Call of Duty: WWII
Author: M.S.
System: PS4, XBONE, PC

Another year, another Call of Duty.

For some, this is what they live for, for others just the name might spark derision and a collective groan. Regardless of what players think, it doesn’t really matter because it’s another goldmine for Activision’s flagship franchise.

Personally, I haven’t really been attached to a Call of Duty game since the college days, playing Spec Ops with my buddies in Modern Warfare 2. This might be partly because I’m not a huge First Person Shooter fan, but with last few years of excellent releases such as last years Battlefield 1, Titanfall 2, and of course Overwatch, the Golden child herself, converting me slowly, Call of Duty just seemed stale even as they “Advanced” the warfare, eventually taking it to the stars in last year’s underwhelming release of Infinite with little fanfare.

With the recent trend in the genre of pushing to more futuristic endeavours, Sledgehammer Games tries to follow DICE’s footsteps with last years Battlefield by bringing warfare back to the basics and using WWII as the canvas in a game aptly named Call of Duty: WWII. While the result is not as overwhelmingly successful as Battlefield 1’s de-evolution, due to issues with the campaign and a host of technical issues, COD: WWII’s simplification works in its favor with their most enjoyable multiplayer offering in years while simultaneously offering some surprising new touches to the established formula.

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I have to say COD: WWII didn’t exactly inspire confidence the first time I booted it up. The initial draw of the game for me was in its campaign, which promised to tell a more mature and character driven story, something that most WWII games have had a hard time fully nailing. Unfortunately the campaign never materializes in anything more than a generic retelling of the world’s deadliest war and is easily the weakest part of the package.

You play the role of a young soldier, PFC Red Daniels, a salt-of-the-earth Texan farm boy as generic as they come. Part of a highly revered Platoon whose goal is to push up the frontlines of Normandy to the Rhine, Daniels story is one of brotherhood and honor. While it hints at greater things, the story barely gives you enough time to breath between each bombastic set piece to really delve into any of its themes anymore than superficially.

There are a few problems with the main campaign that keep it from reaching the emotional arc the studio was trying to go for. First off, the characters are almost all very dull. Take for example TSgt. Pierson, played by Josh Duhamel, who plays a hard ass, “I’ve seen some real shit” type of Seargeant – you know the type you’d exactly expect Duhamel to play. He’s always trying to push his macho bravado at every available moment, rarely giving you anything resembling three-dimensions. As for the rest of your rag-tag platoon mates, you have the loudmouth New Yorker, the soft-spoken Bookworm, and the tough but loyal Lieutenant. The only character of any real interest is Zussman, your best bud, mostly because of who he happens to be during the circumstances, a German Jew. This brings up an interesting story arc later in the story, but at that point the emotional payoff is limited. Regardless, other than him, none of the characters are given enough time to shine or anything remotely original to say, instead following played out archetypes. It also doesn’t help that the writing is incredibly pedestrian with such lines as “That was some good soldiering” highlighting the 5-hour campaign.

The other major problem comes down to how familiar all of this feels. From storming the beaches of Normandy to pushes the Axis troops back in war-torn cities along the western front, we have played this exact same scenario out a dozen other times in video game warfare history, without anything really new or inventive here. Sure we are dealing with history, but why can’t we see a different perspective or section of the war.

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It also doesn’t help the fact that the campaign is just as underwhelming from a gameplay perspective. Eschewing regenerative health, COD WWII brings the series back to its roots even in gameplay by requiring you to heal with health packs, while also making ammo hard to come by. This, coupled with the focus on brotherhood, brings forth the signature mechanic throughout the campaign: Squad Orders.

Throughout the campaign, you will be teamed up with various members of your platoon, each, who are accompanied by their own meter – seen in the corner of the screen. Upon clearing out enemies and objectives, this meter fills up and when full, will treat you with munitions, health, flares for artillery drops, and even the ability to scan the battlefield for enemies. While it’s a neat idea in theory, the times I needed that extra fill up on health or a quick strike on an enemy nest with an air volley, my teammates were never within reasonable reach, either on the opposite side of the battlefield or at the very least in areas that would expose me to the enemy before I reached, essentially nullifying any benefit they would serve. It feels like a very tacked on gimmick that is as half-baked as the majority of the 11 missions, which for the majority see you running into buildings, clearing out the enemy, rinse and repeat, with an obnoxious quick time event sprinkled in way too often.

