Developer: Sledgehammer Games
Platform(s): PC, PS4, Xbox One
Version Reviewed: PS4 Pro
World War II is a well trodden path in pop culture, and as I charged up Normandy beach in the first level of Call of Duty: WWII's single-player campaign I was reminded of the many times I've done this before: Medal of Honour: Frontline, Call of Duty 2, and even a squirrel-themed retelling in Conker's Bad Fur Day.
For better or worse, World War II is as familiar to gamers as DE_Dust or Blood Gulch, with a glut of World War II shooters following in the path of Medal of Honour and Call of Duty's early iterations to the point where both games had to move away from the theatre for a while just to do something different. When it comes to World War II video games, it's all been done before.
With that in mind, Call of Duty: WWII doesn't take us anywhere we're not already overly familiar with: From Normandy, you duck into the liberation of Paris on your way to the Battle of the Bulge. However, Sledgehammer Games has chosen instead to keep the story grounded on just a few of your close friends as opposed to focussing on the scale of the entire war.
In the process, it's made a superlative campaign that tells a meaningful story without glamorising the war or getting lost in just how vast it all is. Mostly, you're in the boots of Private Ronald “Red” Daniels, a young soldier from Texas. The story hangs on him trying to make sense of the war with his comrades, who all have their own stuff going on. You jump away a couple of times, once in a standout level as a French resistance member working with British spies to infiltrate a Nazi garrison in Paris, and there are sections where you operate several vehicles, but all of these are directly adjacent to Daniels' story, never pulling focus away from the long trudge between Normandy and the Rhine.
There's a lot of changes. Health no longer regenerates; this long-time staple of the Call of Duty series has been replaced by a need to use health-kits to heal up. You can carry four at a time, and it requires two to heal from near-death, so the game is more punishing than previous Call of Duty titles, although the kits aren't exactly rare as you move through the game.
Your squad mates each have their own unique perks that can help you out, special abilities that are charged and then activated by looking at them and hitting a button. This could involve spotting enemies or providing you with health, ammo, or grenades. I felt that this was a great idea, but in execution I found it slightly clumsy having to look through the firefight for the person that could spot enemies and hitting the key after getting close enough for it to work before returning to my firing position. When it works, it feels great, but the implementation is a little fussy and was frequently frustrating in the heat of battle.
While this return to the series' WWII roots has shaken up a lot of things, there are still several Call of Duty tropes that appear, showing that the more things change the more they stay the same. Enemies respawn infinitely in many sections, encouraging you to charge forwards and seize the next objective, and while there are many optional and enjoyable stealth segments, one mandatory section sees you trying to escape German patrols in an on-rails section while clinging onto a lost child.
The war effort seems to hinge nearly directly on you either following a superior closely, or single-handedly achieving a mission. 'Daniels,' starts your commanding officer for the mission, before asking you to take out something essential to the Third Reich's war machine. The conceit is clear, and it's mostly just a way to let the player engage with the full arsenal of weapons in as many different ways as possible.
Thing is, it undermines the game's sense of scope slightly when you seem to be the only squad in the war that's capable of doing anything.
The level of care put into every small detail really shines, and as players hurl themselves into the mud they'll see water splash onto their screen and mud splatter their hands and weapons before slowly drying into discolouration as you play. Tanks smoke and sputter, and light shines off oiled weapons as they fire rounds that crack and whine across battlefields strewn with detritus. The production quality here is incredible across the game's single-player, multiplayer, and zombies game modes, although you'll notice it more during the huge set pieces that make up the single-player campaign.
Not that the multiplayer isn't entirely without spectacle. The big new addition is the game's War mode. What is it good for? Well, the War mode is an objective-focused mode that sees players moving through a map completing specific tasks. Here, the multiplayer seems to focus on escorting tanks or building bridges. There are no killstreaks in this mode, and while the gunplay is still frenetic, the pace of the match in general is a little more sedate, as players can build and man defences, fighting to slow down the attacking forces.
