Of primary interest is Ronald Daniels, a ruddy private nicknamed “Red” by his comrades in the 16th Infantry Regiment. His commanding officer, a sour drunk with a soap-opera-star looks, attempts to inspire the soldiers packed into Higgins boats with a pep talk. The speech has the opposite effect on Red, reminding him of one of his high school football coach’s inspirational orations back in Texas. “We lost that game by 42 points,” Red recalls.
Surprisingly, the level that follows isn’t presented as a tragedy but as a tutorial, giving players a chance to re-learn what most will already know by heart — how to crouch, go prone, aim down sights, and match the onscreen button prompts during a few slow-motion action sequences. A sense of repetition hangs over every mission in the story, which follows Red and his friends from Normandy through to the fall of Germany. Each mission is full of previously-forgotten memories, not of history or warfare, but of time spent playing video games in another era. An early level, set during the battle for Aachen, the first major German town to be captured by Americans, reminded me that I’d already gone through this digital fantasy, in 2004’s “Call of Duty: Finest Hour.”
Another mission in “WWII,” re-creating the Battle of the Bulge, triggered similar memories of both “Call of Duty: United Offensive” and “Call of Duty: Black Ops III,” the latter of which used it in a brief hallucinatory flashback. This newest rendering of the snowy Ardennes forest perfectly encapsulates how dramatically the series has changed since the early 2000s. The earliest “Call of Duty” games were often built around open-ended levels that left you under constant fire from all directions while players tried to figure out where they were meant to go next. It was stressful and disorienting. The levels in “WWII” render warfare as stagecraft, in which the stage dressing and scenery is changed regularly to make the relatively straightforward action of aiming and shooting seem heroic.
The Battle of the Bulge level opens with the ambush of a quiet camp in the snow-covered forest, then switches to an aerial combat for a few minutes as you protect a fleet of bombers being redirected to offer support. You later switch back to Red on the ground, marking German tanks for those bombers, and the level climaxes with the Germans flooding the wintry forest with smoke grenades for one last disorienting assault. It doesn’t want you to play so much as it wants you to play along.
At first glance, the game’s competitive multiplayer mode seems to have been revamped around a new hub space called “Headquarters,” which was also the name of a now-defunct gametype that first appeared in 2007’s “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.” But this space is more of an elaborate concession stand that helps organize the enormous economy of currencies you can earn and spend in between matches. Everything in the game has an experience meter to fill up — your character gains experience points with each kill, your weapons level up the more frequently you use them, and you can chip your way through levels in one of five general classes you choose before each match. On top of this, you can accept “Missions” that reward you for accomplishing overarching goals like getting 500 kills, 10 headshots in 20 minutes, or killing 10 people with a pistol.
Surrounding this is an economy of Armory Coins and Rank Unlock Tokens that can be used to unlock new guns, temporary boosts, cosmetic items and weapon attachments if you aren’t lucky enough to get something from one of the Supply Drop crates you are occasionally gifted. The whole system has the air of a timeshare to it, complete with a foreboding bit of paperwork. The game gets that out of the way upfront with a 22-page software license and service agreement every player is asked to agree to upon first booting the game, making you “subject to binding arbitration and a waiver of class action rights.” It’s a reminder that buying the game is simply the starting point in what Activision plans to be a long, financial relationship with the player.
There’s a hint of this open-ended commitment at the end of the campaign when Red is offered the chance to return to Texas with his girlfriend who’d written to tell him she’s pregnant with their child. Instead he chooses to remain in Europe, scouring the German countryside for a missing friend who’d been captured during a late game mission. “I saw that life,” he says. “I just couldn’t live it.” In the same way, “Call of Duty: WWII” feels like a game in which the prospect of moving on is somehow scarier than staying in the battlefield for one more tour.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Slate, the New Republic, the Daily Beast, the New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.
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