Call of Duty started by dramatizing World War 2. It took cues from every other romanticized telling of the conflicts and put the player in the shoes of the brave souls that fought in one of the most historic conflicts in human history. It’s this cinematic approach to campaigns and verisimilitude to real events that put the franchise on the map.
That was back in 2003, and things have changed quite a lot since then. Oversaturation of jingoistic WW2 dramas in gaming got to the point where most players could take Normandy Beach or Stalingrad blindfolded with one arm tied behind their back (or with a DDR pad), so Activision’s tentpole franchise went to modern theaters of war. Then to the future. Then to space. Then after riding those ideas to their inevitable conclusion, Sledgehammer Games and Raven Software were tasked with going back to the well once again with Call of Duty WW2. A return to basics with the promise to do the setting justice while also struggling with the baggage the series has collected over its fourteen years of existence.
And it’s true what they say: you can’t go home again.
Band of Brothers in Arms
Within the first mission of the game’s campaign I rolled my eyes from how much familiar ground was being tread. You are put in the shoes of an American soldier being deployed to the European front in order to assist the Allies in retaking France from Nazi occupation. So of course this means the opening is storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, with the rest of the campaign’s plot bending itself into pretzels to present a rollercoaster highlight reel of various conflicts.
It’s a narrative structure the series has used before, showing different perspectives and forms of conflict across multiple locations, but in Call of Duty WW2 the historical element feels more like obligatory set dressing than something genuine. One mission can involve surviving the Normandy landings that feels gritty, harsh, and real… but it’s over in about two minutes and leads to an all too familiar bit of trench fighting. Another level starts as a race against the clock infiltration operation which turns into a prolonged car chase to blow up a train ending with shrapnel and explosions flying at the protagonist in such volume it turns into an unaware parody of video game spectacle. It wants to be Saving Private Ryan in terms of earnest dedication to the period and conflict but it also wants to be Pearl Harbor at the same time. And in the end, it just winds up as an uninspired mess of both.
But what’s particularly damaging is that the gameplay itself feels antiquated and dull. The big selling point of the campaign was to strip gameplay back to basics, no wall-running or jetpacks here, but there was no real change or evolution done by all of this reduction. The gunplay itself is reliable with the usual mix of pistol, shotgun, rifle, and SMG on offer, and there are some decent gun battles to experience. But this is put alongside tedious uphill fights that can go on forever, a lot of unhealthy Quick-Time Events, and what little bits of variety the campaign throws at you—car chases, sniper nests, tank rampages, poorly implemented stealth sections, etc.—are bog standard and repeated ad nauseum. If it wasn’t for all the impressive tech being shown off, Call of Duty WW2 plays like a second rate version of the stuff Infinity Ward made back in the day.
The only real major change is the notable absence of regenerating health. The only way to heal in the game is to find some cover and use a med kit on yourself, and there are only so many you can carry. It’s a clever way to make gunfights more intimidating, forcing you to play it safe rather than tank gun fire and run in like a maniac. Even serving as a form of moment-to-moment resource management. Do you use up all your kits now to punch through an installment and make things harder later or do you play the long game? It also encourages you to stick with your squad mates, some of whom have the ability to give extra med kits or ammo.
It’s the closest thing to a new idea Call of Duty WW2 brings to the table, but it crashes against more modern level design of forcing the player to push through hard spots like a war hero. This can lead to situations where you’re out of med kits and about to die but need to push through in order to get to the next checkpoint in the level. It didn’t happen often in my playthrough, but when it did it was more annoying than challenging.
The sad thing is despite how uninspired and underwhelming the gameplay is, even by Call of Duty’s formulaic standards, there is a genuine attempt to tell a war narrative. The main characters aren’t exactly memorable, but their dialogue and banter are well written, selling the era as well as the attitudes at the time. There was a clear level of high production polish across the entire campaign. And despite the complaints I have leveled at the campaign there wasn’t anything really awful or outright terrible on a fundamental gameplay and design level.
But the sword cuts in both directions. After seeing the credits roll I barely remember anything about the campaign itself. There are a few highlights to be sure, personal highlight being a particularly haunting and tasteful sequence near the end that addresses the horrors perpetuated by the Nazis, but all of those moments together equal maybe twenty minutes total in an eight hour long campaign. And none of the story beats really compare to other major, impactful sequences like the visceral punch that was the Harlem Hellfighters prologue in DICE’s Battlefield 1. It could have been so much worse, but it also could have done something more.
