Call of Duty WWII brings the long-running FPS franchise back to its historical roots in grounded, gritty combat. I spent a lot of time with the game at E3 this year and had the pleasure of viewing a hands-off demo of the single player campaign. Every year it feels like Activision promises something new for the franchise, whether it’s tactical warfare, new innovation, or a fantastic new setting that pushes the limits of the series. In the case of WWII, they have promised a more grounded story told mainly from the perspective of Private First Class Ronald “Red” Daniels. He’s not a super soldier trained in the art of war, but rather a 19-year-old who was forced into the war like so many others in history. It is not an original premise for a work of historical fiction set in one of the most turbulent recent war eras, but that should not discount the potential it has to tug at your heartstrings. I went into the 20 minute demo presentation with some background on Red Daniels’ story, but was only shown the blockbuster-style action that Call of Duty is known for.
While I didn’t get much insight into Red’s state of mind, I saw some of the best single player footage ever in a Call of Duty game. Gorgeous set pieces accompanied tight gunplay and incredible sound design in what was ultimately a very impressive showcase. Daniels and his small squad made their way through the crumbling European city by dashing for makeshift cover and picking off enemies one by one. It’s gritty and desperate, but I did not feel the emotional weight that Sledgehammer Games was pushing with their marketing campaign. Outside of chatter between squadmates, there was no context for determining how Daniels was feeling. From what I saw, it plays like other Call of Duty games where the player is essentially a one person army doing most of the “work”. This is what we have come to expect from the franchise, which works well, but it does not line up with what Sledgehammer told us about Daniels.
He’s a complete amateur, with limited combat training, yet he’s mowing down German soldiers like Blazkowicz from Wolfenstein. It’s a fun, action-packed thrill ride, but lacks the story weight. I only saw a small portion of the campaign, but I’m wondering where they will fit in more exposition. Call of Duty isn’t exactly a franchise built for downtime or deep storytelling. Fans of the series expect a quick-moving action game and Sledgehammer and Activision know this. I find it hard to believe that they will spend too much time on Daniels’ experience as a young soldier. It certainly isn’t a necessity, since that’s not what people look for in Call of Duty, but the marketing has gone out of its way to emphasize this aspect of the game.
Even though I didn’t feel like I was seeing the war through Daniels’ eyes, there seemed to be a heavier weight to the battle than previously seen in Call of Duty. The demo showed the player pinned down in a crumbling house attempting to take out enough Germans to make it across the street and toward the Nazi-controlled chapel. Bombs constantly fell from planes overhead, making open areas a death zone. An ally soldier cried out in pain after being hit by a nearby explosion in an attempt to cross to the next building. He sat screaming in the middle of the road until Daniels (the player) rushed out moments later to drag him back to shelter. Even though I wasn’t in control, I could feel the desperate struggle, wondering if we would be shot down before reaching the building.
Later in the demo, Daniels himself got wounded and prompted another squad mate to throw him a health pack, which he then opened and quickly used. Health regeneration is gone in this installment of the franchise, which could open some interesting coordination between squad members. Rather than simply hiding and waiting to heal, the player has to actively find allies with first aid kits. In the heat of a chaotic battle like this one, it theoretically requires more precision and focus in order to survive.
Once inside the church, Daniels and his squad cleared the base of German soldiers before making their way up into the bell tower. He used this vantage point to snipe a handful of enemies before an explosion took out the upper half of a squad mate in what was one of the most brutal scenes I’d seen in the franchise. This prompted a scripted event in which the tower began to collapse. The massive bell slowly began to fall, catching itself on the now-deteriorating structure. This is all accompanied by a quick-time event that has Daniels rushing back to the ground and me losing my interest. At this point, I think back to the soldier wounded in the street and the blast that took out the torso and head of the companion and realize how much of this demo is scripted. This really should not have come as a surprise, since Call of Duty always has a Hollywood action vibe, but it ruined some of the nuance for me.
Everything that I saw was impressive and fun, but I have come to accept that the franchise will never stray too far from its blockbuster feel because that is what works. I would like to be invested in the character of Red Daniels and the tragedy of World War II, but this isn’t the game to make me get teary-eyed. It excels at putting on a fantastic, action-packed campaign with plenty of thrills. I’m excited to be immersed in the environment and the setting while shooting down hundreds of Nazis. The FPS pendulum has swung back and it feels great to once again experience WWII in a high-budget game.
Call of Duty: WWII releases November 3rd for Xbox One, PS4, and PC.