CALL OF DUTY: WWII Game Review - (Annual) War Is Hell

The latest entry doesn't change the formula, but the new flourishes make it a winner

If I were to rank game genres by my own personal preference, shooters would land somewhere in the middle (under RPGs and open world adventures, but above sports and RTS, if you're curious). I've never been particularly good at aiming, my limited patience is not well suited for swarms of enemies attacking me from all sides when I can't easily hide somewhere safe, and I find the lack of variety in the gameplay hard to stick with - I get bored, frankly. My favorite thing about them is their brevity, especially as I get older and have less time to play - I'm still trying to finish Mass Effect: Andromeda which I started over six months ago, for example. So even with my penchant for dying often and inability to keep playing a marathon session in the campaign (at most I can play two missions before wanting to do something else) I can finish most shooters in a week or less, and that's why I always keep a few on hand, for when I feel the need to just finish a game before going back to whatever overlong RPG I'm whittling away at.

But I don't always get around to playing them all, and some I start and never finish, so when I tell you Call of Duty: WWII is the first one I've finished since Modern Warfare 2, I should stress I've played a few of the others in between, most recently 2014's Advanced Warfare, which as it turns out was the last one Sledgehammer developed (the series alternates between three developers; the other two are Infinity Ward and Treyarch, the latter of which should be behind next year's installment if tradition holds). In other words I'm familiar but not an expert, and given my admitted lack of skill with such games I should tell you right now that you need to look elsewhere if you want to know how it stacks up to the most recent entry (I haven't played it), Sledgehammer's other entries (I haven't finished them), or even current trends in first person shooters (this is the only series I've played in the past decade besides Halo, and I stopped after Halo 4 on that one). All I can tell you is whether or not I had fun playing this particular game.

And I did! Going back to World War II was a smart move; these games (again, that I've played) tend to race through the storyline segments so they can get you back to shooting anonymous soldiers on the other side, so using a real conflict that everyone knows (or at least, SHOULD know; I shouldn't assume anything these days) is an excellent shorthand for the developers, allowing them to use those brief quiet moments to focus on the characters a bit before sending them off to Normandy Beach, the Battle of the Bulge, and the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, i.e. ones that you should know well from school. Or you might know them from Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, or any other WWII movie/show of the past twenty years, as the game is clearly inspired by them. But as far as games go, I also noticed some DNA with the terrific Brothers In Arms, which also bulked up on the camaraderie of a squad rather than constantly teaming you with anonymous soldiers who will come and go throughout your campaign. Unlike other CODs I've played, which had you swapping protagonists between levels (i.e. Miller and Petrenko from World at War) you are only in control of one character (Daniels) for the bulk of the game (there are occasional brief interludes where you take control of another person for that one time only), and the four or five squadmates you start with are the same ones by your side at the very end.

Their names are Zussman, Pierson, Stiles, Aiello, and Turner, and you'll get to know them a bit as well as rely on them for supplies. This installment has gone back to the dreaded health packs of yore (something I didn't realize at first, so when I was first shot in the game I instinctively hid waiting to re-heal, realizing my error after oh...a full minute), so you'll need Zussman to help out with a health pack should you have trouble finding one on your own. The others will help with grenades, ammo, or spotting enemies (giving them a temporary white outline), but they're not pack mules to be taken advantage of - once they hand something over, you have to wait a while before they're able to repeat the favor. Still, it's very rare you'll run out of anything you need, so it's a fine feature that helps balance out the fact that the AI for your fellow soldiers is abysmal, at times some of the worst I've seen. There was one sequence where a German soldier was riddling me with bullets while standing right next to one of my so-called "brothers", who was reminding me that he had extra grenades, and I would frequently get killed at least once during any segment where they were supposedly providing cover while I ran over to a tank or mounted gun in order to destroy it with explosives. Perhaps this is something that will be fixed over time (the game just launched one week ago), but considering the emphasis on brotherhood this time around, it's baffling that proper AI support wasn't one of the things they focused on getting right from the start. That said, I only encountered one glitch throughout the campaign, where I got trapped while crouching in a foxhole and the game would not let me stand up to climb out of it, forcing me to kill myself via grenade and reload the checkpoint. 

