Boots are planted firmly on the ground again, and we're revisiting the Second World War. Has Sledgehammer revived the franchise?
Three years ago, Call of Duty saw a drastic change in tempo and atmosphere. Sledgehammer Games took us from the tactical, much slower pace seen in Ghosts to a game that seemed to be inspired by Halo, with jetpacks and considerably more verticality in Advanced Warfare. The development cycle has rolled around again and Sledgehammer is once more at the forefront of a drastic shift, going all the way back to the Second World War, with boots on the ground gameplay making a long-awaited return.
2008 was the last time we saw a Call of Duty game set during this period; Treyarch capitalised on the success of Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare, utilising the brand new create-a-class system in multiplayer, creating a fantastic, gritty story and introducing their own Zombies mode with the famous Nacht der Untoten, creating a trademark mode that would single-handedly sell copies of the full game for years to come. Tackling a World War II game is a brave move by the comparably new Call of Duty developers, and one that could so easily fall flat if it fails to impress.
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We'll get the bad news out of the way first; this isn't the best Call of Duty title ever released. That accolade still goes to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The good news? This comes a very close second. Every aspect of the game is such a big improvement over anything we've seen in the last five years, this could well and truly be the title that rejuvenates the franchise and starts to quell the stereotype surrounding it from many of the 'hardcore' gaming community.
Since the game was announced earlier this year, the campaign has been marketed as an emotional narrative, one that gets down into the personal story of what it was like to be a soldier, fighting for the allies alongside your lifelong friends and squadmates. And boy, does it deliver. You play the majority of the single-player as Ronald "Red" Daniels, a member of the US 1st Infantry Division, from the beaches of Normandy during the infamous D-Day, through the liberation of Paris, and into Germany to repel the Axis forces.
There's one thing that becomes apparent from the get-go, and that's how Sledgehammer has captured the authenticity and intensity of the war. The very first mission sees you cramped with your squad in a landing craft, like sardines in a tin, while a flurry of bullets flies overhead. Then the ramp goes down and just like that, the squadmates you've made friends with and bonded with, are bloody corpses on the metallic floor. A few of you make it out, though, and it's the invasion of Normandy that sets the tone for the rest of the game.
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Our main gripe with the campaign is how short it is. Playing on Veteran will have you dying over and over as it is hard as nails, but if you're playing it on an easier difficulty to experience the story, you can easily fly through it in a single afternoon/evening. The final few minutes are also fairly unsatisfactory, but given how impressive the journey to that point is, it's hard to dock points because of it. It pulls on the heartstrings, but a few more missions, perhaps against the Russians or more with the British, would've been nice.
As you battle on through iconic German cities such as Aachen, through the French forest of Ardennes, and on to the Rhine in the heart of Germany, the story continues to get better. Daniels and best pal Zussman's bond becomes stronger, as they encounter numerous setbacks to the mission and the squad. "Inspired by true events" really applies here, as it's clear how Sledgehammer took on board the advice from World War II survivors. Narrative wise, this is the best Call of Duty campaign to date.
One gameplay change stands out from the rest and is only applicable to the campaign, and that's the removal of automatic health regeneration. Instead, in a very similar manner to Elizabeth throwing Booker ammo in Bioshock Infinite, your medic can chuck medkits your way, which you then apply and put yourself out of action for a few seconds. They can also be found in corners and off the beaten track, but there's nothing cooler than catching it with one hand while you spray down some Nazis with the other.
Alongside the medic, other members of your squad have abilities too. You can grab more ammo off one fella, or request another to spot all the surrounding enemies for you, outlining them with a white silhouette. The more kills and headshots you get will make the abilities cooldown quicker, and if you're playing on Veteran difficulty, you'll want to take advantage of them as much as possible. World at War was infamous for being so tough on the hardest difficulty, and this is no different.
There's no single stand out mission throughout Daniels' journey in WWII, but the pacing and changes in mission style are flawless. From all-out firefights at the start, to pushing the Axis forces back and shooting them as they flee, before taking the wheel and hurtling through muddy fields, then sneaking through a Nazi-occupied village in the dead of night; there's so much variation from the standard non-stop shooting you'd expect, and every mission brought something new to the table.
