Each Call of Duty since Modern Warfare 2 has put the player in higher positions of power. Whether you’re the unspoken, do-it-all heroes of Modern Warfare 2 or the literal commander participating in all of Infinite Warfare’s combat, feelings of helplessness and limitations have been de-emphasized. This also extends to the series’ adoption of wall-running, boosting, leaning, and superhuman abilities. Sledgehammer Games’ Advanced Warfare heavily contributed to this by ushering in a frenetic era where movement became as much of a necessary skill as gunplay prowess. Infinite Warfare took this to a controversial extreme, so it’s only appropriate that Sledgehammer would helm another drastic leap forward – or backwards, we should say – with a back-to-basics approach for Call of Duty: WWII, which is a solid if unremarkable return to form that hits the mark well enough.
This focus on stripping down the series to its core mechanics comes through in the opening level, which puts you in the blood-soaked boots of Private Daniels. You can’t slide or boost your way across the chaotic beaches of Normandy, but are restricted to running and diving to cover. You can’t even regenerate health or pickup ammo, with the former not being seen since Call of Duty 2 and the latter being a franchise first. As you make your way into the trenches past the Nazis’ machine gun nests, you’re forced to adopt a slower pace to switch weapons and look for health packs. You truly feel more vulnerable and grounded, but these changes don’t chalk up to simply dumbing down the formula, especially since there are fitting, new features to offset this.
One of the most radical changes involves your band of brothers having unique abilities. For example, your best pal Zussman can toss you health packs, whereas your platoon leader Pierson can call out enemies that temporarily highlights them in white. They’re your source for supplies and support that act much like Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite, but the idea doesn’t pan out as widely as we would’ve liked. Half of the characters seem there as excuses to put faces to abilities, so your comrades are more like filler with minimal stakes in the story. With the small handful of characters that do get attention, they’re typical archetypes and forgettable. The most interesting ones – like Rousseau Crowley in the French Resistance – are dropped after two missions.
The same goes for Heroic Actions, which give you carpe diem moments to pull downed soldiers behind cover or save others caught in hand-to-hand combat. While your actions have impact on some dialogue, it would’ve been truly interesting to see this further impact level progression and more main characters. After all, the game is centred around the visceral, unforgiving drama of its conflict, which it visually captures with aplomb. However, it doesn’t let this theme personally touch you with gameplay or most of the main characters in ways that grip you, so you and your squad end up feeling a bit immune to the war’s devastating effects, especially with its ending.
This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong or distasteful about the level design of the missions, but besides a neat infiltration sequence involving the French Resistance, all of them feel safe and cookie-cutter; you’ll feel like you’ve played a lot of these levels before and they simply fail to stand out despite being all-around solid. It doesn’t help that we finished the campaign in less than seven hours on the Veteran difficulty. Call of Duty campaigns are short, but even we were a bit surprised by the rushed pacing near the end that caps everything off with 11 missions. Regardless, we can definitely say this is one of the best-looking and sounding titles yet in the series with impeccable sound effects, motion capture (even in-game), and a gorgeous, gritty presentation with its environments.
As for the multiplayer, it’s similar to the campaign in adding and removing big stuff. The create-a-class system forgoes the customizability of the “Pick 10" system by limiting players to more traditional loadouts. Indeed, the introduction of Divisions reworks how to approach additional attachments and perks. For example, the Expeditionary Division exclusively contains benefits geared toward shotgun loadouts with incendiary shells and perks like being immune to tactical equipment, taking less explosive damage, and extra ammo. You can only have one extra perk in the new Basic Training category, but if you want to have something like being immune to radar detection with a submachine gun, you have to use the Mountain Division that’s geared toward snipers. It encourages players to stick to specific roles, especially since you can gain more abilities by sticking with certain Divisions.
There’s also a social hub called the Headquarters akin to Destiny’s Tower, where you can shoot down a range and challenge friends to beat your scores, play Atari games in the R&R camp, and test out scorestreaks. However, it's not exactly an engaging social space. Only friends in your party populate the small area currently, which is weird when you’re playing alone. Even when the developer patches in the fix to make it public, the main reason you’ll be returning to this space is just to accept timed challenges to gain Armory Credits, which can be used to unlock outfits, calling cards, emotes, and camos. These are mainly acquired through lootboxes, and while the idea of these “supply drops” is troubling, all of these are merely cosmetic with the exception of some camos that grant negligible XP boosts.
We’re happy to report that WWII feels more like traditional Call of Duty multiplayer overall. Scorestreaks and movement have much less sway, further emphasizing that gunplay is the key to combat effectiveness. Older fans will feel at home here, and everyone will appreciate the innovative mode War. It combines a hodgepodge of objectives in uniquely-designed maps. Operation Neptune is a superb example with a Normandy-style map that tasks one team with taking out two machine gun nests and the other team with defending them. Should the offensive team succeed, the mode transitions to destroying (or defending) 10 pieces of comms equipment deeper into the map. These matches emphasize teamwork and can come to the wire with exhilarating results.
However, this is definitely one of the strangest Call of Duty titles in that it has notably mediocre maps. Pointe du Hoc and USS Texas are exceptions, but the rest suffer from being biased against sniping and having poor flow, spawning, and too many intersecting pathways that leave you feeling constantly exposed. In addition, WWII feels great to play, but glaring hitscan issues and jarring stuttering are still present from the beta, which impacts our performance in and enjoyment with matches more than we’d like.
If anything caught our interest before the game’s release, it would be Sledgehammer’s take on the Zombies mode. Without a doubt, the zombies’ designs and level of detail in the Final Reich map are unparalleled in horror. The greater diversity of enemies is much appreciated to keep players on their toes, but if you enjoy a stationary, camping approach like in Treyarch’s older maps, you’re going to have mixed feelings toward this iteration’s objective-based approach. You’ll be moving constantly and complete different tasks as you climb through the rounds, which can be fun as you go from defending areas to flipping switches across the map. It may feel like busywork to some that detracts from the purer goal of simply surviving, but we’d say the Final Reich’s many secrets and depth will entice you to return, even if it doesn’t succeed at inducing scares and horror through gameplay as we’d hoped.
Touching base with your origins is necessary to not lose touch with your audience, and that’s exactly what Call of Duty: WWII does without simply regressing. It gets to the core of its key modes and seizes on their intrinsic appeal with some neat, little twists thrown in. However, its campaign and zombies modes (while solid) feel unusually safe, whereas the multiplayer suffers from lacklustre map design and technical issues. You could say this Call of Duty is a sign of hopeful action to ground the series once more, but doesn’t go beyond its iconic namesake to deliver something truly special.