Treyarch has learned from the monotonous single-stranded European campaign of CoD3 and put two interleaving storylines in World at War. On the one hand, we have a US Marine escaping from the Japanese and joining an allied company involved in the invasion of the Pacific. On the other, we have a Russian private who survives a massacre at Stalingrad then takes his place in the onslaught on Germany two years later. Two very different war experiences, and two very different atmospheres, but both wired up for the same explosive action we saw last year in CoD4.
Somewhere along the line Treyarch has discovered how to do two things. First, the developer suddenly knows how to make the CoD4 engine sing. From the jungles of the Pacific to the ravaged shells of Stalingrad and Berlin, World at War is a visual smorgasbord, featuring some of the most impressive scenery, lighting and flame and particle effects I've seen in any military FPS to date. Some of the characters look a little rough close up, but generally speaking it's a great looking game that actively builds on the strong foundations of its mighty predecessor.
Secondly, Treyarch seems to have worked out how to chain powerful set-pieces together into tight, action-packed levels. The levels are heavily orchestrated and almost insultingly linear, but at its best World at War is an incredible ride. Two levels - a sniper mission through the crumbling buildings of Stalingrad and an assault on some Japanese emplacements - are every bit as well engineered and thrilling as anything in Call of Duty 2 or 4. You can't help wishing that you could occasionally escape the funnel you're being shoved through, but while it lasts World at War gives you precious little time to think. You run. You aim. You shoot. You cower. You keep pushing forwards to the next objective and the next checkpoint. This is practically the opposite of a thinking man's action game, but it works.
OK. Let's moan. When I say 'funneling' I mean it. World at War goes out of its way to throw up ridiculous barriers so that you can't just skip through the choke points of the level. I mean, is standard jungle vegetation really that impassable? Is a small shrub? Isn't that what machetes were designed for?
The AI, meanwhile, slips constantly between decent and deeply moronic. The Japanese have some nasty tricks up their sleeves; hiding up trees, Banzai charges and the like, but when it comes to defending a position or trying to outflank you, they don't pass muster. Your comrades, meanwhile, put up a good fight, but it's not unknown to see one of yours and one of theirs standing about three feet from each other, both unloading the contents of their rifles, and somehow conspiring to miss. Where did they get these guys? Dimwitsville, MA?