Call of Duty is proof that there can be too much of a good thing. After a spectacular four year run, gamers were tiring of the WWII setting of the series and embraced the announcement of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare with open arms. Modern Warfare was a massive hit that made Call of Duty a worldwide name, so while World at War was a success in its own right, at the time of its release there was a decided apathy about heading back to WWII and the game ultimately sold seven million copies less than its successor, Modern Warfare 2. This convinced Activision to abandon the Second World War altogether and the next five games that followed (with the exception of the original Black Ops) were set in the near future or present day. Following the lauded Battlefield 1 announcement and unfairly poor reception to Call of Duty venturing into the distant future with Infinite Warfare, it was clear that it was time to return to the series’ roots. Thankfully Activision had predicted this occurring (although perhaps a year too late) and already had Call of Duty: WWII in development. Whatever type of setting preferred, it’s hard to argue against bringing the series back to its roots and developer Sledgehammer Games has had their work cut out for them in developing quite possibly the most robust entry of the series to date.
Unlike recent entries, Call of Duty plants itself firmly in reality. Players take on the role of Private Ronald “Red” Daniels who is part of a platoon in the 16th Infantry Regiment. Daniels is joined by fellow soldiers Private First Class Robert Zussman, a wise-cracking soldier always looking for trouble, Pvt. Drew Stiles, a virtuous do-gooder, Frank Aiello, a brave soldier who’s a bit of a rube (as Daniels’ mom would say), and Technical Sergeant William Pierson, the gruff but well-meaning leader of the group. Throughout the next two years, the platoon ventures through the European theater participating in famous battles like the Invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. There’s an undeniable band of brothers type of story here, with the best in humanity coming out of everyday men put into extraordinary situations. It’s difficult to discuss the finer elements in the plot without giving too many turns away, but suffice it to say there’s many a heroic moment that will tug at the heartstrings.
Following several years of convoluted plots, Call of Duty: WWII is a back-to-basics story that cribs beats from some of the most renowned war movies and doesn’t chart a path of its own. While this is difficult with literally thousands of films having released that cover the same topic, movies like Hacksaw Ridge prove that a unique WWII tale can still be told. That being said, it’s a well-written story with dialogue that is noble and funny in equal measure and isn’t afraid to dabble in some of the darkest areas of the war, with players able to walk through a concentration camp later in the game. One of the more impressive plot points is Daniels’ brother who weaves into the narrative in an emotional and ultimately surprising manner. Another aspect that helps bolster the story is that there is no shortage of cutscenes — we compiled a video of every cutscene cut together in chronological order and it clocks in just shy of an hour and forty minutes without credits. Watching it in one go feels surprisingly close to a film and it’s commendable Sledgehammer gave it so much room to breath.
Perhaps one of the largest issues with the story is that it jumps around too much — covering battles over the course of a few years. This makes it hard to connect with the characters at times because we miss out on those tender moments where they’re just sitting around waiting for the next conflict and connecting on a human level. This tends to be a chronic issue with Call of Duty and one that’s excusable given that the game has to find a way to get you to action set pieces, but is probably the ultimate catalyst that keeps it from feeling like a proper cinematic experience. Helping it get as close to that level as possible is the commendable cast led by Josh Duhamel. Duhamel, an actor who doesn’t get enough credit with his almost two decades of persistently satisfactory performances, gives it his all here and adds yet another favorable performance to his résumé. The standout performance is that of Jonathan Tucker, however, who is one of the greatest actors working today (watch practically any role he’s ever had to prove this opinion) and is just now starting to get the appreciation for it. He steals any scene he’s in, no matter how minor his contribution to a conversation and has an uncanny ability to effortlessly shift between comic relief and hero.
These characters take center stage in some of most iconic conflicts throughout the deadliest war in mankind’s history. After a brief introduction of their platoon, players hop into a landing boat and sail towards Normandy to establish a beach head. In the most frantic sequence of the game, dozens of fellow soldiers get slaughtered as players simply do what you can to overwhelm the beach by force. It’s likely the most realistic depiction of D-Day to date in a game and is a fantastic start to the proceedings. Further battles take players to locales such as Hürtgen Forest, Aachen, Ardennes Forest and more whether it be on foot, in a tank or taking to the skies in a fighter plane. Not every battle feels properly climatic, but there’s no absolute duds to be found. One of the more thrilling missions dubbed S.O.E. has players tasked with stealthily taking down a German camp in Argentan before racing a speeding train in a Jeep, ultimately derailing it in an fiery crash.
In one of the most interesting sequences, players take on the role of a female operative with the French resistance named Rousseau who poses as a Nazi officer to infiltrate their garrison and assassinate Polizeiführer Henrich. Once inside the garrison, the objective is to simply walk around and talk to people in the multi-story building being sure to maintain a cover.The d-pad can be pressed down to review the cover story at any time and the various facts from it must be memorized as Nazi soldiers will start asking questions if they become suspicious. Not a single shot is fired in what is possibly the longest level in the game for those who like exploring, making it a notable departure from the standard run and gun formula. While it isn’t robust enough to be expanded into its own game, it’s a refreshing diversion that allows breathing room and exactly the sort of thing Call of Duty should aspire to do more often so it’s not all just point and shoot. One final feature of note in the campaign is that health regeneration has been done away with, instead replaced by health packs that are frequently picked up on the battlefield and thrown from squadmates. This is a fantastic update to the series that not only increases realism, but does away with wasting time crouching behind a wall doing nothing and makes encounters seem more methodical as instead of just throwing a ton of firepower at players continually knowing it can’t ever let up since healing has no penalties. Hopefully future Call of Dutys adapt this formula as it makes gameplay smoother.
