Call of Duty WWII's mechanics both help and hinder its emotional impact

As I sat down in my seat to start my Call of Duty WWII multiplayer demo at E3, I looked at everyone around me nervously. I am not a veteran when it comes to first person shooters; it’s not that I don’t enjoy them, it’s more that I’m just not good at them and as a result I’ll usually pick to play something else to play for fun. 

As a result, sitting in a room with a large group of people all much more prepared for the gaming experience we were about to share made me feel out of my depth and I worried I was about to be more of an annoying hindrance than any kind of help. 

Surprisingly, though, I didn’t do all that badly. I certainly wasn’t the best person in my team by any means but I was still able to make myself valuable. I haven't played a Call of Duty game in a few years and I hadn’t played Call of Duty WWII before today at all, yet it didn’t feel unfamiliar to me.  

Muscle memory

As soon as I had the controller in my hands and the game started up I felt prepared. I had all I needed. I understood exactly what I had to do and I knew (if only vaguely) the best way to go about it.

Largely this is because anyone that has played shooting games before will undoubtedly have enough of an instinct for their mechanics that the gameplay won’t be terrifyingly unfamiliar.

But, it’s exactly this kind of empowering familiarity that stops Call of Duty WWII from being the truly emotionally affecting gaming experience it seems to want to be. 

From the game’s announcement, Sledgehammer Games has been clear that with Call of Duty WWII it wants to tell an evocative story through its game’s campaign, one that expresses the emotional toll of war and respects and honors the memory of those that were a part of it. 

But I worry that the game's need to ultimately still be a Call of Duty game might completely undermine their noble intentions. 

Emotional connection

When we sat down at E3 to talk with the senior development director for the game’s campaign, Tolga Kart, he told us in creating the game’s campaign he and his team wanted the player “to care” about the character they’re playing. This is why they decided to focus mostly on the story of young American, Red Daniels. 

“We are telling the emotional development of these group of guys together from the European theater through to Germany,” he explained, “there are lots of emotions, lots of interpersonal connections and challenges for these people who are from all over the world.”

To reinforce the narrative and the believability of these relationships between Red and his fellow soldiers, Sledgehammer has used a new mechanic called squad abilities.

In Call of Duty WWII, squad abilities have replaced mechanics such as auto-regeneration. Now, rather than regaining health by themselves, players have to get a health pack from their squadmate 'Zussman', immediately creating a connection between the player and the game’s NPCs. 

“Rather than me just telling you Zussman is your friend, the mechanic is also telling you he’s your friend” Kart told us. 

It’s undeniably clever - the mechanic makes the player rely on Zussman for items they need to survive. Immediately the character becomes tied in the player’s mind with his survival and when they can’t find him on the battlefield they genuinely miss him. 

Squad survival

We’ve been able to see through the various cinematic trailers released for the game that Sledgehammer is aiming to communicate the brutal and visceral nature of the war. Kart himself told us “This was a brutal war and we’re not shying away from it, from getting the player to really experience that.”

The game is gory - when we watched gameplay for the campaign and played the multiplayer for ourselves we witnessed decapitations, explosions and death everywhere.

However, Kart also acknowledged that a challenge they face as developers is that they’re “constantly walking a fine line between entertainment and authenticity.”

Multiplayer mayhem

This is a particular problem when creating multiplayer levels. When we asked the game’s lead multiplayer designer, Greg Reisdorf, about the challenges of relaying emotion in multiplayer, he admitted that “It is hard to get across those emotions [in multiplayer mode].”

He added, however, that "a lot of the time in multiplayer mode we do have more freedom with that. I mean, it’s multiplayer, you’re there to have fun you’re there to play it and that’s what we want to get across to players. With that it’s all about the guns and the gunplay and being able to have that tactical combat is great.”

When we played the game's multiplayer mode we certainly didn't feel that the emotional gravitas of war was entirely at the forefront as the player beside us gloated that they'd blasted someone else in the room's leg off. 

This highlights the problem we think Call of Duty faces. As much as its emotional story and complementary new squad mechanics attempt to forge an emotional connection between the players and the game, its traditional run-and-gun gameplay ultimately prevents it from relaying the true emotional turmoil of war. 

There's a disconnect between the story it's trying to tell the player and the story the player experiences for themselves.

When talking to Kart we discussed the power of agency in games and how the player being in control of the character involved in the war gives the game an opportunity to forge an emotional and empathic connection more than other mediums.

The agency effect

The problem with this is that it’s when the player takes control of the character that many of the game’s attempts to make a emotional impact are also undermined. 

Games, first person shooters included, have to be user friendly, empowering, and, most importantly, fun. Basically the complete opposite of war. 

As much as these games say that they want to communicate the brutality and horror of war in a realistic way, their need to be games rarely allows this to be the case.  

It’s hard to believe you’re a young man who’s never experienced war, fighting for his life in an unfamiliar country, when his hands don’t shake and he effortlessly reloads a weapon he's only recently held for the first time.

As soon as you're in control, the war becomes a competitive and enjoyable experience.

I can see and understand the horrors of war from playing Call of Duty WWII; it communicates them very well visually. But I still don’t feel them on a personal internal level and it's no more affecting than watching a film and if anything the tonal disconnect between gameplay and story makes it less so. 

Call of Duty is hardly the only game to suffer with this problem, and if anything its developers seem to be going further then most with their desire to at least address these issues. 

When franchises like Call of Duty and Battlefield announce that they’re going to be set in emotionally resonant real-life timelines like the world wars there’s immediately a pressure applied to them. 

The things is, you can really see where these games have attempted to communicate the atrocities of war, to respect historical accuracy and the people involved in these conflicts. To me, this is enough to make them an essential means of recording our history.

That said, after playing Call of Duty WWII, even for just a short time, I still don’t feel that first-person shooters will ever be the best genre to achieve this. They're just too empowering, too fast-paced, and ultimately too fun, no matter how much they approach the subject matter with the best of intentions. 

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Emma Boyle

Emma Boyle is TechRadar’s ex-Gaming Editor, and is now a content developer and freelance journalist. She has written for magazines and websites including T3, Stuff and The Independent. Emma currently works as a Content Developer in Edinburgh.