Release Date: November 3, 2017Platform: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PCDeveloper: Sledgehammer GamesPublisher: ActivisionGenre: First-Person Shooter
When you start to reach a certain age – never you mind what age – you learn to appreciate that experiences you interpret to be essential or even universal are rarely so. This is especially true of entertainment. If a 15-year-old tells me they’ve never seen 1977’s Star Wars, I might say “How have you never seen Star Wars!” What I should be thinking is “Yeah, I didn’t watch a lot of movies that were made 25 years before I was born when I was your age either.””
In the same way, Call of Duty: WWII isn’t a game intended to appeal specifically to those of us who experienced the first WWII video game boom. The newest generation of CoD fans probably haven’t played 2002’s revolutionary Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. They’ve probably never enjoyed the 2003 cinematic masterpiece Call of Duty. They may vaguely remember the day Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare arrived and changed the landscape of the first-person shooter genre.
Call of Duty: WWII is a World War II game for this new generation. That is the key to understanding both its brilliance and why those of us who remember when Call of Duty was a World War II franchise might find ourselves disappointed by it.
This complicated contrast is most evident in the game’s campaign. Call of Duty: WWII tells the story of a small band of US soldiers just trying to survive the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. While other allied forces make appearances throughout, most of the game’s stars are American.
Here, we encounter the first potential disappointment old-school CoD fans will need to overcome. Unlike the first few CoD games, WWII doesn’t divide its main story into campaigns starring allied troops from different countries. Thoughts of nationalism aside, this does deprive the game’s story mode of some charm and character variety. Longtime fans will certainly miss the old Russian campaigns which featured some of the most intense – and darkly humorous – guerrilla missions in franchise history.
The absence of additional allied campaigns would be easier to overlook if the story in WWII were a bit more engaging. Call of Duty: WWII’s campaign relies too heavily on the familiar sights of cinematic warfare. The game plays out like a “greatest hits” of the European theater of war – did we really need another D-Day invasion? – and includes quite a few character cliches. You’ll be tempted to paint a bullseye on the first soldier who talks about going back home to see his girl when the war is over.
What’s worse is that more dramatic story moments – such as a Holocaust plot point – are glossed over in a way that suggests the writers weren’t willing or able to contribute stories that justified “going there” in a wide-appeal AAA release. Given that we heard quite a bit about the game’s dramatic WWII story leading up to its release, it’s a shame that the final product ends up being surprisingly pedestrian.
It’s tempting to imply that developer Sledgehammer Games told such a familiar story because the studio assumed that a potentially sizeable portion of the game’s demographic wasn’t around to experience the works that established these cliches in the first place. That, however, may be a slightly cynical point of view. As familiar as these story beats are, they are presented in an earnest way that implies genuine intentions. You’re forgiven, though, if you don’t start tapping your feet to the rhythm they make.
The very good news is that the actual missions that further the game’s story along are actually well done. No, you’re not going to have your mind blown by the horrors of the D-Day beach assault if you’ve experienced it before, but you will likely be impressed by the other set pieces that WWII has to offer. The game’s vehicle sections almost always feel superfluous, but moments like a surprisingly effective escort mission and a pretty great undercover sequence break up what little monotony you may find in assaulting beautifully rendered countrysides and cities.
WWII’s fantastic level design is bolstered by small improvements, such as the removal of a regenerating health system. Instead, the game requires you to utilize health packs or have the squad’s medic tend to you. This mechanic, as well as more missions that demand genuine tactics, helps WWII’s campaign feel significantly less formulaic than recent CoD games. It’s great to not feel like you’re an invincible soldier winning the war single-handedly.
Nevertheless, your enjoyment of the game’s campaign is going to be drastically impacted by your ability to tolerate the game’s boring cinematics and a roster of mostly unlikeable – or derivative – characters. Of course, those who never experienced a great WWII game from back in the day will likely not think twice about the game’s narrative and will simply enjoy the quality missions. Ah, to be young.
Similar narrative issues impact the game’s new Nazi Zombies mode. As has been the case with the last few CoD horde modes, Nazi Zombies tries to incorporate story elements. While these story sections sometimes work – the mode’s prologue is a nice setup – they are ultimately hindered by some generally unenthusiastic voice acting and a threadbare plot clearly not intended to generate a reaction more exciting than a “fancy that.”
The very good news is that this new incarnation of Nazi Zombies is every bit as enjoyable as recent entries have been. Fighting off waves of zombies with help from arcade power-ups is almost always an entertaining experience. That’s especially true if you can get some friends in on the action.
While this is mostly Zombies as usual – at least “usual” since around the time of Black Ops – a couple of changes help liven up the proceedings. The most notable of these changes is the ability to pick your character and their corresponding class. This injects a pleasant amount of variety into the mode and bolsters the replay value slightly. It’s also pleasant to see that Sledgehammer emphasized the horde mode’s horror elements once more. You won’t be jumping out of your seat, but an enjoyable fog of pure horror atmosphere gently caresses the entire affair.
