In Call of Duty: WWII, everything old is new again. For the first time in a decade, the series returns to the trenches where it got its start and the boots-on-the-ground gameplay that helped define a genre. While frequently refreshing, this also left me with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.
Back when Call of Duty first hit the scene, it seemed like every shooter on the planet was content to return to World War II over and over again. Then came Modern Warfare, completely shifting the focus of first-person shooters and beginning a steady creep further and further into the future. Back in 2007, Modern Warfare answered gamers' pleas to play in a setting other than the Second World War. But after 10 years of increasingly outrageous scenarios, weapons and abilities, the cries shifted to, "Okay, cool, but can we please go back to World War II now?"
Call of Duty: WWII feels like a direct response to the flagging interest the community has shown to fighting amongst the stars. Gone are the days of wall-running and grenades that actively seek out the enemy. If you yearn for the good-ole-days when mechanics were more straightforward, abilities were tamer and the conflict was more relatable, then WWII delivers. But what makes this both a blessing and a curse is the fact that we're basically playing a greatest hits album. The team at Sledgehammer offers a few new twists here and there, but they're relatively small adjustments to a formula that has served the series pretty well for the past 10 years. The game feels safe and, so long as you're comfortable with that, you're likely going to enjoy what WWII has to offer.
Like all of the more recent games in the series, Call of Duty: WWII is broken into three major components including a campaign, a suite of multiplayer modes and the cooperative zombies shoot-a-thon.
In the campaign, players will find themselves (usually) filling the boots of a young Texan by the name of Ronald "Red" Daniels. A member of the legendary US 1st Infantry Division, the story follows Daniels and his small group of companions on a bloody path through Nazi-controlled Europe. You'll be there for the D-Day invasion on the beaches of Normandy, the violent push into Paris and onward into the heart of Germany itself.
This is where nostalgia conflicts with my desire to see something new. We haven't fought through The Battle of the Bulge in a AAA FPS in a couple of console generations, so the thought of revisiting memorable European Theaters was exciting. But even with the latest graphics, explosive surround sound, cutscenes that look ripped from a Hollywood blockbuster and dynamic setpieces, I kept feeling like I was seeing something I've already seen a few too many times before. As a result, the campaign felt more like I was making my way through a series of boxes that needed to be checked off. Like a popular band from the 80's coming out of retirement, Call of Duty: WWII felt like it wanted to offer a couple of new tracks while spending most of its time replaying the hits.
The same can be said for the mission structure. Everything here is tried and true and almost choreographed to a fault. I can't tell you how many times I found myself thinking, "Okay, here comes the sniping/escort/stealth/turret/driving/sprinting sequence," which inevitably led directly into those familiar encounters. The nice thing here is that, unlike in recent series entries, the pacing of these genre staples is much more varied. You'll do a little of each of them multiple times throughout the campaign, broken up by a minimal amount of exploration and a hell of a lot of shooting galleries. So instead of missions punctuated by just one of those activities, there's a healthy mix of gameplay throughout just about every encounter.
The story that drives the player from landmark battle to landmark battle is decent enough but, like the missions themselves, it felt a bit too familiar. Daniels' group of buddies is well played, but they're also war movie tropes through and through. You've got to answer to a tough-as-nails, alcoholic commander with a mysterious past and one of the driving themes is whether your primary duty is to your comrades or the mission itself. None of this is "bad," it's just a little too predictable. In a game that has me playing through extremely familiar scenarios, it would have been nice to at least follow a story that surprised me.
Again, that's not to say that the campaign isn't a solid ride. There are still a handful of memorable encounters peppered into the expected bombast, including a mission at about the midway point that takes a welcome detour from all of that shooting and grenade throwing. And while the story will be familiar to anyone who has seen Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers, the bittersweet narrative feels appropriate, considering the setting.
Still, I can't help but wonder what would have happened had Sledgehammer been more willing to take chances with the campaign. While it's nice to take a step back from the direction the series has been headed, I can't help but feel like something more interesting could have been done with this setting, these soldiers, and this story. I find my mind jumping to shooters from the Bethesda camp. Prey told a compelling story while offering unique enemies, gear and a locale that felt more like a character than a place. DOOM offered systems that rewarded more creative play, turning trigger-happy gunfights into something of a rhythm game. And then there's the new Wolfenstein games, which take familiar characters, stories and locations and turns them on their ear. I'm not saying that WWII should have gone in any of those directions, just that we have proof there are still ways to innovate within the genre.
