It is, apparently, Nazi-killing season. MachineGames released the stellar Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus at the tail end of October, and Call of Duty: WWII is following right on its heels. It’s been a long time since the Call of Duty franchise visited World War II, but for better or worse, essentially nothing has changed in the intervening years. Activision seems content to rest on its laurels, with most tweaks and changes doing little to affect the overall formula. Perhaps the most notable difference in this year's installment is just how little anyone involved seems to care at this point, churning out an end product that is generic as the day is long, managing to stand out only when it displays the disrespect Sledgehammer Games has for historical accuracy and our collective intelligence.
A Virtual Grunt for the Digital Age
Call of Duty: WWII drops you right into the pants of some guy named Daniels. I don’t remember his first name, nor his rank at the beginning, though towards the end he is promoted to Corporal in one of the most absurdly strained scenes I’ve ever witnessed in a game. Daniels is so nondescript, so forgettable, that I often had difficulty picking him out in scenes with multiple characters in which he was not speaking.
The campaign begins, as it must, at Normandy. It must because this is a World War II game and World War II games have rules. Call of Duty: WWII follows these rules to the letter, like a good soldier, despite the fact that it often completely rewrites the history of the war, for reasons that I cannot comprehend. Soldiers on both sides are using the wrong weapons, the wrong artillery, and most of the campaign completely omits the ‘allied’ aspect of the Allied Expeditionary Forces. Russia lost more soldiers fighting the war than any other country, and victory was ensured largely because of their efforts, but as far as this year's Call of Duty is concerned, the country doesn't even exist. France and England are relegated to minor supporting roles, leaving younger players and the historically ignorant to believe that the United States singlehandedly defeated the Axis powers in a matter of months. It’s an odd choice to say the least, given that previous WWII-themed games in the series did not have this problem.
Even odder is Sledgehammer’s choice to force what can only be described as ‘gore porn’ down our throats at every opportunity. World War II was horrifically violent, and most people already know this. They know it without being forced to repeatedly look at a soldier who just had the top half of his head blown off, or a man whose arm has been severed by a bangalore. That doesn’t stop the developers from taking control of the camera repeatedly to force these images on you, as if to shove your nose in the viscera and scream “See!? See how terrible this all was!?” Unfortunately, it doesn’t have that effect, and instead just reeks of cheap shock for the sake of cheap shock.
The worst offense, however, is how the campaign exploits the Holocaust in a lazy attempt to make us care about our mindless protagonist, in the one instance where it even bothers to acknowledge that the Holocaust happened at all. For all of Activision’s talk about showing respect for this tragedy and the people who suffered through it, the reality boils down to about 90 seconds of throwaway footage and a few canned words about the horrors of war, delivered with zero conviction. The problem is that the Holocaust isn’t a footnote in the history of World War II; it was the central driving force behind the conflict. It was the first time in the entire history of the franchise that Activision even acknowledged the existence of the Holocaust, and it deserved more than a mere mention before being dropped altogether to focus on what Sledgehammer apparently deemed truly important – the brotherhood of soldiers.
Band of Frat Bros
The bonds that develop between men who fight and die together is the subject of most war movies, and for good reason; those bonds often represent the best of mankind and serve as a stand in for why we fight to begin with. Except it’s impossible to care about any of the main cast of characters here, as they’re all one-dimensional cardboard cutouts you’ve seen a million times before, if you can remember them at all. You’ve got the jerk sergeant with the heart of gold (played by C-lister Josh Duhamel), the cocky Italian from New York, and the farm boy from Texas (who is literally called a farm boy and informed that he is a long way from Texas, just in case it was not clear enough to begin with). Oh, and let’s not forget the guy with the Buddy Holly glasses. There’s always a guy with Buddy Holly glasses. Always.
Throughout the campaign you will come to rely on these people to successfully complete your missions, as your ability to heal, refill ammo, spot enemies and call in artillery support are tied to individual NPCs who have rechargeable meters which, once full, allow you to access their specific form of aid. The intent, I suppose, was to foster a sense of teamwork in a single player structure, but it doesn't do that at all. These characters (who are invincible due to their status as your aides) run around the battlefield with impunity, doing nothing but hawking their wares, to the point where “First aid kit, here!” becomes a cry indistinguishable from a vendor extolling the virtues of his ice cold beer at a baseball game.
