‘Call of Duty: WWII’ Review: It Shares a Premise With the Series’ Best Games, But Not the Play
The best moment in any Call of Duty game might be in the franchise’s very first title. It’s set, like all those early installments, during World War II; in the sequence, your character is a Russian recruit, sent across the Volga River to attack the Germans during the Battle of Stalingrad. Due to a supply shortage, though, you have no gun, and getting one takes longer than is comfortable. Much longer.
You rush through the cramped battlefield, dodging machine gun fire as you move from cover to cover. All around you, men die—as many men as the game engines of 2003 could push onto the screen. The harrowing setpiece manages a tricky balance: it’s thrilling, while still showcasing how horrible it would have been to actually be at the Battle of Stalingrad.
Before the multi-million dollar success, before the multiplayer and the zombie modes and the turn toward contemporary politics, this is what Call of Duty was. In the flood of WWII media ushered in by Spielberg’s work on Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, Infinity Ward’s games set themselves apart by offering a broader, international perspective on the war. It tried to tell war stories, and it tried to tell them well.
Call of Duty: WWII, this year’s entry in the now-annualized franchise, is an attempt to return to the well that made the series work in the first place. Developer Sledgehammer Games (one of several who now take turns creating new titles) attempts to sell this new entry as a return to basics, a refocusing on the ideas and the conflict that initially birthed this series. But Call of Duty: WWII doesn’t merely miss the mark on what makes a great Call of Duty game—it seems not to know where the mark is.
For proof, look no further than the game’s choice to begin in the most obvious place possible: Omaha Beach. The single-player campaign has you play as Private Red Daniels, a sentimental Southern recruit who sounds as if he’s trying to channel every cast member of Friday Night Lights at once. You storm beaches. You liberate France. Then you participate in the Battle of the Bulge, and then crossing of the Rhine. Check mark by check mark, Call of Duty: WW2 reconstitutes an ur-American World War 2 story, derivative and dull. A story about soulful American heroes, told without soul.
In Call of Duty: WWII, patriotism is a substitute for both scale and pathos, a bandage laid over poor storytelling and predictable mission design.
Mortality in the Call of Duty series is a tricky thing. Its pitch-perfect running and shooting mechanics manage to make the player feel both flimsy and powerful, independent and yet constantly relying on AI squadmates. And the franchises’ best games marry that duality to stories that feel broad and carefully considered, giving the player a glimpse into war from a varied perspective. It’s not that these stories are always deeply intelligent, or artfully written—even in the best installments, they often aren’t. But the good ones manage to be told at a scale befitting their subject matter. Big, nasty wars call for big, nasty stories about them, particularly ones that manage to integrate multiple perspectives into them. Yet, Call of Duty: WW2 tells a small story, and does so poorly.
As an example: like in the better games, there are moments here where you move outside of your protagonist’s perspective. In the best mission in the game, you play as a woman called Rousseau, a leader of the French resistance in Paris. You infiltrate a Nazi garrison, steal necessary supplies for the liberation, and then…quietly exit stage left, as the Americans take over and do the real work. Everywhere, the perspective of Daniels—and with him, the United States—is centered to the detriment of any other perspective, or even historical accuracy. The D-Day invasion depicts only American soldiers, when in reality the decisive attack was the result of the combined efforts of American, British, and Canadian troops. The Soviets, despite suffering the largest amount of casualties in the entire war, are never even mentioned. Call of Duty: WW2 is blisteringly patriotic, at the expense of both good taste and narrative effectiveness.
Don’t get me wrong: patriotism, as a storytelling sentiment or a real emotion, isn’t necessarily a problem. Or, at least, I don’t want to argue that it is here. But in Call of Duty: WWII, patriotism is a substitute for both scale and pathos, a bandage laid over poor (and historically misleading) storytelling and predictable mission design. Sledgehammer’s latest fails to surprise or inform. It manages to entertain, but not in a way that exceeds or even differentiates itself from the dozen-plus Call of Duty titles preceding it. The multiplayer is there, yes, and a lot of players will enjoy it without even touching the singleplayer, but it’s not substantially different from anything that’s come before. What justifies the existence of this game? Why should anyone care?
I have to confess that I sincerely enjoy the Call of Duty games. I like the spectacle, and I like the way the series attempts to make that spectacle meaningful. I even usually like the way a Call of Duty game fails; their commentaries on politics and human violence, even when markedly clumsy, are still interesting to think about. As it’s aged, and tried to reinvent itself in a variety of ways, the series has produced some authentically strange and provocative work.
But Call of Duty: WWII does not belong in that category, and fails to even benefit from the work done by previous titles. Playing this game is like playing through a foggy memory of better games. And after the heights reached by earlier games covering the exact same territory, that simply isn’t nearly good enough.
Muncy on Games
Author Julie Muncy