Special mention needs to go to one mission in the first half of the story, where you're placed in the shoes of a French woman named Rousseau. Your objective is to infiltrate a Nazi office in Paris and convene with a double agent you have on the inside while carrying explosives and travel documents for a senior Nazi official. You need to memorise your personal information as you're masquerading as a female Nazi officer, and are given speech checks and dialogue options if you speak to someone you're not required to. It's a first for the Call of Duty franchise and hopefully will become a staple inclusion. Our only qualm with it is that despite playing on Veteran, the speech checks were as simple as they were on Recruit.
Moving on to where much of the longevity of the title will come from for most players; the multiplayer has a couple of major new additions. The first being Headquarters; a social hub, much akin to the farm in Destiny 2, where players are thrown into a third-person perspective and can interact with other players, speak to NPCs about challenges, and even challenge other players to 1v1 battles. You can explore Headquarters while you search for a game, and try out new weapons on the fly in the firing range, along with discovering a bunch of different Easter eggs. It's far more intuitive and entertaining than a series of boring menus and it's a very welcome addition.
The other major addition comes in the form of a brand new asymmetrical mode called War; unfortunately, though, it's not the mode of the same name in World at War. This version of War is a standard 6v6 game, but has very specific objectives and is much more narrative focused. Three maps are available at launch, with more to come via DLC, which is a little disappointing given that they get stale quite quickly; at least five or six would mean the mode would have some substance to it, because once you've played as both the Axis and the Allies, each game is pretty much the same.
Operation Breakout was the one available in the beta, and sees the allies advancing on a French village to destroy some anti-aircraft guns located at the far side. Various objectives come into play, such as capturing a house like a hardpoint, before launching a tirade of smoke grenades and repairing a broken bridge. Then it's time to destroy some ammo dumps, before finally escorting a tank like a payload to the far-side of the village. Axis players obviously have to try and prevent the allies from achieving their aims before the time limit is up, and are equipped with flamethrower drops and the ability to construct walls that have to be blown up with satchel charges.
Operation Neptune is the second map, and by far the most impressive. Normandy beach during D-Day is the setting, and from the get-go, the allies have to advance upon the beach while under fire from the axis mounted guns. They must take both bunkers hardpoint-style, before pushing on to destroy some AA guns and communications equipment. During the storming of the beach, the allies are given a horde of CPU controlled friends, who simply charge up the beach and distract the axis forces into taking them down, rather than the player-controlled soldiers.
The final War map features the Axis forces as the offensive side, and it has the most unique objectives by far. You start off with three tanks, all of which can be escorted at any time, but the Allies are able to construct barriers that you must blow up with satchel charges to progress. You only need to get two of them to the goal, before the Allies get pushed back and one of the two tanks is blown up. For the last remaining tank, you need to run some fuel, capture the flag-style, from one of two locations to give the tank enough juice to push through and make it over a bridge before the Allies can blow it up.
War has been added to the game to give players a reason to work together, to communicate and think about playing for the team rather than themselves. Deaths aren't counted on the scoreboard, and points are given far more generously for completing objectives rather than hunting for kills on your lonesome. It's a more than welcome addition to the game and will provide a refreshing break from when the standard multiplayer modes become tiresome, but there needs to be more maps with a wider range of objectives for it to be considered as a necessity for future Call of Duty games.
The core multiplayer modes are as they've always been when it comes to boots on the ground games. Modes like Team Deathmatch and Search and Destroy are slower and more tactical, while Hardpoint and Capture the Flag feature all-out action. Sledgehammer hasn't added their own mode this time around, but have instead taken Uplink, found in the jetpack-era games, and renamed it as Gridiron. It's far slower than Uplink ever was, but the concept is the same; get the ball into the goal. A carry will earn your team seven points, while a throw will give you four, leading to much more tactical plays compared to when it was just two and one point respectively.
Prestiging and the slow grind to max level is still apparent, but they've got rid of the concept of perks completely and replaced them with basic training. These are far less beneficial gameplay modifiers, and you can only select one at a time. The more impactful changes come with your choice of division; five are available, each specialising in a different class of weapon and providing a benefit for that weapon type. One example is the Expeditionary division that gives shotguns some powerful incendiary shells, or the Infantry division that allows a bayonet to be equipped on each assault rifle. Levelling up the divisions unlocks more upgrades, but it limits the mix-and-match that was possible before with the perk system.
