As I rounded the corner of a trenchline on Pointe du Hoc I came face to face with a German soldier. My rifle was held high and, running full bore, I drove its bayonet into their chest delivering a mortal wound.
This is not an unusual sight for a Call of Duty game. It’s been commonplace since the series’ inception in 2003. But right there, in my first demo of the upcoming Call of Duty: World War II, I noticed a big difference.
I’d just killed a woman. A black woman. A black woman in a German uniform.
Female soldiers aren’t new to the Call of Duty series. They were first playable in multiplayer with Call of Duty: Ghosts. At the time, producer Matt Rubin told Polygon that it felt like a natural choice.
“What we wanted to do was acknowledge the fan base that already existed,” Rubin said. “We have a lot of different kinds of people who play [Call of Duty] and we want them to be represented when we do character creation.”
But Call of Duty: Ghosts was part of a fictional timeline. Call of Duty: World War II takes place in the past, and that makes the game feel different.
For the first time in series history, the Call of Duty franchise is tossing aside historical convention in a dramatic way. The game’s multiplayer modes, including Team Death Match and the new War Mode, will give players a wide variety of options for customizing their avatar. Multiple races and genders will be available to choose from, and players will appear on both sides of the conflict to fight for both the Axis and the Allies.
“We wanted you to be able to play as you,” said Greg Reisdorf, the game’s lead multiplayer designer. “You get thrown on either side. It’s a 50/50 chance.”
It creates an unusual paradox. The German army during WWII was the military arm of the Nazi party, a group of fascists who believed in the superiority of the white Aryan race. To have black soldiers among their ranks would have been anathema. But in today’s culture, the team behind Call of Duty: World War II has placed player choice over historical fact.
“We do take some liberties in multiplayer within the historical context,” Reisdorf said. “The single-player campaign is more about accuracy. But, even in our research, we know there were French resistance fighters who were women. There were women fighting on the Eastern front. There were tons of different nationalities out there. So it’s relevant to the game, and we wanted it to be in multiplayer as well.”
To understand how this makes sense in-game requires an understanding of how developer Sledgehammer Games has reworked the game’s class system.
Call of Duty: World War II throws out the traditional classes, like recon and assault, in favor of Divisions. At the beginning of their in-game military career players choose to enlist in one of five unique units and train up as either Airborne, Mountain, Infantry, Armored or Expeditionary soldiers. Each has its own set of perks and upgrades, but all of them look like Allied soldiers. They roam around the game’s common area, called Headquarters, which is modeled after an Allied camp. There, they can train with both Axis and Allied small arms.
It’s only when players enter a multiplayer game that they have the opportunity to don the German uniform, and even then it’s a random assignment. That’s how I happened to come face-to-face with a black, female German soldier.
It remains to be seen how fans will react to this design choice. The second World War and its politics still looms large in our culture today. For decades, players have been comfortable playing a role that falls upon the wrong side of history. Is it any more uncomfortable for players to role-play as a Nazi soldier when the race and the gender of that soldier would never have been allowed to wear the uniform in the first place? Or have the battles of WWII become so distant in our memory that the uniforms players wear may as well be a different set of colors entirely?
Call of Duty: World War II is expected to be released on November 3 for PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.