Call of Duty: WWII is a return to the original recipe, the first game set during the Second World War in 10 years. In a lot of ways it attempts to reboot the series as a more grounded, more sober military shooter that’s less Michael Bay and more Ken Burns. That desire to tell a realistic, compassionate story is constantly at odds with the desire to make an engaging first-person shooter in which the player cuts through hordes of generic foot-soldiers. As a result, the final product suffers.
If you’ve seen Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan or frankly any other World War II flick made during the last 30 years, you’ll be trekking over familiar ground in the Call of Duty: WWII campaign. You play as a private in the famed 1st Division, a country boy from Texas who, between missions, shoots the shit with the boys about girls back home and what they wish they were doing instead of fighting. His squadmates include some familiar war story tropes: a nerdy, bespectacled photog; a smart-ass, tough-as-nails Jewish kid from Chicago; and a gruff, “orders above all else” sergeant played by Josh Duhamel.
The only character that inspires even a modest emotional response is the kid from Chicago, who becomes your bosom compadre when you save his life in the very first mission. That bond features prominently throughout the game, in intense heart-to-hearts and bro-ing down. Unfortunately the rest of the cast manages to blend into a forgettable mash, even though it’s clear that a late-game turn for one of them is designed to show some unearned depth. War movies hinge on the bonds you form with the characters, lending their sacrifice weight and meaning. Without strong emotional hooks, even major deaths in the game fell flat — a mere hiccup in my conquest to take down the Reich.
That conquest took me through some of the standard World War II staples. Call of Duty: WWII sticks almost exclusively with this single squad, following their landing at D-Day, their progression through the French countryside and their harrowing survival at the Battle of the Bulge. World War II shooters have explored these battles ad infinitum, but I hoped this game would introduce us to new and lesser seen elements of the conflict. Instead just about every mission feels like déjà vu, as if I’d played it before in another game, be it Medal of Honor: Allied Assault or, hell, even the first two Call of Duty games. I’ve landed on these beaches, I’ve cleared these trenches, I’ve driven tanks through these streets. One standout mission, set in Nazi-occupied Paris, does rustle up some novelty, but the remaining 10 all feel like flashbacks to missions I played a decade ago.
While most of the gameplay mechanics feel wholly familiar, a few new elements have been added to the Call of Duty formula. For the first time in over 10 years, health packs have returned, replacing the regenerating health that had become a mainstay of the series. This change works better than expected. Don’t count on ducking behind cover whenever you’ve taken a bunch of shots to the torso. You need to be more cautious and forward-thinking, collecting health items and putting yourself in safe spaces to survive. Feeling semi-powerless when you’re low on health with no healing items stored adds a nice level of tension to otherwise typical scenarios.
Another addition: your squad mates possess unique abilities that recharge as you rack up kills. One squaddie will hurl you health packs, another can toss you a smoke grenade to call in a mortar strike. This system, on paper, seems like it’d be another great change but in execution it feels frustrating and, at times, ludicrous. Activating your squadmates’ abilities requires running up to them in battle and hitting a button. This becomes frustratingly difficult in more chaotic gun fights, where tracking down a squadmate can feel next to impossible. I understand the intention to recreate a stress similar to combat, soldiers trying to find their radio-man or medic in the middle of a fight. In gameplay, though, it just feels clumsy, as you blindly turn your back to enemy fire to locate the icon indicating your ammo buddy.
This conflict — realism versus fun — exists throughout Call of Duty: WWII. At one moment, the soldiers are having a nuanced discussion about how not all Germans are bad. A moment later, you’re mowing down a sea of them with a mounted machine gun as you speed through an occupied French village. The campaign attempts to bring up the “tough” questions about war, but when you’re intermingling those questions with outrageous, comic violence, it comes off as disingenuous.
One of those tough questions is how a game about World War II deals with the Holocaust. Traditionally these games have ignored the topic entirely. Call of Duty: WWII addresses it in an actual interactive sequence, but the attempt feels like a pulled punch: showing the terrible treatment of POWs during the war without ever mentioning the slaughter of civilians or the existence of death camps. The scene is presented as the worst the Nazis could muster, when the truth is, of course, far darker. The game clearly has no problem showing the all-out slaughter of hundreds of soldiers, some in incredibly gruesome ways, but when it comes to the intimate and targeted horror of concentration camps, Call of Duty: WWII opts for a more antiseptic presentation. The game aspires to be like the great WWII films, but is unwilling to go to the lengths those films to do present the truth, as grim and monstrous as it is.
The prospect of a modern take on World War II is an exciting one. What would the last 10 years of gameplay, graphical and storytelling advancement bring to scenes that we’ve already experienced? Unfortunately the Call of Duty: WWII campaign is not up to the task, falling into rote cliches and overly familiar territory. While it returns to the era of classic Call of Duty, it neither captures the surprise of the early games nor the ambition of modern entries. Rather than serve as a reboot, Call of Duty: WWII is more of a redundancy.
UPDATE 2: November 6, 2017
Having spent a proper weekend with the multiplayer and Zombies components of Call of Duty: WWII, I can say the franchises’ online roots remain mostly strong, though even die-hards will struggle to defend the minor changes we continue to see from game to game.
Call of Duty: WWII’s multiplayer has a number of trimmings that, at first blush, make this feel like a completely new Call of Duty experience. The biggest is something called Headquarters (not to be confused with the mode of the same name). Headquarters is a base of operations that you wander around in third-person view as your multiplayer avatar. There has really never been anything like it in Call of Duty, and it gives an interesting social twist to what was formerly just staring at a menu screen.
