It's been a long time coming, but after much success with modern warfare, and a more recent ill fated jump into futuristic sci-fi, the world's most famous first person shooter series has come full circle, bringing it back to where it all began with Call of Duty WW2. Not a remake or a remaster, but an all new outing, Call of Duty WW2 sees the series once again head onto the bloodied battlefields of Europe, offering a more personal look at the war through the eyes of a group of American soldiers, stretching from the infamous D-Day landings, all the way through to the final push into Germany.
If you ask us, the decision to go back to WW2 was definitely the right one for COD to make, with the setting alone making Call of Duty WW2 infinitely more interesting than the more recent instalments. Rather than having to create its own universe, Call of Duty WW2 instead gets to draw on some of the most dramatic events in human history for its story - even if some of the writing does leave a lot to be desired. With pantomime villain Nazis alongside some genuinely embarrassing attempts at humanising them ("The Germans aren't all bad - after all, they gave us frankfurters"), there's quite a bit more cringe in the story here than there really should be. Equally disappointing is how there's barely a nod to the rest of the allied forces, as Call of Duty WW2 is very much a game about "how America won the war", with next to no mention of the Canadians, and only very little about the role we played in the push into France either. As Call of Duty WW2 would have you believe it, the British effort in Normandy was literally a hand full of special forces agents - not a huge fighting force of some 60,000 men, which is almost as many as the Americans sent in.
Still, story related issues aside, how does the game play? Well, in truth, Call of Duty WW2 perhaps has a little too much in common with the more recent (and disappointing) instalments than its groundbreaking forebears, offering a highly scripted, very linear range of levels, with plenty of explosions, flamethrowers, and many a Nazi to shoot.
As you'd likely expect, the game opens with yet another take on the D-Day landings, as your hastily introduced band of brothers get stuffed into a landing craft, ready to try your luck on the Normandy shores. If you've ever played a WW2 shooter before, the chances are you'll know what's waiting for you when the door on your landing craft drops, as all hell breaks loose, half your company are cut down by machine gun fire, and it's left to you to try and fight your way up the beach. The only issue is, the levels here are so linear, there seems to be only one specific route the game wants you to take - if you venture outside it, you'll find yourself getting cut down by machine gun fire almost instantly. Getting stuck on the first level of a game is never much fun, but dying repeatedly because you can't figure out where the game wants you to go isn't the best introduction we've ever had to a big budget shooter. After almost a dozen attempts later, we're still not sure whether we actually managed to find the route it wanted us to take, or just got lucky.
Luckily, though, after a bit of a disappointing opening, the game quickly gets a lot better. While the pacing is still an issue, with too many scenes being packed so full of impending disaster and massive explosions that they almost end up getting boring, Call of Duty WW2 is a game that at least is willing to experiment with the formula - and with some impressive results.
In fact, the real stand out level here also happens to be the one that's the furthest from what you'd expect from a Call of Duty game. Called Liberation, this is a level that sees you playing as the leader of the French resistance, who tells the gathered troops to listen carefully, as she will say this only once (OK, not really), before donning her Gestapo lipstick and Nazi uniform in order to go behind enemy lines, and infiltrate a makeshift German HQ that's popped up in a commandeered hotel. Your mission is to find a Nazi officer who's agreed to help the French Resistance - having stolen a load of explosives from the store room, he's keen to offload them to you as soon as possible, before he gets caught. As such, it's up to you to find him, and make the switch, without blowing your cover - something which is easier said than done.
Before the level really gets going, you and your British comrade go over your cover story. Pulling out your papers, you reiterate that your name is Gerda Schneider, and your reason for being there is to deliver some travel documents to Nazi top dog, Polizeifuhrer Heinrich, on the orders of Commander Franz Speigel. What follows is a nail biting, and unarmed trip into the middle of the bustling Nazi compound, as you do your best to try and not draw attention to yourself, as you seek out your contact. With a heavy guard presence, you'll regularly find yourself getting stopped by the jackbooted security, who're quick to ask you questions about the purpose of your visit. With the game giving you a multiple choices in terms of your response, you only have a few seconds in which to remember the right answer, lest you run out of time and end up getting rumbled. As you'd likely expect, though, tracking down a Nazi officer in a building that's full of them isn't all that easy - although there are several ways you can go about getting access to the various bits of the building you'll need to search. Before too long, however, the bombs will be in your hands, at which point all you need to do is to sneak across the courtyard (with the help of a silenced pistol), and plant them on the doors, ready to blow them open, and take back the city.
