As players, we’ve stormed and conquered the beaches of Normandy many times before, but never quite in such emphatic fashion. From the ear splintering sound of a mortar shell that forces Private Ronald Daniels and his platoon over the side of the Higgins boat ferrying them to the French shore and into the shallows of the English Channel, Call of Duty: WWII plots an unforgiving path of intense action across tight and open fields of battle. A series well known for its frequent use of explosive action-driven set pieces, WWII often falls foul of feeling more like a Hollywood blockbuster movie than a first-person shooter, nonetheless, it relentlessly lets the player have it at every turn; beginning with an evocative and thrilling assault up the blood-soaked beaches of Normandy in a no punches pulled portrayal of the historic D-Day landings.
Despite its tendency for over-the-top action segments that would make even Micheal Bay grin from one ear to the other, as single-player campaigns go, Call of Duty: WWII‘s 6-8 hour campaign is one of the finest to date; a gritty story for the purists of war that is both engaging, enthralling and absorbing in equal parts. Look beyond the high production value action scenes, the obligatory car chase and stealth mission or the cliche Band of Brothers inspired 1st Infantry Division complete with every stereotypical soldier character imaginable and you’ll find a captivating blood and guts Call of Duty tale of brotherhood that delivers on a large scale with an emotionally charged narrative that draws you in with every mission and bone-chilling visuals that reflect the true horrors of the Holocaust.
Call of Duty: WWII: Xbox One [Reviewed], PS4, Windows PC
Developer: Sledgehammer Games
Release Date: 3 November 2017
Price: £54.99 [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Publisher]
One of the instigators of Call of Duty‘s recent decline into futuristic mediocrity and wall-running gameplay gimmicks; all credit should go to developer Sledgehammer Games for rolling back the years to return the much-maligned military series to its roots. More boots in soggy mud than boots on the ground, WWII drags the player as Pvt Daniels up onto the bullet-swept beaches of Normandy before pushing the soldier and his fellow comrades further into Europe as America and the Allied forces work tirelessly to push the Axxis’s aggression back and bring an end to the Fuhrer’s reign of terror.
The collective group that makeup WWII‘s likeable 1st Infantry Division really are a Band of Brothers inspired bunch: a country boy from the Lonestar state looking to get home to his pregnant wife, a wisecracking Jewish best friend from New York that you’d happily take a bullet for and a real hard arse of a Techincal Sargeant with a knack for rubbing other soldiers up the wrong way. The 1st Infantry Division is your typically cliched platoon, and although each character struggles to wrestle the spotlight from Daniels, in the end, you’ll feel a little something for each and every one of your brothers in arms. More so, as the game’s primary protagonist, you’ll come to rely on each and every member of your squad for one reason or another across the course of the surprisingly short campaign.
Call of Duty: WWII doesn’t exactly reinvent the series but rather refines and reaffirms it for one of the most visceral and robust war experiences seen since the series’ inception way back in 2003. It doesn’t break the mould of traditional gunplay or action sequences you’d expect from an annual Call of Duty entry, but it does tap into a selection of traditional gameplay mechanics and features such as health regeneration to toss players a new challenge. Lending further credence to the sheer level of grit and grisly realism of war, the absence of regenerating health leaves the player in constant uncompromising positions as every firefight plays out.
Being on the frontline you’re likely to catch a bullet or two, the lack of health regen not seen since Call of Duty 2: Big Red One forces the player as Daniels to turn to best friend Zussman for a health package to restore their condition rather than wait it out behind cover until the bloodstains vacate the screen. Adopting this potentially unforgiving tactic leaves the player in a very precarious position whereby you’re forced frequently to leave the safety of cover to seek out medical attention, which is not always readily available. And it’s not just in Zussman, Daniels will call upon for assistance in battle. Everything from ammo and grenade refills to marking up enemy soldiers and even calling in mortar strikes are all readily available to Daniels provided a bar adjacent to that particular ally is full and they’re close enough to call upon.
Relying on the help of others is a directional change in WWII that offers a new dynamic from the usual run-of-the-mill generic shooter. Its appearance in the campaign offers a different gameplay approach to the series and it’s a commendable one. Not only that but the switch in gameplay direction further enforces the feeling of being part of something far larger than any one man; relying on your fellow brothers to help you make it through intense situations with large groups of enemies gives the campaign new purpose and meaning, a refreshing element when it doesn’t break the immersion of combat.
Another interesting aspect to WWII is its heroic actions; scripted encounters throughout the campaign where Daniels has the opportunity to play Desmond Doss (Hacksaw Ridge). Be it saving injured soldiers from certain death by dragging their battered and bruised bodies to the safety of cover or shooting a German soldier on the cusp of stabbing an ally to death in a close quarters tussle, you can also prompt certain groups to surrender on occasion.
Beneath the boy hardy bravado and day-to-day struggles of the 1st Infantry Division and frontline war lies a well-trodden story that takes the player to hauntingly recreated real-life environments and historical battles. Bleak visuals and depressing cinematic cutscenes reflect the horror and atrocities of World War II with incredible yet heartbreaking detail. Unquestionably the best looking Call of Duty game to date thanks largely to its fantastic presentation, you’ll take in devastated war-torn locales across France and Germany, where the player will lay siege to opposing forces in the once quaint town of Marigny, work alongside the French resistance and British army officers to infiltrate and recover explosives inside a German fortress in Paris before forcing your way up Hill 493 at the brutal Battle of Hürtgen Forest.
