I’ll say it here and now, I thought Advanced Warfare was pretty neat. It showed that fledgeling studio Sledgehammer Games not only had the gumption, but the skill to breathe some life into a stagnating cesspool of season passes, toxic communities, and quick-scoping with their first fully-fledged game. Its gameplay placed greater emphasis on reactivity and dynamism with dodges, double jumps, and dive-kicks, much to the chagrin of fans. Its storytelling, on the other hand, tried to reinstate a sense of poignancy into the series, which had mainly become enamoured with lionising cold-as-ice, hard-as-nails killers who acted without hesitation or remorse.
It might have failed with its “press X to feel” debacle, and, in hindsight, casting of Kevin Spacey, but it was a wonderfully weird, short-lived mutant with a style set somewhere between the high-flying madness of Tribes and the tense stand-offs of Counter-Strike. For the briefest of times, it looked like the series had evolved into an entirely different, experimental animal. Three years down the track, however, and Sledgehammer have peeled back their ambition, caving to fan expectation in bringing back what has been referred to as a ‘boots on the ground’ experience with Call of Duty: WWII (CoD WWII). And in most respects, it’s actually been for the better.
The good news, unfortunately, doesn’t begin with the CoD WWII’s storytelling. The campaign, while initially promising and sporadically brilliant, is ultimately let down by frequent failures that have plagued the stories in CoD games for almost a decade. Cataloguing the allied invasion of Normandy once more, players are thrust into the boots of Ronald “Red” Daniels, a greenhorn infantry private with a polite southern drawl and a heart of gold. Red is accompanied on his sojourn against the Nazi war machine by his platoon, which consists of Red’s Jewish buddy Zussman, egghead and emotionally colourblind photographer Stiles, wise-guy Aiello, the burly and severe Sergeant Pierson (portrayed by Josh Duhamel, the only actor you’ll likely recognise), and the empathic and inspiring Lieutenant Turner.
The platoon’s journey is one fraught not only with the dangers of war, but also the platoon’s flaws, fears and convictions, and they are led into conflict with one another almost as often as they are with the Nazis. It makes for a more personal and dramatic story than previous games, albeit in the expectedly forced, primetime TV feeling kind of way. The themes it deals with, too, are more contentious and reflective of the real world than ever before, but sadly only in a way that feels like secondary punctuation to all of the explosions, gunfire, and bloodshed. It’s a shame, too, as the themes present, such as racism, religious persecution, having the will to act when necessary, compassion clashing with duty, and post-traumatic stress are all pretty damned heavy. And yet, none of the scenes exploring these pillars of the subtext had me sitting on the edge of my seat, nor were they anything I hadn’t seen explored better in the films and television shows that seemingly served as this story’s inspiration.
The gameplay for the campaign is also more than a bit silly and out of date, in what appears to be an earnest attempt to appeal to older heads’ nostalgia. The usual abundance of explosions and brutal violence played out over linear levels with enough wiggle room to flank your way through a glorified shooting gallery is flavoured this time round by oversimplified squad abilities and self-medication. Health regen has been booted out in favour of medkits, supplied to the player by either picking them up throughout a level or by requesting them from Zussman. You’ll have to open the health packs yourself, and the need to monitor and administer does add a minor level of pressure to hectic firefights. Squad abilities are useful, but they’re kind of frivolous in that they’re just a bit too unrealistic, even for CoD. As mentioned, Zussman will toss you health packs, while Turner will give you ammo, Stiles hands you grenades, Aiello will provide you with ordnance flares, and Pierson can reveal the silhouettes of all enemies within range. All abilities operate on a cooldown timer, which is reduced by eliminating targets quickly and skilfully.
Despite any criticisms I might have about the campaign, it’s still nice to see that the fundamental elements of CoD’s formula are open to being differentiated. It’s encouraging to see new central gameplay mechanics built around a narrative hook (by attaching them to the characters), even if they’re a pain to use most of the time and don’t enhance or expand the now decades-old formula. You need to be within a close distance of your squadmates to use their abilities, and during shoot-outs, they’ll stay firmly rooted in one location while you scramble all over the place trying to find ammo, avoid heavier armed enemies, and try and find new weapons and vantage points. Continually curtailing your exploration of the battlefield, your survival depends on your proximity to your squad. It also cheapens their value in a narrative context as most of your experience with them throughout the game is in a relationship more akin to that between a glutton and a vending machine, not comrades at arms.
Worse still, some missions will restrict you by removing squad members for an arbitrary form of mission variety. Adjusting yourself to play more conservatively (by merely detracting from the full palette of your limited gameplay variety) for the sake of contrived narrative circumstances doesn’t make for much fun. So, once again, the bread and butter of a CoD campaign is mostly unnoteworthy – save for a seemingly unintentional heavy-hitting story moment which gave me something truly harrowing to think about for the first time ever in a CoD game, and one particularly standout level. While bearing the onerous title of the ‘obligatory stealth set-piece,’ the liberation of Paris mission, set right in the middle of the game, nearly makes the whole experience worthwhile, and I won’t spoil it here. It’s better to see find out for yourself. Although, in saying that, I know most of you don’t buy CoD for the campaigns anyway.
Which, while a cretinous attitude to have, is one that’s well-rewarded this year. This is not, however, an old-school CoD game. It’s still very much the ridiculous, reward-spewing skinner box typified by Modern Warfare, except this time around two significant additions change that formula for the better. Divisions are the first of said additions but are, in reality, a reigning in of the usual ‘pick 10’ style progression system seen in earlier titles. Divisions are umbrellas for your conventional CoD weapon and perk loadouts and fit into five categories: Infantry, Airborne, Armored, Mountain, and Expeditionary. Each division has special perks that cater to the use of particular weapon classes. Infantrymen have access to bayonets for rifles, Airborne have silencers for SMGs, the Mountain can focus more quickly with sniper rifles, the Armoured have a bipod for LMGs, and the Expeditionary has the use of incendiary shotgun shells.