Axis vs. Allies
But for many fans of the franchise, Call of Duty WW2’s primary attraction is its competitive multiplayer. Much like the campaign itself, a lot of the more exotic and nonsensical abilities like laser rifles and cloaking devices have been stripped out of this entry, leading to a greatly simplified customization system.
Instead of picking half a dozen perks and multiple variations on an SMG, WW2 keeps things simple with basic weapon choices and your personal choice of one of five Divisions. Infantry is your general class, Mountaineer is for long-range snipers, and Armored is for those fond of shotguns and close-quarters clashes.
It’s a return to basics that actually helps the online gunfights in this respect. The last major Call of Duty game I played, Advanced Warfare, was an absolutely unbalanced alienating mess that turned me off of the online entirely, but with WW2 the result is night and day. Grab the weapons you like, pick one or two benefits you think will work, then get on the battlefield and get to it.
In addition to the classic modes to choose from like Domination, Team Deathmatch, and Kill Confirmed, the biggest addition to the game is War mode. An objective-based prolonged battle between two teams where one attacks and one defends various key locations and points across a large map. It’s one of the most ambitious and meatiest of the new online offerings and does help recontextualize certain major conflicts like the all-too familiar Normandy landings as a competitive experience.
What’s less impressive is the Multiplayer’s nakedly obvious attempt to replicate the online community of Destiny. After you jump in to the online portion of the game, you are given access to a base camp simply called Headquarters. From here you can customize your character, challenge other players to one-on-one versus matches, test new weapons at a firing range, or even claim various daily and weekly challenges which unlock special currency and unlockable loot boxes.
Which leads to arguably the most tone deaf and tactlessly offensive addition to the game so far. Much like every other major AAA production on the market, Call of Duty WW2 doesn’t reward skillful play with new weapons or scorestreaks, but through loot chests full of randomly generated gun grips, buffs, exp boosts, and cosmetic unlockables. This would be tolerable if it wasn’t for the fact that you must call in these loot boxes from the social hub, the selling point being that other people can see what you’ve unlocked. It feels completely out of place in the setting, the actual World War 2 was some time after the Great Depression, which meant low supply yield after all. It’s also another subtle, yet significant step towards the psychological pressure on players to purchase loot boxes via microtransactions for an edge in online play.
As of this writing the online store isn’t live yet, but considering that even remastered games from ten years ago aren’t above such tactics, it’s only a matter of time.
Curiously enough, it’s a tactic that may have backfired due to how empty and antisocial Headquarters is. Throughout my time playing, if anyone popped into the social zone it was usually to get new challenges then it was back into online lobbies to rack up their K/D ratio. This leaves a lot of the socializing emotes, challenges, and loot box spectating as fluff for a community that isn’t embracing it.
Finally, there is the return of the Nazi Zombies mode. A mode that is actually available right off the bat in Call of Duty WW2. Framed as a pulpy action romp, the mode involves you and several buddies working together to hold off waves of zombified German soldiers to end the Nazis’ final desperate push to winning the war.
It’s a dopey and silly enough framework but much like the game’s campaign, the presentation is decent while the gameplay is stale. Even after some beautifully cheesy cutscenes featuring some adorably stunt-cast celebrities like Ving Rhames and David Tennant, most of your time will be spent running from location to location, killing zombies with whatever you have on hand then spending points earned from killing those zombies on better weapons and gear.
Aside from some objectives that push the battle towards different locales and even its own dedicated form of loot box, Nazi Zombies is a mostly throwaway experience. It can lead to some entertainment with the right friends but wears out its welcome quickly.
If Call of Duty is still the event series for you every November, chances are WW2 will be more than enough entertainment. But for a game whose entire marketing campaign has been about taking the series in a bold new direction and giving a fresh spin on a familiar theater of war, the actual result is a mixed bag of welcome simplification, tonal inconsistency, worrying predatory monetization, and staid predictability.
It’s not a bad game by any stretch, but as a whole it’s an underwhelming imitation of past glory.