Editorial: It’s great news that Call Of Duty is returning to World War 2

If the rumours are true, and they most likely are, this year we’ll be seeing Call Of Duty: WWII. People have reacted with concern, but I’m here to argue it’s the best possible news.

There was a time when learning a game was set in World War II was deserving of the heaviest of sighs. Not only did it mean that it would be one of seven thousand other games that year plundering the past for an excuse to bob a gun at the bottom of the screen, but it was more likely to be crass and ignorant than a tribute to the bravery and miserable deaths of our ancestors. We got well and truly sick of WW2 games. Then to save us, the march of the zombies began. We had a whole new theme to groan at, and the Second World War has had something of a break.

The temptation of hearing the rumours that the all-conquering shooter series is to return to its own origins is to start sighing once again. But there are some really good reasons not to. In fact, if there’s anything that could save CoD from itself, it’s heading back.

Clearly the intentions of CoD games have changed a great deal since the original, and wonderful, Call Of Duty. That came in 2003, the glorious result of the ugly divorce of Medal Of Honor’s parents, and it’s hard to remember now just what a groundbreaking and resonating experience it was. This was a game that took the setting damned seriously. Awesome (in the literal sense) warfare, brutal devastation, and the overwhelming sense of being absolutely nobody in the midst of utter horror. It was a game where I would have to stop playing every few missions to remind myself I wasn’t there, it wasn’t happening to me.

Call Of Duty now is of course an annual attempt to get people to hand over sixty bucks for a newer version of their multiplayer madness. Sure, there’s a single-player campaign too, but they’re contemptible – ugly, stupid, spiteful stories with no gravitas, no pathos, just bathetic bravado and mawkish sentimentalism. To some extent, the most recent offerings have embraced this, opting for overblown ridiculousness rather than straight-faced near-future tech pomposity, and that was definitely a good move. But a better one is to return to its roots, to give itself a chance to apply its state-of-the-art tech to the pathos that once ruled its design.

Over the first three games, Infinity Ward created the Call Of Duty games via extreme tension. From my experience of preview trips with the developers, interviewing them back when their words weren’t quite so controlled by the marketing department, it was abundantly clear that they were a studio divided, half those who wanted to create the loudest, biggest, most bombastic experience possible, and half who wanted to honour the lives of those who they were portraying with gruesomely honest stories and battle recreations.

In the same sitting we would be given presentations from those who wanted us to sit gape-mouthed at how big were their explosions, and then shown interviews conducted by others with weeping veterans recalling the mind-destroying horrors they faced for the first time since they went through them. It could only have been a stranger experience had we been sat in Hitler’s Polish Wolf’s Lair near Rastenburg, Poland, or in a former Parisian brothel draped in Nazi flags and burlesque performers. Which, well, we were.

The consequences of such a conflicted development were apparent in the games, to great effect. The histrionics of the presentation met the palpable grief of the stories, and the result was something deeply affecting. This was further emphasised by those early games’ gimmick of having you abandon one soldier’s story with no conclusion, and find yourself playing as someone else from somewhere else, in a different part of the conflict in a different part of the world. It portrayed the enormousness of the war, and the relatively inconsequential nature of the lives of the individuals being sacrificed within it. (That moment as Russian soldier. When you’re sent into pitched battle without a gun…)

You know, those aren’t the sorts of words I think anyone could have attached to the Call Of Duty games since. There are twenty of them now, including the various spin-offs made for various consoles, with a main title hitting every year since 2005. With development duty split between Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer Games and Treyarch, and the multiple brouhahas that have occurred within those teams over the years, it’s unquestionably a game series that has evolved to be almost unrecognisable from its origins. So hearing of its return to WW2 offers me not a sense of foreboding, but rather one of hope.

Of course, it could be a complete fucking disaster. It could be all the ridiculous hyperbole of the more recent games wedged hideously into a real-world conflict still just within living memory. It could be an ugly, insensitive, insulting mess, all of the explosions and none of the grief. It might even be considered likely, when looking at the overall direction of the series. But hope. There’s hope.

