Back in the battle again.
Reviewed on Xbox One
It’s been three years since Sledgehammer Games was given the mantle to make their own Call of Duty game.
In doing so they broke the indentured development cycle between Treyarch and Infinity Ward and delivered a pretty amazing installment with Advanced Warfare. The game introduced many of what we now consider to be COD staples, from double jumps to hovering, to power slides. COD jumped straight into the future with Advanced Warfare, and it seemed as though it would never look back. Yet here we are, three years later, and Sledgehammer has taken it upon themselves to return to the series’ roots by jumping way back into the past, with Call of Duty: WWII. Fortunately for die-hard fans of the franchise, WWII does not disappoint, for the most part.
Hot on the heels of Battlefield 1, a game which found success by leaping backward to World War I, COD decided to return to their bread and butter by revisiting arguably the more commercially popular global conflict, World War II. The story of WWII follows a new recruit named Daniels, a farm boy from Texas with a girl back home and a rough childhood that keeps him up at night. Along with his close teammates – Zussman, Aiello, and Stiles – Daniels joins the 1st Infantry Division, tasked with leading a charge against the Nazis. Advanced Warfare was one of my favorite COD narratives in recent years, and I had no doubts that Sledgehammer would deliver a touchingly triumphant tale that honors those who fought bravely in World War II. As such it comes as no surprise that the story of WWII is absolutely incredible. An interesting note about this game, however, is that this story is as realistic as it gets. It doesn’t culminate in some showdown with Hitler, where Daniels single-handedly ends the war. On the contrary, the story prefers to take a more somber route, eventually exploring the effects of the Nazi regime throughout the war, as well as the aftermath we all know and abhor (e.g. the Holocaust, post-traumatic stress disorder, reparations, etc).
WWII boldly and completely turns modern-day COD on its head, as seen throughout much of the game’s design, going so far as to even bring back the ability to dive! Fortunately, it does so in such a fluid way that I can hardly even remember the days of futuristic Exosuits and jet packs. The campaign menu is hugely simplified, just choose a mission and jump in; gone are the custom loadouts, instead, you’re given weapons and gear at the start, and you’re off. Another fun new gameplay element in WWII is the removal of regenerative health; you won’t be unrealistically searching to find cover and waiting to heal anymore. Now you’re tasked with finding first aid kits around levels that can heal you when you’re down. Don’t worry, though, it’s not like COD has suddenly turned into Resident Evil. First aid kits are surprisingly abundant along your path, and with new team abilities, there’s not so much to worry about.
While WWII occasionally touches upon the impact an international war can have – including racism between some characters – I appreciated the focus on teamwork as a whole. As I mentioned before, the game could’ve easily been all about the player character, Daniels, and his one-man army taking on the Nazis. Instead, it follows a group of men as they fight through many historic conflicts, such as the Battle of the Bulge and Normandy, while they desperately try to hang on to their lives and their sanity. Piggybacking on the concept of camaraderie, perhaps the most welcome new addition to WWII is the team abilities. Every teammate has their own ability that reloads on a timer (e.g. Zussman carries first aid kits, Stiles carries grenades, etc.). At any point during combat, Daniels can call to his teammate – so long as it’s available – and get supplies when he’s low. They will then throw the ammo or what have you to Daniels a la Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite. I can’t stress enough how helpful this system is, and I really hope it returns in future installments.
I mentioned earlier the sense of realism in WWII, however, the most unrealistic, arcadey thing about this game is the downright ridiculous amount of damage that enemies can withstand. These guys are absolute bullet sponges; rifles, pistols, and submachine guns would take so long to kill a person, it was comical. Not even short, controlled bursts make the gunplay more believable; every enemy I faced at a moderate range took at least five bullets to go down. Surprisingly, though, extremely close range shotgun blasts and long-range sniper shots would always be one hit kills. Even more confusing was that these same guns worked as they should in online play, it was simply the campaign AI that made every gun shoot like a water pistol.
Damage ratios aside, the weapons of WWII are all diverse and unique in their own way. My favorites were the M1 Garand and the BAR, which were in fact my favorites way back in my first COD game, World at War. Sadly, these guns look, sound, and play very differently than they used to, which only added a level of confusion to my excitement upon being reunited with “old friends”. Though, I must say Sledgehammer did an excellent job at making the 1940’s feel very current, avoiding the tricks some developers use to try to make their games feel like they just stepped out of the era they take place in. Take the aforementioned World at War and Battlefield 1, both titles have a sort of haze over them that makes everything feel antiquated as if that’s the only way to make it feel old. Instead, WWII does a great job at making the second World War look brighter and more modern than I’ve ever seen it before, and Sledgehammer deserves some props for that.
