Call of Duty World War II review code provided by Activision
Call of Duty is, at this point, like looking at a Magic Eye picture that depicts a graphic multi-car pile up. Everything seems perfectly fine and dandy about it on the surface, until you stare at it long enough to see all kinds of disturbing, unpleasant things that’s hard to shake. Of course that’s alright for some, dulled by repeated exposure to the picture, but not everyone wants to see that.
The argument as old as time for Call of Duty is that it’s the same game every year with a slightly different coat of paint. There’s a truth to that, sure, but the more alarming thing is that it remains the same mechanically whilst dragging more and more of the cynical, boorish industry practices with it each year. That just makes the fact the core experience rarely veers from the beaten track for more than a footstep all the more unappetising.
This year’s version sees a return to World War II, the backdrop for the series’ formative years. On the one hand it seems a positive step, a reunion with the conflict that birthed the biggest shooter around. Like most reunions, it doesn’t have the same impact or spark years later.
Take Call of Duty WWII’s campaign. A typically theatrical affair awash with some lavish visuals, heavily inspired by the camaraderie of the HBO series Band of Brothers. It focuses on heroism and conflict, two subjects Call of Duty is more than familiar with, and while the story is naturally predictable for large stretches, it does feature some genuinely good moments between the protagonist Daniels and his buddy Zussmann, as well as the volatile strain between Turner and Pierson (played with grumpy gusto by Transformers’ Josh Duhamel).
These human interactions are the highlight of the campaign, but not because they are exemplary. Rather, the combat and set-pieces are by the numbers and light on the emotional, adrenaline-fueled touch they deserve, making the human moments stand out by comparison. It speaks volumes that the standout mission is an exercise in tense undercover espionage where gunplay is limited to the finale (fittingly and amusingly, this mission is highly reminiscent of Medal of Honor’s early days). Much of Call of Duty’s action has become drearily, and unsatisfyingly predictable.
Level design is still mostly one long corridor of death at a time, masked by a bit of extra width and some lovely scenery. Enemy AI still insists on rushing headlong into danger like they don’t register multiple threats, possibly because your squad AI wouldn’t last five minutes at paintball, let alone the Battle of the Bulge. Apart from providing you with aide at the touch of the d-pad (health packs, enemy spotting, ammo, grenades), every Allied force soldier is equipped with Stormtrooper vision and potato guns. You often just end up impatiently rushing the enemy on your own rather than wait for your squad to chip away at individual targets for far longer than necessary.
There’s just no invention or innovation to it, and the messaging of the horror of war is at odds with set pieces that seek to glorify its thrills. This is a problem that extends into the game’s multiplayer offering — when you can actually play it, that is.
The meat of any Call of Duty post-2007 is competitive multiplayer. The hope this year was that drawing the mechanics of it back to a simpler, more grounded style might feel fresh after an ever-escalating climb towards the interplanetary. In truth, it does feel a little refreshing, but mostly it comes across as a HD remix of four of the first five Call of Duty games with a hefty slice of the modern additions made to the series since that time. In terms of how it handles, it definitely feels stripped back to basics. There’s good to that, obviously, as it suits the low-fi weaponry and the more trudging ‘boots on the ground’ movement. What isn’t good is that it’s the same damn modes, presented in the same damn manner as ever.
For long-term fans, that’s probably fine, but with a reset like this there was an opportunity to rework aspects of the CoD multiplayer experience, courting fresh faces and giving the series a better chance of going strong for longer. Despite the surface change, this is still very much the same old Call of Duty, killstreaks, k/d ratios, warts and all, with a few misaligned ingredients added to the pot.
Headquarters is Call of Duty WWII’s attempt at Destiny 2’s hubspace. That’s a fair shout; it stylistically makes sense to have soldiers grouped together at a base. What isn’t so hot an idea is having Normandy Beach as the setting for this 48-player social spot. It feels tasteless, considering you start the campaign storming the very same beach, watching limbs fly, having it drilled into you that ‘WAR IS HORRIFYING.’ To return to this beach in multiplayer to play old arcade games and get people gathering round to watch you unpack a loot crate (something that the game actively encourages you to do) is as absurd as it is grimly surreal. On some level, I understand why it’s been done as a ‘cool idea,’ but honestly, it is so utterly tacky to put a hub for the players of a game synonymous with toxic behaviour slap-bang in the centre of a real world place of relatively recent historical significance. If you’re going to draw on horrific real-world history for your shooter, a bit more decorum wouldn’t go amiss.
Secondly, the servers, something usually somewhat reliable by gaming standards, have been pretty dire. My introduction to CoD WWII’s multiplayer was to restart for an update, then get booted from the introductory area three times before I could finally get round to playing a match of anything. Once in, there’s been a risk of a game either collapsing in on itself, or glitches and lag occurring so frequently that doing anything constructive is near impossible. Couple that with a game that’s nowhere close to being as exciting and relevant as it once was due to how impenetrable and uninventive it is, and it’s a frustrating, botched gruel lacking the flavor and spice of the best modern shooters. Not even the maps hold much joy, with little interesting or particularly dynamic about them.
That leaves the return of Nazi Zombies, which is certainly the ‘fun’ part of the package, even as its inherent zaniness threatens to consume itself (David Tennant, among others, shows up for some delightfully hammy nonsense). Its qualities are in the bedrock of so many survival games, and that’s nothing to be sniffed at. On the other hand, it does suffer from similar issues of over-familiarity that both the competitive and campaign side do, but it’s less affected than those modes by treading familiar ground.
Call of Duty WWII is certainly not terrible on the whole. It has a decent campaign, a multiplayer that will please a significant chunk of its fanbase (if they can get on), and Zombies is still a hoot. Being “not terrible on the whole” is pretty faint praise though, and CoD WWII suffers from franchise fatigue despite an attempt to ‘get back to basics.’ Frankly, Call of Duty has never left the basics. Sure, there’s a whole load of content for your money, but a cellar full of moonshine isn’t quite as satisfying as a couple barrels of fine whiskey. This attempt at rebooting is merely a gimmick to paper over the ever-widening cracks in a dated franchise.