After years of installments set in modern and futuristic settings, Activision's Call of Duty series has finally returned to its roots: World War II. Call of Duty: WWII captures that setting with bombast and dignity, focusing on a single squad of soldiers' journey across the European theater.
One division's struggles against the war
Each year, a different Activision studio develops the latest Call of Duty. This year's installment, the first to take place during World War II in years, comes from Sledgehammer games, makers of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Advanced Warfare.
Where previous Call of Duty games have basically placed players in charge of super soldiers capable of wiping out countless enemies all by themselves, this entry sees a shift to squad dynamics. Players control Red Daniels, one of several fresh members of an Allied squad in the European Theater in 1944. His squad is part of the real-life First Infantry, a 15,000-troop division that played an important part in the war. Their adventures are fictional but involve numerous famous battles like D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge.
Call of Duty: WWII's campaign is easily the strongest in years (despite Infinite Warfare's having been very well constructed) thanks to its strong emphasis on character. Primary protagonist Red starts out as a green recruit eager to atone for some past mistake, his letters to his brother providing narration throughout the adventure.
As the story progresses, we learn more about Red's history and watch him progress from fresh-faced soldier to a hardened veteran. Throughout this all, his dedication to his squad (and particularly best friend Zussman) never falters. Each member of Red's squad has a distinct personality and traits that will make you care about (or hate) him, especially Technical Sergeant William Pierson, who acts as a Heart of Darkness-style allied antagonist to the men under his command.
Battles, driving, and stealth
Call of Duty: WWII's campaign captures numerous memorable battles from the war, starting with the allies' arrival on the beaches of Normandy. The soldiers who are lucky enough to make it to the beach without being blown up must still dodge constant barrages of fire while traversing barbed wire and struggling to reach the enemy bunkers so tantalizingly close to the shore.
Aside from typical large-scale battles like D-Day, the campaign offers a fair level of variety. For instance, Red gets to drive two jeeps during high-speed chase sequences, one of which has our heroes trying to catch up to and stop a massive Nazi train. Despite driving sequences being such a rarity for the series, these sections are exciting and control quite well – certainly better than those of the similarly themed Raid: World War II.
Other intense sections include a tank level in which players must take out anti-tank gunners and several heavily armored tanks, a stealthy rescue of a young Jewish girl amid a Nazi occupied building, and a late-game dogfighting level. The flying level doesn't feel nearly as tight as the driving sequences (or Infinite Warfare's flying levels), but it doesn't last too long.
One more highlight involves one of the game's much-discussed female playable characters. At one point, you'll play as a female member of the French resistance who loses her family to the Nazis. She must go undercover as a German officer at a Nazi administrative building in order to locate an allied informant.
Our french spy spends much of the level exploring the premises, attempting to avoid notice, and discreetly questioning officers who might be the informant. The tension builds and builds as the level progresses, eventually leading to a satisfying conclusion. It's possibly the best part of the campaign, so it's a shame she doesn't get another level towards the end of the game.
Health packs and squad abilities
Call of Duty: WWII is designed as a throwback, ditching the sliding and double-jumping of recent entries. It also reverts to a health pack-based life system instead of recharging health. You'll find health packs throughout each level, being able to carry up to four for later use. This adds a challenge not present in the last few CODs, forcing you to take cover more often and manage your health during each encounter.
You also get limited control over your squad in the form of squad abilities. Each member of the squad has his own ability that fills up and becomes available as you kill enemies. Call on an ally and he'll give you a health pack, ammo refill, air strike, and more. You have to be fairly close to a squad-mate to request his help, and you don't always have access to the full squad, but being able to call on them for help certainly makes you feel more like part of the team.
Call of Duty: WWII's multiplayer component now involves an interactive hub world called the headquarters. There you can watch cinematics, accept challenges, customize weapons, open loot boxes (yes, COD has had them for years), and more. The headquarters is populated by other players, giving it a Destiny 2 social hub-style atmosphere. You can also explore and do things in the headquarters while queued up for multiplayer games, which reduces the tedium of the matchmaking experience.
The big new multiplayer mode this year is called "War." It pits two teams against each other in a structured objective-based match. One side will fight to accomplish goals like building a bridge while the other side tries to stop them. As the offensive team completes objectives, their goal shifts and the fight moves to a different section of the map. After the offense wins or loses, the sides switch and go for another round.
Call of Duty: WWII ships with three War levels, including the E3 level Operation Breakout, a snowy level involving tank escorts and refueling, and a D-Day level that starts on the beaches of Normandy.
Another exciting new multiplayer mode is "Gridiron," based on the sport of American football. Two teams battle to capture the ball and throw it through the other team's goal. While carrying the ball you can melee with it or throw it, but you can't shoot. Thus throwing the ball into an attacker's hands and then shooting him once he catches it (and temporarily loses the ability to shoot) becomes a viable strategy. It's fun whether you're carrying the ball or not.
COD's popular cooperative "Zombies" mode returns in Call of Duty: WWII. This year's Zombies ditches the humorous '80s atmosphere of Infinite Warfare's take in favor of a much more serious and horror-based battle against Nazi zombies.
Your team of four players (who can select from four unique classes) will fight to complete objectives, buy better weaponry, and survive against increasingly dangerous waves of Nazi zombies. Downed players can be revived, but dead players don't get to visit an afterlife area while waiting to respawn like in Infinite Warfare. Once you're dead, you're dead till the next wave starts.
This dark and scary version of Zombies is lots of fun, but (like always) it's so tough that many players who enjoy other co-op games will find it frustrating. The whole experience is built around memorizing the map and learning where all the switches, doors, and objectives are – none of which the game tells you. Unless you're playing with someone who knows what to do, if often devolves into wandering around until you get killed.
Call of Duty: WWII review overall impression
Even though some of the modern Call of Duty games have been great, players have clearly hungered for a return to historical settings. Call of Duty: WWII wisely takes the fight back to World War II, telling a story that captures lots of important battles while remaining grounded in character. Even the subject of Nazi concentration camps is tackled with sensitivity and relevance.
The campaign production values are amazing as always, with excellent acting and motion capture, huge set pieces, and a fair bit of variety. And of course, WWII shows serious dedication to multiplayer with the new headquarters social hub, the excellent new war mode, and a gritty co-op Zombies mode. Whether you're interested in campaign or multiplayer, Call of Duty: WWII is the complete package and a must-play first-person shooter this holiday season.
- Campaign story is grounded in character and camraderie.
- Squadmate abilities make you feel like you're part of a team.
- The new War and Gridiron modes offer plenty of team-based competition.
- Campaign is completely linear, lacking the enjoyable mission selection structure of Infinite Warfare.
- Checkpoints are sometimes spread too far.
- Co-op Zombies mode relies too much on memorizing the map and overly vague objectives.
Call of Duty: WWII sells for $59.99 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Steam.
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Xbox One review copy and travel to the Call of Duty: WWII review event provided by Activison.