Call of Duty: WWII
The Good: Great voice work. Beautiful graphics. Zombie horror!
The Bad: Short, lackluster single player campaign.
The Ugly: Limited multiplayer maps.
It’s hard not to like Call of Duty WWII because it faithfully checks just about every box we have come to expect from AAA FPS titles – great artwork, talented actors for the speaking roles, multiplayer, co-op, and single player modes, lots of varied weapons, big, dramatic set pieces. But while it checks all of those boxes, it often does so in minimal ways. The single player campaign is short, quite on the rails, has iffy enemy AI, and lacks memorable moments. Co-op zombies is intense and fast, and is clearly shooting for a Killing Floor or Left 4 Dead vibe even if it doesn’t quite get there. Multiplayer has only a dozen maps in all, doles out rewards for killstreaks making dominant players even more so (this problem is not singular to CoD:WW2 as it goes back well into Modern Warfare, but it is something I wish they would at least try and solve), and sticks to well-worn multiplayer variants, adding only one new concept to the mix. So while CoD:WW2 is hard not to like, it is also, I suspect for most players, equally difficult to love.
I will confess that my disappointment began early in my exposure with the storming of the beach at Normandy. There’s a big opening movie which introduces your characters and his friends, and the next thing you know you’re on the boat, the front of the amphibious landing craft drops, all the guys in front of you get mowed flat by enemy fire, you go over the side, wash up onto the beach, see that guy with his limbs blown off, etc. Beautifully rendered? Absolutely, and with some pretty incredible detail. But, one, I’ve stormed Normandy so many times it has lost all dramatic impact, and two, it’s a really odd place to put a tutorial. But even beyond that, CoD:WW2 quickly shows its single-player campaign warts, so many warts. The campaign is short (about 5-6 hours spanning about a dozen vignettes) and as on the rails as any FPS campaign I’ve played in years. Campaign goals are almost entirely rote – take out this bunker, get on that AA and shoot down Stukkas, pick up that sniper rifle and get into the bell tower. Enemy AI feels like a step backwards from previous encounters, often lacking the simple sense to get behind cover. I get so bored during the campaign that I found myself looking for amusing things to do, like sniping soldiers in the head because their helmet flies off in a funny way and the ragdoll physics are nice. They throw in some heroic acts for you to perform, like dragging a wounded soldier to cover, but they are awkward and tightly scripted and feel more like a chore than a great heroic action. There are also some driving segments, and the less said about them the better. The car drives in a slushy and arcade-ish way and though the road forks very briefly sometimes, you’re mostly in a trench. A trench could actually be a metaphor for the whole campaign. You walk down a road, the trees so thick on either side that deviation is impossible, and come to like a farmhouse, shoot some soldiers in that little farmhouse set piece, and then advance to another road to another set piece, shoot some more enemies, wash, rinse, and repeat. There is one brief deviation from the endless duck shoot that I won’t spoil, but afterwards you spend the whole rest of the campaign hoping to recapture that moment of magic, and it never comes again. While this isn’t the most embarrassing campaign in the CoD series (I think that crown goes to either Infinite War or Black Ops 3 depending on how I’m feeling when you ask me), it’s way up there.
My first exposure to multiplayer too was a mixed bag. You pick a division to join, which has echoes in similar structures in other games. Do you want to join the infantry? The armor division? It all comes down to what weapons you like to use, because while you can pick up any weapon you find, you can only gain levels on weapons in your division, and levels are important, because the weapons get MUCH better with levels. I consider joining the infantry (I have no patience for sniper rifles and don’t care for the emplacement of heavy weapons of the armor division), but I always join the infantry, so for variety I join the expeditionary forces, who use primarily a shotgun. I’m then dropped into the HQ, which is among the most peculiar gaming experiences I’ve ever had. There you can collect your pay. What can you do with your pay? Not much. At the moment it is entirely cosmetic stuff, but I will admit to fears that later real world money and pay-to-win elements will show up in what for now is a simple if somewhat silly marketplace. You can also go to a shooting range to try out your weapon and play with killstreak bonuses just to get the feel of them. You can also collect assignments which give you an award based upon completing some task, such as killing ten enemies with headshots in a multiplayer game. The whole HQ feels like a lot of setup for minimal payoff.
I then join a multiplayer team deathmatch game. The multiplayer varieties are all ones you’ve played before – team deathmatch, free for all, CTF, domination (I’m not sure they call it that, but that’s the game it is). There is one new variant called War that I’ll get to in a moment. The multiplayer game I join is called USS Texas, and takes place on a battleship. The enemy team, seemingly all snipers, take up position on the fantail, and if there’s a way to flank them, I never found it. My shotgun is worthless. I can game as a sniper, but I haven’t gained levels in sniper weapons, so my weapon is weak. Later I can unlock other divisions, but for now it’s a slaughter, made worse by the fact that guys who get killstreaks are given special bonuses like launching a spotter plane or dropping a bomb. My score that map is 2 kills and 21 deaths. Yes, the rich get richer, and that’s true as ever in CoD:WW2. If there is a saving grace, it is that you level up pretty quickly – in the early going, you might gain 2 or 3 levels in a single match. Also most of the maps are far better balanced by roles than USS Texas, so it is just bad luck I stumbled into that game first. I’ll also note that there are only a dozen maps, which is kind of thin, and probably more will come along in the future through the season pass, though the game and season pass together cost nearly $100, which is steep. One of the maps is Carentan, which is a nearly perfect duplicate of the map of the same name in CoD2. And while I admit that it remains one of my favorite maps, and that friends and I still get together and play CoD2 specifically for that map, in this instance what it mostly does is emphasize just how little gameplay has changed since then.
There is a new variant called War in which players are split into two teams, one attacking, the other defending, as they complete specific tasks – escort a tank, build a bridge, bomb an ammo dump. Initially you have almost no idea what you are doing – I found the mission cues terrible – but there are only three maps and by playing with people who do know what they are doing you quickly figure it out. Battles are fast and energetic and brutal, especially at the capture points, but there are only three maps, and I’m getting pretty tired of one of them already. If they had foregone the single player campaign entire for more War, I think I would have been a happier camper. Over time, I got more levels, better weapons, learned the maps and started scoring a positive number in the kills/deaths column, and found a handful of maps I like. If CoD:WW2 has any longevity for me, I suspect it will be through the multiplayer gaming, but after only ten or so hours in, I can already feel myself drifting off to other games.
The co-op is of course zombie based – isn’t everything these days? It is not really a grandly new concept as you and your teammates fight waves of ever-tougher and more numerous zombie enemies, but they’ve gone a lot darker than previous CoD zombie entries really playing up the horror aspect (help considerably by the amped up graphics) which I like. You get points (which they call jolts) for kills, and then can use those points to unlock weapons and bonuses and new areas. It has a nice feeling of a progression about it even as it lacks a larger plot arc like Left 4 Dead. I’ll add that every single game I played, I lost connection to the server and got kicked off. Never happened in other multiplayer games, and I don’t know what to make of it.
I can almost picture the early pitch sessions for Call of Duty: WWII in which they conceived of a game that has something for everyone. But if everyone gets something, no one gets everything. If I were in charge, I would have scrapped the no doubt very expensive but entirely lackluster single player campaign entirely and focused on the core multiplayer, making more maps and expanding on the War concept, which works quite well. The co-op works reasonably well, and pleasantly scratches that itch for people who prefer to work as a team against AI rather than people. So Call of Duty: WWII is a pleasantly rounded package which lands it solidly in the middle of the everything pack.
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
This review is based on a digital copy of Call of Duty: WWII for the PC provided by Activision.