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Call of Duty: WWII review

A return to the 1940s makes for a weary campaign, but the multiplayer fits like an old Modern Warfare shaped glove.

Our Verdict

A drab campaign doesn't do the history justice, but Call of Duty: WWII’s multiplayer recalls the glory days of Modern Warfare.

Need to know

What is it? A WWII shooter with competitive and cooperative multiplayer, and a single-player campaign
Price: $60 / £45
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Sledgehammer Games, Raven Software
Reviewed on: Nvidia GTX 980 Ti, Intel Core i7-5960X, 32GB RAM
Multiplayer: Online competitive and cooperative modes
Link: Official site 

Call of Duty: WWII is so damn big that I'd be surprised if I didn't like something it has to offer. It's a series that blueprinted the feel and responsiveness of modern first-person shooters. I've always enjoyed the series' sugary pace and instant gratification, but too often the ideas wrapped around the signature shooting just don't work. WWII would be one of the better games in the series if I were judging purely based on its competitive multiplayer, but the Nazi Zombies mode is an awkward, obtuse grind, and the campaign fails to introduce many new ideas to Call of Duty at all.

The singleplayer campaign isn't really about WWII anyway, it's about how friendship between adult men requires both great sacrifice and a great aim. It turns a global catastrophe into a melodramatic test of camaraderie, more concerned with making you feel cool than bogging anyone down with historical context. I'm not surprised; Call of Duty always flubs the grandiose promises made by its marketing. This isn't the powerful history lesson for future generations it was first billed as. This is another Call of Duty campaign, replete with slow crawl concussion scenes, cornfed soldiers, and angry COs.

You play as Daniels, a US soldier and member of the 1st Infantry Division. Starting with the iconic and obligatory landing at Normandy, you shoot your way through the Western Front, liberating Paris, crossing the Rhine, and taking part in the Battle of the Bulge. To my surprise, it wraps with one of the quieter (still loud) endings I've seen in a Call of Duty game. Things are different in the return to 1940s Europe, but by small degrees.  

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For the campaign only, the health system returns to the original Call of Duty's finite life bar. It never regenerates, only replenished by health packs scattered around the level or thrown to you by a squadmate. You can stockpile a few to use on demand, which adds a welcome, if superficial layer of tension. Once you run out, Call of Duty's ever-flowing enemy soldiers will almost certainly finish the job, but I enjoyed feeling frail and mortal again, even if I was using health packs at the same steady rate the auto-generating health would have provided. 

They made me feel like the opposite of a wall-running super soldier, and more aware of my small cast of useful squadmates. Each war friend that accompanies you comes with a simple perk that refreshes on a timer. One gives you health packs, another replenishes ammo, another grenades, one calls out a mortar strike, and your CO highlights the enemy soldiers in bright white. Ranging from practical to absurd and videogame-y as it gets, squad abilities help break up the monotony of WWII's mostly unsurprising level design.

World War II 2

Stealth levels are more prominent, and are as exciting as they are frustrating. The worst is punctuated by a sequence that's intended to be the emotional climax of the second act where you carry a stranded civilian through enemy territory. It'd be great as a set piece that you glide through, skirting on the edge of German lanterns, but the result is a frustrating stretch of trial and error. A few stealth sequences just transition into the typical Call of Duty firefights, which are far more forgivable, but without the proper training or UI to make enemy pathing clear, the pure stealth sequences easily fall apart. 

Call of Duty: WWII stops feeling historical beyond appearances pretty quickly.

As rote as the rest of the levels are, there's at least one new classic, and it involves almost no shooting at all. During the liberation of Paris, you assume the role of an undercover operative infiltrating a Nazi garrison. What follows is like being on the receiving end of a first-person Papers, Please: You have to find your contact in the environment among plenty of lookalikes, and speak a code phrase to them. If you talk to the wrong person, they'll question your purpose and identity, which you are told to memorize beforehand by referencing a fake ID. It's a tense, novel break from shooting heads as they peek out over cover. I spent the remaining hours of the campaign hoping for anything half as interesting.

The few times you play as characters besides Daniels, Call of Duty veers slightly closer to depicting the true scale of WWII operations, the countries involved, the people lost, the atrocities committed, but never close enough to be an extraordinary war tale. It's firmly planted within the Saving Private Ryan storytelling archetype. WWII is not one man's story, which makes Daniels and company's push into German territory, thousands of enemy soldiers dead by the player's aim and the Allies' assured success, feel especially absurd. Call of Duty: WWII stops feeling historical beyond appearances pretty quickly, like the abridged version of the abridged Band of Brothers.

Back from the dead

Performance and netcode

Call of Duty: WWII runs well and looks sharp on my PC (see my specs above), though some of the post-processing effects might trouble aging rigs. Otherwise, I’ve run into no graphical glitches and can maintain 120+ fps at 1920x1080 on higher settings with ease. At 2560x1440 it stays above fps without issue, but with a newer GPU you’ll probably be able to see the benefit of a 120Hz monitor without problems.  

