It only takes a few steps onto the shores of Normandy to realize Call of Duty WW2 isn’t a shooter that’s going to treat you like a god with bullet-sponge skin.
Even on lower difficulties, German tracer fire cuts your health down to a sliver. Cover – long resigned to being mere set dressing – once again assumes a tactical importance in, while returning medkits become a commodity you’ll burn through with a vicious frequency.
The new COD wants you to bleed for your victories.
By turning back the clock to the brutal real-life warfare of the Second World War, developer Sledgehammer Games (which cut its teeth on the franchise with 2014’s forgettable Advanced Warfare) tries to re-inject some excitement into a series that’s been steadily disappearing into mediocrity. And it succeeds, to a point, introducing a few familiar features alongside a handful of fresh ideas.
We need a medic
It’s still very much the COD you know and love (or loathe, if last year’s declining sales of Infinite Warfare are any indication).
You’ll breach doors, jump into vehicles for scripted chase sequences and be regularly knocked down, only to be picked up by a grizzled member of your squad. Much like what Assassin’s Creed Origins did for the wider AC series, COD: WW2 is less a revolution and more of a subtle refinement across all of its three code modes.
The single-player campaign won’t surprise you with its intense firefights through blitzed urban sprawls and ruined countryside plateaus – it’s a setting that was worn thin years ago – but the decision to remove regenerative health in favor of medkits forces you to treat your health bar with the same kind of care you would ammunition.
It’s not a tactical overhaul by any means, but scrabbling between cover while aggressive waves of AI attempt to overrun your squad proves far more affecting than slaying robots while augmented up to the nines in Infinite Warfare.
Teamwork is this year’s new theme and here it takes the form of special squad abilities.
Each member of your band of brothers has a unique skill, such as chucking you an extra medkit, highlighting enemies on the battlefield and restocking ammo. While their inclusion does take an edge off the danger COD:WW2 works so hard to maintain, it’s balanced by a need to actively kill Nazis in order in order to refresh each one.
It’s a refreshing balance for the most part, one that ultimately urges you to press forward and be bold.
Divide and conquer
It’s in multiplayer that the biggest changes to the series can be felt. The augmented powers of the previous three CODs have been wisely dropped in favor of a more grounded experience.
Not being able to wall-run, boost jump and mantle scenery like a parkour deity takes some getting used to. But by removing the inherent reliance on verticality – something that made the series far less approachable for newer players –COD: WW2 levels the playing field.
With the hit detection precision you’d expect from a modern COD, you get a multiplayer experience that rewards skill over mechanical exploitation.
It should be mentioned that the sound design is superb this year. Every weapon doesn’t just perform differently, but sounds inherently different too.
Grease guns splutter and pop with a satisfying staccato while the M1 Garand –
the undying king of virtual WW2 arsenals – has that iconic ‘clunk ping’ reload sound that makes ejecting an old magazine as exhilarating as firing the gun itself. Okay, it’s just a reload sound effect, but it’s testament to how immersive COD: WW2 can be at when the little details are taken care of.
Divisions also bring a new dimension to online play, effectively replacing the traditional loudout with something more akin to a class-based system.
It can still be manhandled into a normal loudout if you’re ultra old school and pay no heed to change, but in its natural form you get a series of classes built around specific play styles.
Infantry and Expeditionary favor those who like to get in close and cause havoc, while Mountain will pique the interests of the snipers among us. Certain Divisions work better in certain maps and modes; it’s a balance, and one that satisfyingly rewards those who use these classes for the task at hand.
Headquarters, the new social space that’s COD’s attempt to emulate The Tower from the Destiny series, is another new addition.
Here you can manage challenges and contracts to earn more XP from in-game actions, unlock new weapons, watch live streams and compete with other players in a 1v1 pit. It’s an experience that doesn’t quite come together – mainly because the series’ lobbies have long been hotbeds of aggressive screaming, racial slurs and minors informing you how many times they’ve slept with your mum.
Server issues have impacted the smoothness of online play and matchmaking thus far. While Sledgehammer will no doubt get these issues ironed out shortly, exploring a Headquarters completely bereft of other players, or waiting 10 minutes at a time to find and populate a lobby, are the kinds of problems a series such as this simply shouldn’t be facing over ten years into its existence.
D-Day of the dead
Zombies mode is back again, and it too has been given a welcome makeover. The undead co-op mode has long been the only real saving grace of the series in recent years, but its over-reliance on parody and over-emphasis on its Z-list celebrity voiceovers has chipped away at that prestige.
Thankfully, the return to the WW2 era brings a darker tone that wisely taps into the in-vogue world of first-person horror games (complete with zombies that burst from shadows and plenty of systemic jump scares). Oh and it has David Tennant in it. What’s better than playing The Doctor while killing zombies?
Despite the attempt to up the horror element, Zombies is still as over-the-top and - more importantly - fun as ever.
Working as a team to fight back the undead while upgrading BioShock-aping special powers (such as turning invisible or sending zombies flying back in a shockwave) never gets old.
Marry that with a need to manage waves (zombs drop currency that can be used to buy upgrades and better weapons, but killing too many makes them increasingly tougher) and you’ve got a mode another mode that’s going to punish you and reward you in equal measure.
Verdict: play it
What you’re left with is a Call Of Duty that, more than ever, feels like three vastly different games in the same box, despite their shared WW2 setting.
The campaign offers some cheap thrills, and while some returning features help differentiate it from recent entries, it struggles to shake off the fatigue that comes with returning to a well-worn era.
Zombies benefits from a darker tone, while still reveling in the sheer lunacy and slapstick of its co-op mayhem.
Multiplayer offers the best overhaul of the lot with its streamlined mechanics, but it’s hampered by server issues.
Overall, Call Of Duty: WW2 offers an enjoyable yet imbalanced experience, one that’s not yet found the equilibrium between embracing the new and jettisoning the old.