Developer: Sledgehammer Games
Release Date: 11/3/17
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
ESRB/PEGI: M/PEGI 18
MSRP (USD): $59.99
By Rick Warren / Gfn2112
Another year, another Call of Duty. After mixed success with the futuristic setting, Sledgehammer has delivered the first COD of this generation that takes place during the second world war. Covering these events means the return of the boots on the ground gameplay the series became known for. This hyped-up return raises a major question, though: does that system actually remain satisfying today, or has it become outdated? Read below to find out.
An Authentic and Enjoyable Campaign
With fourteen years of games, Call of Duty has delivered plenty of different campaigns, from the action-packed Modern Warfare to the dark and story-focused Black Ops. While the series did falter in this area with Call of Duty Ghosts, it has gotten back on track over the past few years. The first campaign to come after that awful COD Ghosts story was Advanced Warfare, and it was made by an entirely new Call of Duty developer: Sledgehammer Games. Their only experience as a studio prior to Advanced Warfare was assisting Infinity Ward on Modern Warfare 3's development (though Sledgehammer is led by the key people behind the Dead Space series). Despite the lack of experience with the series, they delivered a strong campaign filled with gorgeous cutscenes and good writing. They managed to do so with just over a year of development time as well, as they were initially working on a Vietnam Call of Duty that got scrapped. After the release of Advanced Warfare, Sledgehammer immediately began working on COD: WW2. With this being only their second game, and their first game with the full three years of development time, they had a chance to prove themselves... and they absolutely succeeded.
The campaign of World War 2 is as fun as it is harrowing. During my eight hours with this part of the game (I did some optional objectives to unlock trophies; a regular playthrough would be closer to the expected six hours), I was treated to a gorgeous-looking story that focuses heavily on authenticity. The weapons feel right, the uniforms are detailed, and the game places a huge focus on the violence of the time. Concentration camps are shown, people are burned alive, and there is plenty of gore throughout. I would not have it any other way; World War 2 was a horrific time in humanity's history, and showing that violence is key to telling a meaningful war story.
The game is realistic in more ways than weapons and violence, though. First is the removal of the regenerating health that has been a part of Call of Duty for over a decade. Health packs are pack, and you'll have to manage a bar of health to keep yourself alive. What seems like a small touch ultimately impacts entire missions, as you must be more careful and use your health packs sparingly. You can get more health packs through another big change to the game: Squad Abilities. Each member of the game's cast has their own way to support you, from spotting enemies to offering grenades and ammo. These abilities charge through gaining kills, and the addition of them does something COD has never managed to do until now: make your AI squad feel useful. They all have a key role to play, and the Abilities feature changes up the combat of the game quite a bit. You may only have one or two of the squadmates with you at a time. This means I would sometimes have plenty of ammo, but no access to health packs. It's a clever touch that kept me on my toes during my playthrough. The final change was to the collectible system. Though there are still items to find (each one comes with a small description of the role it played in World War 2), a new form of collectible comes through "heroic actions". These involve saving teammates during a struggle, forcing enemies to surrender or dragging fallen soldiers to safety. Though they don't offer much in terms of in-game rewards (they charge the ability meters of your squad slightly), they're a neat addition and they help add to the realism.
When it comes to the missions themselves, I was genuinely impressed. Moments like D-day (the game's opening sequence) and the Battle of the Bulge are incredibly detailed and well-handled. The classic Call of Duty feature of switching characters to see different parts of a fight returns, and offers up a solid tank and plane battle. It also gives players the best section of the game: a tense and memorable spy mission, starring a female agent named Rousseau. Her whole story is told in this chapter of the game, and it's one that fits well with the solid stealth mechanics. As with any COD, the campaign is filled with setpieces and huge action moments. I was surprised to see how much Sledgehammer pulled from the Uncharted series in these sections; there's a bell tower collapse, a few car chases, and a large train setpiece. I'm certainly not complaining, though, because taking inspiration from game's as great as those never hurts.