Once you've played through the 11-chapter campaign, you'll be ready to dive into the online modes, including an overhauled competitive showdown. I suppose it shouldn't be too surprising, but this mode is where WWII receives the most forward thinking.
After you play your first competitive match, you'll be dropped into Headquarters, a social region that functions a lot like the Tower from Destiny. While the mode is only a single-player experience as of this writing, you'll eventually be able to venture into this setting with a bunch of other players in order to chat, team up and even take part in some side activities. While running around in third person, you'll be able to collect rewards, unlock and purchase loot chests, make alterations to your gear, pop into the shooting range, join a queue for a one-on-one competition and even play some classic Activision arcade games.
From there, you'll be able to jump into all of the standard multiplayer modes, ranging from Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag to Kill Confirmed and Hardpoint. A nice selection of maps includes everything from the snowy Ardennes Forest to seaside Gibraltar and crumbling villages aplenty.
Similar to the campaign, this return to the series' roots makes multiplayer a bit more inviting. There are no crazy traversal abilities or futuristic weapons/gear that bring death from literally any direction. The combat is as fast and frantic as ever, but the tools you get to work with make the whole experience feel more grounded.
That's complimented by the fantastic new War mode, a trio of maps that has teams competing in a tug-of-war over evolving objectives. While one side tries to storm the beaches at Normandy or invade a fortified city, for instance, the other team's job is to stop them at all costs. This opens up the gameplay to even more styles of play and the setting continues to change so long as the attacking team manages to push further and further into enemy territory.
Finally, I should probably at least put in a word concerning the Divisions. Similar to everything else in WWII, this feels like a simplified, more user-friendly version of the build-a-class options in previous games. The Division you join will determine what special training and weapon skills you can unlock, allowing players to focus on their strengths without an overwhelming number of options.
Multiplayer is likely where most folks will spend the majority of their time in WWII, so it's great to see a handful of new offerings thrown into the mix to spice things up a bit.
Finally, there's the Nazi Zombie mode which, like the campaign, offers just a handful of twists to a familiar formula.
Unlike the cartoony romp through the Infinite Warfare zombies mode, Nazi Zombies takes a darker turn, focusing more on gritty horror than goofy antics. That's probably fitting, considering the fact that the campaign is a pretty somber look at an actual war. If you absolutely have to have a zombies mode in a game set during World War II, it's probably best not to lean too far into "isn't killing undead Nazis straight-up c-c-c-ray-zay, yo?!"
This time around, up to four players will take on the role of international art experts who, while trying to save priceless pieces of art stolen by the Nazis, uncover a diabolical plot to raise an undead army.
You'll still be working through the typical zombie mode motions of completing objectives, unlocking new paths across an intricate map, earning new gear and abilities and mowing down a countless number of enemies in order to advance the plot. Like with Infinite Warfare, I expect this mode will continue in future DLC, so it'll be interesting to see where the adventure takes us next.
While I'm glad the Call of Duty series has returned to its roots, I would have preferred that Sledgehammer tried to push the genre forward in terms of its single-player campaign. I enjoyed my time back in the trenches; I just wish that journey would have led to more unexpected destinations. Thankfully, a decent campaign is complemented by online multiplayer that offers some options that, while definitely inspired by other games, still elevate the Call of Duty franchise to new heights. That's all rounded out by yet another fun, if a bit gruesome, trek into zombie-slaying territory that will keep me solving puzzles and discovering secrets for some time to come.
No matter your play style, WWII offers a little something for everyone and, while it might not be the most original entry in the series, you can't accuse the game of holding anything back. There's a lot of meat on these bones, especially for series fans who were ready to abandon futuristic warfare in exchange for a more familiar experience. I was a bit disappointed in the campaign, but that doesn't prevent this from being a big, solid shooter that's worth checking out.
This review based on a PlayStation 4 copy of the game provided by the publisher.