Disclosure ‐ This piece contains major spoilers for Call of Duty: WWII
Been there, done that.
I had a glimmer of hope for Call of Duty’s return to World War II, but that was quickly quashed as I progressed deeper into its rote and outdated campaign. Not only was the narrative sorely disappointing, but critical response to it felt more positive than I could have possibly imagined. Its given me the sense that Call of Duty is no longer graded on its merits relative to other games, but in comparison to its self-contained progression as a series. Players seem to subscribe to the notion that they “haven’t seen this in a Call of Duty game before”, which somehow rings as a positive sentiment. From where I’m standing, WWII‘s campaign fails to flesh out the feeling of brotherhood that it promises, and re-hashes out-dated mechanics to pass off as progress.
In the opening cutscene of Call of Duty: WWII, excerpts of Roosevelt’s D-Day prayer speech are played over a dramatic score. The scene ends with the famous line that “men’s souls will be shaken by the violences of war”, whilst your character reaches for his buddies’ arm and gets pulled into a foxhole. This scene, along with the game’s opening monologue by the playable character, Daniels, sets the stage for the journey Sledgehammer Games has in store for you. Sure, they want to depict a bombastic, gritty and depressingly gorgeous version of the Western Front, but they also want to take the player through an emotional and personal story. We’re told to connect with Daniels and his unit; their failings and conflict. In this sense, I can see the goal, however, the result is mired in grossly predictable characterisations and a rushed narrative.
At the core of WWII’s disappointments, lies the dry and pigeon-holed cast of soldiers, begging to be appreciated. There’s your character, Daniels, who is driven by the ‘not-so-original’ desire to repent for his past inability to act, which led to his brother being injured by a bear. There’s Zussman your Jewish best friend, Lieutenant Turner, the experienced and supportive platoon leader, and finally, Seargent Pierson, the overly aggressive higher-up. In essence, the campaign centres around the bond between brothers-in-arms, which is given its spotlight through Zussman and Daniels’ friendship.
Unfortunately, my issue with this ‘spotlight’ is that the game hammers it into you from the outset, which in turn makes it feel trite and forced. In the opening invasion of Normandy, the player is directed into a ‘last stand type’ moment, whereby they drag Zussman to the medics and intermittently stop to one-shot a bunch of Nazis. Daniels cares deeply for Zussman; he wants to see the war “through to the end” with him, but why? I have just met this character and the game expects me to be engaged in a scene of bravery? Despite its grand entrance, it leaves no time to build a relationship between individual characters. Telling the player that Daniels deeply cares about Zussman is a long way away from myself actually caring.
Ultimately, the way WWII attempts to communicate its personal narrative is with a fist to the face. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve watched a lot of World War II movies and TV shows, but the jokish dialogue in cutscenes neither made me laugh nor had me believing they were anything more than caricatures. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: They take jabs at each other’s girls back home, have a little ‘friendly’ anti-semitism, and discuss who would win in in a fight between blah… blah… blah…
Though, by far the most poignant example of being force-fed, is through the juxtaposition between Daniels’ two higher-ups, Pierson and Turner. Turner is the caring leader, and Pierson is the hardass ‘results guy’. So naturally, it’s a persistent source of tension throughout the game. For instance, in an ’emotionally charged’ scene, Turner attempts to rescue a group of civilians, which sparks a heated argument from Pierson who believes it isn’t their duty. Players are directly and indirectly told to fear Pierson and his reckless orders, which the characters believe will inevitably cause their death. Indeed, pervading Pierson’s persona is the rumour that he got the last platoon under his orders killed.
So, where’s all this heading? Well, shockingly, your nice superior die in the latter parts of the game, which leaves Pierson in charge. Though not for one second did I ever believe the rumours about him were true, and it was plainly obvious we were heading towards a climactic realisation about his character. Not only were these events predictable, but sudden forgiveness of Pierson’s recent decision making, because he tried to do the right thing IN THE PAST, just seems unbelievably convenient. Troubled history or not, he still led his platoon brutally and detached, and that shouldn’t be something so easily brushed off.
Meanwhile, in Daniels’ land, it’s revealed — through some poorly paced visions — that his brother Paul has been dead all along! It turns out his drive in war and feelings of responsibility to Zussman were because he let his brother down. What’s worse, is that these realisations come at a time in the campaign when it appears as though they’re trying desperately to give the player something to care about. And so, the finale of the game is rescuing Zussman. But I didn’t care. I don’t know anything about Zussman other than that the game wanted us to be best friends. I didn’t care when he got wounded at the beginning of the game, and I didn’t feel anything when he was captured and driven away. There was no real character development.
The lack of a Substantive campaign isn’t a problem foreign to Call of Duty in the past. Indeed, they have never been lauded for their emotional appeal. However, my issue stems from their attempt to provide a character-driven story, without laying a foundation that feels overly trite. With only six hours, Call of Duty slips into predictable personifications which they believe produce a neat twist, but instead just feel like it is insulting the players’ intelligence.
These complaints about the campaign fail to touch on the extremely overdone stealth mechanics in the game. I get it Call of Duty, you’ve never had a symbol above enemies’ heads to indicate detections, but you’re a bit behind don’t ya think? And yet, my observation is that these lackluster elements are glossed over in the essence that Call of Duty is ‘trying something different’. Whether that’s the case or not, the series needs to be compared relative to all other titles, not just their own timeline of releases. Everything the player experiences in WWII has been done before, and better. That’s not to say the campaign is terrible, it’s just boring. I’m not expecting Call of Duty to reinvent the genre, but can we please have realistic discourse around the quality of this franchise?
Also, let’s take a moment to reflect on the fact that this game won Game of the Year among Snapchat users…