Call of Duty: WW2: Review Turning Tides
Ben Sheene / Nov 2nd, 2017 No Comments
Three years ago, I found myself sucked into Call of Duty after a long hiatus. Advanced Warfare, Sledgehammer Games’ futuristic take on combat, resonated with me as it rewrote a sturdy, yet stagnating franchise. There was something jarring and thrilling about using powered suits to boost around a multiplayer map and square off against other players.
As gaming constantly changes, Call of Duty has managed to keep its formula relatively similar while attempting to redefine itself each year. But World War 2 has always been its lifeblood.
Many lament the mid-2000s, when it was Axis versus Allies and nearly every shooter followed suit. It’s strange how the studio that kicked off a new era for Call of Duty is now going back to this monumental period in history. Even stranger is how Call of Duty: WW2 is a game that feels comfortable in its familiarity, boldly rebooting a classic while making a name for itself.
A World in War
Nazis will always be one of the easiest “villains” to construct a narrative around. The atrocities of World War 2 left a deep scar across countless cultures that history will never forget. While more forces were at play in the 1940s than just the Nazis, none can truly compare to Adolf Hitler and his army. More recent military FPS games rally the war cry around nebulous terrorists who want to shape the world to benefit their power or pockets. But as players, one of the best motivators is a bad guy that needs to be eliminated.
A game about World War 2 is simple in its premise. We know who the villain is. The boss at the end is not shrouded in secrecy and our reasons for seeking his demise are just. For Wolfenstein 3D or even the original Call of Duty, that may have been enough motivation, but in this day and age, there must be more to the story. How does a developer make this concept new and interesting? What kind of story can be told that hasn’t been exhaustively recollected in a documentary or film? Though the battles that won the war are important, just as important are the people who risked or gave their lives to see an end to a global menace.
Sledgehammer Games went down a similar path as Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan by focusing on a small group of soldiers embroiled in the final major conflicts of the European theater. As Private “Red” Daniels, players fight alongside their fellow soldiers in the Army’s 16th Infantry Regiment.
Most of these men are fresh out of training, having never left the borders of their home state. As he writes home to his girlfriend and big brother, Red’s Texas accent thickly recounts the good and the awful of being a soldier in this war.
A number of boxes are checked in this cast of characters. There’s the college-educated smart guy with glasses, the confident wise-ass, the joke-cracking best friend, and the tough-as-nails man in charge. Archetype-filling aside, the main cast is written well enough that players should latch on to most of them. Because they are everymen through and through, it’s hard not to identify with their motivations and personalities. No one has a dark secret or will suddenly betray the whole group. The 16th is just a handful of soldiers witnessing the full spectrum of humanity in a trying time. They must persevere even when the corpses of their brothers stain the snow red. They must fight to uphold the freedom of millions back home.
Over the course of the campaign, the most time is devoted to the friendship between Red and his best friend Zussman and the cracks that form in the leadership of Sergeant Pierson and Lieutenant Turner. The primary drama revolves around these four as their character and willpower is tested against increasingly bleak odds.
In terms of a Call of Duty campaign, WW2 offers something less complex than the bulk of previous entries. The series has often been criticized for forgetful campaigns that only become relevant during bombastic setpiece moments.
By staying with this squad, players don’t have to focus on zealots trying to disrupt the solar system or robots taking over the world. WW2 is about the personal struggles and triumphs that nearly any person would experience if put into this situation.
Players start on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, watching bullets and shrapnel tear through the flesh of friendlies. With current hardware, this moment comes to life with more brutality than ever before. The 12th’s march through Europe sees them aiding in the liberation of France, fighting in Aachen, and at the Battle of the Bulge.
WW2 takes players through historic moments that have been seen in other games before, hitting many of the notes a game about World War 2 should. Yet this time around, it becomes more engrossing as the sights and sounds take on new life.
Sledgehammer aims for an honest attempt at being authentic, to encapsulate the player into the bloody grit of World War 2. Players will watch a defeated German soldier light one last cigarette, dying before the paper reaches his lips. French citizens will burst out the windows of their homes and fire on Nazi soldiers in a desperate attempt to take back their city, weaving you into their solidarity. Planes throttle above, dotting the landscape with trembling bombs and transforming a village into rubble.
