E3 2017: Call of Duty: WWII’s Campaign Has Lots of Action, Little Emotion

It’s been nine years since Call of Duty explored World War II. Treyarch’s Call of Duty: World at War, released in 2008, marked the last time players would take up arms against the Nazis. However, after numerous modern and futuristic titles, Call of Duty is heading back to the most brutal conflict in history. Call of Duty: WWII is taking the long-running franchise to its roots, but is going back in time enough to recreate the magic that made the franchise so successful in the first place?

While we went hands-on with the multiplayer at E3 2017, our time with the campaign was hands-off. Sledgehammer Games has spent three years studying World War II to build a compelling and authentic experience. They wanted to create a story with a sense of camaraderie and bonding between the squad. Unfortunately, none of that was present in the demo.

In Call of Duty: WWII, you play Ronald “Red” Daniels, a 19-year-old from Texas, and part of a squad in the 1st Infantry Division. His story begins in Normandy, and will continue through France and Belgium, and finally end in Germany. The demo picks up in the town of Marigny, France where the Allies are trying to destroy enemy AA guns. Red and his squad are tasked with capturing a church and laying down suppressive fire.

WWII aims to remove as much of the power fantasy that has dominated the franchise as possible. Red is a glass cannon with no physical enhancements. Unlimited sprinting, which became a feature in the most recent games, is gone. Regenerating health is gone, replaced with health packs. Lasers are replaced with hot lead, which causes blood to pour out and mix with mud. If there’s one thing Call of Duty: WWII does right, it’s capturing the grit and horror of World War II.

After taking the town, Red and his team moved into the church. At first, all seemed quiet, and then his teammate was ambushed by a flamethrower. Once again, the brutality of the war is well conveyed. The day is eventually won with Red laying down suppressive fire, however, allowing Allies to reach the AA guns. Though successful, a tank rolls up and begins blowing apart the church, starting a race to escape the collapsing building. It was a classic Call of Duty setpiece moment, but it worked against the authentic storytelling Sledgehammer keeps going on about. The setpiece was so ridiculous, so over-the-top, that it broke the illusion of being in World War II. It felt disingenuous watching Red fall from such a great height, have a beam fall on top of him, and then still be able to walk it off.

The demo ended with Red making it out of the church and watching it fully collapse before him. Call of Duty: WWII is packed with action and brutality that depicts the horrors soldiers went through during the war. It’s bloody, muddy and filled with screams of agony. In that aspect, the demo makes it clear that Sledgehammer Games understands that aspect of the war. Based on what we saw, however, WWII is leaning more towards Michael Bay rather than Steven Spielberg.

Going back to the reveal of Call of Duty: WWII, Sledgehammer placed such great emphasis on the characters in the squad and the camaraderie between them. That aspect was completely absent from the demo with the only interactions between the characters being the barking of orders. At E3 2017, the team clearly wanted to show they could create the same level of action Call of Duty has always had, but what we end up with is a demo that shows WWII is just another Call of Duty game. This was a chance to show that WWII is about more than just shooting and over-the-top setpiece moments, but they squandered it.

Call of Duty campaigns are never the spotlight of a Call of Duty game. When done right, however, people tend to remember them. Modern Warfare, World at War, Black Ops, Black Ops II, Advanced Warfare and even Infinite Warfare managed to have memorable campaigns. Some are remembered for their intense situations, others for being pure fun, and a few for adding new features and mechanics. Call of Duty: WWII doesn’t have anything that makes its campaign stand out. It’s a linear shooter that nails the atmosphere and brutality of World War II, but lacks the soul Sledgehammer continuously describes. Hopefully, the next single player reveal will show us what Sledgehammer has been telling us.

Call of Duty: WWII is out November 3 on PS4, Xbox One and PC.