Imagine what it could be. Imagine if, by this return to its own history, let alone our planet’s, there’s a re-grounding. A regrouping.

It seems impossible that they could have begun making the game without going back to the original, replaying it, a forced remembering of how it used to be. A Call Of Duty without double jumps, or the poorly animated corpse of Kevin Spacey slurring gibberish out of the screen. A Call Of Duty that was so powerful, so emotionally wracking, that players were changed by it.

Development duties this time appear to be with Sledgehammer (the annual release nature of the series makes for a strangely brief pre-release campaign, in this era of pre-orders opening years before games come out, so even now Activision still haven’t even confirmed that there will be a CoD in November, let alone that it’s set in World War II), which makes it about as detached from the original team as possible. Of course, the Infinity Ward of 2017 doesn’t much resemble the 2003 team either, but still, it’s perhaps a knock against my hope, that level of separation. Or maybe it gives a newer team a sense of, well, duty? A duty to respect what came before, rather than attempt to iterate beyond it until it’s literally in outer-space.

And yes, it’s inescapable that the core emphasis of the game will be on its multiplayer, and that puts it in competition with your Battlefields, and in danger of needing to be in competition with its own recent games, somehow trying to provide multiplayer as complex as has come to be expected, but with only the archaic tools available 70 years ago.

These are huge hurdles. But imagine if its multiplayer modes were grim, dirty, furious, hideous. Multiplayer that wasn’t a power fantasy, but rather something that embraced the reality of online gaming, where players repeatedly die and respawn, as commentary on the disposable nature of infantry. While sick foreboding may be instinctive in response to the news, the potential for sensationalism, there is hope.

And to return to that first topic, that sense of WW2 fatigue, that we’re inundated by AAA games set in the era. We’re really not! We were, undoubtedly, between 2000 and 2010. But it stopped. Almost entirely. Battlefield bounced all over time, before eventually settling in the near-future (not withstanding its surprise trip back to the Great War last year). Medal Of Honor abandoned the past with the surprisingly decent Airborne in 2007, before its godawful modern return in 2010. Brothers In Arms let go of each other in 2010. Red Orchestra made it as far as 2011. Rising Storm is off to Vietnam.

So many others went away too, like Commandos, Day Of Defeat, Hidden & Dangerous, Close Combat, Sudden Strike, Silent Hunter, Panzer Elite… We’re left with the Sniper Elite series, and, strategy games only Adam understands. And Wolfenstein never really counted anyway.

Which means, in the mayfly world of gaming, it’s an entire generation since World War II was a significant gaming topic. Heck, there might be no better time. There are fewer and fewer people alive who fought in the war, and the vast majority of people under 30 have no living relatives who even could have. Now is when the danger of our forgetting those events begins. Handled properly, with dignity and truthfulness, a franchise as enormous as CoD could speak where school history lessons never could.

Us 2000s veterans may find it hard to shake off that “Eurgh, not again!” response, but shake it off we really ought, because we’re just making ourselves look old. The field is ripe for a wonderful, respectful, honest and traumatic game set in the Second World War, and Call Of Duty is a series that did once prove it could be done. It could be again! Yeah, no, I’m not convinced either, but look: hope.

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48 Comments

  1. stele says:

    I’m a big WWII buff (I’ve visited Normandy and Belgium several times) and have always been a WWII game fan. I’m excited to see a return to WWII, especially if they can give me a compelling single-player experience.

  2. Troubletcat says:

    Plus CoD 1 and 2 were the best CoD games ever made, so like.. that’s good.

  3. Premium User Badge

    N'Al says:

    Let’s not forget there WAS a WWII-set CoD released after the first three – World at War?

    Admittedly that’s now almost 10 years old itself, but which mold does it fall into – bathetic [sic] bravado and mawkish sentimentalism or respectful and honest?

    I wouldn’t know, I’ve never played the original CoDs…

    • int says:

      I love PTRS in WaW. It’s the WW2 equivalent of yer instagib shock rifle.

