Review – Call of Duty: WWII

Call of Duty: WWII is SledgeHammer’s second full ownership Call of Duty title and the third time period they’ve set a game in. This review will be focused on the Campaign and Multiplayer segments, with no attention to the Zombies mode as it holds little interest for me, and I lack an appropriate knowledge of the previous iterations to comment on how it compares.


Campaign

The campaign is without a doubt the strength of WWII, and that is where the true return to form resides, not in the setting, but in the quality of the campaign. For the bulk of the game you play as Ronald ‘Red’ Daniels, a young rancher from Texas, who like many others, encounters mainland Europe for the first time on the shores of Normandy. The game starts you off on D-Day which is both a punchy and dramatic opening, but being the first level it needs to act as a tutorial as well, and lead players into the scheme of things so it is scaled down a bit too much. Nonetheless it is still brutal on the Hardened difficulty, where you will die numerous times simply trying to advanced up the beach, and possibly later on when you hold off a very large German counter-attack at a farm.

Difficulty is as always, simply a modifier for how much damage you take, but it has an additional wrinkle in that being at full health is not a given as WWII’s campaign eschews regenerating health in favor of a traditional health bar, and health pickups that are used as inventory items where your health is restored after a brief animation. The health pickups can be found on the ground, or they can be tossed to you by a medic NPC who gets them faster if you perform well in combat and act with valor.

Acting with valor sounds very subjective, but it is objective to the game as every level has a set number of Heroic Events, optional tasks that save someone else. This is most commonly in the form of dragging a wounded soldier in to cover, but can also be freeing a hostage (well within enemy lines in a large fight), or in one case, stopping a rape. These acts of heroism are never pressed upon you, but simply opportunities to role play Red all the better, as he does express dismay when you fail to save someone. It works, I found myself shifting strategies to ensure I could save someone while performing the mission objectives, but it also doesn’t always work in the very real sense of having some very bad collision experiences when dragging a wounded soldier to sometimes very arbitrary locations, some of which were in less cover than the closer spot I was heading toward, but so long as you acknowledge that you are grabbing them by their shoulders and thus you need to drag them instead of pushing them, you will get where you are going. The game certainly seems aware of the risks being taken as they tend to be near checkpoints, so you can try and try again if you wish, but it isn’t necessary as there is no long term progression being moved towards. You will not be weaker in resources for not succeeding.

Medics are not the only available resource, you also have ammo resupply NPCs, frag and smoke grenade resupply NPCs, mortar strike NPCs, and intel NPCs who can highlight enemies with a white silhouette to simplify the scenario before you. Of note, the intel NPC will chastise you for asking him to point out the enemy when not in combat. I found the ammo and grenade NPCs to be mostly facilitating play style choices, allowing me to stick with certain methods, and the mortar NPC to usually be overkill – and a friendly fire risk which is a fail condition. I am referring to them rather generically for the sake of focusing on mechanics, but these are specific characters with names and dedicated voice actors, contributing to the story.

Though we do suffer from seemingly immortal protagonists (one character was being shot in the middle of a scripted sequence, blood spraying out of him as tracer rounds visibly went in, he never took harm), it does give you time to get to know the characters, and they are for the most part an experience to know individually, but particularly regarding their relationships with one another. The story is a simple but appropriate one, characterized by the fact that though these are mainstays, they are such for a reason, because real humans are passionate about these experiences. The characters feel like humans in a war, rather than characters in a story to fulfill plot needs and subvert tropes. This is at the heart of what authenticity WWII has, and it delivers it through people rather than specific details.

Yes, the Nazis drop PPSHs at Normandy from time to time – a likely holdover from the weapon logic of Advanced Warfare, SledgeHammer’s last Call of Duty – and the game inserts chase sequences and vehicles sequences, as well as quick time events. Because this is an action game, a theme park event where you play a role and meet certain trials. It is giving a slice of the cathartic aspects of the western theater, where sometimes the experience is wooden, particularly if you refuse to play along. But the people feel like people, and that peaks in your one true encounter with a Nazi, where you play as a French resistance fighter who is undercover and engaging in espionage. You find yourself in the office of a Nazi officer who gives a brief speech on how he is happy to leave France to the French, but would dearly miss the cuisine. He then explains the culinary history and preparation methods in brief of the Ortolan and concludes that he could not choose between which was more exquisite, the taste of the bird, or watching it thrash as it drowned in brandy. I found the performance chilling, and it really drove home the substance of fighting the Nazis, as the evil came not from animal like savagery, of mistaken ideas, but from the conscious and intellectual choice to pursue cruelty, and to view cruelty as a good unto its own.