It feels like the team at Sledgehammer wasn’t given either enough time or developmental freedom to create something more memorable which is a huge shame as there are hints of greater things in here. This is none more apparent in mission 5, which takes you on a multi-tiered covert operation in Nazi-occupied Paris that is thrilling, gorgeously detailed, features the most interesting narrative moments and the introduction of a surprisingly adept stealth mechanic. There’s not only a startling difference in quality here, but the whole thing feels so much more inspired than anything up until this point, it’s almost as if the mission was excerpted from a different, better game.

To be fair, there are a couple of late game missions which showcase these glimmers of brilliance, including a daring rescue attempt in a Nazi camp and a heated assault in the icy plains of Bruges that verges on scope seen in Battle of Hoth in the Empire Strikes Back – now that’s saying something. Nonetheless, when 80 percent of the campaign had me wishing I were playing something else, whether it be the lazy level design or janky mechanics, the great moments feel vastly overshadowed.

If there is one other positive to take from the campaign, as well as the rest of the game, is that it is a looker, chock full of expensive looking explosions and great set pieces that probably were the result of many long nights for artists and programmers getting the details just right. A high octane brush with artillery fire has to be the most memorable highlight with soldiers ducking, dodging and running for their lives between exploding shells and falling trees, has to be one of the most harrowing and shockingly realistic displays – not to mention, best tree physics – I’ve seen in interactive entertainment ever. The sound design also spares no expensive, adding to the horror with such visceral detail that you wish the overall experience was more memorable. The soundtrack is fairly standard big sweeping orchestral type of stuff, but it is highlighted by the very catchy main theme.

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While the campaign is mostly a dud, most of you are here for what Call of Duty is known for: the multiplayer. And yes, it’s good, very good.

What has always been the main selling point is back and better than it has been in a while, simplifying many of the bells and whistles of recent outings such as the double jump and wall run – which were frankly, better implemented in Titanfall – and have gone back to its roots. That doesn’t mean the game as a whole has gone back in time. While the game still features kill streak perks and the same buttery smooth gunplay that made this franchise the most lucrative in the world, the game adds to and perfects its progression systems.

You start off by choosing one of five Divisions including Infantry, Airborne, Armored, Mountain, and Expeditionary – of which you can all unlock very shorty after if you so choose. Each class has its own perks, which benefits a certain weapon and play style. For example, the Airborne class grants you more mobility which pairs well with SMG’s, while the Mountain class gives you better stealth options, which makes them the ideal option if you want to be a Sniper. They can be leveled up to gain new abilities and of course – just like your overall character and weapons – can be prestiged.

On top of the classes, you are given Basic Training bands, which unlock further abilities for your unit. These can come in the form of faster reload speed or switching out your pistol for an additional primary weapon. There are so many ways to customize your style of play and you are constantly being rewarded with new unlocks for weapons and abilities that playing one more match quickly turns into twelve in hopes of unlocking an ability or even something cosmetic like a camouflage for your gun or a new skin via loot boxes, which I will get into later.

There are 8 main maps spanning the 9 modes at play here and for the most part they are good with solid variety. There are large maps such as Gustav Cannon that are perfect for sniping, while the confined innards of the USS Texas warship make for some intense close quarters encounters. There are a couple of duds, which is a shame due to the small amount of maps, but overall I rarely found myself bored of a particular map as they are given fair rotations.

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While you are treated to the tried and true stable of greats found in previous iterations of CO such as Team Deathmatch, Free-For-All, Kill Confirmed, Domination and well as newer additions such as Hardpoint, the main draw for this year’s release is a brand new mode called War, and it is worth the price of admission alone.

Much like last year’s excellent Operations mode in Battlefield 1, but on a smaller scale, COD: WWII’s War mode pits you as either the Axis or Allies in a series of maps that require you to complete or – in case of the defending team – prevent­­ a set of objectives to progress onwards. For example, Operation Neptune starts the attacking team off as the Allies on the beaches of Normandy while the defending Axis team tries to gun down and prevent a beachhead and eventual overthrowing of their bunkers. If the attack is successful, the battle is pushed back to an equipment storage room that needs to be destroyed and if that is taken care of an eventual final push to destroy a set of AA guns further inland.

Not only are these objectives fun and a great change of pace from the standard assortment of modes, the maps lend for great strategy on both sides, with both having to read the situation and adapt with their team quickly. As a member of the Axis do I focus building walls closer to the beach or is sniping from a Pillbox, eliminating the chance of the opposing side getting a chance of breaching our defenses, the better option at the moment.

