Here’s something people often don’t like to admit: Call of Duty is fun. Sure, Ghosts and Modern Warfare 3 were utter garbage and deserved to be named so, but every other entry has a redeeming feature. More than a few of them have hallmarks that are both timeless and unsurpassed. All of them are fun to play with friends. For a long time now, though, it seemed Call of Duty had lost its way. Its identity is unclear, its player base(s) are increasingly fragmented, and Activision’s unrestrained avarice has become so blatant as to be off-putting to the great unwashed who buy CoD every year. I, a member of said great unwashed, was painfully aware of this sorry state of the union when I delved into the PC open beta for Call of Duty WWII earlier this month.
And you know what? It was a stonking blast. How could this be? As someone old enough to have grown tired of the WWII shooter craze that spawned the likes of CoD, the ‘what’s old is new again’ marketing spin being thrown around had my jadedness intensifying and my arteries hardening. Run out of ideas, did they? Take out the last four years of features and throw some paint on it, and they won’t know the difference, I thought. On the merit of its design alone, however, CoD: WWII is set to be the best multiplayer game the series has seen in a very long time. There are, however, major issues concerning the PC version that make it less inviting than the console release.
But first, the positives: it feels good to be stuck on the ground again. After several years of hopping around like deranged bunnies in what felt like warped homages to likes of TRIBES, not CoD, this year’s instalment brings back a more familiar emphasis on positioning and caution, instead of run and gun dynamism. Regarding feel, it most closely resembles World at War, just a bit faster, and played out on excellent three-lane-highways. All the traditional TDM/objective maps featured in the PC beta also felt like well-rounded intertwining mazes, with plenty of sweet camping spots, decent perches, bunkers and trenches to snake your way through and flank. The level design as a whole felt restrained compared to its most recent forebears, and as a result felt like a perfect fit. A relief, even.
‘Divisions,’ the central gimmick in this year’s edition of the CoD multiplayer metagame is a damned hoot, and again feels restrained enough to give you a choice in how you customise your playstyle without breaking the game with overpowered weapons (so far, anyway). There are five divisions, each with their own cheesy propaganda film dictated to the player by a corresponding over-actor, and they fit into familiar archetypes.
The divisions are Infantry, Airborne, Armored, Mountain and Expeditionary. Each division gives you access to specific ‘division training,’ which are perks by any other name and pander to particular weapons and playstyles. Infantry is the generalist with a speciality in assault rifles, Airborne can attach silencers to SMGs and sprint longer, Armored is niftier with LMGs, the Mountain is a sniper specialist, and the Expeditionary gets access to incendiary ammo for shotguns as well as bazookas. The more time you spend with a division, the more of its perks you’ll be able to access and build your loadouts. All gear and training are only usable once you’ve purchased them with a token, similar to the unlock system in the Black Ops series. It’s an extra layer of cheese for players to chase in their favourite skinner-box, and this time around it has yet to smell of…well, I’m not sure where I’m going with this metaphor.
And with the sour stench of fetid cheese comes the negatives: it’s a port on PC. A good one, mind you, but it still produces issues that are unique to the PC landscape. Problems like peer-to-peer connectivity for matches, which means that gameplay stability is at the mercy of a stranger’s connection, and the stuttering that has undermined Infinite Warfare’s multiplayer is present here too. Playing custom games with people you know might mitigate this, but as a holdover from the previous release, it’s a sign of contempt from Activision as a publisher. Then there’s the hacking. Without dedicated servers and associated admins to act as watchdogs, aimbots and wallhacks flooded CoD: WWII after two days of public testing. As fun as the game is, this is an utter disgrace and sounds like a final nail in the coffin for CoD on PC. And then there are loot boxes. You can currently pre-order to get “CoD points” on Steam, so you better believe game-breaking weapons will be making their way into this release.
And yet, in spite of technical issues and fiscal malfeasance, I ended my tenure with the CoD: WWII beta with a smile on face, even if it was for the most fleeting of times. The “War” mode, also present in the preview, is a great deal of fun – and, more importantly, it feels fresh. Albeit in a way I’m sure some CoD fans will find off-putting. Essentially a phase-based, attack/defend objective mode, not unlike Enemy Territory, Dirty Bomb or even payload in Overwatch, it does away with the flagrant freedom associated with CoD and attempts to funnel players into tight territorial contests. The single level on offer was narrow, like a Rush map from Battlefield but smaller and denser. In order to make progress, communication and coordination are necessary to breach the enemy team’s defences. Every match was consistently hectic, and it felt like a step forward for CoD’s competitive formula. The magic slipper nobody knew they’d lost.
Call of Duty: WWII’s multiplayer component seems like an answer to fans’ cries from the past three years. The discarding of bloated gimmickry while focusing on tight level design, a revamped loadout metagame, War mode, and a much-needed sense of restraint make this year’s game feel like home. It’s a shame that the PC version is seemingly in a shoddy state of repair in areas unbecoming of a AAA game, so I hope Sledgehammer and Raven get their act together to show PC folk some love, but, overall, it looks like it’s a good time to be a member of the great unwashed.