There's one major criticism that needs to be had for the multiplayer, however, and while it won't come to anyone as a surprise, but supply crates and microtransactions are back. As far as we could tell while playing at the review event, the drops were solely limited to cosmetics, but that's been claimed in the past when game-changing and powerful weapons were introduced via microtransactions. Different variants of existing weapons are available, but they don't change the stats, just appearance. The drop rate also seemed relatively high for the rarer items too, although whether that was enhanced for the private review event is still to be confirmed.
Perhaps where Sledgehammer has improved the most upon previous Call of Duty games is with the Zombies mode. The plot is simple; you're part of a crew sent to recover stolen pieces of art by the Axis regime during the war, but everything goes haywire when zombies appear. David Tennant leads the cast with his traditional Scottish accent, with Kathryn Winnick, Elodie Yung and Udo Kier making up the other three squad members.
For the first time in Zombies history, players are given a prologue that acts as a tutorial, and it sure sets the tone for the rest of the map. Stumbling through a snowy Bavarian forest, you come across a shovel that you use as a melee weapon and can be used in either light or heavy attacks. Heavy, as expected, are slower but do more damage, and often execute the zombie by prying its head off. You'll be rewarded with things like extra ammo and jolts (points) for doing this, but it takes a good few seconds and if you're being swarmed, the animation doesn't provide you with invulnerability. The rest of the prologue introduces you to the different mechanics, such as Geistschild, which is armour you can buy from designated machines throughout the map and will increase in cost every time you buy some.
All your favourite mechanics are reintroduced too; you can get perks, this time in the form of body modifiers that you have electrocuted through your hand, while the mystery box is back and has a bunch of interesting weapons to try out. Traps litter the environment, and there's a vast range of zombies that will approach you, from your standard walker to slow, stumbling guys with exploding tanks on their backs and huge, armoured charging beasties that can be a real bitch to take down. There are also bosses, although we only met the first one while playing; a huge, flamethrower-wielding geezer that drops his head upon death, which you can then pick up and melee zombies with, alongside using it to uncover some easter eggs that we won't spoil.
Perhaps the best thing about this Zombies experience is the layout of the map; it's not enormous, but it has a lot of verticality and routes to get from point A to point B. The environments you'll discover are vastly different too, from a castle bridge to a sewer, a village filled with shops, a control room, a salt mine, and more. There's a lot to explore in one map, and each area has its own secrets that you need to search for and uncover. Permanent progression is now a thing in Zombies too, meaning as you level up and eventually prestige, you can create-a-class with your preferred starting weapon and equipment, more akin to something like Killing Floor 2 than previous Call of Duty Zombies modes.
Visually, this year's Call of Duty is often satirised for looking the same now as it did five or even ten years ago, and it's a shame to say this time around there isn't much improvement. As for playing in split-screen, we noticed a few dropped frames during more chaotic moments, but nothing too disruptive. A special shout out does need to go to the cutscenes though, as they look phenomenal, especially when there's explosions and debris flying everywhere. It's also worth playing WWII with the volume cranked up. In all three modes, your allies will yell out things to you; when a medkit is ready in the campaign, to the location of an enemy in the multiplayer, to the heavily accented shouts from David Tennant in Zombies. Explosions resonate through the speakers like you're really there, and while the guns aren't anything remarkable, they don't sound too flat either. In multiplayer, perhaps the most harrowing experience is when you hear the whistle of an enemy Glide Bomb and know it's aiming straight for you, but you try to dive for cover. Moments like that are exhilarating.
Call of Duty: WWII is a gem of a game, and there isn't much to complain about at all. Sure, it'd be nice to not have microtransactions in the game and yeah, there isn't a lot of innovation when it comes to the multiplayer matches, but this is without a doubt one of the best Call of Duty games we've seen in a long time. The campaign is phenomenal, and the Zombies mode is probably the best it's ever been. If you didn't like previous multiplayer instalments to CoD then this won't sway your mind too much, but for those who do, this part of the package is very impressive this time around. Activision's flagship series is back on top form, and this is the best Call of Duty in a decade.
We're aware of the ongoing server issues that have affected the game post-launch, and if Sledgehammer and Activision can't fix the issues soon the poor online experience will be reflected in the score.
9 / 10
Campaign is intense and emotional and tells a fantastic story, Multiplayer introduces two great features in Headquarters and War, Zombies is the best it's ever been.
Microtransactions are back, War only has three maps, Campaign could be a little longer and has an anticlimactic ending.