Your Division will rank up alongside the usual litany of candy cane unlocks like weapon attachments and equipment. Levelling in one will eventually add five perks only available to that Division – basically, they’re defined classes that you have to invest time in to make more distinct and useful. Regardless of which Division you initially choose, you can take one additional perk to customise your playstyle and one piece of equipment. Most of the perks are familiar staples, such as taking two primary weapons, invisibility from surveillance, earning scorestreaks faster, shoot while sprinting, etc., etc. While a conservative system compared to past releases, there’s plenty of room to tweak your playstyle.
Divisions also add another layer of progression which doesn’t feel arbitrary, mainly because they cater to playstyles commonly seen in every CoD game’s multiplayer since the dawn of time. The mid-range all-rounder, the run-and-gun SMG/knife-wielding ninja, the camper/quick-scoper, the tank, and the roaming shotgun-griefer. You won’t be at a disadvantage if your division is of a lower rank, either – tactics and skill will carry you, not your unlocks. While yet another layer in the cake of CoD’s rewards system, it is one that keeps you reshaping and toying with the way you play in subtle enough ways to feel egocentric in the smaller deathmatch oriented modes, yet rigid enough to give you a clear role in the all new and hectic War mode.
War is the best-damned thing to happen to CoD multiplayer since the introduction of progression systems in the original Modern Warfare, as it feels like the metagame is, at last, less attractive than the actual gameplay mode. War is an objective mode played out over multiple phases, akin to the likes of Enemy Territory, Assault in Unreal Tournament, and to a lesser extent Overwatch and Team Fortress. While only three maps are on offer at launch, those maps are the largest ever seen in this series and are an absolute blast to boot. Each is themed around distinct operations of the Normandy invasion – one takes place on the Omaha beach landing, replete with Nazi encampments of machine-gun turrets. Another has the Allies moving on the German border in the middle of winter, and the last has the Allies again attempting to push armour through a small French village. Each of these maps plays differently, but all use a mixture of objectives like escorting tanks (the payload has TEETH!), capturing and holding marked zones, stealing fuel to refill the tank, building bridges, destroying and constructing defenses, and manning turret positions.
The level designs are filled with vicious funnels and snaking multi-laned highways, and feel similar in scale to rush maps from the Battlefield series, albeit in a more ambitious context. Here, the Divisions’ clear distinctions seem most natural, and like in other class-based games, strategy and coordination are vital to your success. Even without players communicating directly, a team with a diverse composition and sufficient skill playing to their roles can cut their opponents down to quince jam. No one division will come clear above the rest in a given match, and even with overpowered sniper rifles and plentiful ‘nade spam, there’s plenty of tactical head space to get one over on cheesing, quick-scoping turds doing their best to spawn camp in most matches. The matches are a great deal longer than the average game of Domination or SnD, too. Fights see-saw with a drama infinitely more captivating than watching a score bar fill up in the right-hand corner of the screen. CoD multiplayer has come of age, and its harbinger is War…
Nazi Zombies returns again this year, with more secrets and Scotsmen than usual. Starring Ving Rhames, that chick who played that awful rendition of Elektra, Lagertha from Vikings, and David Tennant as a foul-mouthed Glaswegian art-thief, the co-op mode seems to think it’s a horror game this time around. Zombies will occasionally pop out of the ground waving their arms so glibly you might find yourself saying “ABOOGEYWOOGEYWOO” in charitable amusement. The jump scares only last so long before they become annoying, and as Zombies is all about replaying and digging for secrets, it kind of sucks the fun out of proceedings a little bit. It’s still a fully-fledged mode, though, and said secrets will give players plenty of joy, if digging for such things with friends is your cup of tea. There’s also more customisation for even more incessant tweaking, with customisation cribbed from multiplayer, as well as MOBA-esque class abilities, and an extra layer of perk modification with “raven research.” It won’t change your mind if you weren’t into Zombies before, but it should give fans something to chew on for a while.
Lastly, a Destiny-esque social space has made its way into CoD this year, too. Called “Headquarters,” it’s a seemingly arbitrary addition, but it does an excellent job of segregating lootboxes, assignments/challenges and leaderboards into a relaxed environment. Its best acquisition though would be the duel area, where you can easily 1v1 xxTuRddB3rGL3r420xx & co. while others watch, faces resting firmly in their palms. Players can also circle-jerk *cough* I mean, upvote each other for social rankings, which generates unique rewards. It’s silly and merely there to appeal to players who like this junk in Destiny, and is most definitely representative of the designed-by-committee, rearward-looking design philosophy increasingly encroaching on AAA games development…but it is nice to relax once in a while. While a fleeting novelty, it was entirely peaceful simply staring out over the now secured Normandy beach, the sun setting low in the early evening sky…
Call of Duty: WWII is a return to form for the series, but only if you’re a fan from Modern Warfare onwards. The series’ biggest draw, competitive multiplayer, has been pared back and reinvigorated by the stellar new War mode and a more restrained loadout system. While the campaign and zombies falter a bit, they’re still worthy additions to the franchise and are proof that while Sledgehammer might not always get it right, they’re willing to try new things as well as be understanding of the values the series has lost over time. I think, truly, their third time will be the charm…