The campaign draws to a close with a direct, though brief, acknowledgment of the Holocaust, and it actually left me feeling rather sad, with a bit of anxiety. It wasn’t strictly shooting and quick time events or thrilling vehicle side journeys. It was still WWII. I don’t think the campaign has much replay value to it, if any, but I did enjoy my time with it.

Multiplayer

(Shots are from campaign due to the impracticality of taking pictures during multiplayer.)

The multiplayer in Call of Duty has always been sort of a fun house of the campaign’s themes, and this one is no exception, though it tries to frame the mechanics in something slightly more lore friendly. Gone is the Pick 10 system where you assemble a class from a buffet of items and perks, and in comes the Division system, which is nowhere near as permanent as the game suggests. Divisions are simply an array of perks designed with a particular weapon class in mind, and they level through the simple act of having one selected – it may seem that you need to use their associated weapon class, but this is incorrect, I am progressing Mountain with a sub-machine gun, and Armored with an assault rifle. Each Division at level 1 has an inventory/accessory perk which only works with the associated weapon class: Shotguns get incendiary rounds, SMGs get a suppressor, Assault Rifles get a bayonet with charge, Light Machine Guns get the ability to mount them on surfaces for improved accuracy, and Sniper Rifles get the marksman focus where you can hold your breath to steady your aim. There are a few attachments which can disqualify these benefits, but they are the only elements tying you to a weapon class. For example, I cannot hold my breath to steady my aim with an SMG, even though I am using Mountain with an SMG. But I really want Mountain’s level 2 ability which hides you from enemy recon planes.

I personally found the Expeditionary division to be largely useless, even though it contains the much maligned incendiary shells. They are reportedly overpowered, but this is a case of confirmation bias as when you get killed by them, the feedback is rather direct: a third person view of yourself, writhing in flame while screaming hysterically. The range at which an incendiary round will kill you immediately is very short, and the range at which it will burn you to death is still shorter than the one shot kill range of standard buckshot. Incendiary rounds are functionally, less potent than buckshot, and even when used skillfully, result in more kill trades than is desirable.

Beyond the Divisions is the Basic Training ribbons, which are one or two perks combined, such as Hustle which enables both faster reloads and reloading while sprinting, or Primed which gives you one more attachment to your primary weapon. Some Division tiers and Basic Trainings stack, like Primed with Infantry’s bonus attachment, giving you four attachments, but not Scoped and Infantry’s increased movement speed while aiming down sights. The game usually does a good job of warning you about conflicts.

What this amounts to is a simpler experience. Your enemy will always have a Division, and a Basic Training, the only factor beyond that is the Division level and the standard consideration of weapons being used. You will literally run into fewer variations of soldier with this setup, all the while the game provides a framework of generally playing to classical strengths. These are reinforced with the fact that every Division’s starting weapon is rather powerful in the scope of its category and fairly reliable. Airborne for example starts you with one of the only two SMGs to have a 3-shot kill potential, and this is the larger reach of the two. Combined with the return to “boots on the ground” gameplay and what you have is a game somewhere between Call of Duty 2 and 4 in terms of considerable factors for the bulk of your play time.

The game has smaller changes on top of this though, ones which are not immediately obvious, but many players had intuited or felt at some point. The health regeneration in multiplayer is now more punishing by way of being more strict and linear. In previous games, if you only took a certain amount of damage, after 5 seconds of no harm, you were back to full. WWII has no such grace period, each bit of damage must be individually recovered at a rate of 1 every 0.033 seconds, so little bits of damage can add up on your person even if you go 5 seconds without taking harm. The YouTuber TheXclusiveAce did some testing and identified that it takes 8.4 seconds to recover from 90 points of damage in WW2, but slightly over 5 seconds in MW1. The game also heavily punishes being caught sprinting by having rather slow times where you go from the sprinting animation to having your gun ready, to the extent that it will actually nullify the Quickdraw attachment. WW2 is in the nitty gritty, a game about not always running in, and taking more time to lick your wounds.

