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.