Ultimately, though, you’re going to tire of fending off waves of zombies. It might take some time, but you’ll get there. That’s when you’ll turn to the game’s competitive multiplayer modes. That’s when you’ll also likely find yourself staring at the Call of Duty generation gap and contemplating whether you can really make the leap.
As I noted in an earlier preview of Call of Duty: WWII’s multiplayer mode, you shouldn’t be fooled by the WWII window dressing. This is not a Call of Duty multiplayer experience on par with the competitive modes offered in the original Call of Duty games. Instead, it is one very much inspired by the evolution of the game’s multiplayer since Modern Warfare. That means perks, run-and-gun gameplay, killstreak bonuses, and a voice chat channel best left closed.
None of that is to say that the game’s multiplayer is bad. Recent Call of Duty multiplayer modes offer a brand of combat that isn’t necessarily en vogue elsewhere. If you love running around maps trying to get great killstreaks while constantly improving your K/D ratio – brah – you’re going to have a good time doing all of that here.
The problem is that it often feels like the game’s return to the WWII era wasn’t properly utilized within the confines of the game’s multiplayer mode. It’s kind of nice that the jetpacks and super weapons are all gone, but the speed of the game hasn’t been changed dramatically nor has the nature of combat. Snipers will still pull off “Oh, c’mon!” shots and the game’s small maps still ensure lots of respawns. Fundamentally, this is still a CoD multiplayer game as those who have played the game in the last 10 years have understood it.
To the studio’s credit, Sledgehammer took a few risks when attempting to update the multiplayer action. The most notable of these changes, the Headquarters social space, figures to become a franchise staple. Basically, Headquarters serves as a multiplayer hub. It allows you to upgrade your character and interact with other players. It also lets you play old Activision Atari games (for a price), get into custom one-on-one battles with other players, and open supply drops while others watch.
It’s hard not to be a little disturbed with the way that WWII encourages players to show-off their loot boxes, but to the game’s credit, it doesn’t currently encourage – or allow – the player to spend real money on those items. Their contents, meanwhile, are merely cosmetic. Otherwise, Headquarters is a fun idea that often helps liven up the average round of multiplayer gameplay. It’s not a game changer on its own, but it showcases a lot of promise.
A similar argument can be made for WWII’s new War mode. War allows Axis and Allied teams to compete over a series of objectives. We’ve seen this type of multiplayer mode in other games before – Unreal Tournament 2004 had a brilliant interpretation of it – but it is something of a first for the Call of Duty franchise.
That makes it quite tempting to overlook the mode’s wrinkles, but they do still exist. The real problem with War is that every other WWII mode (Team Deathmatch, Damnation, Hardpoint, and Gridiron) all emphasize the value of individual performances. War is about teamwork. This makes it quite hard to find a group of random players ready to actually work with each other in the ways that this mode sometimes demands. Fortunately, that problem is alleviated greatly when playing with friends.
I did encounter quite a few server issues and poor connections during my time with the multiplayer. Unfortunately, there is currently no solution in place for the game’s server problems. Those should be alleviated in time, but as it stands, a stable connection is more valuable than a rare loot drop.
We’ve reached that point when you’re probably just wondering, “So, is the game worth playing or not?” It’s almost a shame that question must be addressed at some point, because it’s ultimately going to be answered by “If you like modern Call of Duty games, then yes.” It’s been that way for quite a while now, even when the efforts of Call of Duty’s developers trigger far more interesting discussions than that question. Regardless, any hopes you might have had that a return to WWII would also inspire Sledgehammer or Activision to make more sweeping changes to the formula have not been answered here.
The game’s campaign does an excellent job of triggering memories of great Call of Duty missions gone by, but it suffers from a playbook storyline executed with few audibles. Zombies is entertaining in the way that Zombies has always been. The multiplayer is improved in the sense that it addresses certain complaints that people who already like the multiplayer have levied against the series in recent years.
This is not a Call of Duty game for the “greatest generation” of Call of Duty players. At the same time, it’s hard to scream in anger at someone who might consider it to be the best Call of Duty game in recent memory, even if that person had never played the WWII Call of Duty games that preceded it. After all, it is a very beautiful game that cuts to the core of what makes modern Call of Duty titles enjoyable to millions of players.
Perhaps the hope that a Call of Duty game will come along that satisfies both of those generations of players is simply a foolish fantasy. Maybe it’s time to realize that if you’re not already onboard the Call of Duty train, then you’ll likely never catch up to it.
Still, there’s something cruel about the way that Call of Duty: WWII bridges the gap just enough to make you think you can cross it before allowing you to fall victim to the gravity of certain practicalities that dictate the design direction of the franchise more than nostalgia or even objectively superior ideas nevertheless stuck in the past ever will.