The "normal" multiplayer is still a whirlwind of chaos, with spawn-killing, quick-scoping, and wholesale slaughter often the name of the game. Several of the game's modes caught my attention, but Call of Duty multiplayer is a game for those with fast reflexes, and if you don't seize an advantage early, the game's score-streaks can help a competent team snowball to victory. This feels good if you're the one earning recon flights, bombing runs, and even a squad of paratroopers dropping in to help out. It's crushing when you're on the other side of it, as a loss turns into an evisceration.
Maps are well designed, although one of the War maps requires you to build a bridge at its midway point, under the watchful eyes of MG nests and sniper fire. The area you need to attack is just wide enough for three people to fit but not wide enough to offer any cover from grenades, and as a result everyone that tries to assault in the 15-20 times I've seen the map played have quickly hit a wall. A lead wall. Made out of bullets. The rest of the maps are a variety of up-close combat peppered with mid- and long-range sight lines, meaning that while certain loadouts could be beneficial for certain maps, there's no situation where one weapon beats all.
Loadouts are a little less flexible now with the introduction of Divisions, five separate classes that emphasise the use of a different weapon and level up separately to your main multiplayer level. Players using the Expedition class get access to powerful incendiary shells for shotguns at first, but when they level up are allowed to take both a tactical and lethal grenade into battle. Further levels in the class mean you can toss them faster, emphasising the strengths of charging in with a shotgun. The game's existing perks system has been replaced by these Divisions, although they can be tweaked slightly with the addition of a basic training package which offers a benefit like holding two primary weapons or being able to carry an explosive launcher and restock it from the bodies of enemies.
Customisation remains a big draw, and players can earn a wealth of uniforms, weapon skins, and even pistol grips. It's nice if you're into that sort of thing, but let's talk about loot boxes. Loot boxes are in the game, and although I haven't seen a way to purchase them yet, it feels worth mentioning that there are guns in the game, special variants of those that can be unlocked by levelling, that are only available if you find them in a loot box or complete the collection that they're in via cosmetics from the loot box. They offer unique perks in both multiplayer and the game's zombie mode, although it seems that in the competitive mode they only give XP bonuses and handle slightly differently.
Right now, that's not enough to impact my enjoyment, but if it turns out that one of the game's loot box only variant weapons is marked as substantially powerful, there's going to be a lot of grind to get your hands on it, and that's when the game's loot boxes become worse. However, whether that will happen or even if the variants have different stats beyond a unique look remains to be seen, as I couldn't get my hands on one during the few days I spent with the game's online features.
Finally, there's the zombie mode. WWII Zombies seems to be less comedic than the theme park setting of Infinite Warfare's undead shooting, but it's very much the same game. Kill waves of enemies, get money; use the money to buy perks, unlock routes, and grab weapons.
There's a sprawling story behind the scenes, but largely it's the most detailed horde mode in video games, a maze of death and destruction wrapped around Call of Duty's shooting mechanics. It's a lot of fun, and this one sees you choosing a class and loadout before stepping into the zombiepocalypse. It's good, genuinely, but it feels so similar to the zombie modes that've come before it that it's slightly disappointing after the sweeping changes elsewhere.
Regardless, it's a good mode, better with each person you add to your team. Played solo it's a grind, but with four friends it's a pulpy horror movie.
The Call of Duty franchise is a weird one, with three separate developers working on separate iterations to be released each year. This means that Sledgehammer Games' last entry in the series was three years ago with 2014's Advanced Warfare. That these two entries in the Call of Duty series are the best it has been since the golden era of the game, back with Modern Warfare, speaks volumes about the developer, and I'm eager to see what it comes up with in 2020.
Call of Duty: WWII isn't a total reinvention of the formula set out by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's release back in 2007, but it does stand among those games as a great. The single-player campaign is intelligent, unflinching, and oddly sensitive while also letting you get stuck in with a BAR. The multiplayer and zombies modes are all present and correct, with minor tweaks improving the performance, and while nothing here can offer designs for a new and better wheel, there's still plenty of cause to recommend the game.