    • Flopdong says:

      I highly enjoyed World at War (liked it more than COD4, which is a very unpopular opinion) but it pales in comparison to 1 & 2.
      One of the biggest problems with COD games now is that you are always a member of some sort of special forces team. As such, the games almost always involve some sort of covert ops, where you and a squad of teammates are behind enemy lines sneaking into bases etc. In the early COD’s, you were just a grunt on the ground, and that was part of what made it so intense. You felt like a small cog of a much bigger machine, just trying to survive and save the lives of your brothers in arms. It was much more personal than the newer games, where you are always the ultimate hero and the only person who can stop the world from ending in some sort of apocalypse.

  4. RQH says:

    The problem for me is that Call of Duty 2 (the only one I played) was so effective at what you describe that I never felt any need or desire to play another.

    Naturally, of course, there are new people joining the hobby every day, so perhaps it’s past due for another game in that vein.

  5. Michael Fogg says:

    The zeitgeist is probably at the wrong place for this. Look how Battlefield 1 made an attempt to make WW1 ‘relatable’ or ‘relevant’. Turned out to be a trainwreck.

    • Napalm Sushi says:

      Since the zeitgeist – to my perception, at least – seems to be at a point of recognising that maybe war is always a horrible mess all of the time, and is having an ever harder time swallowing the spinning of abstractions like glory and heroism into combat, maybe the time has never been more ripe to look at World War II with a more objective and critical eye? Looking at the seeds of the Cold War and post-colonialism that it incubated, or at how Nazi Germany’s ideas weren’t initially as controversial as people like to remember, or at the fact that it was far more a conflict between radical, yet-to-be-discredited forms of totalitarianism than between freedom and oppression? And of course there’s plenty of ugly fronts like China, Burma and the Balkans that remain mostly unvisited in media.

      There were buds of this in Call Of Duty’s Soviet campaigns – a simultaneous respect for the people slugging through the conflict and a criticism of its wider paradigms – but it can be taken much further.

      I don’t think the dark reality of World War II has been dredged nearly as much as people think.

      It’s probably a stretch to expect that dredging by present-day Activision, of course.

      • Premium User Badge

        cpt_freakout says:

        I want to be an optimist about this, I really do, but do you think that the studio that’s brought us “kill brown people USA USA” for the past few years is capable of doing something subtle or sophisticated anymore? Would these guys ever visit the war in China without putting a white guy savior as a protagonist or making everyone speak English? What about other horrible episodes around WWII like the Spanish Civil War or the invasion of Ethiopia? I doubt they’ll be doing anything other than a new version of the Normandy invasion…

  6. Sagiri says:

    I’ve actually never played a CoD game, and that counts campaigns and multiplayer.

    How well/poorly have the early ones aged?

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      I played the first two recently and they held up ok.
      In terms of software they both ran on Win10, although the I couldn’t get the first one to run in a widescreen resolution, and they both look, well, like those screenshots up there.
      In terms of fun, yep, they definitely hold up well, and they did drag the modern CoD games down even further in my estimation. “You used to be good once, what went wrong?!”

  7. ZippyLemon says:

    I agree with what you say, John, but we all know that Activision will not produce this game.

    The fact that consumers do not remember WW2 is exactly why no videogame will ever do its horrors justice. Not that this one can’t. Rather, it will sell better if it doesn’t, end of story.

    Fuck consumer capitalism. Fuck the average gamer. Fuck the average producer. None of them understand the meaning of reverence, and a AAA videogame is not going to teach them.

    Am I denouncing people impetuously? Forgive me, but history shows that our minds are too narrow to be able to remember across generations the way we want to – the way we swear we will after every single cataclysm. We build monuments, start trading, house, feed, and educate each other, get fat, become entitled, view our neighbours with jealousy and suspicion, view engagement as a zero-sum game, start pissing in the wind, get splashed, get angry, and lock and load. It’s happening globally as we speak, and these selfish, nationalistic sentiments are not going to go away on their own.

    Sorry, but no. Humanity is too shit to produce the CoD you want.

