This year’s COD goes back to the Second World War for the first time in nearly a decade, with a return to boots on the ground action.
This time last year everything to do with Call Of Duty was doom and gloom. After the reveal trailer for Infinite Warfare suffered record-breaking negativity you could almost hear the alarm bells ringing at Activision HQ. And all credit to them, they didn’t ignore them. Each Call Of Duty game takes three years to make, so WWII was coming anyway, but if fans were upset that the series had got too sci-fi for its own good then this is the perfect antidote. Even if it’s a less than perfect game.
The main problem with Infinite Warfare had nothing to do with the game itself, but the fact that Activision had failed to vary the setting enough between yearly entries. So while fans were hoping for a respite from near future settings they got a far future one instead. But after a long series of sci-fi games this is the first Call Of Duty to be set during the Second World War since 2008’s World At War.
That seems like a long time, but it doesn’t stop the fact that the European theatre has featured so often in video games that we, and probably most other gamers, have taken part in the D-Day landings almost more times than we’ve saved New York City. And that’s a problem the game never successfully deals with, either in the single-player or multiplayer modes.
More so than ever, WWII is essentially three games-in-one, with very little connecting them beyond the same basic gameplay mechanics. The campaign is a serious single-player story experience, while the competitive multiplayer takes understandable liberties with the setting and Zombies aims for a more genuine horror vibe than usual.
The campaign is roughly six hours long and clearly uses Band of Brothers as its primary influence, as well as Saving Private Ryan and newer films such as Fury. But it ends up in an unfortunate position where it wants to be taken seriously and yet also tries to be a modern Call Of Duty game, full of Michael Bay style set pieces.
Unusually, the game dwells on the plight of civilians caught up in the war, the fact that Germans aren’t all intrinsically evil, and the role of the resistance. It even touches upon the horrors of the Holocaust, albeit in a timidly oblique fashion that feels like a missed opportunity.
The biggest problem though is simply how clichéd all the characters are. If you’ve ever seen a war movie before you can guess what the principle cast are like straight away. And the plot paths for the inexperienced private, the wise guy best friend, and the barking sergeant are exactly as predictable as you first assume.
Many of the set pieces and battles have also been seen in video games many times before and although the graphics here are excellent (easily the best ever in a Call Of Duty game) it’s telling that it’s always the more atypical situations – an espionage mission in occupied Paris is a particular standout – which impress the most, simply because they’re something you haven’t seen before.
As you would expect from Call Of Duty the gunplay is extremely solid, and in terms of its use of health packs, instead of recharging health, relatively old school. It does have a new idea though, in that each of your team has a different special ability which you have to charge up by shooting Nazis. That seems silly in the context of a serious war story, but having to run around and find team-members to heal you or call in a mortar strike does ensure an unpredictable flow to major set pieces.
If the campaign is a sometimes awkward mixture of the familiar and the new there are at least some things it’s trying to do differently. The competitive multiplayer though is where WWII plays it safest. And how you feel about that will colour your opinion of the whole package. There is, of course, no jetpacks or wall-running here, just old-fashioned on-foot combat. Although the new class system does its best to offer a degree of flexibility in your loadouts, despite the lack of high-tech gadgetry.
In theory it’s been a long while since Call Of Duty has played like this, except it’s not because last year’s Modern Warfare Remastered is now available as a standalone release and that already features old school boots on the ground combat. Not quite as old school as WWII perhaps, but that hardly seems a negative given how basic the Second World War action can sometimes seem.
Boost jumps and invisibility cloaks may rub some people up the wrong way but they were added in order to shake up the slowly stagnating gameplay. Taking them out provides a brief novelty, but it soon becomes clear that nothing else is there to replace them. Or at least not in the standard modes. The new War mode is arguably the game’s best new feature, as it introduces a tug-and-war style objective-based mode similar to Battlefield’s Rush. It’s highly entertaining, but there’s only three maps and that makes it feel undercooked from the off.
There’s no question that the multiplayer isn’t entertaining but it begins to feel overly familiar very quickly, and not at all the breath of fresh air it was presumably intended as. By comparison though, the back to basics approach works better for Zombies. What’s presented here is much closer to the horror atmosphere intended by, appropriately enough, World At War, with none of the cheesy camp of the last several entries.
It’s still the same basic idea though, as you and your friends try to survive waves of zombies and slowly make your way through a Bavarian village infested with the undead. It’s essentially a first person shooter take on a roguelike, except you don’t quite lose everything when you die and instead gain buffs and loadout improvements that slightly increase your chances every time.
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Finally, there’s the new Headquarters social hub that links everything together and which is… very good. Better than the similar concept in Destiny 2, surprisingly, with much more in the way of mini-games and fun diversions. Headquarters is also where you open loot boxes, which drop from the sky and actually reward you for watching other people open them. So far they’re mostly cosmetic though, and only have a practical use in Zombies mode.
Despite its flaws there’s very little to take offence to in Call Of Duty: WWII, but equally there’s relatively little to get excited about either. It feels like it’s sidestepping the issue of what to do about evolving the series, leaving the problem for another year in favour of a back to basics gimmick that’s neither wholly necessary or wholly satisfying. In other words, the game does its duty but nothing beyond that.
Call Of Duty: WWII
In Short: The best Call Of Duty for several years, but it still owes too much to the past – and the campaign’s attempts at a more serious tone are only half successful.
Pros: Fantastic graphics and presentation. Headquarters is an impressive social hub and the less traditional elements of the campaign work well. War mode is great fun.
Cons: The campaign is too clichéd in terms of both characters and overfamiliar set pieces. Multiplayer gameplay has no real new ideas and gets old quickly. Too few maps for War.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Developer: Sledgehammer Games
Release Date: 3rd November 2017
Age Rating: 18