Games Review: Call of Duty: WWII (Xbox One X, 2017): A welcome return to form

What is this sensation I’m feeling? Is it … enjoyment? Am I actually having fun with a Call of Duty game again? I think I am! My god, it’s been a while.

As far as the single player campaign goes, Call of Duty: WWII is something of a return to form. Taking the series back to the World War II era that defined its first three iterations and numerous console spin-offs in the early 2000’s, COD: WWII feels like a bit of a homecomingLast year saw the series reach the universally-agreed-upon milestone for Jumping The Shark, as the game’s setting went to space. When Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare under-performed, it didn’t come as much of a surprise. The series felt like it had been losing momentum for a long time. The gruelling annual release schedule, even juggled between three different devs for longer production periods, made it feel more and more creatively tapped out.

When it was announced, Call of Duty: WWII felt a bit like Activision was going back to the well after their space gamble failed to pay off. It also came on the heels of EA’s very well received Battlefield 1, and it was one of those rare moments (beyond sports titles) where video games did the Twin Film thing.

The thing is, COD: WWII succeeds, particularly in its campaign, because it cuts the accumulated chuffa of the last decade and gets back to what made the original Call of Duty and Call of Duty 2 so memorable. Harrowing reconstructions of real historical battles, era-appropriate gunplay and what id Software would describe as “push forward gameplay.”

Honing in on the tone of Spielbergian works like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, the campaign follows PFC Ronald “Red” Daniels military career from the Normandy Beach landing in 1944 to the Battle of Remagen and the unexpected Allied capture of the Ludendorff Bridge in 1945. Throughout the campaign, Daniels sticks close to his best bud PFC Robert Zussman and frequently butts heads with Technical Sergeant William Pierson (played by Josh Duhamel, the campaign’s sole example of celebrity casting). Duhamel, in particular, deserves praise for his deranged performance as Pierson, a guy frayed by what he’s been through well before arriving on the beach in Normandy, willing to be detested by his platoon if it means he gets them all home safely.

I feel for the actors in this game, from the leads to those brought in for background battle chatter. All that screaming really highlights why the SAG-AFTRA voice actor strike was important. So many brutalised vocal cords.

The reason the campaign works so well for me I think is that, due to winding back the clock to weaponry in use during WWII, it necessarily slows the pace of the game down a little. Your reloads must actually be timed properly as not all of your weapons can be reloaded instantaneously. While machine guns abound, I found myself mostly using single shot rifles as it allowed me to line up headshots more accurately, the trade off being that I would need to be exposed to enemy fire more often and for far longer than I would like. The result is that the game’s pace is dramatically reduced and this is a good thing. Over the last few years in particular, Call of Duty has become a game that only 16-year-olds mainlining fighter pilot stims can succeed at. It had become so fast that death felt unfair to anyone who wasn’t a ridiculous pro already.

Reducing the pace allows developer Sledgehammer leeway to experiment. Gone is the now common place health bar recharge, instead forcing you to rely on health packs strewn about each level or on Zussman, who generates health packs on a cooldown. Indeed, each member of Daniels’ squad has some sort of pick up or ability they can grant you — Pierson can scope the field and highlight enemy troop locations, Aiello has ammo packs, Turner has grenades and so forth. Zussman, for me as he is for Daniels, was always the most important. As Daniels’ best friend, it makes sense that Zussman is what’s keeping him going — literally and figuratively.

Playing through the campaign on the new Xbox One X hardware was a real treat. The increased grunt of the new hardware, with its native 4K resolution, textures, and HDR lighting made for an extremely smooth experience. It allows the game to communicate the horror of the war with greater alacrity. The environments are horrible, dreary, sludgy places, buildings shatter as mortar fire rains down upon them and, in one particularly memorable and Very COD™ sequence, Daniels finds himself on the ground as a German train derails at high speed all around him.

But the campaign’s most interesting moments, for me at least, were when we’d leave Daniels behind for a second. My favourite mission was a stealth and sabotage adventure where my perspective shifted to real world French resistance spy, Rousseau. The first time I can remember playing as a female character in a Call of Duty title, Rousseau is given papers to memorise, a cover to keep, a mark and a job to do. She is then turned loose into a party attended by German command and Nazi aristocracy. It’s by far the most fun I’ve had playing a Call of Duty title in years and Sledgehammer are to be applauded for it. The Rousseau mission is so good it made everything that came after it seem much less interesting if I’m being honest. Oh hey, I get to fly around in bombers and shoot down German fighter pilots for a bit? That’s cool but, if Rousseau isn’t flying the plane, I’m gonna find it real hard to care guys, sorry. It is what it is.

Beyond the campaign, Call of Duty: WWII brings the series’ usual bag of tricks out to play. The multiplayer is exactly the same as it always is — frenetic pitched battles played out in maps designed to encourage the kind of dickbag lurk-and-shoot-you-in-the-back plays that make me spit blood and teeth. If you’re here for the multiplayer, you’re going to have a great time. Raven are handling the multi as usual, they know what you want and they’re happy to give it to you. By all means, enjoy your rapacious march towards Prestige.

Nazi Zombies is also back in action, even bringing back the title first used in Call of Duty: World at War, with an all-star cast of undead murdering lunatics including Catherine Wynnick, Darin de Paul (best known to video game fans as the voice of Reinhardt in Blizzard’s Overwatch), Ving Rhames, Daredevil‘s Elodie Yung and, in a genuine coup for the series, Doctor Who‘s David Tennant who delightedly chews the scenery as former art thief Drostan Hynd. While the familiar wave-based combat remains the same, Nazi Zombies introduces a short PvE story element into the mix as well as a new class-based system of character selection. Pick a role — Offense, Control, Medic or Support, each with their own special abilities — and try to hold back the rising tide with custom loadouts and Raven Mods brought over from the multiplayer mode.

As someone who played Medal of Honor: Allied Assault at launch, and was there when Infinity Ward broke off to make the original Call of Duty, and who despaired at the specs required to run Call of Duty 2 on his then rather temperamental PC, it’s nice to see the series return to its roots and return so strongly. I’m on record as not being much of a fan of the last few instalments in the Call of Duty series, but with WWII Sledgehammer have finally dialled back on the action movie bullshit that pervaded those titles and honed in on scenario-based, older-school shoot outs. There’s less of the “cranky director” stopping you in your tracks when you don’t do exactly what the game tells you to do, forcing you to start over, and more getting shot to ribbons for doing something dumb like standing up in the middle of a firefight. It’s solid and it’s not perfect, but it’s more fun than I’ve had with any entry in the series in years. I hope the lessons Sledgehammer have learned from this can be dispersed among the wider series.

Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Feels like Old COD; Rousseau; Xbox One X version is gorgeous
Lowlights: Multiplayer still the same; Not enough Rousseau
Developer: Slegehammer Games
Publisher: Activision
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Available: Now

Reviewed on Xbox One X.