Call of Duty: WWII review—The less things change…
Call of Duty: WWII certainly has some interesting timing. It has the dubious duty of returning the landmark first-person series to its titular roots at a time when any game centered on fascism, nationalism, and especially Nazism is under extra scrutiny. And it just so happened to release a week after another game dealt with that same subject matter head-on.
The change in setting follows the powerfully negative reaction to last year’s spacey Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, with World War II representing a hard return to the series’ slightly less bombastic roots. There are no spaceships, powered exoskeletons, robots, or drones in WWII. There’s no wall-running or double-jumping. There are just guns and the people who hold and shoot them.
That ends up being just the start of the game’s problems, though. As much as WWII peels away at the bloat surrounding the long-running series, it doesn’t really replace it. Its campaign starts with the US invasion of Normandy and hits every other European theatre cliché from there. It strikes those clichés so sharply on the nose that their own mother wouldn’t recognize them (even with the aid of the same Band of Brothers DVD box set the developers seemed to use for reference).
Deja vu is a French phrase
Your primary playable character is “Texas farmboy” Red Daniels, who just wants to be a hero and clings to a photo of his girl back home. His commanding officer is a shady jerk who made a mysterious, questionable decision with his last platoon. At some point your squad finds civilians but can’t decide what to do with them. You snipe some people from a church bell tower. If none of this is familiar, may I suggest one of the millions of pieces of media about World War II?
The gameplay doesn’t fare any better than the story. Its major mechanical shakeups, in the single-player campaign at least, amount to a smattering of stealth sequences and health that no longer regenerates. The latter change seems massive at first, but, besides one-hit-kill shots from rockets and snipers, I rarely felt I was in any extra danger. You can receive first-aid kits from around the battlefield and further request them from a squadmate.
In fact, every named character around Red basically acts as a special skill that you charge up by shooting Nazis or performing “heroic actions.” This is the closest WWII comes to an interesting replacement for the wrinkles of previous Call of Duty campaigns. At times, different squadmates will take one of two different positions around an enemy encampment. Without even realizing it, I would follow one soldier’s route or the other, which would effectively lock me into a certain supply line. If I dug in with Private Zussman, for instance, I’d receive those recurring health packs but not free ammunition. Others might offer binoculars that highlight enemies (I can’t remember any other character’s name).
Theoretically, putting characters’ names and faces to these skills might make them more memorable. Maybe you like one ability better than another, so you wind up spending more time with your corresponding brother in arms? Or, maybe you like Zussman better than… (short writing pause to look up a forgettable character’s name) Aiello and learn to play differently depending on what you have available.
The problem is that the characters are such rough fabrications with so little development that it’s impossible to care about them for any reason. One minute your hard-ass sergeant is ready to extrajudicially execute you. In the next scene, he’s just a misunderstood war hero who cared too much. The game never commits to anyone being anything specific or interesting for long enough to make it matter.
In fact, WWII is so committed to being noncommittal it borders on offensive. In one early scene, Red chastises a fellow soldier for mocking dead Nazis. He barks “Hey, that’s somebody’s son,” before a friend starts listing off German celebrities and achievements that prove “they’re not all bad.” While I get what the scene was likely going for, it’s badly missing a third party to point out the difference between murderous white supremacists and the arc of German history. Combined with how the game glosses over or outright ignores the ideology and crimes of the war while also painting it as just another hoorah victory in US military history, the storytelling here makes me more than a little queasy.
You could argue that Call of Duty campaigns have always been politically tone deaf, and you’d be right. But other games in the franchise have at least tried to be evocative, mechanically and narratively, successfully or not. Black Ops ended with the protagonist assassinating JFK, for God’s sake. WWII just feels capitulatory in the ugliest way, by comparison, and it’s just dead boring after we’ve had 11 years to think of new stories to tell in the war itself.
Author Ars Staff