It is the rare video game that is able to transcend the mechanics of button-mashing sufficiently to push the emotional buttons of its players.

Last year's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was such a game. Yes, CoD4 was a technical marvel highlighted by superb visuals and addictive multiplayer combat options. But beyond that, it had perhaps the most compelling story line yet seen in a video game. The first-person shooter's single-player mode led the player through parallel anti-terrorist campaigns from the perspective of elite Marine Recon and British S.A.S. troopers, en route to an unforgettable denouement.

Following up on that success, Activision was quick to release Call of Duty: World at War. It is essentially the same game, but the setting has been time-shifted from the present day to World War II. In the new version, the player steps into the boots of a U.S. Marine fighting the Japanese in the Pacific and a Russian foot soldier battling invading German forces. While there are some clever additions, the single-player experience suffers from poor pacing and a lackluster script. For example, while CoD4 led the player through missions that logically followed one another, World at War skips up to three years between missions. In the Russian campaign, for example, the Stalingrad level (1942) is followed by a mission taking place during the collapse of the Third Reich in 1945. Unexplained gaps like that make it hard to gin up much empathy for the game's protagonists.

Among the new features in CoD: World at War are tanks, dogs and flamethrowers. While the main mode of transportation in the CoD series has always been shoe leather, operable tanks are now available, primarily in some multiplayer levels. Unfortunately, their implementation is rudimentary, at best. The game's modeling of tank armor seems woefully inaccurate and players are unable to use internally operated machine guns, standard equipment on WWII-era tanks. While it's encouraging to see vehicles playing a role in CoD, the game's tank play can't hold a candle to that of Battlefield 1942, a title released six years ago.

Also new are packs of killer attack dogs. Particularly in multiplayer matches, they are a devastating and terrifying weapon. You can hear their menacing barks as they get closer, and I have jumped out of my skin more when once when turning to find one leaping at my character's throat.

Like its predecessor, CoD: World at War offers numerous options for multiplayer action. These include a co-op mode which allows players to tackle the campaign game as a team. And, to be honest, the real value of this game lies in its multiplayer action. As an added bonus, players who complete the campaign mode will unlock a just-for-fun level in which wave after wave of Nazi zombies attack, Resident Evil-style.

Should you buy CoD: World at War? If you are a serious first-person shooter fan or a hardcore military game buff, you'll probably want to check it out.

Last minute gift ideas

While I offered my game shopping guide in my Black Friday column, the holiday season is getting down to the wire now, so here are some last-minute suggestions for the gamer in your life:

Sony PSP-3000

- While Nintendo seems to own the handheld space with its ultra-popular DS, the PSP is definitely worth a second look. The latest edition PSP-3000 is thinner and lighter than past iterations and features an upgraded screen. The new PSP can even be used to make free Skype phone calls provided you've got WiFi Internet access. There's also talk that GPS functionality might be coming soon. The Ratchet & Clank bundle ($199) is a good deal and comes with the Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters game as well as the

National Treasure 2

film, both on Sony's proprietary UMD format.

futureU

(Nintendo DS, PC, $29.99) - Will combining questions from the Kaplan SAT prep course with a game-like interface help your kid get into Penn? I don't know, but he or she will have fun and gain insight into what to expect from the college boards.

Power Up:

Grade: B+

Call of Duty: World at War

Activision. PC, Wii $49.99; Xbox 360, PS3 $59.99; DS $29.99

Rating: M (17 and older) DS version rated T (13 and older)

On the Web:

» READ MORE: www.callofduty.com

Contact Dennis McCauley at dmccauley@phillynews.com.