Activision’s commercial phenomenon has been arguably treading water over the course of its last few annual iterations. Fixated on a futuristic setting (possibly chasing the coattails of the zeitgeist’s “du jour” shooters like Titanfall and Destiny), the US-based publisher has been busy battling a sort of mid-life crisis trying to figure out what its premier shooter’s true identity really is.
The good news is that Activision has finally figured out what makes its popular series tick, listened to the myriad of fan feedback, and once and for all boldly gone where no next-gen Call of Duty has gone before… back to the gritty, monochrome, bolt-action days of its Second World War roots.
It’s ironic, then, that the freshest, most exciting entry into the publisher’s critically lauded franchise in a long while, is the one that has dialled the clock back to the olden days of WWII. Alanis Morissette; this is irony.
Gone are the futuristic wall-running exosuits, and in, with a bunch of dirty ol’ shovels (seriously, that’s your melee weapon this time around). Say goodbye to the armies of nimble sentient robots, and instead, welcome in a convoy of rusty ol’ M4 Sherman tanks rattling along at a snail’s pace. At its core, Call Of Duty: WWII is a tonal and aesthetic far cry from the Advanced Warfares, the Black Ops IIIs and the Infinite Warfares of the world — and it’s all the better for it.
The game’s “boots on the ground” campaign pulls no punches in dexterously cutting to the emotional quick. Sharply focusing on June 6th, 1944, things promptly kick off with a disorientating flash-bang, filled with gloomy anguish and nitty-gritty realism as you - Private Ronald “Red” Daniels of the US 1st Infantry Division - assist in attempting the largest scale land-sea invasion in military history: The Invasion of Normandy.
You, and your fellow Allied forces, are tasked with storming Normandy beach to help push back the Nazi German Axis threat that have hunkered down off the coast of France. Breaking through their ranks is no small task, as the demented choirs of bombs that rain down overhead, along with the angry screams of heavy field gun emplacements, both lie patiently in wait to tear your young brothers-in-arms to blood-soaked pieces. It’s a brutal opening that undoubtedly sets the stage for the narrative tone of the events that follow.
For a piece of interactive storytelling, developer Sledgehammer Games has done a very admirable job of bringing to life the sobering strife and haunting pandemonium of one of the most strategically important modern conflicts in global history. No small feat.
This time around, the overall plot forgoes the bewildering grandiosity of its recent forebears and opts for a noticeably more personal, intimate tale. The story’s crosshairs remain unwaveringly pinpointed - for the most part - upon Texan farm hand Private Daniels’ and his wise-cracking platoon’s journey as they strategically manoeuvre their way across the Western European front to put an end to the Nazi Axis forces’ that have taken hold there.
Much like previous titles, the eight hour campaign is punctuated with a handful of smaller self-contained arcs that help flesh out Private Daniels’ - and the war as a whole’s - overarching timeline. Infiltrating a German garrison as the undercover French Resistance leader Rousseau, for example, is a particular highlight, and proves that a great Call of Duty level doesn’t always require the bombastic “all guns blazing” approach to illicit feelings of stressful, nerve-racking tension.
Exploring a bustling Nazi base, answering questions from snoopy Axis officials in order to authenticate your identity, all the while attempting to track down your solitary informant, is just as eerily unnerving as it sounds. Vignettes like these absolutely cement the notion that less is often more, and I hope the franchise remembers this going forward.
Two distinct gameplay twists on the traditional campaign formula are the stripping out of regenerating health (a common staple for the series since 2005’s Call of Duty 2) and the inclusion of some cool team-based support mechanics. If you’re in a pinch, certain members of your platoon can aid you by throwing you helpful items like first-aid kits, ammo and grenades. Seeing your AI brothers-in-arms behave more like real-life comrades, while offering you meaningful support is a really refreshing touch. Taken as a whole, Call of Duty: WWII’s campaign is one of the most riveting the franchise has released since 2010’s Call of Duty: Black Ops.
Onto the multiplayer, then, and I’m happy to report that this year’s offering is up to the franchise’s customary premium standard. As always, modes run the gamut between relentlessly addicting and tremendously white knuckle, with a wonderfully rich and diverse plethora of competitive modes, well-designed maps and extensively deep progression. Call of Duty: WWII’s multiplayer suite is simply second to none.
Boasting a more team-focused War mode, that pits two sides against one another in an objective-based, more narrative-driven experience, War is a nice new addition that takes cues from Battlefield’s Rush-style gameplay. One objective, for example, tasks one team with building a bridge across a narrow ravine to enable its tank convoy access across, while a defending squad try their darnedest to stop them from crossing over. When the going gets tough, it can still be anarchic fun, but it’s truly at its best when good teamwork and effective communication synergise harmoniously together, which certainly pays dividends in your hunt for victory.
