I know what you’re doing, Sledgehammer Games. You’re using the age of the Call of Duty franchise to show something ‘new’ to the young ’uns, and older gamers like me should know better. We should particularly know better because we’ve experienced similar things long before Call of Duty: WWII was released.
I was there for the Omaha Beach landing in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. I’m sure it wouldn’t hold up if I replayed it today, but the fact that Steven Spielberg had a hand in it made it feel less Saving Private Ryan rip-off and more appropriate homage. Fast-forward to CoD: WWII, and I’m playing it all over again. I knew it was coming, but I didn’t expect it to resonate quite like it did.
I died a bunch of times running up that beach. Having watched other people experience much the same thing, I couldn’t help but wonder if that was a deliberate part of the game design, despite what difficulty you might be on: a little way of highlighting the monumental struggle the real-life soldiers were facing on this day of days. The fact that CoD has had a much-needed facelift makes the scenes even more impactful, despite the familiar trappings: obvious set piece where you can’t fight back, sections of missions that are effectively running between cutscenes, and that familiar funnelling level design.
I’ve played it dozens of times before and not just in earlier Call of Duty games. I couldn’t help but feel for Infinity Ward, as in the original team that built the very first Call of Duty. This was back when they were taking on the might of the well-established Medal of Honor franchise, and they were looking to less-obvious Hollywood World War II movies like Enemy in the Gates for inspiration (for the record, I still have a soft spot for Enemy at the Gates, but I can’t bring myself to watch it ever again).
Both Call of Duty and Medal of Honor would mimic the beats and squad fraternity of Band of Brothers, once all obvious references to Saving Private Ryan had run dry. And yet, here I am in 2017, again, being reminded of Band of Brothers, and how it’s been far too long since I last re-watched that beloved HBO series. Instead of it feeling hackneyed, I relish being reminded of cherished movie, TV, and even old-school gaming moments.
Of course, at some point, the campaign has to conform to recent CoD standards of one-upping itself and, in so doing, veers closer to Michael Bay’s love of explosions in Pearl Harbor than something more introspective like The Thin Red Line or, more recently, Letters from Iwo Jima. There’s a ridiculous train crash, for instance, which seemingly never ends. Then there’s the change-of-pace missions that, while cool if you only have to play them once, are frustrating on repeat play-throughs. They feel more like they’re fitting into the obligatory CoD stealth mission than feeling organically at home.
I also miss the change of perspective between different nations, which helped to make the original Call of Duty games feel more representative of an actual world war and, well, it made them stand out from other shooters at the time. That said, I appreciate how CoD: WWII’s American tale still jumps away from the mostly forgettable main character whose main point of interest – the contents of a ‘Dear John’ letter – is revealed well ahead of when it should be. The aerial mission, for instance, is more style than substance, but teenage me was still blown away by beautifully digitised recreations of World War II aerial combat (yeah, I loved fighter planes growing up).
Then there’s the tank mission – clearly inspired by David Ayer’s Fury – that had me engrossed, despite the fact that the aim refused to stay inverted, no matter which combinations I tried in the settings. The slow pace of the tank stalk through damaged buildings made me think that Battlefield could even learn a thing or two about tank handling from Call of Duty (most notably the fixed turret rotation speed, regardless of your sensitivity). I honestly never thought I’d write anything like that, given how tacked-on Call of Duty’s vehicular missions have felt in the past, particularly when stacked next to its biggest competitor.
I’m also digging Nazi Zombies. I always have, ever since World at War, but I’ve also found it’s a mode that’s become increasingly (and, in my opinion, unnecessarily) convoluted with each release. This time around, it’s got a shallower learning curve, with objective markers for newbies, and enough handholding to make you feel that you can learn it… before all the blood and guts hit the fan. On top of this, it’s genuinely terrifying, particularly with the deft touches of what I can only assume is the input of the ex-Visceral staffers (RIP Dead Space). It helps to elevate Zombies beyond another reskinned horde mode and turns it into something truly memorable.
As for competitive multiplayer, well, the less said about that the better. It didn’t take me too many rounds to realise it wasn’t for me, despite the genuine potential of the objective-based War mode (even if it’s not particularly original), and the fact that I kinda dug the beta. The problem with shooters clearly built for console first (and not at all rebalanced for PC) is the PC community is very savvy at exploiting weaknesses in the gameplay design. Quick-scoping with the WWII equivalent of an AWP is rampant, as are players with higher-level weapons firing down on spawn zones from the centre of the map (those guns work a lot better at range than the default run-and-gun options), and then there’s the all-too-easy grenade spam in War mode.
By concentrating players around a particular objective, even if it’s a moving tank, it makes for easy gren kills; it’s even easier when the grenades seemingly penetrate through Krapp armour. Groan. But just because the multiplayer isn’t for me, doesn’t mean I haven’t had a surprising amount of fun with the other two modes. The campaign is short-lived, and cooperative Zombies is map-limited at this stage (as is the trend), but this is the first time in years where my hopes for a better Call of Duty experience have actually been met (in two-thirds of the modes, at least), even if that’s because it expertly targets my nostalgia.