Finally, I wanted to close this section of the review with some praise for the plot. The gorgeous, CGI cutscenes from Advanced Warfare are spread throughout, but they're outdone by the surprisingly strong writing and acting. The characters all have standout personalities (with Zussman and Pierson being particularly great), and their bond is well-handled. Every bit of dialogue between them felt natural, and the characters felt like a family as opposed to generic soldiers. The main character, "Red" Daniels, was a solid protagonist. I'm glad that he spoke throughout the campaign (something that hasn't always happened with COD protagonists), and he was a genuinely likable person. However, I do feel like his backstory could have been stronger. It's spread out throughout the campaign in a way that makes the scenes feel rushed and out of place. This is a very minor complaint about an otherwise great narrative, but one that I still felt the need to mention.
A Fun, Nostalgic Multiplayer
While my preferred COD developer has always been Treyarch due to their original zombies mode and their campaigns, I have no particular allegiance when it comes to multiplayer. I put in literal months of playtime across the last-gen Call of Duty games, and reached max prestige on both Ghosts and Black Ops 3. Infinite Warfare was the only year I skipped entirely, as it felt like a cheap, bland copy of the other futuristic COD games. I couldn't get into it, and because of that, I've missed having a new Call of Duty game to jump in and out of. Thankfully, WW2 has come to fill that void.
World War 2's multiplayer thrives by giving players the feeling of playing an "old" Call of Duty game. The map design is more akin to the older games than the newer ones, abandoning the wild settings for simpler towns and trenches. The WW2 weaponry is a welcome change from the futuristic tech we've seen over the past few years, as are the scorestreaks. This is very much a classic Call of Duty with modern gaming technology, and it's excellent because of that. Innovation was not Call of Duty's real issue, as many have claimed, because it has never been Call of Duty's strength. The issue was losing sight of what makes COD fun. Sledgehammer remembered, though, and they delivered the boots on the ground action the series has needed for years.
That's not to say that there is no innovation present in Call of Duty World War 2, though. While the core gameplay is like older games, WW2 offers a memorable new game mode in "War". It's very much a smaller version of Battlefield 1's Operations mode, and while it's definitely not as impressive as those large-scale fights, War is still very fun. Players are given various objectives, from blowing up AA guns to building bridges. Kill/Death ratio means nothing here, and scorestreaks can't be earned. The mode is entirely aimed at objective-based gameplay. It's a welcome addition to Call of Duty, as it has always been a rare thing to see people trying to win in these games. One of the three War missions is particularly memorable, as it offers a multiplayer version of D-day. Both sides are fun to play, and the attacking team has AI teammates to give them a chance when assaulting the beach. Short cutscenes play at the beginning and end of each round that feature the winning team, which is very reminiscent of Killzone 3's Operations mode.
The other big addition to Call of Duty this year is a social space called Headquarters. Much like Destiny's Tower, this is a place where players can gather in between matches to do a variety of activities. Players can challenge each other to shootouts and have 1v1 fights that other players can watch. They can test out scorestreaks, watch live Esports competitions, open lootboxes and collect contracts/challenges as well. There are hidden secrets in the area and a place to play classic Activision games like Pitfall, which is a charming touch. Overall, I'd say it's a large improvement over the game it was inspired by. There are plenty of fun activities to do here as opposed to just speaking with vendors. The HQ is an amazing addition that gives the game more personality, and makes things like waiting for a friend to sign on far less boring. It's just a shame that I haven't gotten to enjoy it at its best, yet.
See, Sledgehammer had to take the feature offline (along with leaderboards) after terrible server issues on launch day. Due to this, you can only be in an HQ with your party instead of random players. As annoying as this is, it was the right call; the servers became stable and I enjoyed the game for the rest of the weekend. It's a shame that the servers were such an issue to begin with, though. They were so bad that my game crashed three times, and I had to deal with about an hour of load times. While this won't be an issue going forward, I'd be lying if I said it didn't bother me. Activision has been releasing these games for well over a decade. How were they not prepared for the heavy launch activity? It may have only been for one day, but it was so terrible that I couldn't leave it out of this review.
