"Call of Duty: WWII" is a decent game, but a remarkably dead-on metaphor for Activision's first-person shooter series.
The 14th entry in that series returns, for the first time in 10 years, to the wartime setting where it began. Taking place in the European theater from D-Day through the final days of the Reich, it tells the story of Pfc. 1st Class Ronald "Red" Daniels (Brett Zimmermann) and his platoon, from token smartass Zussman (Jonathan Tucker) to token hardass Tech. Sgt. Pierson (Josh Duhamel).
As war fiction goes, the story is just as familiar as the soldiers. Their paths through the western front change them in ways good and bad, by turns building their characters and scarring them. And after their 1st Infantry Division crosses the Rhine and the Allies claim victory over Nazi Germany, our boys face that old question: Can they go home again? Or has war changed them too greatly?
If “WWII” itself is any indication, the answer is the latter. Because by revisiting the cold, muddy battlegrounds where it did its first tours, "Call of Duty" also tries to go home again. But the series, too, has been changed — just not by hardship, nor trauma. No, what's changed "Call of Duty" is success. And "WWII" shows how much it's made the series succumb to its worst tendencies.
The game's campaign breaks war down into commodities you rack up in preposterous abundance, though it does make one welcome stab at realism. And it at least lacks a moment as tactless as "Press X to pay respects." Its multiplayer, however, gives us that moment: Loot boxes dropping from the sky onto Omaha Beach, the mode's new social hub. It's a fitting meme for "WWII," which reorganizes what's long been a premiere player-vs.-player experience around in-game economics and social feedback loops. Its "Nazi Zombies" mode, for its part, drops the pretense of verisimilitude.
So no, "Call of Duty" can't go home again. Lifelike graphics aside, "WWII" would be barely recognizable to players whose first virtual Normandy landing took place 14 years ago.
But for all its video game excess, "WWII" can still be fun.
The game's campaign reaffirms the series' talent for structure, mixing stealth and stationary gun set pieces into the 101st's tear through Europe the moment their firefights start to feel stale. Not that they always do. On maps that vividly trace the ravaging footprint of five years of war, even the most straightforward shooting thrives. Studio Sledgehammer Games (2014's terrific "Advanced Warfare") lets you string the faintest of sight lines across pocked and cluttered ground, through rubble and debris, from the roofless homes of Marigny to the downed trees of Ardennes.
Those sight lines can be exploited by you — or your enemies. The Nazis number enough that discovering such a vantage and surviving the gunfire buzzing your helmet can be a victorious thrill. Even more of a thrill results from the game's long overdue removal of regenerating health from "Call of Duty." Having to heal with limited first aid packs forces you to be cautious and strategize, not shoot until the screen turns red. Granted, quickly unspooling some gauze to staunch a wound or negate blunt force trauma isn't that much more realistic than magically healing in a few seconds.
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You receive packs, as well as ammunition, grenades and other support, from Red's platoon mates. Small dials on the screen indicate when those items are available, and you advance the dials in step with your body count. If that wasn't gamey enough, a cash register sound plays when you notch a kill — or maybe a headshot (the action was too frenzied to tell). "WWII" commodifies the other side of warfare, too, introducing scripted Heroic Moments where you drag fellow soldiers to safety or fight off their attackers. The game makes such moments collectibles, scarcely different from dog tags.
This transactional feeling — converting the bodies of real war into virtual currency — strengthens when you stop to consider how many of them you're piling up. At two points in the "WWII" campaign, I took down about 15 Luftwaffe planes with an anti-aircraft gun. And that's to say nothing of the hundreds, if not thousands of German soldiers Red and his platoon of six manage to kill.
Another step toward realism, but a debatable one, makes this extraordinary slaughter even more ordinary: Sledgehammer's de-emphasis of Nazism in the German ranks.
"WWII" is no "Wolfenstein II," where swastikas almost always found their way on-screen in order to leverage the recently inflamed sentiment against Nazis into glee at their extermination. Instead, Sledgehammer's Reich infantrymen wear iron crosses. While history may support this choice of iconography, though, there's no explanation for an early scene about Germans being "not all bad" besides strained equivocation. And if there is any room to interrogate that claim, to reconcile how Nazism possessed a "not all bad" populace, Sledgehammer doesn't seem interested in finding it.
The studio somewhat redeems itself with a reminder of what those Germans wrought during World War II. It's the most affecting moment of the campaign, easy as it comes. Otherwise, Red, Zussman and Pierson's stories stick safely to their wartime tropes. Their voice acting is fine, though Zimmermann could have used the restraint of the seasoned Duhamel's crusty Pierson.
The omission of swastikas may be smarter in "WWII's" reliably fun multiplayer. There, Sledgehammer's war-torn maps require even more caution, as fellow players are quicker to find — and memorize — the easiest pathways to kills. Those sight lines are more exploitable during the usual battery of team deathmatch, domination and other modes, while the engaging new soccer-esque "Gridiron" mode forces players to follow a weirdly neon ball between their team's and the enemy's goals. The other new mode, "War," glibly adds historical narrative to objective-based matches.
But the biggest change to "Call of Duty" multiplayer in "WWII" doesn't involve the matches themselves. At the new "Headquarters" social hub at Normandy, you can customize your soldier, test-fire weapons and obtain contracts to fulfill in battle. Through the new class system, you can also watch five painstakingly diverse actors pitch five barely distinguishable divisions, and choose accordingly.
Then there are the loot boxes. Containing mostly cosmetic items like gun skins, they can only be obtained with COD Points earned within "WWII," not purchased with real money — for now. More problematic, however, are the boxes you can buy in the game's enjoyable "Nazi Zombies" horde mode. Those microtransactions can power your character up against the more supernatural Reich.
Opening gun skins on Omaha Beach? Paying actual money to kill zombies? "WWII" may show how fun "Call of Duty" can still be — but also how far it's strayed.