In the the nearly fifteen years since the original Call of Duty was released, the franchise has developed into an annual product that is both widely anticipated and equally greeted with indifference and skepticism by some gamers and the press. Over the years, the series has been beset by controversy over its subject matter and settings, its changing game mechanics and even internal strife between developers and publisher. Technically, the series continues to push and prod standards and Call of Duty virtually invented the type of cinematic battles that are a staple of big-budget shooters. There is also no doubt that Call of Duty helped define -- and then, expand -- the definition of multiplayer shooters.
For this year's installment, Call of Duty returns to its roots -- World War II -- which was the setting of the first three games in the franchise. Since 2003's Call of Duty, the second World War has been explored by countless first-person shooters and strategy games, not to mention iconic television series and films. The big question is, after all these years can Call of Duty: WWII say anything new about the conflict or does it indicate a paucity of new ideas? Unfortunately, when it comes to the single player campaign at least, Call of Duty: WWII is a great-looking product without much passion.
It is ironic that the cartoonish Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus has a far more engaging, emotionally varied and character-driven story than Call of Duty, which should be rooted firmly in realism and the rich tapestry of available -- and true --stories of the European conflict. Instead, we are given a quartet of generic types that bond together during iconic battles that we've experienced too many times before. Neither the player character nor his squadmates have much of a story arc that reaches past "go to the next battle and survive." While the Nazis are a pretty clear and obvious antagonist, Call of Duty's story lacks a dramatic foil to defeat.
Despite the unassailably high production values throughout the campaign, with feature-film quality visuals, excellent voice acting, and a wealth of historical detail, there is the shadow of the overly familiar over just about every encounter. Whether clearing bunkers, providing covering sniper fire, manning antiaircraft guns, or playing an entire mission without firing a shot, it's simply hard to escape the feeling of incredible competence in service of a rather rote experience. With so many games achieving mastery of both outstanding visuals and innovative storytelling, Call of Duty's single player campaign lacks ambition.
For many players, though, Call of Duty's campaign is irrelevant. For them, the game's competitive multiplayer modes are the primary focus and those players might be surprised by the number of significant changes and minor tweaks. This begins with Headquarters, a shared social space which is both a little weird and also, potentially pretty cool. In Headquarters players may interact, match up for 1v1 games, parade their new gear, and even play virtual versions of classic arcade video games. Headquarters is also where players open loot crates. Loot crates are not really new to the series and are still free. One supposes that watching others open their crates is supposed to generate some sort of gear envy. All in all, Headquarters is an interesting idea but doesn't exactly scream historical immersion.
This time around there is a new attack-and-defend mode called War as well as all the expected classics. In general, the multiplayer maps are very good and although the weapons can be upgraded with all sorts of bolt-ons and improvements, the historic foundation of the guns and return to more realistic movement result in a slightly slower-paced experience. Players tuned to the recent games and their emphasis on verticality and crazy speed may feel restricted, and all players will need to contend with the new player progression system. Instead of a mix-and-match "pick 10" path to adding perks and abilities, the player must select a division which comes with a pre-fab series of unlocking bonuses.
Call of Duty's Zombies mode is the final third of the package, a game which has lately been featuring celebrity voices and gimmicky settings. This year, the Zombies are once again Nazis but the emphasis is more on an evolving "story" and environmental puzzle solving.
There's no denying that in the moment, the single-player campaign, the multiplayer modes, and Zombies mode are satisfying and create a well-tuned shooter experiences defined by super-high production values and polish. Take a longer view, however, and you're likely to feel more than a little ennui over the setting and a bit let down by a game that feels like a corporate decision rather than a passion project. World War II defined the course of nations and the fate of millions. Call of Duty: WWII misses the opportunity to find its own, unique or emotionally compelling journey through the conflict. It is a mechanically solid, visually impressive shooter bolted to a story we've seen too many times.