While Battlefield 1 may look a little too withered and war-torn, it still managed to be the prettiest game I’ve ever seen on a console. WWII certianly doesn’t shy away from its competitor in this regard and rises to the challenge in terms of downright beautiful visuals. I could go on for days about how amazing this game looks, from the lighting and smoke effects, to the sheer awesomeness onscreen with every gunshot and explosion. In fact, there are so many good looking things in this game, that it’s more glaring when things don’t look perfect. Case in point: the mouth animations. Whether it’s in a pre-rendered cutscene or a scripted event within gameplay, every aspect of every character looks amazing, particularly body movements and facial expression. Unfortunately, whenever they open their mouths, everything falls apart as the game trips headfirst into the uncanny valley and things just start looking creepy.
I could go on for days about how amazing this game looks.
It’s a shame because I don’t remember this much uncanny eeriness in Infinite Warfare, however, I do recall it being one of Advanced Warfare’s biggest downfalls. Aside from the constant mouth errors, I noticed some other graphical letdowns; the lack of footprints in the snow, and the persistent issue of your character’s lack of legs when looking straight down (come on guys, it’s 2017). Other glitches did occur in gameplay, like some minor camera issues when trying to hold “X” to interact with doors and other objects. Fortunately, there weren’t any glitches or anything when playing out quick time events, which maintained a thrilling air and kept things entertaining. Gameplay was fluid and stutter-free for the most part, save for the occasional moment where things would get really blurry and slow-motion for no reason (and for once in a COD game, slow-motion wasn’t welcome – there’s not a single “breach and clear” moment in WWII). All in all, WWII isn’t exactly the pinnacle of graphical stability, but you start to forget about those minor glitches and spooky flapping jaws whenever you see a man’s leg get blown clean off by an anti-tank grenade.
WWII’s campaign is fairly short, but it’s filled to the brim with action sequences that continuously blew me away. Every facet of World War II is touched upon, and it brought back so many memories from early Call of Duty and Medal of Honor games. One scene in particular with a high-speed jeep chase was one of the most thrilling COD sequences I’ve played since Modern Warfare 2’s snowmobile chase. Tank warfare returns, albeit briefly, but it’s set up in such a way that it’s not as open-world and disorienting as it is in Battlefield 1. Where the presentation really shines in WWII is in the skies as you take to the air in a fighter plane. Like a scene ripped right out of Dunkirk, you’re tasked with shooting down multiple waves of Nazi biplanes. There’s really nothing quite like locking onto an enemy plane and spiraling through the skies, dodging friendly pilots to blow a German jet to pieces. The flying gameplay was more exhilarating than either Battlefield 1’s fighter pilot levels, or even the Jackal missions in Infinite Warfare. I just wish there was more than this one sequence in WWII, and honestly, I wish Battlefront would take a page out of their book and apply it to their space battles. It was such a spectacle to behold; quite the awe-inspiring surprise.
Stealth has no place in first person shooters.
The worst part of the campaign, however, was the massive focus on stealth. Throughout Battlefield 1’s multiple storylines, I ended up quitting every time they shoved stealth into a level for no apparent reason. Simply put, stealth has no place in first person shooters (unless it is the main mission focus, like in Killzone or Wolfenstein, the latter of which WWII was heavily inspired by at times). So I was extremely disappointed to see a large focus on stealth in the middle of WWII’s campaign. Whether you’re spying on a Nazi base at twilight or infiltrating a Nazi party in a grandiose mansion, it’s always more lucrative to go in guns blazing than sending in one person to do it all. Even Advanced Warfare had stealth, but it was done properly by utilizing a team that could execute synchronized shots and such. Call of Duty just does not work with lone wolf stealth sequences. It really brought this campaign down, to the point where I almost gave up on it completely. On the plus side, this focus on deliberate movements and exploration does make it easier to collect “momentos”, new collectible items scattered across each level, providing some replayability for once. However this does little to make the stealth sections any more enjoyable overall.
On the multiplayer front, WWII delivers the most innovative and entertaining online experience I’ve had in a while. Upon starting up multiplayer for the first time, you are prompted to pick a class, ranging from rookie rifleman classes like Infantry to more experienced veteran snipers in the Mountain division. Every class has its own set of unlockable perks, and these are automatically applied if the division’s signature weapon is assigned to its custom loadout. Once you pick a class, you are dropped into the hub world, which is very akin to the Tower in Destiny. Here you can practice shooting at the firing range or practice scorestreaks from atop a watchtower, or you can do fun new things like visiting the Quartermaster who can supply you with special new guns by completing challenges. Also like Destiny, you can visit the Operations bunker, where Major Howard will provide you with daily and weekly orders, of which you can pick three at a time, and these will reward you with XP or supply drops (mystery boxes including weapons, emotes, and calling cards) upon completion. All of these features provide a feeling of longevity to COD multiplayer that I’ve never experienced before. I’ve actually been enjoying logging on each day and checking the daily contracts, which then inspire me to play a few rounds and complete a goal or two. It keeps me coming back to the action, which along with the action itself, is a nice breath of fresh air for the long-running franchise.
