Fully expecting another ghastly CoD campaign, I've been utterly surprised by the shooter I've just played. Be shocked - Call Of Duty: WWII is a decent single-player game. And there's not a loot drop in sight. Here's wot I think:
Call of Duty's return to WW2 might have caused some eyes to roll, but for various reasons it didn't mine. While once the industry was saturated by the conflict, those days were over ten years ago, and if there were ever a series that so desperately needed to go back to its roots, it's Call Of Duty. While the multiplayer has proven enormously popular and inventive in each annual output, the single-player games have degraded to the point of sheer farce. By 2011 they had become so otherly, so laughably desperate to play the game for you, I coined the term "un-game" to ambiguously describe the experience. They were about spectacle - a six hour b-movie marathon of LOOK AT THIS! extravagance and bluster, with absolutely no interest in just letting the player play. And were crass and stupid on top.
On hearing the announcement I hoped that this series, so wayward and lost from its utterly wonderful origins, might perhaps be re-visiting not just the war in which its two great single-player games were set, but maybe - just maybe - the spirit, too.
I'm astonished to discover that, well, yes, it kind of has.
Opening with US soldiers at the Normandy beach landing is, I think, a little on the nose. Sledgehammer, they who co-developed Call Of Duty Modern Warfare 3 before taking the lead on Advance Warfare, are clearly tipping their hats to 1999's original Medal Of Honor, almost moment-for-moment replicating the game that originated both major franchises' astonishing opening. It's perhaps a declaration of interests, and a declaration of intent. Because what is immediately apparent, once you're on the sand and amidst the terror and panic and hideous death, is that you are actually playing.
It's ludicrous that this is something to get excited about, but so dreadful have CoD's campaigns been over the years that it definitely stands out. You're not being asked to follow the NPCs who get to do all the cool stuff - you're desperately, scrappily trying to stay alive while everyone around you is being torn to shreds. You can die! A lot! Dashing for cover is the answer, hiding while braver men are ripped apart by German fire, is what gets you to your goal. And then, rather than watching as the game incessantly snatches control from you to make you look at shit blowing up, you're asked to clear out a series of bunkers to make the beaches safer for arriving boats. And, again, it feels like it's letting you be a part of it. Not the hero, not the only man to save the day, but a soldier amongst soldiers, frantically surviving in a hideous war.
You're playing as a member of the 1st Infantry, who previously appeared in Treyarch's not-that-great PS2 exclusive Call Of Duty 2: Big Red One, following them through the defence of France, and into Germany, over the last couple of years of the war. And, like those much earlier games, it starts off feeling like it's your game, not the computer's.
It doesn't last throughout. Once you've cleared those bunkers the game contradicts everything by stopping you from being able to shoot a soldier so he can attack you with a knife, and then forces you into a series of utterly bloody awful QTE sequences so horribly incongruous to everything that's come before. "Hammer F, then drag your mouse a bit, then hit 1" doesn't really have quite the same entertainment value nor grim impact as running, ducking, aiming, shooting, dashing for cover. It's a festering infection in these games, that it seems Activision still can't heal. But as soon as its spoilt things, it finds its feet again and throws you into a farmhouse battle where you're trying to last long enough until the tanks roll in.
You'll never find the sorts of broad, wide play areas that bolder FPSs have offered in recent years. But what is truly exciting about CoDWW2 is just how fantastically good it is at hiding its rails. This was what most aggrieved so many about that hateful era of FPS games around 2010 to 2013. Those wretched shooters like Medal Of Honor, COD:MW3 and Homefront, that dragged you along their shoulder-wide corridor, throwing a tantrum and killing you if you ever dared wander to the left or right, had their rails shine like they'd been polished for days. Some of the best FPS games always were in a corridor, but they knew how to hide that, how to give you the impression you were choosing which way to go, because the right way always looked the most interesting or fun. And that's something I'm just so delighted to report Sledgehammer have figured out here, letting me feel like I'm picking routes through rabbit warrens, while actually skillfully directing me down the only path I could have taken.
Throughout a surprisingly long CoD campaign (as in, it's closer to 10 hours than 5), it'll still wrestle the controls away from you to show you SHIT BLOWING UP and BUILDINGS FALLING DOWN. The latter to a hilariously silly degree, with a train crash so hyperbolic that it would make Michael Bay blush, and just about everything more than two storeys high incredibly likely to collapse on top of you. If you're lucky, you'll be allowed to hammer at F for a moment in the midst of all this to opt out of a death. Oh, and that thing where a scripted nearby explosion causes a tinnitus ring and dizziness? Get ready to see it a lot. But oddly enough, it seems to get this out of its system by the halfway point, peculiarly calming down for the home straight, instead pushing its drama into rather boldly trying to convey some of the chilling truths of that miserable war.