Other players are visible (sometimes ... we’ll get to that), and you could arguably team up with strangers and even watch them open loot boxes that literally drop from the sky. There are mini objectives to pick up for in-game currency and a few side activities, like a firing range and a one vs. one arena, that you can kill time in.
Headquarters is, well ... it’s cute. It’s an interesting way to kill time as you wait for your buddy to hop online, clearly aping the format of Destiny’s famous Tower. But it’s also pretty superfluous, and could easily be handled within menus without requiring that you physically walk up to someone to pick up an objective. At best it’s decorative, like the tinsel on a Christmas tree.
Unfortunately as of this writing, the tree is on fire. Headquarters was so plagued with problems at launch that the developers were forced to make it a single-player-only experience for the time being. Which effectively removes any reason for it to be there.
Thankfully, once you’re in a game, the problems with Headquarters really don’t make much of an impact. The core of Call of Duty: WWII’s multiplayer is strong and enjoyable, with weapons that feel powerful and maps that feel varied and appropriate for the setting. Ranging from the snowy Ardennes Forest to a London dockside, each map feels unique in ways that the campaign’s environments really struggled to accomplish.
It’s also a return to the boots-on-the-ground format of Call of Duty multiplayer, which hasn’t been seen in a new COD game in five years (the Modern Warfare remake notwithstanding). For people who have found the newer Call of Duty games too fast and overwhelming, WWII is far slower and more strategic. You no longer have to worry that a soldier is going to knee-slide around a corner, jump up 10 feet in the air and then stab you in the face with an electric sawblade. No, all of the soldiers in Call of Duty: WWII move like humans, making gunfights more predictable and less frustrating.
This more grounded nature applies to the customization in the game as well. All of the attachments and upgrades are period-appropriate, with slow-moving biplanes taking the place of UAVs, for example. You won’t see neon devil horns or pink teddy bear backpacks on any of the unlockable soldier uniforms. It all seems to fit quite well.
The developers have taken this one step further, ensuring that, at least at launch, none of the loot box items will give people an edge on the competition. The only benefit you can get from the rarest gear is 10 percent faster experience gains. Otherwise, all of the unlocks are entirely cosmetic. If recent Call of Duty games are any indication, this will assuredly change over time, but at least at launch there’s really no cause to complain about the loot boxes.
The modes that will keep you busy within multiplayer are all quite familiar: Team Deathmatch, Domination and the like. But one new mode called War is a major departure for Call of Duty multiplayer, and one that is very welcome. War matches are set on overly large multiplayer maps that see players completing asymmetrical objectives. For example, one team might be trying to build a bridge while the other side tries to stop them with snipers and grenades.
Unlike normal Call of Duty multiplayer, where new players often feel overwhelmed and steamrolled by their lack of experience, War allows players to hang back and snipe in safety, offering covering fire to a hero trying to complete an objective. The structure of the maps, with their multiple objectives, makes it feel closer to a game of Overwatch, in which players can fall into designated roles rather than try to be a master of everything. War is a brilliant addition that I’d love to see become a series mainstay moving forward.
But even one outstanding mode can’t help me shake the feeling that I’ve played this game before. Over and over again. Call of Duty: WWII makes some changes to player advancement but the end result is effectively the same Perks/Gun Attachments/Killstreaks setup that has existed in every Call of Duty multiplayer game since the first Modern Warfare. It’s presented and organized in a slightly different way, this time broken up into different military divisions, but it’s all very familiar nonetheless.
That familiarity extends to Nazi Zombies, the game’s co-op mode. As with multiplayer, there seems to be no indication of the baseline Zombies formula being changed anytime soon. You’re still playing as a band of B-list celebrities, killing zombies for cash to open doors and purchase gun upgrades from the walls.
The biggest deviation from recent Zombies modes is the stylistic design of Nazi Zombies. The goofy, lighthearted tone of Infinite Warfare’s Zombies mode, with its clowns and neon EDM raves, is replaced with a much darker, more graphic look. Zombie flesh now rots and drips off the bones of its owners. Body horror with metal staples on faces and railroad spikes through torsos seems to be the order of the day. If that’s your thing, it’s definitely well-executed here.
Less dramatic are the gameplay changes in this new Zombies mode. There are several small enhancements, most notably an objective indicator that gives a clear focus for your undead slaughter. Whereas previous Zombies maps may have had you stumbling around blindly for hours, Nazi Zombies had me working my way through the depths of a secret tomb in my very first match.
Another olive branch to less-seasoned Zombies players is the ability to choose from powerful ultimate abilities to turn the tide of battle. Being able to call for infinite ammo at will or bring down destructive lightning on the demon hordes is a nice ace up your sleeve, and it further encourages the team coordination that makes Zombies such a popular mode.
These enhancements are appreciated, though it’s hard to imagine anyone who hasn’t enjoyed Zombies in the past being swayed. Nazi Zombies is almost entirely the same DNA that we’ve seen since the mode was introduced in 2009.
And therein lies the issue that seems to extend throughout Call of Duty: WWII and the franchise at large. There’s a distinct sense that changing the formula is just too risky for such a major property, which leaves Call of Duty in an enjoyable but unremarkable rut. We’ve been here. We’ve done all of this. Changing the time period so dramatically only helps to highlight how little has changed since the franchise’s total reimagining with Call of Duty 4. For those who enjoy the series, it’s nice to have a predictable source of entertainment each year. But for people looking for the next generation of shooters, Call of Duty simply isn’t offering it anymore.
Call of Duty: WWII was reviewed using final “retail” PS4 download codes provided by Activision. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.
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