    • Aetylus says:

      “but history shows that our minds are too narrow to be able to remember across generations the way we want to”…

      Hmmm, true, true, but since WW2 humanity has had two new tools: Movies and, more recently, video games. They have the unique ability it human history to transport the otherwise uncaring bulk of humanity directly into the cataclysm… to make them feel (rather than reason) why we don’t want to go there again.

      Watching Saving Private Ryan changes people. We can hope – and ask – that games do the same.

      • ZippyLemon says:

        link to thebaffler.com

        Saving Private Ryan is not what I would call constructive. It has contributed to the usage of WW2 veterans as political props and it feeds a mawkish American sentimentality about the relationship between politicians, generals, and soldiers. And that’s not to criticise the intent behind the film (although I could do that too), but to emphasise the actual role it has played in shaping Anglophone culture.

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      particlese says:

      It’s better to stubbornly hope for, expect, and demand that something be good or even improve — and to appropriately vent disappointment if it’s not — than it is to settle for the assumption that it will necessarily suck or worsen and not do anything about it.

      Help out a bit, please.

      • ZippyLemon says:

        It is better to expend energy on improving the world in ways that actually work, rather than expecting bombastic, jingoistic, consumerist tripe to become a vehicle of enlightenment.

        I am a real optimist and bright person, I promise. I’m genuinely laughing right now because that probably seems very unlikely from your perspective. I am positive, and I don’t have any patience for cynicism and fatalism that masquerades as “being realistic”. But here I will say I am just being realistic. The corporate consumerism that made CoD what it is will not suddenly turn on its head and create a game that challenges the worldview of the hundreds of millions of people who buy CoD to just switch off.

        Saying that expressing that opinion means I’m refusing to help is like doubting my commitment to firefighting because I won’t cup water in my hands and run into the blazing inferno.

        • ZippyLemon says:

          Heh. *tens of millions. Thank god I was so far off the mark.

        • Premium User Badge

          particlese says:

          Hey, thanks for taking the time to clarify!

          I absolutely did take most of your comment as defeatist in general, which is a philosophy that irritates me, especially with various non-gamey things going as they have. As a result, I intended my comment to be broadly applicable but also tried to back off a little so it could arguably apply within the scope of this article without sounding too absurd.

          For what it’s worth, I completely agree with you about choosing one’s battles.

          Cheers!

  8. zulnam says:

    I admire your optimism.

  9. SamD says:

    ‘ugly, stupid, spiteful stories with no gravitas, no pathos, just bathetic bravado and mawkish sentimentalism’

    This is just brilliant.

  10. Vandelay says:

    Were people really fed up with the abundance of WW2 games in the early 2000s or was it just journalists who had to play all of the bad ones?

    All I remember was having a great time with the CoDs, Medal of Hono(u)rs and Commandos. The WW2 games era then ended with the excellent Company of Heroes. Those were all great games heightened by the setting and I never got bored of great games being released.

    As for this soon to be announcement, it could be good, but it does seem like they are floundering around to make the series relevant again.

    • Premium User Badge

      Syt says:

      Well, it wasn’t just the AAA series. For a while it felt that any shooter that came out from AAA to B, C, or F, gave you a Thompson or an M1 and asked you to shoot at grey uniforms. It was followed by the grey-brown modern shooters, and zombie shooters. I, as consumer, was getting rather bored with the same setting getting recycled time and time again. The reference to the current prevalence of the zombie shooter is quite apt. Maybe it was a tad worse, because we’re talking about the days before digital distribution really took off, and the majority of PC gamers would buy their games in brick and mortar shops where shelf space was at a premium.

    • Shakes999 says:

      Absolutely. It was complete saturation. Even hearing about one being developed was met with much groaning and eye rolls.

      People love to play revisionist history because COD has become such a parody of itself but the original Modern Warfare was a very welcome change of pace and still was at least a little concerned with telling some story with some gravity, even if it mostly failed at it.

  11. Biggus_Dikkus says:

    dont remember Airborne that much. Never finished that one

  12. skeletortoise says:

    Appreciate the love letter to CoD 1. It really struck me at the time of playing, and it was the first time (age 10-12 or so, maybe?) I’d ever really given WW2, or war at all, any serious thought. Now I just remember the vague sense/setting of some of the levels. Besides the Russian level you cited. That’s always stayed with me.

