Call of Duty: WWII Review
Fighting the same old War with the same old tricks
The Call of Duty franchise has now come full circle. What began in 2003, with the European theatre of World War 2, is back to where it started. The franchise has covered quite a bit of ground between now and then, with action taking players through Vietnam, fictional modern warfare scenarios, and even into space. The push into the future brought with it jetpacks, wall-running, spaceships, and robots. These gimmicks provided life for the franchise, albeit at the cost of more direct shooting. There was some pressure from the community to go back to basics; to go back to boots on the ground. Call of Duty: WWII is a step back in time for the series. Sledgehammer Games were given the responsibility to use the familiar setting to focus on what is important. At the very least, they could go back to the historic setting with the modern presentation that might do such a devastating conflict justice. Unfortunately, Call of Duty: WWII doesn't quite make it all the way up the beach because of its especially dull campaign and predictable multiplayer.
New faces, same war
Some people still play Call of Duty primarily for the campaign, but the single player in WWII is the weakest part. Not only does it end in absurd fashion, it is incredibly plain despite the dramatic setting. You take the role of a Texas farm boy, Daniels, who comes under the command of a hard-ass sergeant who repeatedly disagrees with his lieutenant. As you progress from the beaches of Normandy, through France, and then into Germany, you are meant to bond with your squad as your character narrates events via letters home to his sweetheart. One of the squad members is the typical nerd, carrying a camera and trying to be the comic relief. Another is a racist that seeks forgiveness from a token minority in the lacklustre final mission. With the exception of the medic named Zussman, portrayed well by Jonathan Tucker, none of them matter.
Almost none of the set pieces will create a long-lasting impression either. Major events are typically shown via a first-person non-interactive cutscene, such as a train derailment or when a plane destroys a nearby tank. There are a few vehicle segments, but they are typically awful. The jeep is used twice, and it has no inertia and little suspension; driving a tank is even worse, as the tracked movement is partially linked to the turret direction. The campaign also jumps around despite mostly taking place from Daniels' perspective. There is one major interlude: after being saved by a French resistance soldier, Rousseau, you begin the next mission in her shoes and infiltrate a Nazi garrison with fake credentials—you’re encouraged to memorize details in case you voice the code phrase to the wrong officer. After killing an evil Kommandant in another contrived QTE sequence, Rousseau can then use basic stealth to plant explosives. She is never seen again after this mission. Previous Call of Duty games often changed perspectives and locations, but they did a better job at making sure each switch was a substantial part in the story, and that each mission was actually entertaining.
Free as a bird
So the story is weak and rote, but even the basic action is a letdown. The shootouts in WWII are typical, with dumb-as-rocks AI that take up position on the wrong side of cover. Even attack dogs and shotgun soldiers will beeline straight for you, ignoring squad mates. Enemies spawn as soon as you reach invisible triggers and you are be funnelled down narrow paths too often. There are only a few infinite enemy spawn locations, so that could be considered an improvement. You will be asked to perform optional heroic actions in each mission, where you need to drag soldiers to safety or kill enemies locked in a brutal struggle, but they amount to an inconsequential change to the script. You'll still have to 'get on that flak gun and take out those Stukas' and 'grab that Panzerschreck and take out that Halftrack.' But these franchise tropes continue to lose appeal with each successive year.
Health is different this year. It's like a hybrid of the old games that relied exclusively on health packs and newer games that regenerate health. The game lets you carry four health packs, usable at any time. They can be found in the world, but many will be provided by your medic. The medic throws one pack of healing goodness on request when his special meter fills up; it fills up a little bit when you score a kill. Other squad mates provide grenades, ammo, artillery strikes, and highlights on enemy soldiers. You need to be close to squad members to request aid but their icons look the same from a distance, so tracking down the medic is clumsy in the throes of war. The overall change to health brings caution. On hardened difficulty and above your health will drop like a rock from distant AI soldiers that have better aim than Annie Oakley. The new system is a nice throwback to the older games but it just slows the combat down and makes the action feel clunky.
