Before launching into my review I have a small confession to make: I love the Call of Duty series. I’m not just talking the games themselves (some of those can be hit and miss), but really just the whole drama that seems to follow it wherever it goes. I love the CoD lovers and I especially love the CoD haters. I love the Battlefield pride warriors buzzing around all the forums beating their chests and I love the people who swear they’ll never buy another CoD game again and then mysteriously turn up at the midnight launch. No other franchise is capable of generating such a clusterfuck of extreme negativity and yet sell like bullet-shaped hot wings at a Texan barbecue; it’s an absolutely glorious spectacle to behold.
So this year, the developer who ushered in the age of jetpack shenanigans that has drawn the ire of so many is ironically taking the series back to its roots. Yes, Call of Duty has removed its boots from the walls and placed them back on terra firma in a classic World War II setting. So is Call of Duty WWII a welcome return to form for the series, or is it just more of the same? Given that CoD is a beast with two backs in terms of single player and multiplayer, I’ll give my impressions of each before delivering the final earth-shattering verdict.
It should come as a surprise to no one that Call of Duty WWII’s campaign pulls out all the stops in delivering a highly-produced, explosion-rich campaign. What may come as a surprise though is the fact that it’s actually fairly compelling, and has much more substance and emotional depth than some of the Michael Bay inspired bombast might suggest. This campaign treads incredibly familiar narrative ground surrounding the beginning of the end of the Nazi regime as the Allied forces liberate France and push to the Rhine and secure the Western front. It’s a part of history that has been extensively covered in all forms of conceivable media such as films, books and TV series, and the danger is of course that developers Sledgehammer Games might struggle to spin an original tale within a setting that has already received so much attention. Yet it deftly manages to avoid so many pitfalls, and while it may not be revolutionary in terms of its narrative themes, it’s focused and thoughtful, with plenty of heart and genuine humanity to it.
Other than the burning truck it’s pretty serene out here
I have to say that my hopes weren’t exactly through the roof when I was introduced to the game’s central character Private ‘Red’ Daniels. He’s the classic blue-eyed blonde-haired Texas farm boy with a heart of gold and a strong sense of duty that made him answer the call (the call of duty, if you will) and enlist when the shadow of war loomed across the globe. The opening mission is also D-Day on the beaches of Normandy, and while I appreciate the sacrifices made by those who served in that battle and the thousands of lives lost on that beach, my heart simply wasn’t ready for a by-the-numbers war glorification simulator. This danger is all the more apparent given that WWII was a real-world struggle of good versus evil, and in the simplest of treatments it is easy to completely dehumanise the Nazis such that it becomes cold and easy to slaughter them in scores, without any great thought as to what it might be like to have to dole out those deaths.
But thankfully my fears were misplaced. Call of Duty WWII’s campaign shines brightest not when you are beheading Nazis with a shovel, but when the small band of brothers within Private Daniel’s regiment are sharing a quiet moment amongst the death and cold which surrounds them. They long for victory and home in equal measures, yet their fates are contingent on the whims of the regiment’s good-hearted commander Lieutenant Turner and his slightly unhinged second-in-command Sergeant Pierson. The soldiers are both heroes and pawns in a much larger battle, and whatever strength they ultimately possess is drawn from one another. The consistent theme of brotherhood is simple at its core, but feels real and anchors you in the story. Top notch motion-captured cutscenes and a rousing score seal the deal, and all things said and done the narrative is an engaging one.
Gameplay-wise it’s Call of Duty as you’ve always known it, with solid first-person shooting being the order of the day, however there are some sections which mix things up to good effect. Asides from a couple of driving and tank sessions and a brief dogfighting section, the campaign is peppered with a few stealth sections that do well to ratchet up the tension. The sneak and shank mechanics in these sections are simple, but are well crafted and instil a tense atmosphere. One particularly memorable section has you playing as a member of the French Resistance as you masquerade as a Nazi officer and infiltrate a German garrison in occupied Paris. There’s a Tarantino-esque style to a particular encounter within this mission that is sure to make your skin crawl, and in general I was impressed with how the campaign often shifted in tone while managing to stay focused on its core story.
The campaign feels perhaps a little light, taking me about 6-7 hours on Hardened difficulty. But of course, once the credits roll you’ve got the option of leaving your loyal campaign companions behind and actively engaging with the sweaty, racist squeakers who totally did sex with your mum in the multiplayer section. So how does that fare?
War is hell
Call of Duty is hoping to win some people back this year by doing away with space ninjas and giving us back the BOTG experience that made the series so popular in the first place. There’s a distinctive change of pace compared to Infinite Warfare which puts some of the focus back on reaction and gun skill, and it feels slightly less you’re running around a neon poker machine that doles out kills. They’ve also shaken things up in terms of how loadouts work, however it’s more of a sideways step than an innovative leap. It’s a pity that Activision haven’t chosen to fully address the issues with online match quality, and weapon variety seems to have taken a bit of a nosedive, but for the most part WWII’s multiplayer suite is bound to satiate those hungering for a more traditional Call of Duty experience after three years of futuristic titles.