It’s fast, fun, and some of the most intense multiplayer action I’ve experienced rivaling the best of Overwatch’s team escort missions and the aforementioned Operations found in Battlefield 1. The only downside: only 3 maps available at launch. If the eventual DLC War maps are as good as what’s offered here though, the Season Pass might just be a more attractive proposition.

While War is the new major addition to the multiplayer suite of modes, the biggest change to the Call of Duty formula comes in the form of Headquarters, COD’s first online social hub – and it comes with mixed results.

When first loading up online multiplayer, you will be surprised to find yourself on Omaha Beach with players from all around the world. Not only is this a visual treat compared to the generic menu-based interfaces of old – don’t worry you still have access to those for mode selection – it serves as a venue to interact with fellow players whether it be by challenging them 1V1 in some P2P action or just testing out your new spiffy new Carbine Rifle at the Shooting Range. Most importantly it is here you can pick up daily and weekly challenges that encourage you to try out new weapons and classes for bonuses such as XP modifiers and even a loot box or two.

Yes loot boxes make an appearance as with most games these days, but thankfully the spoils they house are only cosmetic in purpose – really cool cosmetics may I add – changing the look of your guns without any of the stats, though you can get special variants that hand out more XP with use. That’s about as egregious as it gets, but I do have to say it’s quite silly that you can gain Social Rank – a new currency, which from what I’ve seen gives very little in terms of actual rewards other than social clout – just by watching other players open their loot boxes. I get it, they want you to get jealous of the Heroic skin someone pulled in hopes that you fork over cash to procure more of your own, but thankfully from the time I’ve put into the multiplayer, you are most likely coming away with a couple every hour or so whether it be from dailies or random drops.

While the new Headquarters is a cool addition that will surely be improved upon in future iterations, right now it’s a bit of a mess. While it has been more stable three weeks in, the whole thing feels like it’s holding on by a thread. Load times into matches aren’t a problem, but in between matches it was a pain trying to scroll through my loadouts, orders, and even returning to the hub itself because of the obvious taxing nature running a social hub in the background of a game will cause. Not only that there were times it wouldn’t give me enough time to leave before the next match started forcing me to play another round or forfeit and suffer an automatic loss. At other time it would flat out just randomly change my appearance. One time it crashed in the middle of me opening a loot box and I never received the contents. Overall it feels like more time was needed to fully flesh out the kinks with this new system and unfortunately it makes COD: WWII feel like a game rushed to market.

This is a general sentiment with the game both in the campaign and multiplayer. Often I would get hung up on a rough edge – metaphorically and physical…er well virtually – or the hit detection would be off or characters would glitch into the environment. This is fully seen in one of the eight maps called Pointe de Hoc where players have been exploiting a glitch on a hill where they cannot be hit, but have free range to take out anybody they so choose with no consequences – this has yet to be patched also, mind you. It’s a shame because the multiplayer is a lot of fun that the numerous amounts of technical shortcomings really do put a massive blemish on the whole package.

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Finally rounding out the package again this year is Nazi Zombies. While it might feel like a jarring shift tonally from the more serious subject matter of the main campaign, it’s always fun to see which group of character actors Activision will fork out their money to procure for their over-the-top B-Movie inspired slaughterfests. This year we get the likes of Ving Rhames and David Tenant hamming it up in a more objective-based affair than previous outings, forcing you in this case to escape a zombie-infested town instead of making a last stand in a solitary area.

While this was by far the mode I put the least time into, I had a blast playing with friends both online and via couch co-op when I did. While not nearly as engaging as the Left for Dead games, the gothically delightful Final Reich map has enough twists and turns like any good pulpy horror flick to keep you and your friends – or strangers – entertained for hours.

 

3.5 out of 5

 

Call of Duty WWII is a weird game for me. As a predominately single-player focused gamer, I went in expecting the thought provoking story we were promised, but instead came out 30 hours later wanting to spend more time in multiplayer thanks to its strong sense of progression and exhilarating War mode.

At the same time it’s weak campaign and overall rushed feel – due to many annoying bugs and glitches – keep it from reaching the levels of not only its glory years, but other contemporaries that are pushing the genre in ways Activision’s franchise once did.

Let’s get this straight though, Call of Duty WWII is a very good game and a return to form in some ways for a franchise that is struggling to find the same critical applause it was graced with a decade ago. Just don’t expect this jump into the past to push this franchise into the future like it once did.

Sometime war needs to change.

 

 

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