Review: Call of Duty: World at War (DS)

CallOfDutyWorldAtWarDS.jpg Quick question: if you are looking for a portable system to play FPS – a notoriously hardware-centric genre – should you grab the handheld with the big screen, analog stick and horsepower of a PS2, or should you go for the souped-up GBA hardware with two small screens and a touch screen interface?

The answer is somewhat surprising – and telling. Because while you’d expect the PSP to dominate the handheld FPS space, in reality it has put out precious few decent games in the genre, and only two were really good (both Syphon Filter games). The Nintendo DS isn’t exactly posting stellar marks either – after GoldenEye: Rogue Agent showed a glimmer of PC-like controls, and Metroid Prime Hunters showed the excellent potential of the system to deliver a Quake III-like experience, it was a long time before we got another quality DS FPS. That game arrived in late 2007 in the form of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and while it was not quite at the same level of excellence as the PC and console game, it was a very high quality experience that many gamers still enjoy.

Fast forward a year, and there has been little progress in handheld FPS games on either platform. Fortunately we get another entry in the Call of Duty franchise – and even more fortunately it is another solid entry. I would actually rate this game as being better than Call of Duty 4 on the DS (unlike the PC/Console versions, where Call of Duty 4 was clearly better).

The game takes place in World War II, and focuses on the Japanese and Russian campaigns. While many have complained about the return to World War II, these campaigns have quite a different feel from the ‘same old’ trek from Normandy to Berlin we’ve made seemingly hundreds of times over the past decade. The two settings provide some inherent variety in the feel of the missions, and the developers have done a good job making the tactics and play-style feel distinct based on the enemy you’re facing.

What did they do right? Pretty much everything. The engine is the same as in Call of Duty 4, so the visuals continue to look great. The core shooter gameplay is becoming as familiar as PC gaming – D-pad to move, touch screen to look, L-button to shoot. The touch screen also has areas you use to manually reload your weapons, interact with objects, and throw back grenades. A definite improvement is that switching to aiming down the sights (ADS) is now done by touching a specific area on the screen – this is great because it was too easy to accidentally enter or exit ADS mode in Call of Duty 4 because it used a double tap activation. It all works perfectly and provides a pacing that keeps things viscerally intense throughout.

Beyond the shooter elements, the developers did a solid job adding mini-games that are relevant to the context of what is going on around you. These include diffusing mines, decoding Morse Code messages, using anti-aircraft guns, sniping assignments, and more. You will also notice something about your allies and enemy forces – they are all smarter, and there are more of them on screen at any given time. In Call of Duty 4 it seemed that enemies were just waiting to be picked off, while your allies couldn’t manage to take out any opposing forces unless scripted to do so. Now enemies will make solid use of cover on both offense and defense, and you can always count on your squadmates to help thin the enemy force. It is a small thing that makes a big difference in the enjoyment of the game.

What have they missed? Not very much. The visuals are solid – but there is a clear compromise made in terms of quality of visuals for stability of framerate. Colors are relatively bland and the environments are not very detailed. As mentioned, there are often many enemies and allies on screen simultaneously, yet the framerate never seems to drop. A few other quibbles include some contrived level design and enemies tending to ‘ghost spawn’ behind you after a checkpoint when it makes little sense.

Another welcome addition is online multiplayer. While Call of Duty 4 only had local multiplayer, World at War gains four online multiplayer modes. Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Hunter/Prey, and Capture the Flag. In addition, Activision’s online site will track basic statistics based on how you do while playing online. There are none of the advanced player development features that have become popular in PC and console shooters recently, but just getting solid online multiplayer with stat tracking is a huge gain.

There is also a Challenge mode available offline. This mode gives you an objective and a time, such as a certain number of enemies to kill in a minute. You start out and a timer begins counting down on the touch-screen. It is a wonderful quick-play mode that adds quite a bit of extended replay value to the game.

Call of Duty: World at War reminds us that the DS is a great system for playing a FPS. Some compromises were made, especially when it comes to the details of the graphics, but the reward is fast-paced shooter gameplay against enemies who actually try to remain alive. Of course, you can also battle against actual living enemies, making the game even more rewarding and long-lasting.

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Pros:
+ Exciting gameplay
+ Engaging scenarios
+ Solid enemy and ally intelligence
+ Lots of voice acting
+ Fun mini-games

Cons:
– Visuals are indistinct
– Some bland levels
– Enemies appear from nowhere

Game Info:
Platform: DS
Publisher: Activision
Developer: n-Space
Release Date: 11/11/08
Genre: FPS
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-4

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!