After so many trips to the future, fans trepidatiously awaited the announcement of what futuristic year 2017’s Call of Duty installment would take us to. Such an announcement never came, and instead we learned that the series would be traveling back in time to arguably the most popular time period ever touched on by the franchise, World War II. Call of Duty: WWII pulls its context from the history of war while pulling its gameplay from the history of the series itself. Risks were taken, but not at the expense of paying homage to what made the past games great.
As so many World War II games do, Call of Duty: WWII’s journey begins at the start of the iconic battle of D-Day. Players take on the role of Private “Red” Daniels, a soldier in America’s First Infantry Division (the Bloody 1st) who was tasked with partaking in some of the biggest battles in the war, such as the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of Paris. Red doesn’t quite steal the show, but he is a virtuous and charismatic protagonist, sufficient for a World War II story. Unlike the leads in many previous Call of Duty games, Red is fully voiced and characterized, which is nearly always preferable. It makes it much easier to relate to a character and their struggle if they paint the picture themselves, even if the delivery isn’t top notch.
The remainder of the narrative’s emotional weight falls on Red’s fellow squadmates, who are also well characterized and are the cause for the game’s most impactful conflicts. Much of this conflict spawns from Technical Sergeant Pierson who, in some ways, takes the position of the story’s primary antagonist in a role more complex than is initially understood. They say in war that soldiers fight for the soldier at their side, and this is certainly the truth in WWII, as each squad member has a part to play and plays it well. The relationship between Red and his best friend, Zussman, proves to be a particularly strong emotional drive, turning the war into a more personal endeavor toward game’s end.
In between the narrative milestones, players will be taking out Nazis like they have so many times before. Popping behind cover and unloading bullets at anything that fires back has always been the tried and tested formula for Call of Duty, but WWII features two key evolutions that distinguish its single-player from installments past. First, the classic health regeneration system is out on its ass, replaced with a conventional health pack system. This trade-off can make one realize how unfair Call of Duty enemies can be when attacking you—doing damage without clear lines of sight or chipping you down with grenade spamming—but it also provides the game with new levels of strategy and exploration, ultimately adding more entertainment than frustration.
Health packs can be randomly found around the environment, but they can also be earned through WWII’s second major single-player surprise; Squad Support. The narrative focus on the members of the squad seamlessly bleeds over into the gameplay with a new system that forces the player to rely on the men around them. Performing certain actions, such as getting kills or saving fellow soldiers, will increase meters for various squad members, allowing each to provide their specific type of support. This includes health packs, ammo, enemy spotting, grenades, and mortar strikes. Each squad member exclusively offers one type of support (Private Zussman providing health packs, Sergeant Pierson providing enemy spotting, etc.), so the resources available will vary from mission to mission depending on which squad members are at the player’s side at a given time.
Past Call of Duty games had the player as such an unstoppable powerhouse that fellow soldiers felt more like scenery than active participants in the fight. WWII’s Squad Support mechanic not only necessitates more strategic positioning and resource management in the heat of battle, it also gives the player’s squad a reason to be there beyond barking out orders. Not every feature is so well implemented, however. Quick-time events make an appearance a number of times, which—though brief—can be some of the experience’s most frustrating moments. The prompts are aggressively small and similarly colored, punishing poor eyesight over a slow reaction time. Fortunately, they only come up periodically in missions.
More important are the missions themselves. The conventional firefights and stealth objectives are nicely interjected with a variety of turret and vehicle missions, in addition to a bizarre, but charming, covert-puzzle mission while undercover in a German government building. It may not be revolutionary, but WWII has traveled further outside the series’ single-player comfort zone than most of its predecessors and it was a worthwhile effort.
While the single-player makes strides away from established Call of Duty trends, WWII’s multiplayer takes us back to the older days of the shooter, with a few notable exceptions. Before dropping into battle, recruits will find themselves in WWII’s new Headquarters social space. For the first time, Call of Duty players have an online space in which to organize and socialize prior to jumping into the multiplayer experience. Headquarters is also where players can find a variety of daily and weekly multiplayer challenges, rewarding loot boxes full of cosmetic items, experience boosts, and other goodies giving the standard progression a bit more urgency. Beyond meeting up with fellow soldiers and managing challenges, Headquarters boasts numerous activities—helpful as both amusing distractions and training opportunities for the fights ahead—such as a scorestreak testing area, a 1v1 competitive pit, a firing range, arcade games, and more. The novelty of the feature wears off rather quickly, but it is still better to poke around Headquarters while waiting for a match than sit and watch a progress bar.
When it is time to actually jump into the fight, players will find a Call of Duty multiplayer experience reminiscent of the series’ earlier days. Fast-paced, three-lane firefights are still the core of the action, and the lack of the jetpacks and platforming found in recent games gives WWII a steadier, more grounded feel that many have been missing for a while. For those understandably concerned about online stability in this age of uncertainty, be reassured that the servers have been tested in the wild and passed. Granted, they have yet to field launch day numbers—currently only hosting a handful of players that include reviewers like ourselves—but the game’s multiplayer is expected to hold up.
The means by which soldiers shoot each other are still very much what they were, but the loadouts through which players bring their equipment into the fight have undergone one of the game’s greatest evolutions. Divisions have replaced the classic Create-A-Class system, now utilizing a hybrid format between loadout-based and class-based shooters. There are five Divisions to play with—Infantry, Airborne, Armored, Mountain, and Expeditionary—and each offer four sequentially unlockable skills unique to that Division. Every Division can make use of every class of weapon, but Division skills incentivize focusing on a particular class that suits the Division’s strengths. Divisions are a confident step in a new direction for Call of Duty, incorporating some of the strategy and team coordination of class-based shooters without appreciably limiting players in how they build their ideal soldier. At the very least, it is a far more concise system than the sometimes convoluted Pick 10/Pick 13 systems from previous games.
