Call of Duty WWII Single Player Review
Disclaimer: PC Aficionado purchased this game for the purpose of this review.
So Call of Duty: WWII is out, and to a surprising lack of media fanfare. Remember when we, as an industry, really cared about the release of the newest Call of Duty? When a new installment coming out would change the release schedule of most titles? Not too long ago this series was a juggernaut, becoming a heavy hitter with the release of Call of Duty 2 in 2005 and evolving into a titan of industry with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007. It was so successful, it started a trend of video-realistic brown-and-gray shooters that lasted the majority of the previous generation.
However, Call of Duty’s groundbreaking effect has diminished due to a recent string of lackluster offerings and unpopular business decisions. The modern warfare formula that was once a staple has gotten samey, and the futuristic games didn’t pull gamers back in. Call of Duty: WWII is clearly Activision’s attempt to return to its roots and overcome the recent slump in sales that has plagued the series.
The single-player story follows Ronald “Red” Daniels, an American soldier in the 1st Infantry Division. You and your squad exchange banter, scream out war taunts, kill Nazis, and take convenient paths through a variety of war zones. While the last few games in this franchise have ratcheted up the stakes to space fights, world-ending catastrophes, and going to war against a megalomaniac sexual predator, WWII scales the story back to something a bit more personal.
They attempted something more intimate by focusing on a single protagonist, something more common to the recent games of the series than its traditional globe-trotting multi-hero formula. This is not inherently a bad change – games like Spec Ops: The Line, developed by the German studio Yager Development and published by 2K Games, show us that even a game that seems like a standard shooter on the surface can utilize the medium more effectively for storytelling. As fun as high-stakes country-ending conflict can be to gun through, a story focusing more on a personal-narrative angle in a game like this could be great. Unfortunately, the execution of said narrative in WWII left me wanting more.
You spend almost the entire game playing as Red and fighting alongside the same squadmates, but neither the individual characters or their relationships with one another are developed well. For the most part, scenes play out less like even the video game version of ‘that one war movie scene’ and more like a parody of said scene played straight. That’s not to say it’s entirely movie cliches – it’s also gaming cliches.
Walking through fog, being yelled at while your ears are ringing from an explosion, generic speeches about brotherhood, and many more CoD checklist items all report in for the latest game. Some decent dialogue stemming from racial and religious tensions or callbacks to previous scenes give a few moments in the game a bit more weight than I was expecting, and I almost want to say that, despite my complaints, the game does show promise in the few good parts that are there. Ultimately, however, what could have been more is instead a tired retread through familiar trenches.
While the video game versions of action movie stories are usually lackluster, one way they get around this is putting you in the big action movie moments, and one way to do that is through flashy presentation.
Call of Duty has always been more about immersing you in its worlds through its environment, set pieces and spectacle than its writing, and on this front, it fairs better than the story. The visuals are either good or mediocre. Good animations and models and the sheer amount of things happening at once can impress, but the engine has been used for ages and definitely shows its age.
A positive of an older engine, however, is that it is very scalable – it is easy to have something that can at least compete with modern offerings, or have something that looks like a smoother version of an older Call of Duty game, and have both of them look appealing and run well. Even on max, the frame dips I experienced on my 980TI compared to graphically and technically similar titles.
The sound design is as hit or miss as the visuals. The weapons lack a lot of the bass the rival Battlefield series nails, but things like the sounds of explosions including minor cracking sounds of the scenery around the ambient noises war, satisfying reload sounds, and the screams of help from squadmates are as good as they have always been.
The voice acting, in particular, is better this time around than other games in the series. Rather than blowing all of the acting budget on one of those deadpan acting heroes that end up being massively disappointing, all the actors seem to be about equal in terms of quality, and all of them do their jobs well. They are a large part of why many of the more emotional moments of the campaign resonated instead of reading like a watered-down version of a Spielberg scene. Even the soundtrack plays well into the campaign without being overbearing.
The set-pieces themselves were alright. The opening mission being in Normandy seems like it would be an intense way to kick things off, but desaturated beaches and legless troops long-ago lost their impact after many digital stormings, so I’m glad they didn’t build to it.
Each mission raises the stakes and that can be fun in its own right, but at times the spectacle almost laughably ridiculous compared to the aforementioned more personal story, taking away from its attempted emotional impact. However, particular standout missions that were not too affected by this include, without spoiling too much, the train level, the Paris level, and the final mission. Not that they aren’t bombastic and over the top, but in those circumstances, the spectacle managed to make me stop thinking about the story as much.
