The soldier next to me bellows over the sound of gunfire and you can hear the anxiety and fear in his voice. Without thinking twice I hit the B-button on the Xbox One controller to throw myself on the ground. My character “hits the deck” as it is called, I see his hands breaking his fall and the muddy cobblestones zoom towards me. Trucks and jeeps drew deep tire tracks, you can see the trees shake under the incoming mortar fire in the reflection of the rain puddles as you drag yourself towards a pile of sandbags.
This mechanic, throwing yourself to the floor, was absent from Call of Duty for years. The first two Black Ops used a variation of it, but most episodes in the popular first person shooter made you slide on your knees as you could stylishly make a last kill before hiding in cover. It symbolizes the departure of the series from the quasi-realistic setting of World War Two, to the Cold War, contemporary conflicts and eventually sci-fi futurism with hoover bikes, 3D printed bullets and jetpacks.
Call of Duty is made by Sledgehammer Games, aided by Raven Software. A great deal of their people come from the studio that made Dead Space, Visceral Games. Including game director Glen Schofield. Their expertise with survival horror is palpable in every inch of this Call of Duty game. There are no more elite soldiers, powerful weapons and futuristic gadgets. Ammunition is scarce, health doesn’t regenerate anymore and the danger and anxiety doesn’t come from larger-than-life weapons like atom bombs, EMPs and rogue drones.
You Owe Me a Lot More
Call of Duty WWII excels in short, but personal touches. It invests in secondary characters and puts effort in cutscenes so beautifully made you almost think you’re watching a live action movie. Instead of a limitless arsenal of weapons and gadgets, you depend on squadmates throwing you first aid kits, ammunition or call in mortar strikes. You will find yourself crawling through the trenches, hoping not to get hit, trying to get that health bar fixed by reaching your buddy who carries the health packs. The game doesn’t break new ground in terms of story or theatre of war. All the familiar tropes of valor, sacrifice and camaraderie are there. But the honest, more personal and subtle way that story is delivered, is very refreshing after all the muscle flexing and machismo in the Call of Duty’s of the last few years.
It shows again the history of its development crew with the horror survival genre. There’s a lot of attention for close combat, on the spot improvisation and outsmarting rather than overpowering the enemy. It’s something we don’t think about often when discussing the war with Nazi Germany, but technologically speaking the Germans were superior. Better weaponry, better tanks and (at the start of the war, at least) better infrastructure and planning and more resources.
Some of of my favorite elements in the game’s story is when an African-American soldier from another division is transferred to yours. A rare but not inaccurate sight in the Second World War. The game addresses it, but not heavy handedly so. One of the more memorable lines is right after a successful offensive where a white soldier, Frank Aiello, addresses racist remarks he made earlier to the soldier of colour, one corporal Howard. “I guess I owe you an apology.” Howard shakes Aiello’s hand. “You owe me a lot more than that.”
Earlier in the game a soldier remarks; “They let you fight?” to which Howardly bitterly replies “They even let us die.”
Halfway the game, the story takes a bit of a strange turn into the realms of Guns of Navarone and Inglorious Bastards. From the Band of Brothers-inspired realness of the rest of the plot, it’s a strange departure and feels as if it wanted to have a bit of everything. The game wants to explore a lot, from children and civilians in warzones to the horrors of the holocaust. It doesn’t succeed everywhere but it shows a willingness to do more than we come to expect from World War 2 drama. It even incorporates a surrender mechanic, where towards the end of a battle, German troops will sometimes just lay down their arms and surrender to you.
It’s a shame those hints at discovering new ground (at least for the video game world) are scarce and a lot of the game still rests on our familiarity with war movies and nostalgia from military shooters from the early 2000s.
Call of Duty WWII is cold iron water flasks, wooden rifles and hastily dug foxholes, canvas tents, muddy French villages and first aid kits with morphine syringes. It hits the a familiar feeling for anyone who watched Saving Private Ryan and played the early Medal of Honor games. It wants to show us that games are ready now to handle Serious Things and have the graphical and cinematic fidelity to bring convincing characters and stories. Now it only needs to trusts itself with creating original content. We don’t always need Texas farm boys and their brothers in arms during the American campaign from D-Day and onward. World War 2 is more than the Americans fighting Nazis and French resistance women blowing up trains. Maybe we want to know more about those civilians we saved in Aachen, the backstory of corporal Howard and the African-American regiment or what happened to that British SOE lady who was never mentioned again.