There are only two decent missions (out of 11) in the game, and they both take place in the snow around Christmas 1944. The first is the Battle of the Bulge and, like in Call of Duty: United Offensive, you take position on one side of a snowy valley. Enemy tanks and infantry then try to cross the open field through smoke or between cover. It smoothly integrates the only good vehicle section in the game—you briefly assume the role of a fighter pilot. The second decent mission follows on from this encounter, and it involves sneaking through an enemy base and then providing sniper overwatch before clearing barracks rapid-fire style. These two missions work because they could practically stand alone and offer decent variety, better context, and slicker pacing. Despite two adequate missions, the 6.5 hour single player campaign is poor and much weaker than last year's strong offering.
It's starting to feel a lot like Christmas
Multiplayer may satiate those hungry for pure shooting, especially players looking for a grounded experience. Unlike the last few entries there is no wall-running, jetpacks, or special weapons. So multiplayer has been stripped down and the action is slower. Health does regenerate though, slowly. It still has powerful scorestreaks, like paratroopers or a guided bomb, and they are sometimes overbearing when a team gains momentum. Your soldier can typically only sprint for short distances, so walking around may take some adjusting. Both flinch and screen shake are quite aggressive, which makes for clumsy encounters and frustrating misses. The general online action is not acrobatic, even falling a modest distance can kill.
Rather than Specialists or Rigs from the last two games, soldiers fall into a Division system. This is not a class—all divisions can use all weapons—but it is an attempt to split game styles. The Armored division are the only soldiers that can deploy a bipod for long range carnage. If you want to use fire shotgun shells, you'll have to play as the Expeditionary division. You can only use one generic perk, although some perks from the previous games are now traits in each division. Although good for balancing, the end result is restrictive customisation. It's impossible to use a suppressor and also avoid being seen by player-controlled scorestreaks. You can't take a rocket launcher as a secondary and have faster weapon reloads. In the past, Call of Duty has been friendly towards player choice, but WWII reduces this and does not replace it with teamwork or other gadgets. Finding a good loadout may be difficult, as it was for me.
Headquarters is not a game mode (it was in the older games) rather it is an online staging area that is new to the franchise. In the HQ you can walk around a beach location, in third person view, and see other players wandering about. HQ does have a few uses outside of merely trash talking other players via open mic. It has a helpful scorestreak testing zone, just so you don't make a meal of things when you miraculously earn an artillery strike; there is a shooting range to try out weapons; and there is even a small 1v1 fight arena where you can be embarrassed in front of an audience, just like in real life. It has placeholders for some other features—gun painting and emblem creation—but on PC they are not yet available. Primarily you'll go to HQ each day to get challenges which might provide supply drops or XP boosts. Supply drops are randomized loot crates that just about every game has these days. Right now they are cosmetic and cannot be purchased for real money, hopefully it remains that way. The HQ creates more of a community atmosphere and might become a key part of the franchise in the future.
Come to HQ for the challenges, stay for the open mic
You can join games from the HQ via the menu, and most of the modes are the same as previous years. TDM, Kill Confirmed, FFA, and Domination are quite popular for rapid action. CTF and Gridiron (similar to uplink) are pretty good end-to-end modes that involve carrying a hot potato. Hardpoint is classic area control, ideal for grenade and scorestreak spam. Search & Destroy is for the hardcore, as players only have one life. The focus on shooting across these eight standard modes, rather than movement, certainly has an allure that the series hasn't produced for some time. The returning online modes cover a broad spectrum and none are gimmicks.
But the multiplayer is somewhat inconsistent when it comes to the shooting and movement. Hit markers are surprisingly unreliable, with players unharmed after taking many bullets. Player spawns are not the best, but this has been a continual problem for the series for years. Servers had some bad lag occasionally. Even ground movement can be a little irritating, as you get partially caught on adjacent friendly soldiers and might struggle to mantle over modest ledges when allies are nearby.
