Let’s be honest, dialling the series back to World War II wasn’t going to solve everything for Call of Duty, even with a drastic change in setting and Sledgehammer Games at the helm. One yearly instalment after the next has led to increasing fatigue and indifference, especially with other shooters such asOverwatch, Rainbow Six: Siege, and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds taking the genre in a new direction.
For many gamers out there Call of Duty is still a yearly event and those who have stuck with the series for the past decade or so will have no doubt had mixed feelings about WWII’s announcement. On one hand it’s a nostalgic return to the series’ roots and a potential breath of fresh air, but on the other, it strips away the energised, futuristic formula recent instalments have become known for. Sledgehammer will certainly bring lapsed fans back into the fold, but the game brings problems of its own.
Kicking off the campaign is a gritty death march on the shores of Normandy beach. It’s a bloody, brutal affair that sees Private Ronald “Red” Daniels and his squad push through a storm of machine gun as they advance upon the German bunkers. From there, Call of Duty’s campaign takes you on a tour through central Europe as the Allies battle and eventually break the Axis powers.
In terms of gunfights and set piece action, it’s doesn’t break from series traditions, combining tight, fast-paced sequences with larger, more open battles. That said, Sledgehammer has made clear efforts to anchor Red and his brothers in arms. Unlike most Call of Duty protagonists, these aren’t expert killers who have been drafted in to save the day, they’re real people, for lack of a better term, and the game’s story definitely leans in on this point. It’s a different approach and one that gives us a more down-to-earth perspective of war, though it lacks the hard-hitting emotional impact many were no doubt expecting.
It’s still an enjoyable 6-8 hour romp, with Sledgehammer working in a few nuances here and there. The regenerating health system has been swapped with a health bar and usable medkits scattered around each level, as in the very first Call of Duty. By racking up kills you can also activate squad abilities including an ammo resupply, mortar strike, and highlighted enemies. Wedged between the two halves of the campaign, there is also an espionage mission that will no doubt prove divisive.
Online multiplayer is where we see the biggest changes. After three years of high-octane, wall-running antics, Call of Duty: WWII takes a no nonsense, “boot on the ground” approach. It goes much further than that though, also stripping away the excessive loadout options of previous games. Instead, players can choose one of five class-like “Divisions”, each one geared towards a certain playstyle with their own strengths and weaknesses. The Expeditionary, for instance, can load any shotgun with incendiary rounds, adding a powerful damage-over-time effect. Even if players don’t like using the shotgun, other perks – such as explosive resistance and grenade resupplies – will give them reasons to mix and match. The Divisions won’t be to everyone’s taste, though help encourage experimentation, instead of picking the exact same loadout (or a close approximation) you’ve been rolling since Call of Duty 4.
Sledgehammer also attempts to create a more social experience with Headquarters, an open space where players can interact, team-up, and launch into games. It’s an unusual design choice for the series and one that was no doubt informed by the success of Activision’s other FPS behemoth, Destiny. Here players can fool around, unlock daily bonuses, and sign up for specific “Orders” such as 10 sniper kills, or one Hardpoint win. Like Divisions, it’s another way of getting players to break out of old habits and explore more of what the game has to offer.
To incentivise this, there are XP bonuses, weapon skins, emblems, and calling cards to unlock, stashed away in WWII’s randomised loot boxes. These can be earned through completing Orders and levelling up as well as the random drops that occur at the end of each match. The fact that you need to open them in Headquarters, on the beaches of Normandy and in front of other players, has caused a stir though at present there is no way of buying loot boxes with real cash. You also have to load into Headquarters before you can start matchmaking, though this only adds 30-odd seconds before you can do so – in our experience the matchmaking issues from launch have largely been resolved.
While you have the series mainstays like Team Deathmatch, Domination and Hardpoint, another addition to Call of Duty’s multiplayer line-up is War. This brand new, objectives-based mode is split into several seamless phases and is unlike anything you’ve seen in past iterations of the series, though other shooters have featured similar modes in the past. For instance, one map has the attackers capture a command point before building a bridge, planting a bomb, then escorting a tank to the enemies AA guns, lending each battle a narrative.
War offers a refreshing change in pace Call of Duty fans will need adjusting to, doing away with pointstreaks and kill/death scores. It’s purely goal-based and you’ll find yourself caring more about pushing objectives than simply gunning down enemies. I wasn’t convinced at first, but it quickly grows on you.
Finally we the return of Nazi Zombies and, in truth, not much has changed. Sure, there’s a decent prologue, four great new actors, and plenty of unlocks, yet it still boils down to the same mindless running and gunning. Although survival is your primary objective, the game mode teases you and your squaddies with a shopping list of tasks. For the first fifteen to twenty minutes these are great fun, though quickly become too vague, sending players on a wild goose chase around a snowy German village and the hellish bunker that lies beneath.
Regardless of the changes made and features added or taken away, the game feels like Call of Duty. The movement and shooting are just as snappy and precise as they were in Modern Warfare but are no more dynamic either. For die-hard fans of the genre, Call of Duty is perhaps a bit too basic in its gameplay, but it’s still great fun, nonetheless.
Three years ago, Sledgehammer took a bold step forward with Advanced Warfare. Now, in 2017, it’s taken a bold step back. Despite some interesting additions like Headquarters and War, Call of Duty: WWII is arguably the most reserved entry we’ve had in years, but is already proving a hit among fans. There is still that sense of fatigue, however, and if Call of Duty is to soar to the top once again, Treyarch and Infinity Ward will need to change something more than the time period in the coming years.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4 Pro