It’s not a stretch to say that the Call of Duty series has grown increasingly silly in recent years, gradually progressing from the oorah military fetishism of the Modern Warfare games into a sci-fi blockbuster franchise that, in the eyes of many fans, has spun wildly out of control.
It’s ironic, then, that the absurd has become the new norm for the franchise, and something as old-hat as a World War II setting feels paradoxically fresh and exciting. Simply, if you’ve been long-exhausted by the series’ recent obsession with exo-suits, wall-running and space battles, Call of Duty: WWII is a mostly refreshing tonic that lovingly recalls the more earnest tone of the earlier CoD games.
A big part of the appeal here is the focus on boots-on-the-ground gameplay, as is evident within seconds of beginning the game’s campaign, which opens with a D-Day landing sequence bearing an incredible similarity to Medal of Honour: Allied Assault‘s unforgettable Normandy set-piece. While in this respect it may not be a particularly unique campaign, reveling in most of the WWII tropes and iconography we’re all familiar with, its stripped-back approach, far away from all the prior bombast, is most certainly welcome.
The six-hour campaign doesn’t do much ambitious or new for the series, what with its focus on squad play, outrageous set-pieces and so on, but it is a good deal more convincing on a human level than the recent games. Led by Josh Duhamel’s Technical Sergeant William Pierson, the cast of characters is actually memorable and relatable for the most part, making even the most formulaic squad skirmishes more involving to blast through.
There are also a few new wrinkles in the mix; regenerating health is gone, replaced with a health pack system in which players must request packs from a squadmate. The same goes for ammo and other accouterments, and while ultimately this mechanic adds only a mild sliver of challenge, it still requires players to be on their toes more than usual.
After recent campaigns bordered on self-parody with how absurd they became, especially the hyper-convoluted tech-thriller mess that was Black Ops III, the more restrained approach here is absolutely welcome, and it also transpires through to the real meat of the game, the multiplayer suite. Similarly scaled back, with locomotion limited to the ground bar a jump or two, this is some of the most entertaining online play the series has seen in years.
Last year’s Infinite Warfare suffered from infuriatingly frenetic gameplay and wonky netcode, frequently resulting in players being shot by unseen enemies as the game attempted to compensate for latency. Thankfully this isn’t at all an issue this year, and though launch weekend has suffered through some irksome matchmaking issues, when you actually get into a match the experience is smooth as butter.
While the maps do arguably end up feeling a little samey and the lack of 18-player Ground War mayhem is both baffling and disappointing, this is somewhat offset by the inclusion of a long-form skirmish mode known as War. This 12-player tug-of-war may lack the epic scope of Battlefield 1’s 64-player lunacy, but the push-and-pull aspect of War is a ton of fun, and as such it’s easy to lose hours to this mode before you know it.
One of the major additions to multiplayer this year is the inclusion of a hub environment known as Headquarters, where players can hang out with almost 50 comrades, not to mention collect objective contracts, visit the shooting gallery, take part in 1v1 battles and, yes, open loot boxes.
At the time of press the loot box system appears to be relatively benign and cosmetic, but it’s easy to see how Activision could so easily introduce microtransactions, and considering their shaky track record with this in the past, it’s hard to have much faith in them finding a respectful balance. At launch, at least, it seems fine, and it did nothing to impede my desire to race towards Prestige, which I did with more enthusiasm than I have in years.
On top of all this, Zombies mode is back, of course, with Ving Rhames, David Tennant, Katheryn Winnick, Elodie Yung and B-movie legend Udo Kier lending their likenesses to a mode that doesn’t divert much from the usual formula, but is suitably creepy and will do well enough with fans all the same.
On a technical level, WWII is a little more uneven. Aurally the game is a sonic beast as the series typically is, and using a pair of premium headphones, you might feel like you’re developing a mild case of PTSD with all the surround sound gunfire.
Visually, however, the game is effectively all over the place, with the campaign proving slicky cinematic but clearly struggling to fend off stutter on the original PS4. Multiplayer also throws up some ghastly textures, which really underlines just how dated CoD‘s engine continues to feel.
All things considered, if you’ve been put off by last few Call of Duty games, this just might be the ticket to win you back. It’s not perfect by any means, and at its core is still the same shooter, but as a full-fat, unapologetically calorific slice of video game junk food, it definitely scratches the itch.