Call of Duty’s return to World War II looks great, but feels flat and uninspired from start to finish.
It’s been a decade, almost to the day, since Call of Duty rewrote the book on multiplayer first-person shooters with the release of Modern Warfare. The game’s fast action and propulsive sense of progression with interesting new gear and unlocks changed it all, and in the years that followed, developers continued to refine and rework the Call of Duty blueprint, often in surprising new ways that made a great thing even better. Over time, though, those changes have been getting more and more divisive, culminating in last year’s game, which let you travel to space, run on walls, and shoot lasers at the opposition. This year’s game rejects all of that and takes things back to the original, pre-MW days by rolling all the way back to where the whole series began: World War II. While there’s certainly something to be said for a back-to-basics approach, COD: WWII is plain and straightforward in a way that makes it feel less like the developers were excited and inspired by a return to the 1940s and more like market research determined that it was time for a reset.
This manifests most plainly in the game’s campaign. Call of Duty campaigns vary wildly, but they’re usually at their best when they stray from their linear roots. This year’s campaign feels bone stock in setting, story, and execution. You largely play as a Texas farm boy with a picture of his best girl in his pocket, just trying to stay sane and alive as the war gets more and more grim. You’ve got some friendly faces with you throughout, and the cutscenes more or less have your core group of characters palling around between major conflicts. Your story starts at Normandy, because this is a World War II game, and weaves its way through the battles that followed as US forces pushed into France and, eventually, the Rhine.
I found the characters and arc to feel lifeless and generic in a way that really undercuts the game’s attempts at an emotional core. This feels like a remake of a World War II game that would have come out last time around, when every game about war was just giving its own spin on influential media like Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. It doesn’t really have anything new to say about the nature of these men. It doesn’t make any real attempt to establish a specific antagonist, instead just serving up hordes of faceless Nazis for you to mow down. And by the end, when it tries to tie all of its character work back around, the main character stops to remark that it’s like everything has come full circle–just in case you’re too boneheaded to realize that the ending ties into an earlier moment. It comes off as awkward and out-of-step with modern storytelling. Even Call of Duty’s previous entry did a better of job of conveying the human costs associated with war, and that game had a frickin’ robot sidekick in it.
The campaign does make some material changes to the experience, though, and this helps freshen up the action a little, even if what you’re doing isn’t all that memorable. For starters, recharging health is out and an on-screen health bar is in. You can hold up to four medkits at a time and pop them by pushing right on the D pad. This requires you to play somewhat more carefully, but in practice I don’t think I ever actually ran out of health packs. That’s because your squad has the ability to give you more. One guy is the medkit guy, another will give you more ammo, there’s one for grenades, one that’ll helpfully highlight enemy targets for a brief period of time, and one that lobs you a smoke grenade to call in a mortar strike. All of that helps give the game a bit of resource management, making you a little more thoughtful about how and when you shoot, but it also enables you to feel better about using special ammo, like rockets or incendiary shotgun ammo, because you can always get more from your squad. This also creates a reason for you to stick close to your squad, since you need to look at the appropriate person and press up on the D pad to get a package. Finally, you must fill up a meter to earn those packages, and that meter fills when you kill enemies, preventing you from just hanging back and idling away to get out of trouble. It’s a minor but interesting twist on the now-traditional mechanics of the series.
Of course, plenty of people still just come to these games for the multiplayer component, and Call of Duty: WWII’s competitive multiplayer is where the real reset is. The past few years have been a mobility arms race of sorts, as every big shooter started to include jetpacks, wall-running, or some other way of making the act of getting from point A to point B just a little more active and exciting. This game has none of that, resetting the multiplayer structure back to something more closely resembling Call of Duty 4. Or, really, last year’s Modern Warfare Remastered, since it still has all the same sort of microtransactions and such. While it turns back the clock on mobility options, the rest of the game doesn’t feel appreciably different than the other games in the series. The weaponry is authentic, but you’ll still bolt attachments to BARs and Grease Guns to give yourself scopes, grips that reduce recoil, options that let you aim down sights more quickly, things that increase headshot damage or bullet penetration, and so on. Was all of that stuff available in 1944? I have no idea, I’m not a historian. But it does mean that even if you aren’t really into what we think of as the realistic guns and firing options of the era, most of what you’d expect from a Call of Duty game is definitely here and feels roughly as it always has.
In some ways, that similarity could be a relief, but it also further underscores that the game doesn’t really feel like it’s doing anything cool to take advantage of its setting and time period. The main new elements here are an attack-and-defend objective-based mode called War and the Headquarters, a new social space that feels like it’s taking a few cues from Destiny’s tower. Once there, the game goes third-person, and you can run around an area that lets you emote at other players, show off whatever uniforms you may have unlocked, pick up bounties that grant you bonus items for completing in-game tasks, compete in quick one-on-one matches, and so on. You can even play Atari 2600 games there, which is weird, but anything that gets more people to see just how weird Pitfall II was can’t be all bad.