Otherwise the game plays like most other CODs - clear out enemy bunkers/trenches, destroy heavy artillery that is making trouble for your planes and other vehicles, sneak around a few camps to set explosives, protect allies from a sniper position, etc. There are a few notable (and enjoyable) diversions, such as a terrific scene where you take control of a female spy and make your way through a German HQ trying to find a contact, but for the most part it's all the same kind of stuff I remembered from other games, albeit with the long-dormant WWII skin. The period dressing makes the occasional dips into Michael Bay territory a bit odd (my grandfather's WWII stories rarely involved diving out of his jeep before the train that was smashing into it derailed, exploded, and sent large crates flying over his head), but at least things seem somewhat more grounded than the other recent entries I've played, allowing such big moments to have the "holy shit" effect they're intended to, whereas other entries were just non-stop climax moments such as this. There are collectibles to find ("Mementos") if you want to trophy/achievement hunt, and every level has a few optional tasks such as saving wounded soldiers or allowing Germans to surrender instead of executing them, which also help break up the run and gun nature of the rest, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't wish there were more diversions like the spy segment, as it was just as intense as any firefight. Speaking of intense, the surround sound is perhaps one of the most engaging I've encountered with a game, and my system is severely outdated, so home theater enthusiasts should look into picking up a copy just for demo purposes. There's a brief dogfight section that wowed me more than any film I've watched on the same setup, and the graphic quality matched, though that's no surprise given the budgets these games have.

Of course, some folks don't even bother with the campaign and head straight to multiplayer, and here is where my inability to keep up with the series year after year is troublesome, as the multiplayer component and how it changes is a big deal for fans. I know the HQ is a new thing, allowing you to kind of hang out in between battles, test out any weapons you might have unlocked, pick up any rewards you may have earned, etc. - it's a bit awkwardly laid out but it's a good idea that will probably be perfected over time, and I like the idea of having a place to check your new weapons before committing yourself to using one in a Deathmatch or whatever. The game modes are the usual ones - Capture the Flag, Team Deathmatch, Domination, Seek and Destroy, etc. - but there is also a new mode simply called War, which has more of a narrative than most multiplayer modes and has you visiting key battles (such as the Battle of the Bulge) and completing objectives for one side as the other tries to stop you. Ultimately, it just boils down to a different way that a 12 year old will call you a slur after killing you (or because you killed him), but I love how many modes there are to master, giving you more bang for your buck as you become proficient at one type before starting as a novice in another. Maybe I can even find one that I'm good at, since I'm a liability to whatever team I am on due to my penchant for dying far more often than I manage to kill anyone else (and you can forget about me getting a scorestreak). For what it's worth, I never had trouble finding a match, nor did I ever get disconnected, though I noticed lag several times which did not seem to be caused by my own connection.

Then there's the now-standard Zombie mode, which started in World at War and has expanded over the years. This is more my speed than the traditional multiplayer, as you work with three others to complete objectives (turn generators on, power up doors that unlock new areas, etc.) while battling increasingly difficult waves of zombies. The characters are played by familiar faces like Ving Rhames and David Tennant, and in what I believe is a new feature you can pick what kind of role you'd like to fill (medic, support, offense, or control), and they're not tied to any particular character, so if you like Mr. Rhames and want to try him in the various roles, you can (fun perk of medic - you can revive yourself twice if your teammates are slow or unable to do so). New maps will apparently be released over time; right now there's only one titled "The Final Reich" and since I have yet to find the Dr. Straub character (played by Udo Kier!) or build the final weapon, that's fine - I'd rather keep honing my skills in this one rather than get distracted by others. As I'm finished with the campaign and don't like embarrassing myself in the traditional multiplayer, this will be the mode I keep coming back to, and makes me want to finally install the other games that included their own zombie modes to see how it's changed over the years. I mean, comparing the main campaign from World at War to WWII only shows a few notable differences, but this has clearly come a long way from what I remember of its first incarnation, where I was just boarding up windows in a single house trying to keep the zombies from swarming me.

Releasing a new game in a series every single year can be daunting, even with three developers rotating the, ahem, duty of making their pre-Holiday deadline. Unlike say, Grand Theft Auto, which takes 5-6 years off in between major installments, technology and innovation doesn't move fast enough to make each new installment of this series a revelation - even with my own casual connection I still see a lot of repetition in both the campaign and the multiplayer modes. But I know people love this series like no other (I talked to a guy the other night who still plays 2009's Modern Warfare 2 - I assumed they would have shut those servers down by now since they've released eight games since), and I suspect this one won't put a dent in that affection. The campaign might be "safe" but it's enjoyable and not without challenging segments to test your skill (I played on normal difficulty, for the record), and the characters are worth taking bullets for even when they're just standing there shouting canned responses. Sure, it's a little weird that my favorite part of this "more realistic" entry is the section where I get to shoot zombies with ray guns, but I think that's part of what keeps the series so popular: as long as you like shooting things, they will provide you with multiple ways of doing that. With every installment they tweak and refine those things, so whether you keep coming back for every entry or take time off, you're likely to find a better overall experience once you get a handle on how all the new bells and whistles apply to the basic game you already know and love. Call of Duty: WWII continues that tradition, and offers more than enough to do until the inevitable upgrade comes next year.

Note - Activision supplied a physical copy of the standard Xbox One version of the game for review consideration.