Despite the palpable feeling that you are fighting alongside these men, many of these elements don’t necessarily give way to an incredible story. WW2 dishes out a number of personal, touching moments that evolve the game into more than just a shooting gallery. Often, it feels like the game reaches out, asking players to experience the suggested emotion. At times, the game buckles under the weight of the responsibility to honor the soldiers that fought in this war and those who lost their lives.
Players have become so accustomed to Call of Duty campaigns ratcheting up the spectacle that WW2 fights to satisfy the demands of different masters. Moments in the game left me enthralled, out of breath, and speechless. Players escape crumbling bell towers and race alongside a Nazi train. These events are a joy to watch unfold, even as Red somehow always escapes within inches of his life.
Sledgehammer did a commendable job at providing players with as much agency as possible. As strange as it may be to have Red hop into an anti-aircraft gun or truck turret, it’s exciting to be given the reigns of wartime hardware.
Though the campaign is generally fun and told well, I often wished to be pulled out of the boots of these soldiers and into the perspective of another person affected by the horror of war. WW2 isn’t a sequence of narrative shifts like Battlefield 1, but does allow players to control a handful of secondary characters. At one point, Red desperately calls in air support and players watch as the camera flies up into the skies, switching to a squadron of planes about to engage in a dogfight. The highlight of gameplay shifts happens when control is moved to Rousseau, a French woman infiltrating a Nazi stronghold. Shooting takes a backseat for quiet drama and a taut pace.
Unfortunately, a few sections of the narrative lack the appropriate gravity that should have been capitalized on. When Howard, an African-American soldier, is introduced, one soldier acts like they are going to make a fuss, but seconds later accepts Howard’s presence. In the 1940s, racism was an issue that existed, even among comrades in arms. These brief seconds of the narrative give the impression there is a desire to bring up sensitive issues but the risk was not taken.
Combat and shooting are always around the corner in WW2’s campaign, but the missed opportunity to not shed some light on secondary characters weakens the impact of the story. After all, this was a time in history where human life was pushed to its farthest edges. It’s a heavy burden for any game to tackle, especially when considering the stirring epilogue which shocked me at its inclusion. While Sledgehammer never succumbs to this weight, it would be wise to play it less safe if this new setting continues in a future installment.
Creating a Call of Duty game without advanced movement mechanics or some kind of RPG-lite twist seems like sacrilege after three years. Sledgehammer, Treyarch and Infinity Ward allowed players to approach combat scenarios with a new kind of variety for their respective games. The ability to run along walls and dash around like a super soldier meant enemies needed to be tougher or shooting from multiple vantage points. The use of abilities meant that guns weren’t the only solution to victory any longer.
WW2 feels closer to a reboot of the original Call of Duty in its gameplay through a clever reliance on skill and squad members. The biggest change is that health no longer regenerates. Instead, players must scour the battlefield for med kits that restore a portion of their health. What a fundamental change it is to no longer stand in the middle of a firing line, chip away at enemies, and then hide for a few seconds waiting for the screen to get less red.
Players must now think about how they will approach each fight, making gameplay significantly more tactical and less frantic. Even on normal difficulty, WW2 is a challenge because of this new mechanic. Initially, I died multiple times because I simply forgot I needed to heal, but even after adjusting, there were a few fights that felt gruelingly good.
A few stealth sections in the game are somewhat clumsy, even when the stakes feel so high. Hiding from enemies is very simple, but does come off as silly when an enemy is practically staring directly at you without any indicators going off.
Assisting players in battle are the other members of your regiment. Getting kills fills up a meter that activates an ability when you are near that particular member. Zussman tosses med kits, while Pierson highlights enemies behind cover. One member can call in a mortar strike, while others can refill ammo and grenades. Because fights can go on for an extended period of time, many of these abilities are useful. Higher difficulty levels require more reliance on your squad and a smarter use of their abilities.
Players can also engage in “heroic moments” where they have to act quick to save a soldier being attacked by a Nazi or decide whether or not to shoot surrendering enemies. It’s a bit unnecessary but provides some added flair to gameplay.