A few hours of play on live servers have been gone by without major incident, though they were overloaded for a few hours directly after launch. I haven’t been plagued by overt lags spikes and play seems fair and smooth, though matchmaking still needs time. I’ve consistently been thrown into lopsided matches in most modes, the opponents’ team stacked with players 30 or more levels higher than my team’s average. 

WWII’s competitive multiplayer benefits most from the return to a simpler setting, focusing on map awareness and reaction time. With the removal of jetpacks and wall-running, it’s difficult to dance your way out of a bad decision. If you’re not paying attention to enemy positions on your radar, bouncing between loadouts to counter enemy team compositions, or can’t point and click on a moving smudge of brown from 50 yards off within a second, then Call of Duty: WWII can be a rough time. I love that maps are crowded and force frequent tests of these skills. Designed around three lanes tangled with flanking routes and sniper perches, death comes from everywhere, all the time. 

I swear some players were born with the innate ability to shoot with scoped weapons, and the chaos of free-for-all or team deathmatch modes almost always guarantee a spawn kill from some soothsayer. But in the process of memorizing a map, I might become that godly player and manage to cobble together a scorestreak reward with my Lewis (I love that pan magazine), going from pray-and-spray hipfire to the accuracy of a rifle when prone. Finding a blind spot in the enemy's advance and racking up three quick kills feels great, even if it’s the same feeling I had in Modern Warfare 10 years ago. 

Perks and weapon mods are still around, but feel deemphasized against the slurry of cosmetic unlocks WWII places at the forefront. I rarely feel like I’m being outpaced by players days deep into the progression, which previously made the first hours of a new Call of Duty a grind. It’s one of the more welcoming in recent memory, and a refreshing return to a well tread era of breathless FPS competition, the kind that originated in arena shooters like Quake, now tied to the clumsy, fragile human form.

Call of Duty: WWII complicates its by-now retro shooting with the new War mode, an asymmetrical objective-based mode that gives more context and purpose to the loadouts you choose. Non-traditional playstyles are valid here, like hanging back and camping on a mounted MG, or finding a nice camping spot strictly to snipe. Most scenarios require management of several objectives, so team communication is also key, a refreshing change to Call of Duty's typical lone wolf crowd.

On the Operation Neptune map, one team mounts some turrets on a hillside while the enemy team bounces from cover to cover on the beach and attempts to reach the MG bunkers. If they do, the defensive team retreats and defends two AA guns. 

In Operation Griffin, the offensive team guides tanks up three lanes while the defense attempts to build walls and mid-road obstructions to slow the tanks' crawl. Another map tasks one team with building a bridge while the other camps on the other side and fires away. Smoke grenades completely cloud the field, turning combat into a tense guessing game. I'm not sure War will pull longtime players away from the usual free-for-all or team deathmatch modes, but I'm happy Call of Duty players can finally scream at one another for not playing the objective. 

I'm happy Call of Duty players can finally scream at one another for not playing the objective.

All multiplayer activities orbit the HQ, a new online social space where you play from third-person (so you can really eyeball your outfit). While it's primarily an extravagant way to  manage progression and loadouts, HQ also features a 1v1 dueling pit, where you can cheer and jeer from above. There's an arcade where you can play Activision's old Atari games, a place to practice Killstreaks, and a public firing range. 

You can also open supply crates (WWII's loot boxes) in front of a crowd—they fall from the sky—and get new cosmetics, while giving anyone standing by a chance at earning their own just for watching. If you couldn't buy supply crates with real money, I'd call it a cute feature, but rewarding players for their material envy is off-putting. Insidious corporate interest aside, HQ is a novel place to outfit your character and queue up, though it makes me pine for private servers.

Nazi Zombies is also back with a much more gruesome look, even if it largely plays the same as last year's. Emptying clip after clip into spongy undead with weapons designed to pop and drop Nazis and multiplayer foes within a second still feels like a mismatch. And some solutions for the later puzzles have the same arcane logic as old adventure games, requiring the first-person version of pixel hunting, just with an endless horde of increasingly squishier zombies harassing you throughout. 

It's obtuse design that will send everyone to the internet in search of guides when they shouldn't be necessary at all. But the Wolfenstein-esque occult Nazi aesthetic and deep loadout system that largely mirrors the normal multiplayer mode makes Zombies a fine distraction with friends. Honestly though, just go play Killing Floor 2 if this is your jam.

WWII marks the first time I felt like I could get a grip on Call of Duty's multiplayer since Black Ops 2, and the most fun I've had with it since Modern Warfare. It's a familiar feeling, but a comfortable one. If the matchmaking settles and if it can maintain a PC population larger than than a small town in North Dakota, then WWII could be a great Call of Duty for anyone bothered by the direction the multiplayer was going with the complications futuristic warfare rolled in. But a dull, safe campaign has me aching to return to fictional wars, something that at least gives Call of Duty the room it needs to be loud and dumb and free from the responsibility of teaching the kids anything besides no-scope 720s.

The Verdict

Call of Duty: WWII

A drab campaign doesn't do the history justice, but Call of Duty: WWII’s multiplayer recalls the glory days of Modern Warfare.