Hot on the heels of Gears of War 2, we have the next most-eagerly awaited game of 2008, Call of Duty World at War (Call of Duty 5, or COD5). And as shocked as I am to admit this, it's actually a better overall game than Gears 2. That's quite a feat when you consider how absolutely stellar the Gears 2 campaign is, and the fact that COD5's developer, Treyarch, is known for botching what should have been classic Call of Duty titles.

Not this time. Yes, COD5 does suffer from the occasional bug, but none are bad as the problems that dogged Call of Duty 3 (see my review), the last Treyarch entry in the series. This time around, the most serious bug I encountered was an annoying habit on the part of computer controlled players to seek cover exactly where I was hiding; their actions caused my own avatar to be edged out into the open where I was killed by enemies, several times.

Beyond that, however, it's all good news. COD5 is based on the Call of Duty 4 engine, and the excellence of that choice shows through in both the single player and multiplayer modes of the game. But Treyarch didn't just regurgitate last year's COD4 tech in COD5. No, they've improved on it in several important ways. And that means that COD5 matches the COD4 single player campaign and--get this--actually improves on multiplayer. That, friends, is a major accomplishment: COD4, to this day, is widely considered the greatest multiplayer title ever created on the 360. That is no longer the case. Allow me to present Call of Duty World at War, my choice for Xbox 360 game of the year.

Single player

The single player campaign in COD5 takes place in the waning days of World War II, spanning both the American campaign in the Pacific and the Russian campaign in Eastern Europe and Berlin. Treyarch's decision to move the Call of Duty series back to WWII raised some eyebrows earlier this year, given the overwhelming success of COD4, which took place in a mythical current war. But that decision hasn't dampened the experience at all. In fact, my reservations about the setting were quickly dispelled as the awesome storytelling, settings, and battles of this game unfolded. This is a great story, well told.

There are two storylines in the single player campaign and you move back and forth between them. First up is the American campaign in the Pacific, the one facet of World War II that's been little-explored in shooters. (The one notable but failed attempt was a PC-based Medal of Honor title that's best forgotten.) Now that I've experienced COD5, I'm unclear why this phase of the war has been so ignored. The settings and scenarios are thrilling and incredible, with Japanese snipers hidden in trees and waves of hidden soldiers rising out of the grass like Chuck Norris, surprising you in the dark.

The second storyline involves the journey of a Russian soldier who, after surviving a particularly nasty Nazi invasion in Russia, makes his way to Berlin with the rest of the Russian army to seek revenge and put an end to the European campaign of WWII. These sequences return to familiar COD territory, with blown-out European cities and towns, tank battles, and the like. But instead of being tired--after all, we'd pretty much done it all over the course of three major COD titles and several Medal of Honor games--these sequences are well conceived and nicely designed.

What impresses me most about the single player campaign is that it just works. The story is compelling and interesting. The settings are diverse and entertaining. Some of the new weapons, like the flame thrower, are devastating. Even the vehicle sequences, always a low point in the COD series, are bearable if not well done. That's never happened before in a COD title.

Are there problems with single player aside from the aforementioned bug? Yes: It's too short, for one thing, and noticeably shorter than Gears 2 or even COD4, which wasn't particular long itself. And the story is told in the wrong order, with the Russian taking of Berlin ending the game and the war, even though the war really ended later with the atomic bomb blasts in Japan. I was expecting a final island hopping battle in the Pacific that never came.

Co-operative play

Taken on its own, the single player experience would warrant just 4 out of 5 stars because of its brevity, but one new facet of COD5 really puts it over the top: Co-op play. This game not only allows you to play through the single player campaign with others, it allows you to do so in interesting and fun ways. You can play a traditional two player co-op, of course, but you can also co-op with up to four players. And this works locally, over System Link, or online on Xbox Live. It's fantastic.

Better still, Treyarch has created co-op modes. So you can play cooperatively, of course, or choose to compete with the other players for points. That way, the player who does the most work actually gets rewarded with the most points as well. This capability is almost reason enough to own COD5.

Multiplayer

Allow me to reiterate a point I made early on: While COD4 multiplayer is still widely considered as the single best multiplayer game ever on Xbox Live, it's time has passed: COD5 is the better online game, and it deserves that accolade for one simple reason. It is basically the same COD4 multiplayer, but done right.

What do I mean by that? COD4 multiplayer is basically perfect. It has great levels, great weapons, and great play modes. But there are two problems with COD4 multiplayer, and both are fixed in COD5. First, the COD4 color palette is decidedly drab: It's a world of grays, blue-grays, and green-grays, and the whole thing has the muted look of a rainy day. Second, COD4 multiplayer has one critical flaw. Let's say you're hammering away at an enemy and you've hit him once, twice, three times. And then a buddy of yours runs by and tags the enemy with a single shot. He's awarded 10 points for the kill, while you're given a paltry 2 points for the assist. And this happens an alarming number of times in the game. It makes the multiplayer team games less about team and more bout kill-stealing.

So how does COD5 fix these problems? First, COD5 also features great levels, great weapons, and great play modes, and, no, the use of World War II-era weaponry does not somehow create a problem. In fact, it's incredibly balanced, and unlike previous WWII-era COD titles, you don't have to choose from only the subset of weapons that are available to whatever side (American, Russian, Japanese, German) you're on: You always get the full range of available weapons.

Second, COD5 is far more colorful than COD4. The levels are often bright and airy, the colors deep and attractive. Even the onscreen text used to identity teammates and enemies is more colorful and thus more useful. It's just a nicer looking game.

Finally, COD5 does away with the unfairness of the COD4 assist model. Now, each kill is worth 10 points and if two or more players have contributed to that death, then each receives 2, 4, 6, 8, or 10 points, based on how much of the damage they caused. So in the aforementioned scenario, the main perpetrator would receive 8 points while the kill-stealing teammate would receive two. Finally.

If you're a fan of COD4 multiplayer, you need to run, not walk, to the local Best Buy and pick up a copy of COD5. It's just like COD4 multiplayer. But better.

Final thoughts

I had serious reservations about Call of Duty World at War because of the seemingly tired World War II setting and the involvement of Treyarch, whom I blame for some of the low points in the series. But this game is a tour de force. The single player campaign, while a bit short, is surprisingly entertaining and interesting on its own, but the addition of four-player co-op just puts it over the top. And the multiplayer game is even better than that of the current champ, COD4. If you're a shooter fan, you should grab this title, and if you can get just one, pick this instead of Gears of War 2. Call of Duty World at War is my pick for the Xbox 360 game of the year.