New Call of Duty games are traditionally announced in May, which means now is the time for speculation to ramp up. Where will Activision’s blockbuster shooter go after exploring the sci-fi depths of space in Infinite Warfare? The answer, at least according to a team of British developers, is World War 2. Is Call of Duty about to come full circle?
Tinkety tonk and down with the Nazis: it’s the best World War 2 games on PC.
The developers in question are Bulkhead Interactive. Bulkhead are working on Battalion 1944, a game inspired by the early days of Infinity Ward’s original series, and so have been keeping a close eye on their competition. And by following the actions of Call of Duty’s creators like a sniper in a bell tower, they’ve discovered some compelling clues.
World War 2 evidence: exhibits A, B, and C
“In mid-2014, a Call of Duty level designer was visiting Berlin and taking lots of photos of various notable WW2 buildings,” details Joe Brammer, executive producer at Bulkhead. “Mid-2014 would fit perfectly into a timeline for reference gathering. So why not visit Berlin for an awesome Russian mission in the single-player campaign?” As Brammer points out, Call of Duty has frequently used real-world locations, be that the Reichstag in World at War, or areas of San Francisco in Advanced Warfare.
The coolest part about Berlin was seeing the history in front of you. Someone really wanted someone dead here. pic.twitter.com/ueEyPcRboE— Jacob VanEnkevort (@JacobVanEnkvort) May 4, 2014
A quick look at the level designer in question’s Twitter reveals that “lots of photos” is perhaps pushing it a little; his feed shows two pictures of the Reichstag, the bullet hole-ridden building above, and a picture of his lunch. But Bulkhead present further arguments that they could be in aid of recreating 1940s Germany. “Within a month or two of travelling to Berlin, the very same level designer was tweeting that he had ‘Been Playing a lot of COD1 (Not Modern Warfare),’” says Brammer. “This was particularly interesting to Bulkhead because it made us ask the question if they were doing a Halo: Master Chief Collection-style remaster.”
Whether it’s a Call of Duty remaster or a whole new World War 2-set game, Bulkhead believe that Activision are laying the groundwork for players to embrace the 1940s setting. The Call of Duty Warchest, made up of the first two games and the United Offensive expansion, has been on sale almost every month since September 2016; potential evidence that Activision are trying to reignite interest in WW2 games. Furthermore, Call of Duty 2 was made backwards compatible on Xbox One last August.
Activision seem to be doing a fair amount of hinting themselves, too. During the fourth quarter 2016 results conference call, the publisher’s chief operating officer Thomas Tippl said “It's clear that for a portion of our audience, the space setting just didn't resonate”, later adding “traditional combat will once again take center stage”. In the presentation slides for the conference there’s a note saying “2017 title will take Call of Duty back to its roots”. That’s a compelling suggestion that this year’s Call of Duty will be armed with Thompsons and MG42s.
Videogames are never ending circles
Helpfully for Activision, EA have already started getting people interested in period shooting. Battlefield 1, set during World War 1, has been a monumental success. Brammer feels this is all an indication that the industry is a circle, and it’s running its second lap. “I think we’re seeing, for the first time ever, the industry repeating itself the same way fashion does,” he says. “Shooters started out with futuristic space vibes with DOOM, Duke Nukem, and System Shock. Then we went on to Enemy Territory and Call of Duty. Then we went into modern day conflicts and zombies, and then we went into indie games, right back where we started, with platformers. I think we’re just inside the first loop of the video game industry and it’s taken 30 years to happen.”
The benefit of this cycle is that when we return to genres of yesteryear they can be improved thanks to lessons learned. Indie platformers aren’t the basic hop-and-jumps we played on our Amigas; even if it’s just through music and art improvements, they’re more advanced than the games of the early 90s. As such, a resurgence in WW2 games could provide games better than those from 2005. “I think the cinematic experience [Call of Duty] has been able to create with motion capture, big name actors, and making their storylines more than just shooting waves of enemies, is excellent,” says Brammer. “The emotional stories they could bring out of a WW2 setting, coupled with their cinematic experiences from their recent titles, could be fantastic.”
Of course, there’s more to Call of Duty than campaigns, and a WW2 setting would provide something new for the competitive side of gaming, too. “Streaming and on-demand video content has grown, allowing eSports to mature into spectator experiences watched by millions,” Brammer notes. “The time for a competitive alternative to modern shooters to succeed is coming closer every day.”
1944 doesn't mean old-school
If Call of Duty is going back to World War 2, don’t expect it to feel like COD 2. The series has changed significantly over time and, despite the setting, is likely designed to cater to modern audience expectations. That’s good for Bulkhead, though, who plan to be different from Call of Duty by being influenced by old school design.
“Our main goal throughout Battalion 1944’s design process has been to recreate an old-school shooter,” reveals Brammer. “People looking for WW2 specifically will definitely get their fix, but people looking for a game that nails the feel of those old school games; Battalion is that game.”
He goes on to explain exactly what he means by ‘old-school’; “It seems nowadays you press one button to do an action or a movement a lot more (see Battlefield’s knife or Call of Duty’s wall run). In old school games you had much more one-to-one movement and aim control. Combine that game feel with the WW2 theme and bolt-action rifles and you have a highly skill-based and intense FPS. That’s what Battalion aims to be.”
For those who want a WW2 setting and the gameplay feel that was at its height during Call of Duty’s mid-2000s heyday, it seems like Battalion 1944 could be the answer. “Battalion aims to recapture what made those classic shooters great and bring that up-to-date through competitive matchmaking and highly intuitive modern design,” explains Brammer. “No perks, no gameplay changing unlocks, just your own personalised soldier and your one-shot rifle.”
“We plan for Battalion to be the successor that fans of the original Call of Duty series deserve,” he concludes.
Even if Bulkhead are way off the mark with their predictions about the next Call of Duty, fans of Infinity Ward’s earliest games still have something to look forward to in Battalion 1944. In fact, it’s probably the game worth following most eagerly if it’s those games in particular that get you excited about the World War 2 setting.
For anyone else who simply loves the period - the ka-ching of an ejecting M1 clip, the tense period of vulnerability between each cycle of a rifle’s bolt - it’s likely you won’t have long to wait for a new big-budget 1900s shooter. After Battlefield 1, it’s only a matter of time before someone tries to make that lightning strike again.