Unfortunately the maps don’t reflect this. They all feel a touch too small, where spawn trapping always feels like the most suitable strategy, because the maps are just small enough that any room for the enemy to breathe feels like surrendering the center of the level. The only exception is Gustav Cannon which is practically a one way ticket to a sniper lobby.

Small maps can be good, but they need careful structure to keep players from constantly running into each other. Some players have complained about the “Swiss cheese” layouts, and this is mostly because of how obvious nearly every route is. In previous games, side routes, shortcuts, and flank routes may at one point or another be aided by noticing a spot to mantle over or crawl under, but these are lacking in WW2 . Rather, all of these other routes are just as visibly viable as the primary ones, so every player is filtering across them, making it very easy to bump into two enemies simultaneously at opposite ends of your screen. Greater use of obstacles which rewarded awareness to find shortcuts would go a long way – until players realized that Airborne’s climb over obstacles faster aspect gives them an even larger advantage… That is the rock and the hard place of WW2’s level design.

But it isn’t even lessened with variety, sure they themselves have a variety (including the curiosity of London Docks where Nazis are in London?) but with only 9 primary maps you are seeing the same level over and over again. I intentionally said level there and not levels because for 8 eight matches in a row, I got USS Texas. I was pretty sick of it after that. There are 3 other maps, but they only function with the new War game mode.

War is, to pardon the odd phrase, a good time. Some where between Unreal Tournament’s Assault and Enemy Territory/Dirty Bomb’s primary game mode, you have one team defend and the other attack across a themed level with a series of objectives involving construction, demolition, and payloads, and then sides are switched. In many respects, I have little to say about this mode. It is fun, though at times a bit of a slog penetrating through the defensive line, though I do wonder if it was worth the cost of 3 more standard maps to keep the variety in literally every other game mode.

The standard Call of Duty issues are there which come from latency and fully automatic weapons in close ranges, as well as the completely bizarre events where you question causality itself. But this time any bad experience can have salt rubbed into the wound by the Play of the Game system, a system which seems to always find something worthy of a mediocre montage and which had little impact on the course of the game. It strongly favors sniper double kills, and I myself saw a sniper double kill in a Hardpoint game where I got a triple kill on the Hardpoint with an SMG. It isn’t even a matter of pride, I often see other players performing feats that overshadow the Play of the Game, yet there we have it.

Thankfully for all the woes, there is a silver lining in the form of bots. WW2 has AI controlled opponents available in custom matches with a very broad range of customization options, as well as per team difficulty settings which includes Mixed so as to provide a variety. The bots get on the objective better than the average human player, and thus can even steal your thunder in a session of War. This alone gives the game some install longevity.

Lootboxes

Lootboxes at present are not really a thing in WW2. Yes, you can open them in front of other players, but you can also open them in a menu. I’ve accumulated a fair few in my play time because they are out of the way, and easily forgotten, and the contents are small temporary XP boosts, as well as cosmetics. There are rumors of additional guns coming to the game, such as the Gewehr 43, and it is possible that they will be located inside of these lootboxes, but they may just as easily be contained in others. In my experience, the bonus weapons added after launch tend to be under powered in most scenarios and rather situation specific in their functional application, as the developers were hesitant to upset the existing balance. They may become a thing, but at present, I was barely aware of them.

Conclusion

A rocky launch seems to have smoothed out, but not without taking its toll as the average number of PC players appears to be below half of the game’s peak as of the end of the month. Consequently it seems to have driven a lot of players away before the balance fixes could arrive, and it now can take a bit of an effort to find a game, with some playlists being largely empty. Games are routinely 5v5 or lower, and start with insufficient players, as others trickle in. This doesn’t feel healthy, and despite the very large wealth of Advanced Options (complete with explanations and illustrative screenshots of each value), the PC player base still declines. Those who have stuck with the franchise this long seem largely put off by the maps, and many are returning to the current favorite of Black Ops 3. I will likely keep it installed for a while, to see how the Christmas event and DLC impact things, as well as to relax with the bots. But with a very traditional one-shot campaign, any hiccup in a multiplayer launch determines your thresholds, and having a set of maps that players are largely neutral to negative about is one of the biggest hiccups at all. They could still partially turn the ship around, but, at least on PC, who will still crew it? 5/10.

 

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