Call of Duty: WWII review-in-progress
Call of Duty returns to its roots with mixed results
Editor’s Note: At present this is a review-in-progress, only covering the campaign portion of Call of Duty: WWII. Once we’ve had time to test the multiplayer and Zombies components on live servers, we’ll finalize the review with those impressions and a review score.
Call of Duty: WWII is a return to the original recipe, the first game set during the Second World War in ten 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 squad mates 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 stand-out 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 games 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 ten 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.