Call of Duty: WWII is supposed to be the Activision franchise’s back-to-basics moment: an opportunity to shed recent COD installments’ future-obsessed trappings and craft a “serious” shooter game against the backdrop of the world’s most horrific war. Developer Sledgehammer Games said as much here at E3 in Los Angeles. “Coming off of Advanced Warfare, it felt right for us,” says Aaron Halon, the game’s multiplayer lead, in an interview with The Verge. “We really want Call of Duty to get back to the grittiness, the brutality of war. That’s really what WWII did for our game.”
But judging from one recorded video of a campaign mission and some time with the game’s multiplayer mode this week at E3, COD: WWII comes across as just another shooter from the aging franchise. It doesn’t appear to have much to say about one of history’s most devastating conflicts — at least, nothing that hasn’t already been said by countless films, books, and television shows before it. And if WWII as a concept is supposed to revive COD as a game series, Sledgehammer doesn’t seem equipped to take the risks necessary to pull it off. Striking a balance between artful war commentary and mass-market pulp is hard enough. It becomes a daunting, perhaps impossible, task for a major game studio to do so with the expectation that it sell as many copies as Activision demands.
On one hand, sure: this is a shooter franchise, and COD’s primary mission has been to generate video game combat with ever-increasing technical sophistication. The kinds of personal and affecting stories that have defined the genre in other media have always taken a backseat to adrenalized thrill rides. (Sledgehammer made 2014’s Advanced Warfare, which featured exoskeletons and jetpacks, while developer Infinity Ward took the series to space in last year’s Infinite Warfare.) No one is expecting COD to outdo Saving Private Ryan in narrative ambition.
At the same time, Activision and Sledgehammer have sold this installment of COD as a kind of meditation on the costs of violence. “This global conflict was rooted in some true atrocities,” Sledgehammer co-founder Michael Condrey told Polygon in an interview earlier this year. “The story is anchored in some iconic moments in the war. The D-Day invasion in Normandy was one of those. There are also other things that make the war so powerful. The historical context of the atrocities of World War II is something that we want to tell the players.”
"We absolutely show atrocities," Bret Robbins, the game’s senior creative director, told Mashable back in April. "It's an unfortunate part of the history, but you can't tell an authentic, truthful story without going there. So we went there." But Sledgehammer has yet to disclose to what extent the game will acknowledge or feature, for example, any aspect of the Holocaust, one aspect WWII games have historically omitted.
So at first blush, Sledgehammer appears to have crafted something that feels less Spielberg and more Michael Bay. Big, explosive set pieces pause to showcase gruesome, dismemberment-heavy deaths. The stakes feel high in the way imminent death always does, and the action is compelling. But it’s not yet clear the game has the heart to hold it all together. You’re still basically just mowing down virtual human beings in ever-more-elaborate ways — throwing grenades over barricades, lighting men on fire, sniping heads from a bell tower — as you head from one objective marker to the next on a quest to save the world from bad guys.
The protagonist, a young Texan named Robert “Red” Daniels, is a fresh face for a COD game, even if he feels like a derivative Hollywood trope. Daniels is not a super soldier or a superhero, nor is he a grizzled war veteran. He’s just an everyday kid who gets tossed into the madness of WWII. Yet the game doesn’t give him, or you as the player, a directive other than to survive, kill, and advance. The primary perspective on view is that of the American soldier — a viewpoint that’s been explored time and again. (You will also get to play as a member of the French Resistance and a British officer, but it’s not apparent they serve a broader purpose other than to switch it up now and again.)
Contrast that with Electronic Arts’ Battlefield 1. That game, while mired by some of the same pitfalls that make mowing down armies of men a comically absurd chore, successfully strove to be a smarter breed of shooter. It balanced the genre’s intrinsic glorification of violence with a sense of disorientation that leaves you reeling and shell-shocked. Both in its single-player campaign and on the multiplayer front, BF1’s aesthetic and narrative choices made clear how the conflicts of the 20th century devalued human life. It was, at times, an anti-war message trapped in a best-selling FPS.
This is not to say that COD: WWII is not fun or entertaining. The game’s new multiplayer war mode, which has one team fighting to hold its ground while another advances, is exhilarating. The combat feels smooth, and the new class and weapons systems feel distinctive. COD still manages to be just fast-paced and intense enough to get your adrenaline pumping.
COD as a franchise made its mark on the first-person shooter genre — before it rose to record-breaking heights with 2007’s Modern Warfare — with three full games set during WWII. That it has returned again smacks of creative exhaustion.
Returning to its roots and “putting boots back on the ground,” as company representatives like to say, may be a convenient way to court back disaffected fans. But it’s not clear those fans will be returning to something drastically different. COD: WWII may feature all the old battlefields and weapons you see on the History Channel. But it feels, for now, like a shooter game in desperate need of a soul.