Call of Duty: World War 2 feels very comfortable. Like slipping into a well-worn pair of combat boots (on the ground) or the reassuring pressure of a tin helmet. The return to the Second World War reignited my interest in a series that had long fallen off my radar. The series had become background noise; Activision’s marketing behemoth annually churns out trailers to mix in with the never-ending stream of cooking videos, cats and people falling over that permeate Facebook’s video feed. The last game in the series I owned was Black Ops, and that feels like a lifetime ago.
As a child, I devoured as much Second World War Military History as I could find. From Sunday afternoon war films to popular history books like Band of Brothers and Finest Hour. I owned endless reference books detailed the machines of war, though as a ten-year-old an encyclopaedic knowledge of WW2 fighter aircraft rarely came in handy. In short, I was a massive nerd. When I played Medal of Honor: Allied Assault I was awestruck by the Normandy beaches. Playing the level today, it would look incredibly dated with muddy colours, dodgy textures and the events of the longest day played out by fewer than 20 soldiers. Yet I had consumed so much media on the era that my imagination filled in the gaps left by the game.
Popular games depicting the Second World War have always drawn heavily on portrayals in film and television. Call of Duty copies scenes from Saving Private Ryan, Enemy at the Gates and Band of Brothers almost verbatim. Back in the early 2000s, this was a huge benefit, it helped players’ imaginations fill in the gaps left by tech. The dirt and blood might not have been high-res in Allied Assault, but it didn’t matter because it so powerfully evoked the images of D-Day chiselled into popular culture by the likes of Saving Private Ryan.
Call of Duty WW2 is like playing through my nostalgic memories of older war games. But any sense of awe is gone. The story follows “Red” Daniels, a square-jawed, good ol’ boy from Texas. He fits the jingoistic cut out of an American soldier so well his Tinder bio would likely read “Freedom, Mom’s Apple Pie and America”. Through Red, you’ll perform great feats of heroism throughout the European theatre. Red’s only real character motivation seems to be the desire to be a “good soldier” to live up to his Brother and answer the challenges to his performance given by the “troubled by his past” Sergeant.
The campaign romps you through a series of set pieces and even dabbles with a few stealth sections that feature a particularly satisfying suppressed pistol. Health packs have made a return and integrate well with the campaigns best mechanic. Each member of your squad helps you in different ways during your missions. Low on ammo? Find the right squadmate, crawl near them and they’ll chuck you some spare rounds. Need health? Call over to another squadmate, and they’ll throw you a health pack. Call of Duty 1 and 2 emphasised your part as a cog in the machine, Call of Duty: WW2 has lost that emphasis as your 5 man squad seems to take on much of the German army by themselves. The squadmate system feels like a great modern addition to the formula though sadly not all the modern touches are good. It seems that behind almost every doorway a Nazi is waiting to hit you in the face and begin a QTE. The guns themselves feel punchy, although the enemies appear to get spongier as the campaign progresses which is a little unsatisfying.
In each mission, there are opportunities to perform “heroic actions”. Aside from being a little on the nose, these moments, in which you must rescue wounded allied soldiers by dragging them to behind cover, often fail because the game is very picky about the exact spot you have to pull them to. A similarly frustrating moment takes place when you’re given the command of a tank. The way the tank controls (played with a controller) often means you find yourself trying to rotate the body of the tank one way, only for it to turn in the other direction. Frustrations aside, all the missions play out well with particularly exciting sequences taking place in Paris and in the Hütgen Forest on the Belgian-German border.
WW2’s campaign sees the war through the games before it. Games that in turn were trying to emulate films. It lies at the end of a long line of Chinese Whispers, and so rather than examining the conflict, it iterates on popular gung-ho images of the War. Call of Duty: WW2 wants to give players their patented brand of Visceral Experience™. The centre of Red’s narrative is his drive is to become a better soldier. His survival or the hellish nature of their situation is an afterthought as you and your squad banter about being the best you can be. Call of Duty: WW2 feel’s like a step back in its portrayal of the the conflict. Most levels in first two games used large numbers of allied NPCs to make you feel like a small part in a larger machine. They encouraged you to feel like you are a unit, contributing to the whole rather than being a one-man army. Call of Duty: WW2 puts you in a super squad who seem to win much of the war by themselves.
The campaign ends with a mission that walks you through a Nazi work camp. After romping through the European Theatre, the game abruptly changes gear to deliver this sombre look at Nazi atrocities. The game pulls its punches on this powerful subject, as it’s not clear whether this is intended to be a prisoner of war camp or part of Holocaust. The level looks like it was drawn from the awful pictures taken by allied forces that discovered the camps but Call Duty: WW2 makes no effort to educate the player about the horrific crimes committed, instead, roping the images of burned prison huts and mass executions into the narrative of a good guy rescuing his buddy. Without the context or education about what is happening, these war crimes become little more than set dressing for the game’s finale.
Call of Duty: WW2 delivers a competent shooter, yet its take on the conflict has failed to mature in its 15-year lifespan. The campaign is a nostalgic return to the once popular sub-genre of FPSs and offers a comfortable modern take on the gameplay of its early 2000s predecessors.
For more information and further reading on the events of the Holocaust, visit the Shoah Foundation.