The New Order
Players who began to settle into the futuristic mechanics around the time Black Ops 3 was out should be glad to know that the transition to WW2 is hardly jarring. Multiplayer is what most Call of Duty players feast on for months and years at a time. If a developer squanders the opportunity to change up the online component, it will never spell good things for the long-term.
The only radical difference with WW2’s multiplayer is the lack of constant locomotion. Players who were experts at pulling off kills while constantly running around maps are not going to find that kind of Olympian feat here. Movement is slower and sprinting is a finite resource.
To adjust, maps are smaller in size and feel more manageable. I would argue that there is not a weak map in WW2’s starting roster. Most follow the three-lane structure that has become commonplace with the series, but feature incredible choke-points and sniping nests. My favorites are the USS Texas map, which features ridiculous close-quarters interiors, the Gustav Cannon sniper paradise, and the bombed-out Aachen.
Maps are further enhanced by the strict dedication to the World War 2 aesthetic. Matches will start with a blitzkrieg or sirens sounding in the distance, pulling you deeper into the feeling you are actually there.
All the modes players would expect are present in WW2, with a few exceptions. Ground War, which raises the lobby cap, is nowhere to be found. Gun Game, my personal favorite, is absent as well. Perhaps the two modes that benefit the most from the pared down mechanics are Search and Destroy and Gridiron.
Gridiron is nearly identical to Uplink, where players grab a ball and race it to a goal. Without having to worry about opponents flying around from all sides, these two objective modes feel less chaotic and more manageable.
WW2’s best contribution to the overall Call of Duty experience will likely be the new War mode. In War, players are tasked with attacking or defending objectives across a massive map. Operation Neptune sees attackers rushing Omaha Beach on D-Day to capture bunkers, eliminate radio equipment, and eventually destroy flak guns. Operation Griffin starts with players escorting three tanks to a point and then use Capture the Flag mechanics to put gas into one of the tanks. Operation Breakout has attackers storming a small point to plant a bomb so they can escort a tank to the finish.
War is an absolute thrill ride and elevates WW2’s online component to an incredible degree. The constant back and forth between both sides means changing strategies on the fly while only requiring a base knowledge of how the game’s online modes work. War flies in the face of everything hardcore Call of Duty players have been doing for years: not dying. Watching bodies pile up trying to build a bridge is a little ridiculous but a blast in execution. It makes players feel like a true soldier in World War 2, risking your life to storm an objective that will eventually beat back the enemy.
The three War maps included in the base game are fantastic, and while it’s likely more will be included as future DLC, it would be wise of Activision and Sledgehammer to make a couple more free. This feels like the mode that will have a lot of players coming back for more WW2, especially as a break when multiplayer becomes too competitive. War is especially satisfying when grouped with multiple friends as it emphasizes communication and teamwork even more than Team Deathmatch and Kill Confirmed.
I’ve enjoyed the focus on classes Black Ops 3 and Infinite Warfare introduced to multiplayer. WW2 slightly alters this concept by introducing Divisions, which grant players specific bonuses and weapons as they level up their division. I favor the Airborne division because it increases sprint duration and allows any submachine gun to be equipped with a silencer. Players looking to do massive damage up close will enjoy the Expeditionary division, with its ability to equip a shotgun with incendiary shells and implement equipment better. Divisions are a further step in allowing players to customize and enhance their preferred playstyle.
Home Sweet Headquarters
If one element of WW2 will stand the test of time it’s going to be the Headquarters. Taking obvious inspiration from Bungie and Destiny’s Tower social space, Sledgehammer created Headquarters. Meant to be filled with 48 players, Headquarters is a place that players can instantly go to while waiting in a pre-game lobby.
For the longest time, waiting to start a match in Call of Duty meant players would be greeted by a wall of names with a clock counting down. Now, in the 30 to 60 seconds it takes to get into a match, a player can go to this recreation of Omaha Beach after it’s been claimed by the Allies. They can emote until the cows come home, sit down on a box, or visit the multiple activities available.
A gun range allows players to test out weapons while attempting to trigger a couple special events, such as making watermelons tumble out. There’s a live theater that lets players view relevant Call of Duty videos, a location to test out scorestreaks, an arcade to play old Activision games like Pitfall 2 and Kaboom!, a pit where players can engage each other in 1v1 combat, and a station to create emblems.