In a climate where each subsequent game has seen multiplayer becoming more futuristic, Sledgehammer has had to refine the multiplayer drawing on previous WWII Call of Duty games as well as injecting new ideas into the formula. Gone is the typical Create-a-Class system and perks, replaced with “Divisions.” Players can select between five different divisions each with their own unique skills. Infantry is an all around mid-to-long range combat class, Airborne is best for stealth, Armored can be equipped with heavy firepower, Mountain is the class for snipers while Expedionary is good for players who want to cause the most carnage with little finesse. This is a refreshing change that makes the multiplayer all the more accessible, easily showing players which class is for them and how to best progress through it. War is the premiere new multiplayer mode in WWII and brings with it exciting team-based objectives. In War, one team plays as the Axis and the other as the allies as they attempt to push forward as the other team defends. There’s typically three different strongholds that must be pushed through to win the match. This is one of the highest skill modes as teams of inexperienced players will have a tough time taking much ground, but when even skill levels duke it out, it can get down to the wire. War almost feels like a multiplayer version of a single player level and proves to be a lot of fun especially for those who like coordinating with their buddies via voice chat.
The neatest multiplayer addition to WWII is Headquarters. Veering the game towards a Destiny-esque MMO experience, Headquarters is a social hub that up to 46 players drop into between matches. As its name suggests, it’s a large military base where players can open supply drops, take to the firing range, accept challenges, play in 1v1 matches and have fun socializing. There’s nothing revolutionary about it, but it makes for an undeniably entertaining time. Much like the aforementioned Destiny 2, it’s fun to just simply run up next to a random player and start throwing emotes back and forth (proving the social benefits of Headquarters, I twice made friends with somebody randomly this way and ended up playing multiple matches together). Headquarters might prove to be the dark horse of WWII and hopefully will continue to be implemented and refined in future entries.
No Call of Duty experience would be complete these days without Zombies and Sledgehammer finally tries their hand at the mode and comes away with a winner. Nazi Zombies has players take the role of Drostan Hynd (David Tennant), Olivia Durant (Elodie Yung), Marie Fischer (Katheryn Winnick) or Jefferson Potts (Ving Rhames) and a class — Offense, Medic, Support and Control — as they are sent to recover priceless art but end up encountering a legion of Nazi zombies created by the mad doctor Peter Straub (Udo Kier) to fortify the Nazi ranks. Nazi Zombies is perhaps the most grounded Zombies mode thus far and although being about…Nazi zombies…is more plausible (using that word loosely) than say, Zombies in Spaceland.
Also of note is the fact that this is one of the most legitimately scary iterations yet, no doubt influenced by Condrey and Schofield’s previous work on Dead Space. The zombie designs are horrifying and give more incentive to dispose of them as quickly as possibly just to avoid seeing their disfigured bodies and hearing their moans. The first and included map of the mode – The Final Reich — is large in scale and well designed to progressively get trickier but never impossible. There’s a few gameplay tweaks here and there that make for a more refined experience, such as taking away the ability to fortify windows and increasing the amount of weaponry that can be purchased. It’s yet another great outing for Zombies that will undoubtedly consume dozens of hours of players’ time.
Call of Duty: WWII will be fascinating to study from a business standpoint: will consumers embrace the product they have long been clamoring for and how will Activision handle its business strategy moving forward? Will they dive exclusively back into World War II until gamers tire of it again or cycle between different eras from here on out? Whatever happens, there’s a fantastic game at the center of this future case study that proves that no matter the ballyhoo, Activision will ensure a superb experience is delivered. Weaving through explosive action set pieces, Call of Duty: WWII features the franchise’s most grounded story in years that doesn’t revel in unnecessary convolution, although can sometimes feel too conventional. Combined with some of the more visually-realistic cutscenes yet and there’s a story that deserves to be experienced even if it doesn’t reach the heights of the best WWII films. The many who look at Call of Duty squarely as a multiplayer experience won’t be let down either. The expertly-designed maps recall the glory days of mid-aughts WWII shooters while still advancing the mechanics as a whole. Headquarters is a intriguing addition that makes Call of Duty feel more community oriented as it flirts with MMOs. While it’s hard to top the neon thrills of last year’s Zombies in Spaceland, Nazi Zombies refines gameplay in key areas that make the experience easier to delve into yet boasts more longevity. Call of Duty: WWII is a return to form for the series and it’s clear that Sledgehammer didn’t cut corners conceiving it. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but it’s about as tight as a shooter can get and offers up several notable new features while remaining an admirable tribute to the greatest generation.