The social space seems like it’s built for loot crates, though. Specifically, the game handles its crates in the social space, where they fall out of the sky and open for all to see. Like… is this supposed to get more people caring about opening more crates? The calling cards and uniform pieces that come out of the crates aren’t all that great, but completing sets of them unlocks “epic” variants for some of the in-game weapons that give you an XP bonus. As of this writing, there’s no way to spend additional real-world money on crates, but considering digital editions of the game seem to advertise a currency that isn’t currently shown in the game, this seems like something that’ll be rolling in at some point. Of course, most of these systems are taken from the previous few Call of Duty games, which have more or less done the same thing… just not in front of other players. The headquarters thing is a neat idea, but between the crate thing and the way the game forces you into the space as soon as you get into or out of a match, the whole thing becomes a hassle. This hassle was exacerbated by what has been probably the roughest launch for a Call of Duty game over the last few years, with all sorts of server issues that would either prevent players from playing at all or cause the game to break when coming out of a match, and so on. Since the headquarters thing is forced upon you and also is an online environment, this new feature seems like it only poured a little more gas on those issues. As of this writing, the headquarters is still in place, but players load into an empty version of it. This at least means you can play the game, but it also prevents you from doing the one-on-one matches or… listening to a bunch of voice chatters being awful to each other, I guess? It’s an interesting experiment in some ways, when it works, but the implementation is pretty weak here.
While the in-game action feels a lot like Modern Warfare Remastered with older guns mapped onto it, there are some changes around the edges to consider. Some of these feel like change for the sake of change, like the new create-a-class system, which replaces the versatile “Pick 10” style of class creation the series has often used in the past with something more rigid. Now you pick a division, which confers a set of perk-like bonuses as you level it up. So if you want a suppressor for your submachine guns, you need to be in the Airborne division, which will eventually unlock the ability to run farther and faster. Infantry gets a bayonet and a third primary attachment slot, among other things. You can pick any gun with any division, assuming you have the gun unlocked. But some of the benefits of your division might be lost if, for example, you don’t outfit the class that gets a free bipod on all light machine-guns with an LMG. Instead of picking perks directly, you pick a “basic training,” which, like divisions, also confer some perk-like things. The “hustle” training lets you reload faster, and while sprinting. Rifleman lets you take two primary weapons instead of being stuck with a pistol in your second slot. While you can cobble these different things together and create the same types of classes you’d see in most of the previous games, it doesn’t feel as fun or flexible as the previous setups.
All in all, the competitive multiplayer isn’t bad. There are some really good maps on the list this year (though one, the Gustav Cannon, might be my least favorite map in the history of the franchise) and it plays pretty much how you’d expect. If you’re looking to sign up for more Call of Duty and you aren’t married to the mobility options they’ve played with over the last few years, it’s fine.
The third stop on the Call of Duty train is, of course, the zombies mode, which has morphed over the last few years to start featuring celebrities in the roles of the four playable characters. Ving Rhames, David Tennant, Katheryn Winnick, and Elodie Yung play the four fighters while Udo Kier voices an evil doktor. If you’ve seen the zombies mode lately you have a rough idea of what to expect. This is way more than the old “board up the windows and survive as long as you can” zombies mode, with more and more things to assemble, consumable items to put into loadouts, a full leveling curve of its own with unlocks (and loot crates), and so on. It’s the sort of thing that you play with friends, if only because the strangers you encounter will yell at you for opening too many doors or spending your currency on the wrong traps or shooting a zombie when you weren’t supposed to or something. The shambling zombies juke and shuffle, making them harder to hit in the head than their non-zombie counterparts, but once you get that down, they only become a threat in large numbers. More importantly, since the game really focuses around the “story” of the map you’re on, subsequent playthroughs start to feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over again. I’ve long felt that the entire mode felt a little out of place in the Call of Duty games and probably deserved to be blown out into a separate thing for zombies fans to focus on, and nothing in this year’s zombies mode makes me feel any differently.
At least it all looks great. The graphics probably end up being the strongest point of the game, though it’s usually background elements, like sunsets and planes flying overhead, dropping tons of troops into some far-off battle. Even multiplayer maps get into the act, with little interludes at the start of a map that make the action feel a bit bigger. That said, the multiplayer does look a little corny at times, at least partially because the position-revealing UAVs that made sense in more modern settings have been replaced with recon planes. So you just see these big planes up in the air, moving so slowly that they feel like they’re attached to the top of the map with string, like some kind of Levelord map with a mobile set up above a World War II-themed crib. It’s goofy stuff.
The good news is that the back-to-basics approach doesn’t really impact the shooting in a negative way. The weapon variety in the multiplayer is about as you’d expect it to be and the maps are, by and large, pretty good, too. The bad news is that this is the blandest campaign the series has churned out in years and despite all of Activision’s big talk about “boots on the ground” action and how this was going to be some big deal, the setting change didn’t bring any new and exciting inspiration with it. This feels like the most wheel-spinning, by-the-numbers Call of Duty they’ve made thus far.