Is there an opposite to jumping the shark? Where a series that’s well past its prime manages to go from being utterly ridiculous back to being really good, with a solid understanding of how it was ever popular in the first place?
I ask this because, after years of farting around in the future and shoving big-name celebrities into its campaigns (like Kevin Spacey in Advanced Warfare… yikes), Call of Duty WW2 finally reigns the series in and focuses on what it’s done well over the years. Bar a few missteps along the way, this is a tight, explosive, sometimes shocking game, and hopefully a catalyst for the World War 2 FPS revival that’s been rumbling for a while now.
The campaign follows the American 1st Infantry Division as they make their way across the European theatre and push into Germany, starting with the horrific events on D-Day at Normandy. It’s impressive how varied this march east is, ranging from missions taking place in the blown-out streets of Paris to snowy German encampments.
It’s impressive how varied this march east is.
Call of Duty’s always been known for spectacle and scripted set-pieces, something that could be responsible for the series’ upping the ante to ludicrous degrees until we got Black Ops 3’s cyber-hypno-forest malarkey, but WW2 has cleverly taken a step back. Explosions and excitement are still absolutely present, but WW2’s are much, much more grounded: train explosions and bazookas, rather than cyborg invasions and spacewalks. It proves that going bigger and bigger isn’t the same as constantly getting more intense, as, even without a literal nuclear bomb going off in your face, there’s never a dull moment.
The loud moments are cool and all, but this CoD frequently revels in the quiet, tense moments as well. The front-line of the Battle of the Bulge, moments before the shooting starts, the military camps teeming with soldiers going about their business, these quiet moments are not only detailed and worth exploring, they serve as great ways of pacing an otherwise unrelenting experience. The single best portion of the game features very little shooting at all in an undercover mission within the heart of a Nazi war office. Maintaining cover with a Nazi glaring accusingly at your papers is so much more intimidating than any tank blowing up in your face could ever be.
WW2 feels surprisingly mature and almost respectful of its subject matter.
The epilogue, while ultimately wrapped up in the kind-of-corny “brothers-in-arms” stuff that underpins the entire campaign, is also an emotive look at the darkest parts of the war. Compared to previous attempts from the series to elicit a response from the player (No Russian in Modern Warfare 2, for instance), WW2 feels surprisingly mature and almost respectful of its subject matter. Its insistence on brotherly camaraderie can get tiring, particularly in the final acts, but it’s still a remarkable step up from what we’ve seen before.
Best of all, WW2 finally manages to add some actual memorable characters and interpersonal drama that isn’t hamfisted in. Excluding the main playable lead, who falls squarely into Generic American Hero territory, the cast is multidimensional, flawed, but ultimately sympathetic characters that stand out from the droves of Soldier Soldiersons we’ve encountered over the years. One in particular, a hardass Sergeant with a chip on his soldier, has some genuine development I wasn’t expecting in the slightest.
In a stroke of genius, each of the major players in the story can provide you with their own bonus, be it medical kits (no regenerating health here), ammunition, or explosives. By making you need to learn who has what, and what they look like, a connection to the cast grows naturally over time in a way these big-budget war FPS games very rarely succeed at doing.
This is still a Call of Duty game, though, and retains many of the smaller gameplay details that can grate over time. Shotguns lack any sort of punch, and encounters with the enemy can so busy with shouting and explosions that identifying targets can be tricky, causing plenty of mission failures due to friendly fire.
Grenades will give the usual marker telling you to get out of the area, but bazookas and exploding vehicles don’t, meaning there are frequent, unfair deaths, even from full health. Thinking you’re doing well in a fight, only to have the very dated throw-jam-at-the-screen death animation because of a bazooka coming from an enemy you can’t even see sure is a good time…
So busy with shouting and explosions that identifying targets can be tricky.
Call of Duty: WW2’s campaign is surprising in how, by going back to the structure of mid-2000s WW2 shooters, it manages to wriggle free of the series’ more recent missteps. It’s still Call of Duty, complete with a few mechanical quibbles and sometimes embarrassingly tropey dialogue. But shining out from those are some very clever design decisions and poignant moments that can easily go down as some of the most memorable in CoD history. I’m so happy World War 2 shooters are making a comeback, and that Call of Duty is leading the charge.
Check back soon for our thoughts on Call of Duty: WW2’s multiplayer and Nazi Zombie modes!
A review copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.
Platform: PC/PlayStation 4 [reviewed]/Xbox One
Developer/Publisher: Sledgehammer Games/Activision
Release date: November 3
- Great mission variety.
- Grounded story.
- Cliche-ridden dialogue.
- Overly busy gunfights.
Call of Duty: WW2 uses the best of previous-gen shooters to make a campaign that feels more grounded and impressive than ever. It’s not perfect, but this is CoD back to how it should be.
Final score will be added soon!