It's been more than three years since Penny-Arcade's Gabe and Tycho summed up what millions of gamers already knew: "Omaha Beach is the new Hoth." The days since E3 2005 have only packed more and more entries into a market already oversaturated with World War II games. Sure, it presents a compelling narrative - tales of heroism, valor, and determination in the face of an undeniably Evil-with-a-capital-E foe, in the final days before the Nuclear Age made such all-out warfare obsolete - but really, how many times can we storm the beachhead at Normandy? Young gamers might well have learned more about World War II from videogames and movies than they have from school at this point.
When the Call of Duty series finally left the Axis and Allies behind, bringing the series to the present day with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the decision was acclaimed by gamers and press alike, and the game almost universally lived up to the hype. It blended the cinematic touch characteristic of the series with a powerful new engine, wove an intriguing story through two converging perspectives, exciting multiplayer, great mechanics, blah blah, you've all heard it before.
Call of Duty: World at War returns us to the second World War, and in that respect feels like a bit of a step back from COD4; a return to the familiar after an exciting foray into (comparatively) unexplored territory. The good news is that most everything that people liked about Modern Warfare is still there in World at War - at its core, it's essentially the same game with the same engine, the same controls, and so forth ... just given a different skin. Sure, it won't be getting any points for originality or breaking new ground, but this is really a classic example of not fixing what isn't broken. To get this out of the way: this is wholly a review of the single-player experience, not the multiplayer. Any comparisons between the two games are chiefly in that regard.
As with past games in the series, World at War bounces back and forth between two different stories as seen through the eyes of two different soldiers. Private Miller is a U.S. Marine fighting the Japanese Empire island by island in the Pacific Theater, while Private Petrenko is a Soviet soldier in the Red Army defending the Motherland from the Third Reich, and eventually taking the fight back to them. There aren't any real gameplay differences between the two characters - it's pretty much run-and-gun - but the mixing up between Miller's tropical battlefields and Petrenko's war-scarred cityscapes is a nice touch that means that neither story really grows stale before the end.
One of the game's strongest points is the context it supplies: before every level, there is a short introduction video narrated by the current soldier's commanding officer (the American sergeant has a particularly familiar voice ... who wouldn't follow 24's Jack Bauer into peril?) featuring actual footage from WWII, and it does a great job of drawing you into the battle. Clips of the events that led up to Pearl Harbor and the United States' entry into the war with shots of young men lining up at recruitment officers immediately precede the first time you take control of Pvt. Miller, and it's easy to imagine that the person whose skin you're in was one of those very same fresh-faced recruits. Sure, the tale of the Greatest Generation is one that's been told again and again for the past half-century, but the presentation here is such that it makes it all seem ... well, if not fresh, at least engaging.