But while this is a level that's a lot of fun, it's also indicative of one of the biggest issues with Call of Duty WW2, in that everything is just so rigid. Rather than letting you be the hero yourself, Call of Duty WW2 instead only pretends to offer you a veneer of choice, which takes away any real sense of achievement. At one point in the aforementioned level, you'll have the chance to pick the pocket of a Nazi officer - something which sounds really daring, until you realise that no matter how much you get in his way, bump into him, or generally make your presence known, he'll never actually notice you're there. Similarly, you may sneak behind a Nazi guard, being oh so careful not to alert him - but if you replay the level a second time, you'll find there's no need to, as you could be doing a flipping clog dance behind him, and he simply wouldn't notice, as he doesn't actually have any AI.
Luckily, though, Call of Duty WW2 has a few other nice tricks up its sleeves that go some way to countering the linearity of the levels. While you'll sadly only be playing alongside AI comrades, the fact you'll be accompanied by a small squad in each level is a nice idea, especially as you can call on your friends for help mid-combat. Whether you're asking Zussman, a guy with German Jewish heritage (who must be having a whale of a time) to chuck you a med kit; getting your sarge to lob you some extra ammo, or getting another squad mate to highlight any enemies he can see (something that comes in really handy in COD WW2's often muddy environments, where picking out a darkly uniformed Nazi isn't always that easy), the squad features are a nice touch, and one that can make your time with the game that much easier. While this interaction is about as deep as the band of brothers plot gets, it's still a nice touch - especially as it gives you a way to stay kitted up, even in the middle of a firefight.
But as mentioned above, it's the levels that stray from the formula that are some of the best, and which provide some of the coolest moments - and there's more than just Liberation to speak of here, too. One puts you in the driver's seat of a Sherman tank, as you trundle through the narrow streets of Aachen, literally demolishing buildings with shells from your main gun, or your machine gun, as you try to clear the houses of German troops wielding Panzerschreck rocket launchers (or as the game irritatingly calls them, "launchers", leading to some awkward sentences describing weapons as "anti-aircraft launchers", presumably which launch some kind of... anti-aircraft. Maybe a boat?)
Another moving section sees you being sent back into a building to rescue a terrified German child, who's been holed up in the cellar along with her family, only to run back in there as you were evacuating them. Of course, no sooner have you got to the child than the Nazis arrive, leaving you to have to sneak through the cellar, unarmed, with a trembling girl nestled in your arm, as she grips her teddy bear tightly.
But despite trying so many new things, Call of Duty WW2's campaign is way too keen to sink back into its old ways, and that's what really lets it down. Almost every early level has a dull "defend this position for an indeterminate amount of time" section, where you simply have to fight off wave after wave of Nazis until the game decides you've done enough. Another level sees you coming under fire from a machine gun in a building at the end of the street, but seemingly the Nazi manning it has been part of one of Hitler's weird genetic experiments, as you can't actually shoot him - otherwise the game wouldn't be able to put together a little set piece, where it forces you to time your runs from one piece of cover to the next when you hear he's reloading. If it's an important gameplay point, it's fair enough to make it so the guy can't be shot, but at least the developers should come up with a reasonable way of doing it rather than just making him indestructible. And needless to say, the game's many, many quick time events, where a tiny button will flash up on screen, prompting you to fumble around the controller trying to mash it in time, are as frustrating as ever, and add nothing to the game. Please, developers - enough is enough.
Outside of the game's campaign, Call of Duty WW2 also comes with a revamped competitive multiplayer mode, and the survive-against-infinite-waves-of-enemies Zombies mode - but while both have been updated for COD WW2 (with Zombies mode starring David Tennant, amongst others), neither are likely to win over any new fans. If you loved multiplayer on the earlier Call of Duty games, then you'll love it here too - but if you, like us, were put off by the fact the game makes no effort at all to match you against players of a similar skill level, then you'll find the same issues still present and correct here. Zombies, too, is much the same as it ever was, with you (and potentially a friend or three) able to team up to take on the never ending zombie hordes, amassing points you can exchange for new weapons, armour, revive kits, and access to new areas as you go, making it a similar story - if you liked it then, you'll like it now, but if not, there's little here to change your mind.
In terms of split-screen, while the campaign is (disappointingly) a thoroughly single player affair, both the game's competitive multiplayer mode, and zombies modes do allow for split-screen play - either against human players online, or against bots offline. While online, you can take a friend in split-screen with you to take on the world (or at least get slaughtered by them), although it's disappointing that playing offline against bots doesn't earn you any XP at all, so there's no way to earn the weapons, levelling perks, or item drops that you'd otherwise get by playing online.
In all, then, Call of Duty WW2 is a game that feels better than its recent predecessors, yet one that still doesn't quite capture the glory days of the games gone by. Though it does experiment with the formula, its tendency to resort back to rigid, structured, and scripted levels only ends up serving as a bit of a disappointing counter to some genuinely exciting moments. Still, with more variety than recent Call of Duty games, a decent cast, some genuinely memorable levels, and a setting that's much more interesting than generic sci-fi, this is still well worth a play through.
Format Reviewed: PC