Probably the biggest change to Call of Duty’s multiplayer is the way loadouts and perks work, in particular the way the vaunted Pick 10 system has been completely dumped. Now up to four broad perks are hosted within a specific Division (more on this later), and an additional perk is chosen from a list called Basic Training. No longer can you sacrifice a secondary weapon or lethal throwable for an extra primary attachment or perk, which makes loadout crafting feel much closer to the CoD’s of yore. Eventually I warmed to the changes as it did make me think carefully about my builds and loadouts and changes up the meta, but it does tend to pigeonhole some builds and necessarily restricts the broad freedoms we have enjoyed in recent titles that utilise the Pick 10 (or Ghost’s whacky Pick 13) system.
Divisions are most closely compared to classes which align with a particular weapon type. Infantry is your all-rounder assault rifle class, Airborne is your run-and-gun SMG class, Expeditionary is your close-quarters shotgun class, Armored is for LMGs and Mountain rounds out the list for all you snipers (read: arseholes) out there. While technically any weapon can be used with any Division, the most benefits are gleaned from using the weapon which aligns with your class, as the perks you enjoy are specifically geared towards them. For instance, the Expeditionary Division allows the humble shotgun enthusiast to load their boom stick with a limited amount of incendiary ammo, while the Airborne Division allows you to put a suppressor on an SMG (and only an SMG). Levelling up a Division allows you access to more perks (up to four), and as is the way with Call of Duty you can also prestige them and gain access to further boons such as exclusive perks and weapons.
While Call of Duty WWII throws many old ideas out the window, it doesn’t exactly pare down the bloat that previous titles have inherited as much as it streamlines it. Choices in builds are simpler (almost to a fault), but they highlight the strengths and weaknesses that each Division possesses and means you have to be more aware. For me personally, not being able to choose the classic Ghost (invisible to Recon Aircraft/UAV) and Blind Eye (invisible to enemy scorestreaks) combo (unless you align with the scum-of-the-Earth Mountain class), meant that I had to rethink my visibility on
What does the flammenwerfer do? It werfer the flammen
Stay classy, CoD community
the field when enemies are calling in their scorestreaks. It also legitimises the use of a Basic Training perk which allows you to take a free-firing rocket launcher as a secondary which can shoot down enemy scorestreaks, not something that really tempted me when I was invisible to them.
There’s a distinctive change of pace compared to Infinite Warfare which puts some of the focus back on reaction and gun skill, and it feels slightly less you’re running around a neon poker machine that doles out kills
I’m a little underwhelmed with the weapon variety, and in particular I missed all the unique variants that Infinite Warfare (and Advanced Warfare for that matter) had. In WWII there are variants of each weapon you can unlock via supply drops or by purchasing with in-game currency, however none of these alter the base stats of the weapon, only granting a skin for the weapon and a modest XP boost. There were many opponents of the weapon variant system from previous Call of Duty titles, however I’d argue that the central issue was that these powerful variants could be obtained through microtransactions, rather than by just playing the game naturally. This issue has been removed in WWII as no variants alter a weapon’s base stats, so while the introduction of microtransactions are still as inevitable as another Call of Duty releasing next year, they won’t fall in the category of pay-to-win. While we’re on the topic of weapon variety, please give us more than one viable shotgun option. Double-barrelled shotguns are great for montage videos and all, but they are as useless as tits on a bull when it comes to preserving a respectable kill/death ratio.
Shot looks dead on target? Server says no
Triple feed incoming
Unfortunately one of the hallmarks of CoD multiplayer returns, and that is in the choppy match quality and overzealous lag compensation. While it’s hard to find solid info on the matter, claims have been made that WWII utilises dedicated servers with a 60 Hz tick rate (trusted source battle(non)sens confirmed this on PC during the beta), however it seems fairly clear that awful client-hosted networking is operating in at least some matches. This is primarily evidenced in host migrations which occur mid-match, not something one would expect on dedicated servers. I play on a wired cable connection (30 Mbps down/1 Mbps up) and hit detection can be extremely patchy and kill cams are at times ridiculous. More often than not a Play of the Game will feature a ludicrous sniper shot which is miles off the target but somehow is recognised as a headshot. Either the hitboxes are the size of billboards or what we’re actually witnessing on screen isn’t an accurate representation of what’s happening server-side. What the franchise desperately needs is some transparency; tell us if we are being hosted on a dedicated server, where that server is physically and give us ping values.
Call of Duty WWII does a lot of things right in terms of both its campaign and multiplayer. The radical change of pace and setting feels fresh after the last few years of laser weapons and dabbing, but at its core it’s still a Call of Duty game. I doubt that this is the revolution that will draw people suffering from franchise fatigue back into the fold, but it’s an undeniably solid experience. If it’s one thing I fervently wish Activision and its shed of Call of Duty developers would use their mountains of cash for, it’s abolishing all remnants of client-hosted network infrastructure, and bolstering the number of dedicated servers such that everyone is playing on a level battlefield (or at least as level as Australian internet allows).