Because there is no aerial movement, the map design has returned to the basics. Levels usually revolve around three action lanes, but there is heavy focus on criss-cross sight lines. There are only two large maps, Gustav Cannon and USS Texas, and the former is a nightmare for players who only use SMGs or shotguns. Height advantage is important, so players taking position in windows or balconies, and staying there for a time, is common. There are many dubious spots to peek over, be it barrels or walls, and these are frequently abused because there is no simple counter other than aiming better or using them yourself. Central objectives (like in Domination) are awfully exposed on some maps, such as Gibraltar or Flak Tower, so not all combinations work smoothly. The maps look pretty good though, with lots of clutter, but their layouts are rather humdrum overall. The other slightly disappointing part of multiplayer is that there are only 9 base maps. This reduced number of multiplayer maps—down from 12 last year—is probably because of the new War mode.
Gustav Cannon is like shooting fish in a barrel for the Ball Turret scorestreak
War mode is the best part of multiplayer and something quite fresh for the series. In War, the teams are split into attackers and defenders and fight over a series of chained objectives in a different set of maps from the rest of the multiplayer. You might need to capture bunkers on Omaha beach, destroy communications equipment, and then blow up artillery cannons. Defenders can build walls and attackers can destroy them. The map sizes are not large, but the areas around objectives vary from a good size to cramped; they also tend to be hotspots for major grenade spam. So standing near the objective will give you lasting shellshock. There are no player scorestreaks in this mode, which helps keep it fairly consistent. The final objective in two of the missions, both involving escorting a tank, were extremely difficult to claim due to attacker spawns and cover positions. It is a pity that there are only three War missions in the game. With a couple more, this interesting new mode could have almost carried the multiplayer by itself.
Nazi Zombies is the co-operative mode and it gets a strong pass mark, albeit with limited content. In The Final Reich you can join up to three other players and face waves of zombie soldiers in a small village at night while trying to perform tasks. You can play as characters portrayed by the likes of Elodie Yung and David Tennant, while they are taunted perfectly by Udo Kier. The streets and underground areas are cramped, and zombies can spawn from just about everywhere. You cannot make barricades over windows like the previous games, although this is not a huge loss given the frantic pace after the first few rounds. The mode also tries for more horror than its predecessors, with abrupt jump sounds when zombies appear and the occasional scripted scare to spice things up. The Nazi occult setting is perfect for zombies. Most objectives are fairly straightforward: refuel a generator, restore power, open doors, craft a weapon, and reset switches. A few objectives require killing zombies in an area to charge up devices, which is pretty fun and intense. It might take a few failed attempts to understand where your objectives are located, but you'll make progress steadily.
Zombie matches can last for quite a while and it is possible to circle through the town with many of the undead in pursuit. Most of the undead are slow, but there are fast zombies, flamer zombies, armoured zombies, and ones that carry bombs. There are also some great traps to utilize, like saw blades in the sewers or spikes in the morgue. These cost jolts to deploy, earned by killing zombies, and these jolts can also be used to buy other things like armor, mystery weapons, and access to new areas. Blitz powerups can also be purchased, and they give a permanent boost to things like damage or run speed. Each player can utilize special abilities for a short time, like infinite ammo or knockback. Single-use consumables, like the awesome flamethrower, can help remove the waves of undead. These consumables, and other cosmetics, are found inside zombie supply drops, earned just by playing. Nazi Zombies is definitely a fun little time waster with hidden tasks for those that want to spend more time with it, but it would have been even better with another few maps of equivalent size and complexity.
Get your fried Zombies in The Final Reich
Despite the return to boots on the ground, Call of Duty: WWII is not one of the best games in the series. Apart from Nazi Zombies and the new War mode, it's actually a rather weak entry. The single player is mundane, jumbled, and full of many of the same problems the series has yet to cleanse properly. Multiplayer might be ideal for players who prefer a grounded experience, and haven't played the series for years, but the uninspired maps, restrictive loadouts, and inconsistencies make it hard to enjoy. The Call of Duty franchise has done quite a lot over the last fourteen years, but this new game effortlessly demonstrates how little has actually changed for the better. Revisiting such a major conflict should have been more fruitful for the veteran franchise.