To get the job done by any means necessary, players will have to adjust to gameplay scenarios without the use of futuristic weaponry and unique powers to overcome the odds. Instead, you’ll feel more like a mere mortal grunt than an overly powered super-soldier in WWII with a collection of appropriately accurate arsenal on hand to lay waste to any German resistance. The stunning photorealism of WWII is perfectly accompanied by the heavy assortment of firepower that follows the player across the campaign as Daniels keeps friendlies safe from harm by sharpshooting enemies from the summit of a church tower, don’s a 007 persona to sneak through a snowy German camp and toasts groups of incoming enemies in the streets of Marigny with a flamethrower. Satisfyingly traditional gunplay feels meaty, robust and exciting, but also demanding to match the unforgiving nature of war where you’ll have to improvise at times to survive and complete objectives.
Out with the old, in with the new. To fashion in with the new setting WWII‘s multiplayer has undergone several big changes including the removal of Create-a-Class, a familiar staple of the series. Stripping back the excessive loadouts of Infinite Warfare, Call of Duty: WWII‘s multiplayer feels far more grounded in its setting with the introduction of “Divisions”. Though the option to create a selection of different classes is gone the option to customise primary, secondary and gadgets remain with each of the five Divisions – Infantry, Airborne, Armored, Expeditionary and Mountain containing a selection of handy perks to make the player all the more powerful in combat.
It’s no Create-a-Class but toying with Divisions to find the right setup takes little getting used to. For example, the Expeditionary Division favours the use of the shotgun with the ability to use incendiary rounds for more damage when blasting away at enemies and the option to toggle for fire rounds that will leave your opponent looking to stop, drop and roll after being set ablaze. Another of WWII‘s interesting perks are Division Training, which when equipped affect the player in-game to make them immune to tactical equipment or ensure they take less explosive damage from grenades. Alternatively, Divisions like Mountain tailor more to the sniper class with the additional luxury of having greater minimap coverage to locate enemies while being able to hold your breath for a far steadier aim.
Further alterations to previous entries include the introduction of Headquarters, WWII‘s very own social hub where a total of 48 players can chew the fat, come together for matches or go one-on-one if they choose. Like Destiny‘s Tower hub that bands together online players socially, Headquarters serves as a great way to interact with fellow players while also being able to accept contracts, challenges, open supply drops, kick back to enjoy matches via the theatre and prestige both player and Division. Positioned on Normandy beach and its surrounding bunkers after the Allied’s victory, WWII‘s Headquarters look every bit the part, with barracks that should form a home from home for online players for many years to come.
It’s from within the open space of Headquarters that players can access and open their newly acquired supply drops. Earned by completing timed and untimed challenges or simply by levelling up, supply boxes offer players a random set of rewards that can be called in from almost any section of the online lounge. As of yet, there is no option to purchase drops with the heavily criticised microtransactions, and the ones currently available merely offer cosmetic items for your weapon or emblems and calling cards to spice up your profile along with XP bonuses to hasten your ascent up the online levelling ladder.
Disappointingly, supply drops and accessing the wide range of multiplayer modes can only be achieved when the player visits Headquarters, though rather than hinder performance, you’ll lose possibly 30 seconds waiting for the social feature to load in. It’s also an aspect that can be accessed between matches without the need to leave the multiplayer lobby at all. From Headquarters, players can access a multitude of modes including fan favourites: Team Deathmatch, Domination, Free-for-All, Capture the Flag, Domination and a new addition to the series – War. A take on attack and defend, War features split objectives that must be completed to push the attacking team forward, while the defending team must prevent the opposition from completing those tasks such as constructing a bridge, planting a bomb to destroy ammunition crates, escorting a tank or storming the beaches of Normandy to prevail.
Arguably a mode for the more casual player, War removes the worry of scoreboards, scorestreaks and kill/death ratios to offer the player a new narrative away from the campaign and the chance to work alongside a team in a refreshing change of pace to Call of Duty than players are probably used to. Though with a lack of varied map assortment, War doesn’t exactly reinvigorate the multiplayer side of WWII, it’s an enjoyable theme that’ll grow on players over time as they work in harmony or disarray to push back and attack objectives.
Away from multiplayer, there’s the Zombies mode with Nazi Zombies making a return in WWII. Forever an area of keen interest outside the campaign and multiplayer, zombies have never looked more horrifically modelled or fear-inducing than they do now. A wider diversity of undead and wonderfully clever level design come together to provide a grimy take on the seasoned mode that ticks all of the boxes. Building on the work of Treyarch before it, Sledgehammer offers something for everyone, so if you enjoy sitting back to survive waves of the mindless zombies you can do that, but for those who enjoy a good’ ol fashioned challenge, there’s a collection of inventive tasks to complete as you go. A world away from the campaign horrors of World War II, Nazi Zombies gives players the chance to blow off some steam as they attempt to stave off death and the horrors of the undead across a frighteningly designed snowy German village and deadly bunkers.
Successfully returning to what made the series so well-loved, Call of Duty: WWII is more than just a step back in time, it’s a long-awaited step in the right direction. In 2014, Sledgehammer thrust us into the future with Advanced Warfare, yet it finally makes its mark with a blood and guts tale of one platoon that encompasses the horrors of World War II with the emotional appeal of brotherhood. Staying true to the traditional Call of Duty gun and gameplay we’ve come to love, WWII may very well be more of the same but its photorealism, stunning visuals, fitting soundtrack, wonderful cast and energetic gameplay make it one of the best military shooters around.