    I should see if I still have my PS2 copy of CoD 2. I remember enjoying it, but it left nowhere near as strong an impact on me as the first. Yet most people seem to have had the opposite experience, so it’s probably worth revisiting.

    • Flopdong says:

      You are thinking of a different game. The PS2 COD2 was called ‘Big Red One’ and was a completely different game than the PC/Xbox360 version of COD2.

      (The same is also true of COD, the original PC COD is a completely different (and much better) game than the PS2/Xbox COD

  13. SuicideKing says:

    2017 seems to be the year of return to WWII I guess :D

    Iron Front for Arma 3 (IFA3)*, Day of Infamy, Battalion 1944, Steel Division: Normandy ’44…

    *Admittedly released as WIP last year, but still in development so…

  14. Premium User Badge

    Al__S says:

    I only ever got the original games on the aaaar-net. I sort of fancy giving them a whirl again, but I’m not convinced the £15 each (or £35 for both plus the United Offensive expansion) on Steam is great value given how old the games are. Anywhere legitimately selling them for less?

  15. Nauallis says:

    I guess that I’d be okay with this if they managed to make a campaign with the same sort of gravitas as was present in Medal of Honor: Frontline, and Call of Duty 2. Those were some tense games – really gave the war meaning and weight. Unless Treyarch is the developer. F#%k Treyarch.

  16. cannedpeaches says:

    Don’t know if I could go so far as to say the multiplayer was ever “grim” – CoD1/2 were just as arcadey as anything else going. But it always was the sense that multiplayer was a hanger-on to the main campaign, which did, occasionally, hit like a sledgehammer. Multiplayer was just “here’s all the guns from the campaign and some tight levels, go have fun”. Me, personally: I’d be okay if it stayed that way. Leave “grim” multiplayer to the people who’ve been experimenting in that space longer – Tripwire, for instance.

    Singleplayer was the point of purchasing the game, and was, frequently, quite grim and demoralizing. Singleplayer shooters haven’t often been as dark, epic, or serious as Call of Duty was in its epic moods (Red Square in the first game, the pipe-crawling mission or department store mission in the second). There just hasn’t been a game story like that since, that I can think of.

  17. maxcolby says:

    There are still Close Combat games being “made”. Granted, they’re generally just remakes of previous titles with improvements.

    I actually enjoyed the first modern Medal Of Honor game(I never got to play Warfighter). I honestly enjoyed it more than whatever CoD title was popular at the time.
    I’ll admit that once Battlefield 3 came out, I never touched another CoD game. They were too arcade for me.
    Granted, now that I’ve played ArmA 2 and 3 a ton, BF3 is too arcadey for me now.

    • Premium User Badge

      john_silence says:

      That first modern Medal of Honor is vastly underrated. The lingo-rich writing was fascinating, an apt expression of how technical contemporary warfare has become.

      Airborne was pretty great too, a nice playground that touched lightly on the dehumanizing horrors of war; it was more interested in a good time, and war was just a good context, but hey, in that respect chess is also pretty disrespectful.

  18. Premium User Badge

    john_silence says:

    Never quite got bored of WWII. Of certain fronts, yes; Normandy started grating. Asia, on the other hand, felt fascinating and fresh – I have extremely fond memories of Pacific Assault for instance, or certain World at War maps. I view The Thin Red Line as one of the best war movies ever btw.

    Never understood the collective worship for the first Call of Duty, which I mostly remember as a lone-wolf simulator. Call of Duty 2 had more heft. There was something of the vanitas about CoD the first, but CoD 4 outdid it in all respects and remains, for me, the closest experience we have to the mixture of exhilaration and despair described by people who went to actual war. Depth through futility. A true masterpiece. It inspired many feelings without taking itself seriously, as the toy gallery credits evidenced.

    My hopes are low but I’m very curious about this turn of events, which was, frankly, quite predictable after the extreme “future fatigue” that set in recently and was vociferously conveyed. Battlefield went back to WWI, will probably go to Viet-Nam next, before rebooting the 2142 franchise 5 years from now once the Star Wars: Battlefront series die down.