I’m Only Here to Kill Nazis
It’s fair to say that most people don’t buy Call of Duty for the campaign, at least not anymore. For almost a decade, Call of Duty has been the king of multiplayer shooters, ever since Modern Warfare revolutionized the competitive FPS genre back in 2007. Call of Duty: WWII places the same emphasis on multiplayer that previous entries have, with the expected diminishing returns. You still have your good old standby game modes such as Team Deathmatch and Kill Confirmed, which are every bit as familiar as you expect, and a few new modes that don’t get the attention they probably deserve, because most people are here for their yearly Team Deathmatch fix and nothing more.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the lifeless social hub that Sledgehammer has tried to create as the heart of the multiplayer experience. A large beachside command center, replete with a gunsmith, quartermaster, post office and training area serves as a place to kill time, brush up on skills and connect with other players in between matches. The only problem is that in the 10-12 hours I spent with the multiplayer, I don’t recall seeing a single other person. This is just one of the game’s many launch issues, with several people having difficulty even connecting to lobbies or even logging in. I finally gave up when I realized I wouldn’t be able to complete certain optional tasks for extra XP because they required me to interact with other players, and that wasn’t really an option. Activision has recently acknowledged that this feature has been rolled back temporarily as it is not working correctly, but as of yet there is no mention of when it will be properly implemented again.
When you do get into a full match, though, the multiplayer is still solid. Controls are smooth and snappy, and Sledgehammer is still one of the few developers who can give players a generous dollop of auto-aim without it really feeling like auto-aim. The maps are well designed for the most part, allowing for intuitive movement between sections but requiring patience, trial and error to really master. You still rank up as you play, unlocking newer and better gear. Deaths are still cheap and you’re always back in the fight with little downside. You still have the option to 'prestige' after maxing your level. Each match now also features a Bronze Star highlight at the end, which functions as a Play of the Game clip. Every single highlight has a slow-mo effect that begins halfway through, regardless of when the actual stellar play is taking place, meaning that sometimes you get to watch someone aim at a wall or reload their gun for five seconds. Surely Sledgehammer will fine tune this feature as time goes on, but for now it’s kind of a mess. Overall, the multiplayer is more of the same for the most part.
There is a new game mode in Call of Duty: WWII that is notable, though. Simply called War, this aptly named mode basically recreates sections of the campaign as a multiplayer component, so that now you can really, truly trivialize events like the landing at Normandy by adding score streaks and loot crates to the mix, all while foul-mouthed tweens hump your corpse after each death. Not only is it a low point in the game’s mad dash to the bottom of the barrel in terms of respecting its supposed source material, it’s also just a horribly implemented, utterly chaotic mode that doesn’t work. The actual events of World War II (or any war, really) are too asymmetrical to function as good multiplayer. While I spent at least a few hours with each of the other modes available, I had my fill of War after just a few rounds of watching Axis players lighting opponents on fire en masse with flamethrowers on the beaches of Normandy.
In the end, though, this is the same multiplayer we’ve gotten for years. It is, unquestionably, a Call of Duty experience. No more, no less. Your response to that tells you all you need to know about whether the online component has enough legs to justify a purchase. It should be noted, also, that you cannot play as any of the Axis powers in multiplayer. Activision is on record as saying that it might not be a good look to let teenagers run around pretending to be genocidal Nazis in today's climate. On that point, I agree wholeheartedly. Of course what should have been the first clue that maybe World War II doesn't work well as a video game only served, in this case, to inspire Sledgehammer Games to replace all Nazi imagery and branding with a generic cross symbol, effectively ignoring the actual history of the war yet again.
What’s Old is New Again
I’m usually not a fan of World War II games on general principle. While I am an advocate of the idea of games as art, I don’t think this is the right medium to represent historical conflicts mired in racial issues. In fact, in all my years covering games, I’ve yet to see a title that was both true to the history of World War II and respectful of it. Not only does Call of Duty: WWII fail to break this pattern, it falls flatter than most attempts in the process, often in spectacularly offensive fashion.
The shooting is solid, the graphics are fine, the sound design and musical score are acceptable if uninspired, and yet the game is significantly less than the sum of its parts. At its best it is proof that Activision’s stable of developers has run out of ideas, returning to World War II for no other reason than they didn’t know where else to go. At its worst, it is a morally repugnant, jingoistic piece of trash. Your mileage may vary, based on your affinity for the franchise in general, but I'm happy to hang up my boots and walk away from this fight for good.