The fifth entry in Activision’s annual “Call of Duty” military franchise may return to its World War II roots and come from a different developer, but virtually everything that’s good about it stems directly from last year’s “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.” The impressive graphics, compelling multiplayer and even the basic gunplay in “World at War” are all iterations of “CoD 4,” minus that game’s character, urgency and relevance. The result is a forgettable, mostly middling shooter that will sell decently, but fall far short of “Modern Warfare’s” boffo 10 million-plus units.In terms of creating a story or any sort of emotional hook, “World at War” is a desultory mess. This potpourri from developer Treyarch, which made the equally bland “Call of Duty 3,” jumps between the war in the Pacific and the Eastern Front, switching protagonists from a Marine (whose sergeant is voiced by Kiefer Sutherland) to a Russian soldier who has a habit of beginning levels half-dead. Animated cut scenes recount the war with the glib exuberance of an overly elaborate credit sequence for a direct-to-video thriller. As if generic World War II wasn’t enough, a zombie killing level is unlocked once the game is finished. After the skillfully told storyline of “Modern Warfare,” this collection of random narrative scraps is a real letdown. The actual gameplay is derivative but thrilling enough. The Pacific island settings look good, though they don’t feel any different than the ruined streets of Berlin, all carefully hemmed in to make sure the player moves the length of the shooting gallery. Whether Nazis are bursting out of locked doors or “banzai soldiers” are charging out of spider holes, the basics are the same: progress through clearly marked checkpoints to advance the scripted events. Thousands of bullets will be fired. Hundreds of soldiers will be killed. Dozens of checkpoints will be reloaded. Two or three set-pieces might be remembered. Experienced players of “Call of Duty” and other World War II actioners like “Medal of Honor” and “Brothers in Arms” can expect the usual “man the machine gun to mow down attackers,” “find the bazooka to destroy the tank” and “circle the edge of the map to flank the defenders.” There’s also a terrible driving level involving a tank that can magically repair itself and a spectacular airplane sequence that plays like an amusement park thrill ride. It’s all competently done with the same technology used in “CoD 4,” resulting in a remarkably similar look, save for some fresh touches like new fire effects that are gratuitously showcased in even the most unlikely places. Sure, flame tanks lurching through the Pacific jungles are to be expected. But did the Germans really defend the parliament floor of the Reichstag with flamethrowers? The story mode can be played cooperatively, either splitscreen with two players or online with up to four. This breathes some new life into the same old gameplay, but ultimately “World at War” doesn’t hold a candle to the innovative co-op in other recent action titles like “Gears of War 2″ and “Resistance 2,” both of which play as substantially different games with a friend in tow. Competitive multiplayer, on the other hand is slick, addictive and superbly paced, though it’s even more of a “CoD 4″ reiteration than the rest of the game. Despite the many derivative elements of “World at War’s” multiplayer, it’s a nice change of pace to earn ranks, unlock special abilities, and create unique weapon combos in a historical setting. Long after the storyline is done and forgotten, this “Call of Duty” will still leave online gamers satisfied, at least until “Modern Warfare” maker and series creator Infinity Ward inevitably ups the ante with “Call of Duty 6.”
Rated M. $50-$60
An Activision presentation of a game developed by Treyarch for the DS, PC, Playstation 3, Wii and Xbox 360. Reviewed on Xbox 360.