Though it doesn’t necessarily re-write the rulebook per se, it’s welcome seeing a mode that differentiates itself from the game’s other online offerings by honing in on a more team-centric, strategic experience. That’s not to say the rest of the package is not strategic or team-focused, but the difference here is that War often rewards and actively encourages constant teamwork and strategic planning, especially compared to the more “lone wolf” style gameplay of the series’ more tried-and-tested modes like Team Deathmatch et al. Suffice to say, I absolutely sucked at War. Go figure.
Tying the whole multiplayer suite together is a Destiny-style social hub-world dubbed Headquarters. Here, you can hang out, throw out some emotes, form your own groups and even acquire loot. It’s pretty quiet as of now (Sledgehammer are busy working out some server infrastructure fixes at the time of writing), but you can invite some friends into Headquarters to keep you company and get your 1v1 fix. This can all be done in-between games instead of waiting extensively in lobbies, which is a really swell touch. Overall, the multiplayer offering is fantastic, addictive fun that’ll likely keep you hooked for a long while to come.
Rounding out Call of Duty: WWII’s package is the ol’ stalwart co-operative Zombies mode, and this year’s offering is an awesome, authentically creepy highlight. Boasting one epic-sized map, dubbed The Final Reich, along with an unlockable small-scale map, called Gröesten Haus, there’s plenty of top-notch zombie-themed action to get your hungry zombified teeth into here.
Building upon the solid foundations that have been laid before it, this year’s undead addition gifts players with a raft of new and welcome customisation options. Initially, the game offers players a selection of four distinct classes, each with their own unique Mods, however, these soon open up as you progress through the ranks and earn experience. The customisation is a really deep well brimming with fascinating possibilities.
Wanna start with an automatic machine pistol? Sure, have at it. Fancy carrying three guns instead of two without the need of buying a perk? Be my guest. Always wanted more power-ups to spawn when killing enemies? Make sure to pick out the Resourceful Mod, buddy. It’s jaw-dropping how much freedom you are given in tailoring the experience to your particular play-style, and it’s a brilliant addition.
Differentiating your Zombies escapades further is the choice between four different character’s special abilities (with a few extra unlockable characters and abilities thrown in for good measure). For example, the Control class offers a special Shellshock perk that charges as you lay waste to the reanimated horde. This allows you to unleash a devastating shockwave that knocks back your brain-dead adversaries stunning them. Further still, this special Shellshock perk can be modified with fire, bonus triple damage and can even be used to quickly revive downed team-mates when you’re in a bind. Super handy stuff.
These extra bells and whistles ensure that this year’s Zombies mode feels fresh and unique, which is a splendid feat. Sledgehammer absolutely deserve the utmost praise for breathing some new life into the franchise’s undead formula.
In regards to presentation, the game runs exceptionally well with its trademark 60 FPS buttery smooth gameplay shining through brightly. The grimy, desolate art direction is illuminated with some impressive lighting, while the sombre war-torn vistas brim with crumbling derelict architecture. Voice acting and mo-capping is also strong and worth a mention, along with the wonderfully grandiose brass and crackling, explosive Second World War audio. All round, Call of Duty: WWII continues to stand as an impressive visual and aural spectacle.
I'd be remiss if I didn’t mention the contentious inclusion of the title’s in-game loot crates. Thankfully, at the time of writing, the rewards that you’ll find hidden inside them are cosmetic skins, calling cards and experience boosts, with no overpowered weapons in sight. Hopefully, it’ll stay that way, but knowing Activision and the nature of corporate business, this may well change in the future. It’d be a shame if pay-to-win tactics were implemented, as unbalancing the slick, tight action would undoubtedly leave many hardcore devotees - like myself - disappointed. Fingers crossed.
Fans have been clamouring for a return to the series’ roots for a long time now, and Sledgehammer have finally delivered. With an addictive, fully-featured multiplayer suite, one of the finest campaigns the franchise has seen in years, and a fresh, revitalised Zombies mode, Call of Duty: WWII is an absolute blast that boldly goes where no modern Call of Duty has gone before: back to its World War roots. And it’s about bloody time.
Call of Duty: WWII (Reviewed on PlayStation 4)
Excellent. Look out for this one.
With an addictive, fully-featured multiplayer suite, one of the finest campaigns the franchise has seen in years, and a fresh, revitalised Zombies mode, Call of Duty: WWII is an absolute blast that boldly goes where no modern Call of Duty has gone before: back to its World War roots. And it’s about bloody time.