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Call of Duty: WWII pre-review

Activision’s hit shooter franchise looks to the past, and we’ve played hours of it

Sledgehammer Games/Activision

Many of us are old enough to remember a time when the idea of a first-person shooter set during World War II seemed overdone to the point of parody.

The first three Call of Duty releases took place during World War II, breaking from the tradition with 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Call of Duty: WWII, developer Sledghammer Games’ second full release in the franchise, brings us back to that historic conflict as the series begins to eat its own tail on modern hardware.

Or maybe this could be seen as a sort of reboot. Call of Duty: WWII packs in the same ridiculous amount of things to do as past games in the series with a full single-player campaign, many options for multiplayer including the asymmetrical War game mode, the new Headquarters social hub and of course a co-op Zombies campaign that was created by many developers who were also involved in the creation of the modern horror game classic Dead Space.

Sledgehammer Games/Activision

I was able to sample these modes, as well as play through the entirety of the campaign, during a recent review event in San Francisco. There were many members of the Sledgehammer team in attendance to answer questions, and the topic of Visceral’s recent closure came up often in conversation. It gave what should have been a fun preview event for the game an unexpected somber mood as the many Visceral ex-pats at Sledgehammer remembered their old home.

The Call of Duty games provide at least one possible answer to the question of how single-player games will survive in the modern industry: The campaign just has to be packed alongside a lot of other stuff that will keep players invested outside of the story.

The good news is that the campaign included with Call of Duty: WWII adds at least a few twists to what could have felt like a retread of past games. It’s not afraid to reintroduce a few classical elements to the series and increase the default difficulty to the point that even veteran players should expect to die early and often.

World War II pop culture exists in a well-worn part of my consciousness, and I know what to expect from this particular brand of war story after a life of watching Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan and countless other war movies. A group of young men from different parts of the country come together to share stories of their girls back home, make fun of each other over their differences and, ultimately, throw themselves at a clearly evil enemy while suffering excruciating loss. All this before winning the conflict for truth, justice and the American way.

Call of Duty: WWII looks to the past for inspiration on how to update the formula. The health bar doesn’t recharge anymore, which means I had to scavenge health packs to survive. It’s easy to get pinned down by enemy fire on most levels, and it takes a second or two to heal as well. That’s time I couldn’t spend reloading or firing, and that means I had an extra layer of things to manage throughout each firefight. I had to make sure to have as much health as possible before running into battle, both to make sure I could survive taking a few rounds on the chest as well as to leave room in my inventory to pick up any extra health packs I stumbled across.

Members of my squad would throw me extra ammo, grenades or health packs if I was close enough to them to ask, but each character can only offer one type of support. That means I had to safely reach the character with the health packs to ask for more, and the game cleverly juggles its challenges by adding or removing different teammates on each mission to take away my ability to ask for more grenades or to add the ability to call in an airstrike. It’s not exactly a squad-based shooter, but your squad is important enough that you’ll be acutely aware of who is, or isn’t, accompanying you on each mission.

This dependance on squadmates slows down the action, which is a welcome change from past games where you always seemed to be charging into battle rather than weigh the odds. There were multiple places in the game where I died over and over while I tried different approaches to move forward. This isn’t a game you’ll be able to skate through on the default difficulty, though the campaign does a good job of managing checkpoints to avoid frustration.

Sledgehammer Games/Activision

That need to change the game’s rhythm to avoid a slick, all-action campaign is felt throughout the game. You’ll be asked to participate in stealth segments that are balanced well enough to avoid the frustrations that’s all too common in action games that ask you to sneak around. Getting through a warzone with a young child in your arms as German soldiers fight through the environment is as tense as you’d expect, and those moments provide a welcome contrast to the more action oriented areas of the game.

Sledgehammer also didn’t want to be stuck with the expected homogenous heroes for its game. While World War II was largely fought by white male soldiers, Sledgehammer went out of its way to try to diversify the cast when possible while keeping things at least glancingly historically accurate. At one point, I played as a woman in the French resistance infiltrating a German-held base in France. This tense mission felt more Dishonored than Call of Duty. Elsewhere, an African American soldier joined my group, with all the racial tension you might expect that to add in that time period.

And that dissonance is seen in the Axis characters as well. The Germans are more or less cartoonishly evil antagonists, and are rarely given much chance to develop personalities. They can surrender, however, and the game will end if you decide to kill them after they’ve raised their hands.

This is Band of Brothers as shot and written by a more sober Michael Bay. The explosions and set pieces seem to last a bit too long, but they provide the necessary bombast for a triple-A game of this kind. When things crash or explode, they spend a lot of time breaking into pieces, and you’re always just able to get out of the way in time.

All that being said, this is a game that will made me wish I had a slightly larger television and a slightly louder sound system. I played in 4K on a PlayStation 4 Pro, and the scope of the conflicts was appropriately epic. Call of Duty: WWII is one of the better looking games of the year, and the series continues to deliver spectacle in a reliable way. The short tank mission, in particular, shows off the game’s ability to deliver carnage through some impressively destructible environments.

Call of Duty: WWII deals in spectacle, but it’s hard to balance the exaggerated action scenes with the idea that this is all based on actual events. It’s hard to deal with war in a mass market medium that demands the experience be “fun” even when addressing historical events. World War II was a hellish, grueling conflict that has been explored through countless documentaries, books, movies and games. Balancing a level of respect for the reality of the war with the need to provide an enjoyable game in the campaign is a near impossible task.

Sledgehammer Games/Activision

Still, the latest Call of Duty pulls it off better than I expected. The campaign dips into the expected story beats, complete with a girl back home who may or may not be willing to wait for our hero’s return, but it also does an effective job of selling how horrific and overwhelming the conflict must have felt from the ground. One shocking circumstance that keeps playing over and over in my head is how I found myself struggling to avoid friendly fire deaths in the thick of battle; enemy and allied soldiers can look similar at a glance, and I had so little time to decide whether or not to pull the trigger.

Call of Duty: WWII’s campaign has to serve many different masters, and that tension often feels like it may overwhelm the story’s goals. The campaign’s tone shifts around a bit too much, but the entire experience provides a surprisingly varied and enjoyable look at a war that has been pored over by every aspect of pop culture. Historians may flinch at the overblown nature of some of these missions, but the single-player campaign exceeded my expectations for a Call of Duty experience.

Call of Duty: WWII launches on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC tomorrow, Nov. 3. Stay tuned for Polygon’s full review-in-progress later tonight.