Call of Duty: WW2 has been shown to the world, and Activision are being very clear on one thing: the series is going back to its roots. But what does that mean? The mega-publisher is insistent that it’s all about “boots on the ground”, but that doesn’t actually mean much. Because as far as I’m concerned, COD’s roots are buried deep within single-player, which hopefully means that developer Sledgehammer Games are hard at work on the most important campaign in the series since Modern Warfare.
Related: the best WW2 games on PC.
Back in 2003, I played a demo of the original Call of Duty that came with a certain well-known magazine for PC gamers. Its single level blew my mind. After having been obsessed with Medal of Honor for several years, I was suddenly playing a recreation of the Normandy airborne landings that felt real (to my 14-year-old mind, at least). I was fighting alongside an entire squad rather than blasting Nazis solo. My ears rung and vision blurred as artillery struck the ground. For the first time in a major FPS, I could raise a gun that wasn’t a sniper rifle to my eye and use its sights.
When I finally got to play the full Call of Duty campaign later that year, that magic didn’t fade. I’ll never forget the back of the box, which featured the slogan “In the war that changed the world, no one fought alone”. I’ve not played a game since that lived up to its box art slogan in quite the same way.
It’s that feeling that I want Call of Duty: WW2 to capture. If that’s what Sledgehammer can do, then they’ll have fulfilled their promise of going back to the series’ roots. And while I’ve yet to see anything more than a trailer, I’m already starting to have a good feeling about it.
News on what the game will contain is already appearing, and the more I read the more it feels like this team of developers have the right idea. I personally think Sledgehammer are the right people for the job; the last time COD was properly shaken up was with their Advanced Warfare, which introduced the now staple wall-running and exo-suit abilities. They’re a studio unafraid to reinvent a series during the era of risk-averse mega-franchises. If anyone is going to bring the pace of Call of Duty back in-line with the more purposeful original games, it’s Sledgehammer.
The studio has already made several promises that make me think WW2 has a chance of being on-par with the likes of Call of Duty 2. Regenerating health is gone, although there’s no word on what will replace it (I’m hoping for a Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault-style ‘scream for the medic’ button). There’s an emphasis on squad members, with several of your 11 comrades having active abilities than can help you out in battle. For example, if you’re close to the ammo man, he can throw you fresh magazines in a similar fashion to Bioshock Infinite’s “Booker, catch!” moments. Sledgehammer are promising a stronger emphasis on characterisation and narrative, with the squad’s two leaders having different philosophies when it comes to battle. By placing focus on the fireteam, both through mechanics and story, it appears that this entry is genuinely seeking to capture that “No one fought alone” element of the very first game.
The campaign’s focus will be on the US Army’s 1st Infantry, AKA the “Fighting First”, and as such most of the game will be played from the perspective of a single soldier: Ronald “Red” Daniels. However, in missions that I expect will be small punctuations between the main acts of Red’s story, we’ll be hopping into other soldiers’ shoes to experience alternate areas of this global conflict. A British officer and an African-American soldier are confirmed, but it’s the inclusion of a female French resistance member that intrigues me the most. Not only is this an area the franchise never touched on in its WW2 days, it’s a gender that hardly ever gets screen time in a COD campaign. It’s quietly amusing that the series is finally portraying women in a game that jumps back to a more male-dominated time.
I’m already feeling a touch upset that the game probably won’t be going for a full three-faction campaign like the original games, but I’m happy to exchange lengthy segments playing as the Russians, the British, and any other nation in exchange for a deeper narrative that explores the relationships between soldiers. The original games may have made me feel like I was part of a squad, but they fell short of making those soldiers genuine personalities. Gearbox’s Brothers in Arms games were far better at this, Hell’s Highway in particular, due to their focus on a single fireteam. It certainly seems as if Sledgehammer are taking inspiration from that more character-led approach (One of BiA’s main characters is also called Red. I refuse to see this as coincidence).
Indeed, there’s a lot of material in the trailer that makes this game feel like a blend of classic Call of Duty and Brothers in Arms. There’s the Omaha Beach landing, pulled almost shot-for-shot from the opening of Saving Private Ryan, which rings true to COD’s cineliterate legacy. Then there’s the quieter panning shots, featuring soldiers in shadow, which hint at the levity with which BiA portrayed Matt Baker and his team. Oh, and then there’s the collapsing bell tower and bursts of debris-filled flame that signal “Yes, this is a post-2007 Call of Duty game”.
Not that massive destruction didn’t play a part in World War 2, of course. One of the game’s missions will focus around the shelling of Hürtgen Forest, providing an intense experience comparable to Band of Brothers’ Battle of the Bulge episode. With a reined-in tone, Sledgehammer can maintain the monumental set-pieces modern players expect while making them feel less like a Jerry Bruckheimer film. Hopefully the missions will also be tough-as-nails; the original games really forced you to fight for every inch of ground you took. They weren't so much about creating an authentic combat experience, but about generating a game that evoked the feel of struggle. Reaching the end of Red Square in the Stalingrad mission was genuinely exhausting, and I want to see more of that.
I’m naturally optimistic, which is why much of Call of Duty: WW2 is already brewing plenty of interest in me. There’s a specific look to the Western Front; the greyness of the lighting, the heavy, solid nature of the equipment used. Just seeing it rendered with modern techniques has me eager to get my hands on it. I can’t wait to see how the thunk of a M1 Garand feels, how far technology has come with replicating the rifle’s characteristic cycling mechanism. Despite that optimism, though, there’s still room for wariness. Did Sledgehammer really have to do 1944 again? Did it have to be an American squad? And why, dammit, is that soldier in the screenshots using an M1928A1 Thompson when they'd been phased out in favour of the superior M1A1 version by ‘44? (I don’t care how cool the drum mag looks, they were rattly and cumbersome and the bolt mechanism was awful). But, those niggles aside, I definitely have a positive feeling.
Of all the studios working under the Call of Duty banner, Sledgehammer are the youngest. But their sole previous title was a solid re-invention of the series, introducing new core abilities and putting an acting super-star right at the heart of the story. With that kind of track record, they seem the most qualified to bring a mechanically different, historically-relevant campaign back into the limelight. It’s time single-player was the unmissable event again, and Call of Duty: WW2 may just be the game do that.
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