There’s “going back to your roots,” and then there’s “retreating to a place of safety.” Given Call of Duty’s history in World War II shooters, and its subsequent pivot to modern and futuristic games, I wasn’t sure which one CoD: WWII would be. The Second World War is a relatively safe place to set a video game (odd, considering how horrible it was and how many people who fought in it are still alive), and developer Sledgehammer has a solid track record behind them, so there wasn’t much doubt that they could build, at least, a highly competent game. But a truly great game?
After all, how much more is there to say about World War II?
I’m partway into the campaign for Call of Duty: WWII, and thus far, the answer to that question is “Not much.”
As with all Call of Duty games, when you boot it up, you’re playing an incredibly solid and polished first-person shooter. Running, sliding, crawling through the mud, and of course, shooting, everything is tight and responsive — at least as much as the period weaponry allows. Aiming down the sights feels authentic, and guns kick back and reload as you’d expect. It takes some getting used to, after playing so many futuristic shooters, but once I was in the groove, I was able to reset my expectations.
What went even a bit beyond my expectations was the presentation. This modern take on the WWII setting is by far the best example of it I’ve seen so far in games, both graphically and in its general atmosphere. Even more so than recent shooters, CoD: WWII really shows off the graphical capabilities of current-gen consoles. Play in 4K HDR if possible (I played on a PS4 Pro with a 4K TV). It’s really beautiful.
Beautiful graphics will only take you so far, though. Gameplay in a first-person shooter is crucial; things like mission structure and variety of objectives are key. The opening mission is the D-Day invasion of Normandy, and without spoiling what happens, I’ll just say things don’t go exactly as planned for you and your fellow soldiers. However, the bombastic and exciting introduction is quickly bogged down with a “clear five bunkers” mission that feels so video game-y. I don’t want to be accused to criticizing a video game for feeling like a video game, but the rest of the presentation comes across as so serious — from the black-and-white introductory movie to the nervous chatter between the troops on the boat — that leaping directly into a game feels odd. More organic integration of objectives would have been appreciated.
There are characters you’ll like and/or find annoying. Some troops will gain the ability to hook you up with medpacks or ammo during the fight, so staying close to them is a real benefit, even if you aren’t super fond of them. I do appreciate that the characters have personalities. We’re long past the era of nameless, faceless heroes standing in as substitutes for us, the gamers (though someone should tell that to certain JRPG developers; looking at you, Persona 5), so it’s refreshing to see characterization, even if it’s surrounded by cliches. “You’re a long way from Texas, farm boy,” for example. I get it. I’m an underdog who will undergo a difficult trial to become a hero.
I realize I’m being a bit harsh on what is overall, so far, a very enjoyable game. But I was hoping for more justification for the return to the World War II setting. I wanted a true “back to the roots” experience, and not a retreat into safety. For a franchise to effectively go back to its roots, it needs to find something new to say, to shed new light on something we thought we knew well. I’ve still got a ways to go before I’ve completed the game, so I’m open to being surprised. But so far, it seems like business as usual.