    The overseers for CoD will have observed and adjusted accordingly (and probably had before we plebs knew what was coming on EA’s side). “Set course for the past, lads!”

    I’d love for them to do something interesting and austere with that new old seting, but come on, it’s going to be a bombastic affair that turns 6 years of grim death into a hero’s reel video clip. One of my great-grandfathers died in the trenches in 1918, one of my grandfathers was kept a prisoner in Germany for the entire duration of WWII, and I will still play the circus version of those wars offered by CoD and Battlefield. Better honest levity than fake gravitas, I say. Doesn’t prevent some emotional connection.

  19. Gomer_Pyle says:

    Wow, looking at those screenshots, it has not aged well at all. Curse you Nostalgia!

  20. Caiman says:

    I think I’m over these kinds of games now, such that a new Call of Duty feels like a new version of Monopoly. You can reskin it, change the characters and setting, go back to the classics etc, but you’re still essentially playing the same game underneath. And after a while, no matter how much fun you used to have, these days you can see straight through it for the shallow experience it really is.

    Either that, or I’m just getting old.

  21. celticdr says:

    “Handled properly, with dignity and truthfulness, a franchise as enormous as CoD could speak where school history lessons never could.”

    Hmmm, apart from the Russian level you mentioned already John I don’t recall CoD 1 to be anything other than a kill-gore-fest-shooty-explosion-in-the-face kind of affair… Hidden & Dangerous was one that stood out for me being a bit more realistic, ergo reverent of the past, with each character being individuals that would be gone forever if killed (even that had a few ridiculous explosion-packed missions).

    What I think we need is an FPS game with permadeath characters, and missions punctuated by trips to the local tavern to see comrades/civilians trying to survive the war – something far too bold for a AAA game publisher to release.

    One I remember fondly as a child doing this: Cinemaware’s Wings with its journal stories between missions (it had a sort of permadeath too). That game really drove home the brutality/futility of the war quite well.

    • Shakes999 says:

      Some of them were unmemorable but Pegasus Bridge? Defending the Chateau? Those are still some of the most memorable moments in FPS history and hit like a sledgehammer.

  22. wodin says:

    Red Orchestra 2 is still the one to beat, for me anyway.

  23. unacom says:

    Thank you for this article, John. I do agree with most of what you said. However I´m not as optimistic.

    I´going to commit a huge heresy, right now.
    For your idea to work, I think it would be best if CoD would put the player into the boots of a grunt in a devastated army.
    What I disliked about the WWII-era in computer games was being on the ever-winnig team.
    I would like to see British Colonial Forces in Burma desperately trying to hold back an Imperial Japanese Army surging forward. Make me struggle up the Kokoda trail along fellow ANZACs. Give me battered Wehrmacht units trying to keep a pocket open for just half an hour more, so that a mauled company may slip through (maybe bolstering available resources in the next mission).

    In other words, give me hopeless odds of the losing side.

    [edit] On a personal note, I´d rather like to see Korea, Indochina and Algeria and not visit WWII for a while.

    • Nauallis says:

      Y’know, those are some great conflict suggestions for “historical” shooters.

      I feel like CoD 4/MW1, MW2, and arguably MW3 did a pretty good job of putting the player in roles that were in somewhat underdog situations, and many of the “victories” that you win are at best pyrrhic, with an unstated commentary on the destruction of modern warfare, especially in taking back a wrecked Washington D.C., NYC, and Paris. Still, you’re always playing as a well-supplied soldier of ‘Murica, and you never really go up against enemies that are better equipped than you are (except for the one mission in MW3 where you play as the Russian bodyguard).

  24. Hedgeclipper says:

    Kevin Spacey as your dad Hitler – you saw it here first

  25. Erithtotl says:

    Isn’t it really the transition to multiplayer-centric that turned these games into garbage? Modern Warfare still had most of that feeling that the original WW2 games had. But after that they shifted the focus to multiplayer and it was all downhill. Doubt a return to WW2 will change that.

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