Infinite Warfare had some fun multiplayer, don’t get me wrong. It was always a blast to boost around a map, wall-running and sliding around a futuristic landscape. But after my first match in WWII multiplayer, I knew I was hooked on this new vision. Obviously, there is no more future.Sci-Fi tech, which almost completely does away with the fast-paced online action of yesteryear. However, there’s something special about returning to a multiplayer scene where it pays to be slow and meticulous. It’s fun to be back in a world where verticality is nonexistent, and reconnaissance means everything once again. This brings new life to classic modes like Team Deathmatch, Domination, and Kill Confirmed. While the visual aspect and the grand scope of maps provide some awesome new opportunities in new modes like Gridiron, and my personal favorite, War. The aptly named War plays out just like OverRun mode in Gears of War. It’s a multilevel match in which attackers are tasked with getting from one end of the map to the other, while defenders must push back against the tide and defend their land. Each level of progression focuses on a new objective, whether it’s building a bridge across a gap to continue the opposing force, or escorting a tank to the final section, which feels just like an escort round of Overwatch. WWII’s multiplayer is just a hodgepodge of today’s eSports scene, from Battlefield 1’s Conquest to Overwatch, to Gears of War, and I can see it being very successful within the ranked seasons. Also promising is the ability to create and upload custom paint jobs for weapons, a feature that has yet to be unlocked, but is on its way.
WWII also sees the return of the fan-favorite Nazi Zombies mode, and by saying “fan-favorite”, I realize I must not be that much of a fan. On the contrary, I despise every zombies mode (although I did have some fun with Black Ops II). Call me a wimp, or just call me a hater, but I have never been able to get into a zombies mode, whether the undead were dressed as zombies, clowns, or…aliens (seriously, what were you thinking, COD: Ghosts?). Sledgehammer have righted the wrongs of Advanced Warfare’s lackluster zombie mode with WWII’s return to the franchise’s high point: killing some undead Nazi scum. This version of Nazi Zombies is a lot darker than in recent years, with scarier zombies who can spawn anywhere and tons of blood. Couple that with the frightening music and shadowy locales, and you’ve got one of the scariest zombies modes yet. Perks also play a role here, allowing for me to finally reach level 17 thanks to damage boosts and increased shielding. All in all, Zombies is more fun this time around than ever before, and that’s coming from a certified Zombies mode-hater.
One thing that must be addressed about multiplayer is its inability to properly function at launch. I didn’t start playing WWII until about a week after release, and by then many patches and updates had been applied to make the game more stable. In the beginning, however, dedicated servers were overloading and crashing completely, forcing the developers to shut them down entirely for maintenance and rely on alternating hosts (like we’re savages back in 2006 or something). As of writing this, things have improved a lot, especially the hub world, which now allows for many players in it at a time, just like Destiny. In the beginning, the hub was a barren, lonely base camp, and on top of this fairly minor issue I found myself getting kicked from games last minute, which only sometimes saved my progression. Other times I was left with a large chunk of time and hard work wasted on a match with nothing to show for it. It makes sense that a new COD release would require a lot of processing power and place a large amount of stress on the servers. But one would think that seasoned COD developers would be a bit more prepared for this and take some precautions ahead of time. Unfortunately, Sledgehammer failed to do so and while they certainly have a fun and entertaining bout of game modes, customization, and gameplay features to maintain a healthy online scene for the next year, they need to start working double-time on implementing a stable system that won’t “break the internet”, or so to speak.
Call of Duty: WWII is a headfirst dive into experimental territory, and I’d say that dive earned itself at least a silver medal. The campaign was nearly flawless, save for some outstanding graphical errors and that god-awful stealth. But overall it was a gripping thrill ride that not only served as a love letter for those we lost around the world, but also an accurate depiction into the lives of those affected by World War II, shining a light on critical issues like PTSD, racial inequality, and the aftermath of the Holocaust. Aside from being an important story of hardship in war, WWII delivers a wildly entertaining multiplayer experience that I know I’ll find myself going back to again and again, as well as a Zombies mode that defied my expectations and scared my pants off. Server errors, graphical inconsistencies, and unnecessary gameplay elements try their best to bring down WWII, but there’s no denying that Sledgehammer has given us one of the best Call of Duty installments in recent years. A fitting return to its roots, this installment grants hope to the future of the franchise and proves that maybe looking backward isn’t always a bad thing.