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.

Call of Duty games have always had a very cinematic approach, and World at War is no exception. From groggily coming to as a POW in a Japanese outpost to tearing down the Nazi Swastika and replacing it with the Red Army banner amidst gunfire, the game supplies interesting characters amidst a powerful backdrop, and like its predecessors manages to do it all (and do it well) through a first-person viewpoint. The Russian campaign is more of a success than its American counterpart in this regard, with a particularly gripping mission involving two Soviet snipers sneaking through occupied Stalingrad to hunt down and assassinate the local Nazi commander an exceptionally outstanding portion of the game.

Some of the most effective moments of storytelling are the ones that ultimately have no consequence on the game whatsoever: in the beginning, Pvt. Petrenko lies half-dead amongst other dying Russian soldiers, and a patrolling Nazi dispassionately pumps a few rounds into his comrades to finish them off. Later, you (as Petrenko) are given the choice to execute mortally wounded German soldiers or to let them bleed out and die. Your choice does not affect the game in any way; even so it’s still one of the moments in World of War that gamers are likely to remember after the fact.

World at War uses a slightly enhanced version of COD4‘s graphics engine – a smart move, since Modern Warfare looked great. Due to the setting, the events of World at War are on a larger and more traditionally epic scale than its predecessor, and sections like the final storming of the Reichstag really do look fantastic. It’s during the urban warfare missions of the Russian campaign where the visual design of the game is at its absolute finest. The American campaign takes place entirely on a handful of islands, and with the exception of the final mission assaulting a Japanese castle, the lush tropical scenery tends to blend together in one’s memory.

When it comes down to it, Call of Duty: World at War is essentially Call of Duty 4, only set in World War II. If you liked COD4, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll like World at War. If you didn’t … well, this game probably isn’t for you. It’s not quite as good as its predecessor – vehicle combat isn’t as smoothly integrated into the game as it might have been and feels more like a distraction than anything else and the missions are usually on the shorter side, to name a couple of letdowns – but it’s a shining example of how to do World War II well even when most of us are already sick of it.

Bottom Line: It’s COD4 set in World War II. Awesome, cinematic visuals with a great sense of context and smooth tried-and-true gameplay, though short levels, tacked-on vehicular play and a buggy PC version keep it from being as good as its predecessor. Still, WW2 games don’t come much better than this.

Recommendation: If you liked COD4, pick it up. If you didn’t, avoid it. If you really, really love killing Nazis, you could do a whole lot worse than World at War.

John Funk thinks Nazi zombies should be a requisite enemy in every videogame ever made.

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