It’s been a big year for nostalgia. Crash Bandicoot played on the fond memories of gamers and had a banner year, selling better than anyone could have expected. Even Super Mario Odyssey harkens back to a simpler time in gaming and encapsulates that simple fun many remember from their childhood. Now Call of Duty joins the party, after journeying starward, it returns to its roots and places us in some of Europe’s most harrowing conflicts, splashed with a bit of that typical Call of Duty flair. But most importantly, it’s boots on the ground. Boots through the mud and snow, just like it should be.
After an extensive twenty-one page binding agreement halted me at the title screen, I got into WWII. After planting the seeds for player-character Daniels’ backstory, the game rattles through its band of brothers. In a rare display of fine writing, I quickly found myself attached to these guys and knowing we were about to march through hell together only enhanced that bond. As one would expect, WWII kicks off with a bombastic and powerful raid of Normandy. It’s brutal and really sets the tone for the campaign at large, which hammers home just how gut-wrenching this war was. It’s hard to fathom this all happened, save for a few dramatic liberties taken by the game’s writers.Though WWII follows the 1st Infantry throughout the European theater, there’s a compelling story that underpins the action. The cast is led by Josh Duhamel, whose Technical Sergeant William Pierson struggles with demons he carries with him from earlier on in the war effort and, as a superior officer begins to deflect his self-loathing onto you. Of all the characters, Pierson has the fullest, most-satisfying arc and Duhamel does an admirable job of capturing that brand of intense crazy that would have been all too common in the war.
If the Black Ops games were a David Fincher psychological thriller and Infinite Warfare was a playful Michael Bay orgy of outer space explosions then I am kind of obliged to brand WWII a cerebral confrontation of its protagonist’s cowardice that is worthy of someone like Coppola. It certainly explores history’s darkest chapter and doesn’t shy away from the most horrible details.It’s absolutely the best Call of Duty campaign in years. It’s definitely what I’d consider short at around five hours, but it’s still got the brilliant pacing of a televised drama so it hardly feels like a short-change. It’s a credit to the game’s design and writing that the game’s most memorable mission (called ‘Liberation’) sees you holster your gun for a large majority of it. It’s a masterclass in tension building and really has its own mood that shifts the tone enormously, but it’s a change for the better.
If you’ve ever played a Call of Duty game you know what to expect from its gameplay. Already put a line through incredible gun-feel, because no brand does it better. There’s something about the hit markers in a Call of Duty game that is just so addictive, the gritty thud of a well-placed headshot alone trains me to always aim high. I did notice, however, that WWII felt heavier than some of the past Call of Duty games. There’s a sluggish weight on you in this game that’s so believable. I’d much rather a realistic depiction of being weighed down by my pack, my gun and the elements over being an aerobic beast that can beat on ceaselessly through knee-high snow. In the pursuit of realism was Sledgehammer’s goal, it certainly feels as though they nailed it here.
Much like Wolfenstein and Doom, Call of Duty also, at last, rids of the health regeneration that has made all previous titles a cakewalk. Instead, players must scour for health packs in the world, or rely on your medic squadmate to provide you with one in your time of need. These abilities (which include ammo, enemy spotting and truly handy mortar strikes) are another great step forward, as it not only builds that bond with your squad, but it’s more realistic than finding an intact muesli bar in a bin.
There’s a lot of clear and welcome improvements to WWII’s multiplayer, too. By keeping it simple this time around and stripping back all of the sci-fi nonsense, there’s a much more simple and fun feel to multiplayer on this occasion. I haven’t enjoyed a Call of Duty online like this since Modern Warfare, and that was a long time ago now. Given the European setting, the maps are gorgeous and all of the fan-favourite modes are back in full flight. I have had a few server troubles and lag certainly is enemy number one at times, but if you escape those inconveniences, there’s a whole lot of fun to be had.
Another thing I can’t help but adore is the game’s HQ social space, which reminds me mostly of Destiny’s Tower. I never expected Sledgehammer would make Bungie look like right mugs in implementing a social space, but this proves we’re living in strange times. There’s a lot of brilliant distractions here, from the firing range to the mano-a-mano pit that places two soldiers against each other for shits and giggles. Of course, there’s the ugliness of being able to witness other players open their loot boxes which could perhaps spur an unhealthy pursuit of paid loot. But if that doesn’t deter you completely, then the HQ is an exquisite social space.Such an epic package Call of Duty has become this year, I haven’t even touched on Nazi Zombies.
It’s hard not to love how the developers keep branching out with this mode. It started as a simple wave defense exercise but it has blown up into its own monster. They’ve taken that horde mode skeleton and laid on the cheese. They’ve always got the whackiest stories and film stars that are so very nearly toeing the unemployable line. Imagine my bewilderment when Ving Rhames popped up as the star power here. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek and it’s heartening to see that they’re all just having fun with it.
WWII is, at times, a gorgeous game. The game’s pre-rendered cinematics are jaw-dropping but it’s no slouch in-engine either. The only minor gripe would be with the game’s lip-synching which borders on offensive at times. As atrocious as the game’s context is, it’s hard not to be taken in by the European countryside that was so badly torn up by this war. Hürtgen Forest’s depiction, in particular, is stunning as the sun breaks through the canopies. But one of the game’s most beautiful vistas comes thanks to a workaday task of delivering grub to a lookout. It’s a lovely view of a valley as artillery fire barks in the distance.
THE PS4 VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW
I want to shout it from the rooftops, Call of Duty is back. Just when it looked like the franchise was going to get wildly out of hand, credit has to be paid to Activision for recognising that the only way forward was to strip away the deadweight and return to its roots. When it comes to bang for buck, WWII triumphs over most. Throw the new social space in alongside what is basically three games and Call of Duty might very well be king again.