The story, thankfully, takes a back seat to the bullets. 'Thankfully' because oh good gravy, when CoD has tried it the other way around the results have always been fist-gnawingly overwrought bathos of the worst degree, insultingly crass and embarrassing. Here, beyond the characterising bants between the group of US infantry you follow through France and Germany, the closest it nudges to a storyline outside of the chain of events is the soldiers' fears and concerns over the somewhat imbalanced and cruel Sergeant Pierson (Josh Duhamel, seemingly reprieving his Transformers character). That's welcomely understated and unobtrusive as it chugs along for the first two-thirds (it gets a little more ham-fisted toward the end), the game remembering that the complete madness and horror of war is actually enough of a story all on its own.
That banter, by the way, does seem a touch incongruous to the era. Perhaps my mind is blighted with too much Blighty, and all that jolly-good-showing and old-beaning, but I really do doubt that US soldiers were warning each other not to "puss out". It all feels very modern, very contemporary. It's probably not a bad thing.
And then, the game continues Call of Duty's recent trend for allowing women in. A British female officer, and then in a larger role, a member of the French resistance. To the game's credit, there's barely any fanfare or fuss about this. The only disappointing part of it is that they're the only two in the game, in a war where rather a lot of women took part.
The campaign is pleasingly varied, mixing things up with some not dreadful stealth and subterfuge sequences, and of course the tank battles and car chases you'd expect. However, its core is the shooting, and shooting it lets you do.
I realise I'm in danger here of, er, fainting with damned praise? This is incredibly good stuff bearing in mind how bad CoD campaigns have been. Does it hold up against the best FPSs of the year? No. But what's really surprised me is that it comes reasonably close.
It's not without problems. The drama of watching one Sgt. Pavey crawling his way along the Normandy beaches, his right leg ripped off at the thigh, was somewhat lessened by his hovering four inches above the ground. I've been entertained by some very silly ragdoll goofs, rather undermining the severity of the situation. And, despite the comparatively low-key offerings of bravado and morbidly blind patriotism that usually define this series, there are some god-awful lines and hoary old cliches. Someone genuinely utters, "No, leave me!" after being injured in battle, then bravely stays behind to hold off the enemy as his buddies retreat. But such groaners don't define the overriding tone, which is - I'm so relieved to say - one of "Oh shit, war is really fucking awful." Which is, of course, what the Call Of Duty games were originally about.
It's easy to rather gloss over how incredibly good the game looks, because CoD games always look incredible. But that's not fair. It's a very pretty game (I finally discovered the cause of a terrible pixelly blurring problem was an anti-aliasing mode called "filmic". Kill it the moment you start the game), and at last, long gone are the terrifying zombie faces that gruesomely haunted the series - the facial animations and details are the best I've ever seen.
Oh, and I haven't mentioned med packs! Goodness me, they're back. No regenerating health - not even the last little bit - takes some real getting used to after all these years. This is an FPS that isn't afraid to let you die. And the checkpointing is great throughout, meaning I didn't miss a quicksave.
Less impressive, sadly, are the enemy bullet sponges. Headshots with machine gun rounds are useless, and Nazis can seemingly absorb bullets into their being to only make them stronger, up to a point. It's very disappointing to watch the same stupid stumbling-but-getting-back-up animation after you've filled an enemy's brain with lead, but get used to it.
I'm genuinely delighted by this game, albeit moderated by its shortcomings. The original Call Of Duty, and Medal Of Honor before it, is one of my favourite games, not just because it was a great shooter, but because it, more than school or grandparents or anything else ever managed, taught me about the Second World War. It taught me it wasn't a backdrop to gunfights, or an excuse for a jolly old bunch of brave larks, but a monstrous and terrible era of humanity. It was a game where I'd play a couple of missions, then have to stop and do something else, because I was so affected by it. I allowed myself the small hope that returning to the same theme, abandoning all the AMERICA IS AMAZING AND ROBOTS! bullshit that's been at the core of the series for so long, might allow a game with a glimmer of humility. And, blimey, it has.
This isn't as powerful throughout, although maybe that's partly because I'm 15 years older now. And maybe partly because it's still too slick, too bombastic, and too willing to force in a QTE. But gosh, it's powerful by the end. It's brave, in fact. It goes somewhere I was becoming certain it was going to avoid in the name of broad entertainment, and it works.
It also has an idiotic cookie cutter Nazi maniac, twirling his Swastika-shaped moustache as he chews his way through the background assets. It's also dumb. This isn't the All Quiet On The Western Front of gaming (dear God, someone, please, let us one day have that). But given how bad it could have been - hell, was expected to be - it's quite the pleasant, sometimes harrowing, surprise.
Call Of Duty: WWII is out now on Windows for £45/$60/60€ via Steam. We'll have a review of the multiplayer soon.