where crazed banzai soldiers will attempt to impale you and you will have to pull off a spontaneous quick time event in order to fight them off, or else you will be instantly killed. You also have a standard melee attack at your disposal in World at War but it operates unlike most other first person shooters. Rather than having a means to quickly bat an enemy over the head with your rifle stock, or having to switch out your main weapon for a knife, you simply have to press a button and you will immediately swipe a nearby opponent. This is a cool feature because it allows you to quickly melee nearby opponents in style but realistically speaking it doesn't really make much sense to be able to pull out a knife that quickly from nowhere. It functions almost as if the guy is holding the knife at all times, which wouldn't be feasible if he wanted to fire his gun properly. A minor complaint to be sure, but it would have been nice to maybe have a more realistic option, such as when you want to use the knife there will be a slight delay as the soldier grabs the knife with his left hand. He could then hold it at the ready to impale someone, while his main weapon is held off to the side with his right hand.
The biggest issue I had with World at War was the grenades. The on-screen indicator that warns you of nearby grenades is not very reliable and difficult to notice when you are busy concentrating down the iron sights of your rifle. Not to mention the fact that most of the time there is so much stuff going on that you won't even actually be able to hear or even see the grenades coming and will find yourself blowing up spontaneously. I don't have an issue with enemy soldiers using grenades, but it seems like the enemy AI in World at War is significantly grenade happy and they have no problem using them very frequently to the point where it will probably become rather irritating on your behalf. I experienced my fair share of incredibly frustrating repeat grenade deaths, as well as numerous instances where I had to continually leave a cover spot and return as the AI kept endlessly lobbing grenades at my position. In fact, I rarely recall actually dying from gunfire, yet can recall more deaths than I care to remember caused by unseen grenades. Grenades are fair game in any first person shooter, but it becomes an issue when it starts to take actual enjoyment out of the game due to mere frustration. Realistically speaking, how many first person shooters out there actually have grenade indicators? Not many. So if a game actually needs a grenade indicator in the first place it's obvious that the grenades are not very easy to notice and will be used frequently by the AI. It essentially becomes the most irritating and least enjoyable aspect of playing through World at War.
The level design in World at War is solid. The Okinawa-based levels are unique and a refreshing change of pace coming from a World War II game, full of lush greenery and tropical environments. The levels featured in the Russian campaign are pretty much what you would expect from your standard World War II shooter, war-torn Europe featuring numerous drab, dark, and grey environments. They are well-designed however, and provide some epic and memorable shoot outs. Treyarch actually did do an excellent job of portraying the menace that was Nazi Germany, with an incredibly evil and imposing introduction to the Russian campaign. The biggest issue that could be taken up with World at War is that the levels are extremely linear, and there are a lot of blatantly blocked off inaccessible areas that match with the game's linearity.
The sound design in World at War is actually quite good, with an appropriately booming soundtrack, that actually features some pretty badass battle tunes that totally get your blood pumping and your adrenaline flowing in all the right ways. The sound effects are solid, but definitely have that "Call of Duty" familiarity. Voice acting is relatively good, featuring the likes of Kiefer Sutherland narrating the American campaign, with Gary Oldman providing the main voice work for the Russian side of things.
The presentation is a bit lacking though. Sure, they get the job done by showing some old war footage and mixing it with modern day graphics, but it doesn't really quite do much for the viewer. None of the characters are really very well developed either, outside of Kiefer Sutherland and Gary Oldman's characters; and you once again play as nameless mutes in both campaigns, so it's hard to really care about any of the characters or feel any sort of attachment to the storyline despite their efforts to try and make you care. Treyarch also portray a very brutal depiction of World War II, and for that it's commendable. World at War has the most blood and gore out of any Call of Duty to date, which help's give Treyarch's Call of Duty a bit of it's own flair. Treyarch also attempt to summarize the whole experience by portraying how atrocious World War II really was, which I suppose gives it a fitting ending considering how brutal the game is itself.
There's a huge multiplayer component to World at War which is essentially a World War II take on Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare's muliplayer. If you're into Call of Duty's multiplayer already and want to experience it back in World War II again with Call of Duty 4's changes then you'll probably like it, but if you haven't been convinced by Call of Duty's multiplayer in the past then there is absolutely nothing different here to change your mind. The console versions of World at War are probably significantly different online, but unless you're into the highly competitive PC crowd of Call of Duty you probably won't find the multiplayer very entertaining anyway, especially considering that a large portion of the servers simply consist of one shot kill settings which in my humble opinion is quite lame. There is an unlockable Nazi Zombies mode, and while it can be entertaining as a brief distraction, it absolutely pales in comparison to the Horde mode found in Gears of War 2.
Call of Duty: World at War aside from its unique American campaign isn't really anything too terribly unique or interesting. The campaign is solid, but it's short at only about six hours long. There's a token tank level, aircraft bombing level, and so on, these have all been done before so they aren't really anything unique or special on their own and feel more like they were simply thrown in to try and change the pace of the game a little bit. They do make for a relatively entertaining game, but the vast majority of World at War can essentially be described as big culmination of almost every thing that has been done before in a Call of Duty or World War II game. While World at War does have its own personality through the American levels and a short, yet solid single-player campaign, it still really just has that whole "been there, done that" vibe.
When it comes down to it, if you love Call of Duty then you will find more of the same of what you enjoy about the franchise in World at War. It's a solid game with an enjoyable, if forgettable single-player component, and a solid multiplayer mode for those that are already into that kind of thing. If you aren't really that big of a fan of the series already then this isn't really something you need to play. Treyarch did do an excellent job of doing what they could with the already extremely stale genre of World War II shooters, and as it stands Call of Duty: World at War serves as a fitting swansong to what will hopefully be the last World War II-era Call of Duty game, or first person shooter for that matter for an incredibly long time.