A More Inclusive Zombies Mode
I've played Call of Duty Zombies since Nacht der Untoten first released nine years ago. It's my most played multiplayer mode in any series, and I probably have 100 days of playtime across all the Treyarch versions. Their mode became so special to me due to the constant addition of new mechanics with each map, an interesting and convoluted story, and amazing easter eggs. These ranged from hidden story quests with cutscenes to radios with new plot points. Every map had a hidden song that fit perfectly, and plenty of wild story revelations. I'd wager that I've spent just as much time watching theory videos and reading forum posts as I've spent fighting the undead. Eventually, thanks to a small-but-passionate fan base, the mode began to gain more attention. The zombies community grew, and the mode eventually became a selling point for Call of Duty. This led to Activision having every COD developer add a zombies mode, something that I've always seen as a slap in the face to Treyarch. The modes have never come close to matching the one that comes from them... that is, until now. Sledgehammer has deliver the first great, non-Treyarch zombies mode, and it's something that everyone can enjoy.
It's always been hard to explain my passion for COD Zombies to those who don't actively play the mode. Not only is it shrugged off due to the silly nature of the title, but it also comes with the added stigma of being related to Call of Duty. Sledgehammer approaches the issue head-on, and goes out of their way to make it clear to new players why zombies is more special than they think. The Nazi Zombies mode comes with a prologue that takes players through the basic mechanics and provides a bit of story. It's a nice touch that sets up the main zombies offering: The Final Reich.
The first thing that's clear about this mode is that it's far scarier than previous iterations of zombies. This is likely due to Sledgehammer's Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey bringing in their Dead Space influence. Players can expect plenty of jumpscares and creepy enemy designs. The more horror-inspired version works very well. I do, however, find some of the gasps and yells from the characters annoying, as well as the noise that plays when a zombie "surprises" the player. These would normally be nice touches that add to the experience, but they're overused. It's odd to have an issue with the sound in a game mode that comes from those behind the Dead Space games, and I hope it's changed in a future patch.
If there's one big complaint to be made about Treyarch zombies, it's that the game is too focused on returning players. They only deliver the story in ways that experienced players could appreciate, and only make maps that experienced players would know how to play. While this is great for someone like me, I completely understand why some of my friends could not get into their recent takes on zombies. This time, though, Sledgehammer offers the "notebook" system. This notebook essentially acts as a tool to train new players. It shows them how to make the basic version of the special weapon, takes them through the map's puzzles, and guides them through the first half of the story easter egg. It gives players a taste of everything the mode has to offer, and it made me excited to find more.
Following the notebook guide gives players access to a second zombies map. It's a closed off version of the small prologue area, offering a limited selection of weapons and room to move. This second map is the first time two zombies maps have been available on disc for everyone since Call of Duty Black Ops, and it's great to see this extra bit of care put in. The map plays like the basic survival mode that made the mode into what it is, and it's there for players who want something simple instead of a long, puzzle-filled adventure. There's plenty of progression outside of this, from unlockable characters to weapon customization and ability unlocks. Sledgehammer has succeeded in making a Zombies mode that is deep for both new players and old, and fun for players who want either a simple or deep experience. I can't wait to see what they do with the expansions; they've made me a believer. Treyarch is no longer the only developer I want making zombies.
Destiny, Dead Space, Uncharted, Killzone, and Battlefield. These are all series that Sledgehammer pulled from to make Call of Duty World War 2 what it is. Despite some nearly disastrous launch issues, boots on the ground gameplay has made a triumphant return. With neat new additions like Headquarters, this is the best game the series has seen in a long time. COD is back, and it deserves your attention.
With campaign, zombies, and multiplayer all delivering, this is the best Call of Duty game in years...
A multi-layered zombies experience +3
A terrific campaign +3
A great social space +2
A promising War mode +1.5
A focus on authenticity +.5
Awful server issues early on -.5
Red's backstory is mishandled -.25
Some annoying noises in zombies -.25
FINAL SCORE: 9