Going Prestige is now an event that other players can see. After your first Prestige level, a jet will race across the sky leaving a trail of red behind. Sledgehammer says that further Prestige levels only increase the amount of fanfare, allowing players to show off their dedication to others while simultaneously swelling with pride.
For a social space, Headquarters is extremely enjoyable. It might be a bit silly but has a few secrets tucked away to occupy players’ time. It’s also the place to purchase Orders, which are daily and weekly challenges that grant experience or rewards. Tasks like getting headshots with a certain weapon type and getting multiple victories in a game mode will help players level up or grant them supply drops. Supply drops are the cosmetic fuel which will likely fan the flames of the microtransaction argument for WW2, especially when other players can watch as you unpack your bounty.
Supply drops contain outfits for specific classes or weapon skins that have varying degrees of rarity. Getting an entire set of gear unlocks a specialty weapon that grants a small 10 percent experience boost to players. From what I can tell, these weapons are just alternate versions of higher level weapons that unlock over time.
If anything, the systems in place for WW2 seem geared to constantly bring players back into the online modes. Logging in daily grants rewards like armory credits, which are used to purchase cosmetic items; 100 armory credits are also doled out every four hours to players at their mailbox, meaning that patience reaps rewards.
So far, nothing in WW2 seems slanted towards rewarding players who invest more money into their initial purchase. More than anything, Headquarters is a fun distraction that will suck up more time than most people expect. It will also be the perfect place for Sledgehammer to initiate seasonal events and community activities over time.
Fear the Reich
We’ve come to the point where no Call of Duty experience would be complete without a Zombies mode attached to it. Nazi Zombies thematically focuses on horror rather than the comedic and bizarre nature Treyarch and Infinity Ward went for. Considering the founders of Sledgehammer worked on the original Dead Space, it’s no surprise that Nazi Zombies strikes an impressive chord.
The story of Nazi Zombies brings together a group of four people searching for stolen art and a missing family member. The setting is a small town that has become overrun by a horrible experiment and it is up to players to piece everything together.
To ease players into the experience, a prologue has been added that incorporates the basics of gameplay. Shooting and killing zombies rewards cash, which goes to buying guns and purchasing upgrades. This time around there’s no building barriers, which adds an extra level of tension.
Nazi Zombies is meant to be easier for players to get into. The mode often centers around broad puzzles that require a lot of head-scratching while trying not to die. Sledgehammer makes that initial push a lot less vague and tries to guide players in the right direction. After playing several rounds, I was never beating my head against a wall in frustration or confusion. The puzzles aren’t obtuse, they just require teamwork and thought, which is all the more difficult with the undead running around.
While there are likely players who will enjoy the challenges of solo-ing Zombies, the mode truly is a blast with four players. Genuine jump scares, eerie moments and smart level design are all the more better with people by your side. In terms of quality, it feels like a raid in Destiny with just a little less reliance on pure teamwork.
It’s hard to say much without actually spoiling things, but there is apparently a normal path and an advanced path in beating the mode. After a few hours without figuring out the normal path, I can’t imagine what mental gymnastics are required to figured out the advanced one.
Call of Duty: WW2 is an impressive feat. Sledgehammer games could have failed at many junctures to deliver upon expectations. This Call of Duty is supposed to be a return to form. It’s meant to renew older players’ faith that the series hasn’t abandoned its roots. It needs to show that multiplayer games don’t need to be fast and frantic in order to win players over.
With WW2, Call of Duty is at a crossroads. For three years, players have been clamoring for the shooter to go back to basics. Now it has. WW2 is pure shooting fun. Multiplayer is refined and excellently paced within the theme. The campaign shows that World War 2 has life left in it and that stories can still be told. Sledgehammer has introduced new modes and features, like War and Headquarters, that should become staples of the series.
Call of Duty: WW2 is a worthy successor to the franchise and a risk that needed to be taken. Hopefully it will be here to stay.
Note: Reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro, this review is based off an event Gaming Illustrated attended hosted by Activision. A retail copy was also provided for the purposes of this review.
tags: call of duty , Call of Duty WW2 Review , Call of Duty: WW2 , review , Sledgehammer Games