The primary gameplay elements of Call of Duty are mostly unchanged with some notable exceptions. Shooting the bad guys feels… fine. If you have played World at War, you know exactly how this game feels. You still auto lean over objects, cook and throw back grenades and the like. The main change to the campaign is utilizing health packs as opposed to regeneration for healing.
I can almost appreciate the attempt to throw back to a style of play that may turn off pro-regen fans by being a bit more difficult, even putting aside the fact that the reasoning behind it was probably because the new (quite profitable) Wolfenstein and Battlefield games did it. However, while on the surface this sounds like a big change, the execution felt more like trying to appease two groups by meeting in the middle and failing to impress either.
You can collect up to 4 health packs, and those health packs can be found both throughout the levels and when a squad mate decides he wants to give one to you. On the normal difficulty, I never ran out of health packs.
Even if that wasn’t an issue, collecting them instead of just finding them scattered around and instantly collecting them really just felt almost exactly like the regenerating health system except now it had to be activated by pressing one or two buttons.
What could have been a welcome change of difficulty for the series was instead just an unwanted break in an unchanged pacing. Much like the story, I would have liked to see this pushed further, but the developer’s reluctance to go all in on the feature makes it feel undercooked.
The two biggest complaints I have with the campaign are things many people have pointed out about all of the recent offerings in this franchise. The first is the difficulty: the AI on normal mode is not a challenge, and most of my deaths were due simply to larger numbers and careless play as opposed to being outsmarted and/or outgunned.
The higher difficulties, on the other hand, are far too dependent on remembering enemy placements in scripted events to avoid the high damage they dish out, which stems from the second problem of the campaign: linearity.
This game is as on rails than the series has ever been. There are sniping sections, trench sections, shootouts in ruined buildings, and blast planes with standard AA guns, all neatly partitioned and waiting for you to fast-pass through this amusement park of warfare-style gaming, all triggered by holding the w key a set amount of time before the next objective comes up.
It can all feel like a tired rerun of past games between bigger moments. Luckily, some much-needed variety in the campaign is peppered throughout – sequences where you have to drag fellow soldiers to safety, stealth sections and vehicle segments. These appear when they need to and leave before they overstay their welcome, but although such a gambit does improve the pacing of the experience, it can’t wholly overcome the repetitiveness of the design.
The few stealth sections are slightly more open-ended than the majority of the game and are decently executed, but all it does is enhance how on-rails all the vehicle segments are. I feel more like I am politely guiding a bumper car than I am controlling a war vehicle.
The game has made the frustrating decision to include QTE’s into this latest installment; why a dated mechanic maligned in its heyday was a core feature the developers felt compelled to add to this reinvigoration of a series is anyone’s guess. The obnoxious “you’ve been downed and all you have is a pistol with infinite ammo,” moments still feel contrived and unnecessary, rather than the careful narrative tool of earlier offerings. Even saving downed soldiers on the battlefield feels clunky and almost on rails.
While the linearity is partially mitigated a bit by the amount of variety in the game pulled from the more recent titles in the series as well as a higher variance in the guns you find on the battlefield than previous games set in the world war 2 setting, it still tends to wear on you and feel artificial after so many years of dealing with these problems in the franchise.
All in all, the half-hearted innovations to the formula don’t change the formula significantly enough – Call of Duty still feels like the same series doing the same thing in a throwback setting. It feels the same at times, it certainly isn’t going to surprise anyone, and it definitely could use some kind of innovation in level design or openness.
I am still tentatively eager to see where the series takes some of the new ideas that were promising but ultimately underwhelming. However, as of right now, though the game does offer a few standout moments, I would not recommend a $59.99 price tag for a short, mostly samey experience if you are only in it for the campaign (those people do exist, fellas).
If you were interested in Call of Duty before, your mileage will vary. If not, don’t bother.
Additional notes: The value score for our single-player review of this game was based on whether or not someone would buy this game just for the single-player campaign. I personally do not think this game is even remotely worth a full retail $59.99 within this criteria.
- Story is a bit more personal and less bombastic, giving the characters a tad more room to shine despite that potential not being fully utilized
- Better voice acting and writing all around than more recent efforts
- Visuals can be impressive, including animation and face capture
- Campaign has a solid amount of variety even if it is all generic
- A few of the big moments still impressed
- Sound design is alright
- Engine is very scalable visually, so those with less beefy machines should be fine.
- The new health pack system is a half-hearted implementation that does not differ enough from the original health-regen system to justify its own existence
- Linearity makes everything feel very artificial and takes away from bigger moments
- Gun sounds are still too light
- Engine shows its age at times and lacks optimization at max settings
- Short campaign of 6 hours
- Why QTEs?