In addition to the Divisions, weapons, and equipment one can equip to their character, each class can sport one Basic Training skill. Basic Training skills are most similar to the perks of old games, free to be paired with any Division. Their effects, however, are much more creative and competitively impactful than the perks fans will remember. Most Basic Training skills consist of two, sometimes even three different effects, making many of them essential to certain Division builds.
Innovation in multiplayer is good, but so is content, and in this WWII is somewhat lacking. Only nine standard multiplayer maps are included in the game, with the accompanying modes largely consisting of rehashed classics like Team Deathmatch, Search and Destroy, Kill Confirmed, etc. The fan-favorite basketball variant Uplink has also returned, now called Gridiron, and the lack of jetpacks surprisingly doesn’t mix up the competitive pacing too much. The maps on which these modes are enjoyed are competitively designed and aesthetically distinct, but they are also some of the most restrictively small maps in series history. While the moment-to-moment gunplay remains relatively intact, the size of the maps give matches a somewhat erratic tempo. With everyone so closely cramped together, there is nary a moment to breathe, and without any lulls in the fighting, excitement from the action can occasionally turn into exhaustion.
Another problem that arises from the clautropshic map design is an inability to fully appreciate the game’s scorestreaks. High kill counts and good kill-death ratios won’t necessarily mean scorestreaks played a role. The exceedingly high frequency of kills in every game make keeping a scorestreak going an impractical task, which is most noticeable when you find yourself at the top of the scoreboard without having earned a single reward (like yours truly on several occasions). Even the execrable practice of camping does little to keep a streak going when most hiding places are right in the line of commonly trafficked paths.
The one exception to the game’s recycling of content and scorestreak inhibition is its new objective-based, attack/defense-style 6v6 mode, titled War. Unlike the game’s other, generally symmetrical modes, War reimagines the Call of Duty format with a multiphase mission in which the attacking team must complete a variety of objectives, while the defending team attempts to impede their progress. War matches are longer than other multiplayer modes and demand much more team cooperation, offering an exhilarating combat dynamic that has never quite been realized in Call of Duty multiplayer before.
As the match progresses through different zones, the environments can change drastically, which also provides new opportunities to make use of the game’s weapon variety to best tackle the challenge at hand. Lone-wolves should take note, however, that the mode’s scoreboard does not publicly list the kills of each participant, and scorestreaks are disabled for the mode, so War players looking to simply prove their killing prowess may find themselves unsatisfied. Something that will likely dissatisfy everyone is the mode’s limited selection of three maps, Like the standard map selection, each arena is well designed and engaging, but as there is no overlap, both rotations feel a little anemic.
Finally, there’s WWII’s Treyarch-inspired cooperative survival mode, Nazi Zombies. Set in a sinister German town, the mode has up to four players fighting off waves of undead, earning points, and unlocking more of the map to bolster their chances of survival and uncover the outbreak’s mysteries. Not everyone will start out on the same footing, as Sledgehammer’s Nazi Zombies features customizable skill classes, complete with slots for one special ability and three equippable modifications. The four special abilities give unique roles to the players using them, such as the Camouflage ability that makes the player temporarily invisible, allowing them to easily revive teammates, or the Frontline ability that increases damage and attracts zombie aggro to give one’s teammates a moment of peace. Most of the supplementary modifications are ubiquitously useful, but some exclusively serve to boost a special ability for those that want to focus on their role. Call of Duty Zombies modes have always necessitated team synergy, and these different abilities put even more control in the hands of the players.
The atmosphere of the survival mode is another drastic deviation from series convention, as WWII’s Nazi Zombies brings horror back to the zombie apocalypse. The environment is much darker and more gruesome than fans will be used to, and camping is no longer a viable strategy. This is mainly due to the heightened aggression of the zombies and the wider variety of zombie types that will keep survivors constantly adapting strategies, but it is also thanks to the new campaign-like objectives that players must complete if they want to progress on the map and unlock new features. To balance this demand for mobility, getting unfairly caught on zombies seems to be a much less frequent occurrence than in Treyarch’s version of the mode, ensuring there is not too much punishment for staying on the move. Finally, the element of Call of Duty zombie killing that keeps fans coming back for more is the discovery of each level’s twisted secrets. It will take some time to uncover the full scope of what’s hidden beneath the surface of Nazi Zombies—meaning few of the secrets were found during this review—but the ultimate quality of the mode’s design will make for a satisfying expedition.
Call of Duty: WWII is built on a foundation of familiarity from which it benefits greatly. The most significant changes to the status quo don’t reinvent the game, but instead take popular ideas from other corners of the genre and effectively implement them without losing what defines a Call of Duty game. Games often try to set their sights exclusively on the horizon in front of them, but Call of Duty: WWII shows us that there is value in taking a look back from whence you came.
Call of Duty: WWII’s changes to the core Call of Duty experience are few but distinct. This leads to a good balance between relishing everything Call of Duty used to be and still continuing to move the series forward.
M - Mature
|Call of Duty: WWII is available on Xbox One, PS4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Activision for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|
Nick didn’t start gaming until mid-2006. Once his parents finally allowed a console into the house, it was all uphill from there. Starting out with a PS2, he grew an affinity for Sony consoles and moved on to the PS3, and now the PS4. He keeps his gaming palette wide, but, gun to his head, he’d have to say shooters are his genre of choice.