A special series playthrough review – Part eight, WWII
This is it, the final part of FBT’s epic run n’ gun through CoD.
So, full circle. We began in the trenches and that’s where we’ve returned. It’s been an odd playthrough. I always described CoD as a by-the-numbers series, a story-less slog blighted by repetitive missions and samey retreads. But I was wrong. Mostly. There are compelling narratives in the series; it’s what drove the MW trilogy just as much as the light-speed firefights, while Black Ops was a master-class in twisting, compelling storylines.
Still, later entries like Ghosts and Black Ops II were exactly what I complained about; if you missed the opening titles you’d struggle to say which game you were playing. With the outstanding exception of Advanced Warfare, recent CoD has been exactly what I thought it was – repetitive retreads that only served as multiplayer tutorials. Story matters.
Really though, I originally disliked the modern era because it’s not what we signed up for. I loved the original WW-set CoDs and I’ve been looking forward to WWII all along. WWII must be perfect – modern graphics, classic setting and a more up-to-date handling of the events. This is the game that got me through those reskins – just a few more CoDs and it’s WWII-time I’d tell myself. Instead, this playthrough is ending on a Rage Quit. Goddamnit Activision.
Private "Red" Daniels signs up for the war to live up to his big brother. Embodying Americana, Red talks with a farmboy accent and through letters he writes to a sweetheart, we get to hear choice lines like “I hope I make it home for Christmas” and other heavy-hearted and heavy-handed lines about life on the frontlines.
Life on the frontlines is staggeringly uninspired. Every level ends with either ‘we gotta defend this x’ or ‘watch my back while I do y’ and of course, we have to keep back two or three waves before they retreat or someone saves us or they get the engine running or some other prime 2000-era event happens. That’s when you finally reach the end of the levels. They’re not just unfair, they’re not fun. The first, a re-enactment of the opening of Private Ryan (rather than an actual D-Day level) is a misstep – rather than being dumbstruck by the ‘spectacle of war’ we just get killed over and over, the game is gleeful about how impossible it is to survive. For sure, this is what actually happened but since we just pop back to our last autosave you end up doing repetitive learning like you did playing games 30 years ago – move here, cross there, die. Okay, move here, cross here, try here. Yep I’m okay, now ... It tries very hard to show the event in intense detail, but you’re not looking at all the work that’s gone into it, you’re just looking for the next auto-save. We’ve already done this in the classic era, try a different approach. It immediately makes the game feel familiar instead of fresh.
And that sets the tone for the entire game. WWII rehashes the levels, setting, objectives, the entire gameplay from the original. It’s not a reboot it’s a reskin; we’re still doing crappy stuff like jumping into a tank and I’m the driver as well as the gunner? Why can’t I turn the turret independently of the tank? I’m playing cat and mouse with two Panzer tanks by driving into walls and getting get stuck and killed. This sort of basic stuff pissed me off 20 years ago, why am I doing it now?
It’s just so old-school; when we face off against Germans with dogs, the woofers only target me, and why am I the only one with the explosives to stick on a passing tank, the only one who can collect explosives to take out a pill-box, the only one to use a sniper rifle, the only one who can take out gun emplacements? I get that I’m the player but a little help here chaps? There’s hundreds of G.I.s knocking about, if this is supposed to be about the men of war, the pals at your side, why am I winning WWII alone? This is so dated, so tired. The only help comes from fellow soldiers reminding me every two seconds what the mission objective is. I know to shoot the fricking ammo dump, STFU! At least the original CoD has a sense of adventure, of heroism; war really is hell in WWII.
On top of that, health packs return. Very retro and also very annoying because you have to chose to use it, which causes a short QTE of him self-administering which breaks the action – and he can die while doing it. If you’re going for realism I’m either wounded or critical; if I’m wounded I’d fight on, if critical I’d just fall down. The replenishing health concept does not suggest our hero is Wolverine, it just takes it as read he’s patching himself up when he can. And since two or three shots puts Red down, you can’t use the old trick of tactically taking hits then recover; you become scared to stick your head out; again, realistic, but boring to play and Red loves a QTE; a nasty Nazi will get the drop on you and you’re furiously mashing a key, then lining up the mouse then hitting a random button then another to kill him. What the hell? It completely undermines the supposed realism.
There’s more real-ruining elements; Red’s buddies carry supplies. Health, Ammo, Grenades, spotter etc., which is nice, but since you need to activate them up close, they have big markers over their heads, completely ruining the look. It’s like your squad is running around with balloons. All this just ruins a genuinely beautiful looking game; there’s not a pixel out of place in the battlefield, it’s unnervingly realistic and the cutscenes are extraordinary – but what happens in them is very ordinary.
Red is caught between two commanding officers – Lieutenant Turner who believes the men come first, and Sergeant Pierson who thinks only the mission matters. Except, Red’s not really caught between them; this isn’t channelling Platoon and Red doesn’t get to chose which CO he follows, have his own war experience; he just mumbles something to his sweetheart. We have zero impact and so as a story we just observe it and it’s incredibly derivative of Spielberg’s war era - if it’s not riffing on Private Ryan, it’s wholesale lifting from Band of Brothers. The key element to those men-in-war stories was that those men all had a voice, an opinion, a personal experience; a choice. Red is just an NPC in the cut-scenes – he, and by extension us, should have been forced to face war and what it does to men, and the choices they make. Red isn’t experiencing war, he’s watching it.
Further reducing the emotional impact of Red’s journey is us jumping out of his boots and into others; or in one case, High Heels. As French Resistance soldier Rousseau, we wander a German garrison. It might be grand that we’re playing as a female for a change, but she doesn’t do anything other than sneak and the level is little more than filler – most insultingly, it transpires Rousseau watched her family slaughtered by a Nazi who happens to run this garrison and she gets to kill him in revenge. It would have been far more interesting to see her realise he’s here and you chose to jeopardise the mission to exact her revenge – or not. But, WWII is just by the numbers. Another missed moment comes when we find German civilians hiding in a hotel we’re supposed to defend. The COs get into an argument about what to do with them and does Red have an opinion? Nope. The decision is made without our input and all Red does is write to his sweetie that tension between the COs is rising. If I was her, my reply would be ‘Dear John … I’m rage quitting you’.
And that Rage Quit eventually arrives. I really wanted to see this through but when I’m bounced into a pilot I eventually just lose it. It looks fantastic and really tries to bring home to intensity of a dogfight. Except, whereas other CoD games kept flying simple and effective, this is infuriatingly haphazard and fraught. This should be exciting not aggravating. Even if I master the plane, which has the aerodynamics of a 5-year old’s paper plane, I have to avoid hitting our planes, of which there are dozens. After hours of struggling I get through it, only to discover yet another squadron approaching. On top of which, this is to provide support to Red’s squad, essentially same as the tank mission. I just hate this game. Rage Quit.
WWII is just a flashy, hollow, lazy game filled with completely outdated levels and basic gameplay; if you played this on the lowest settings you'd think you were in CoD1 but without that game's adventurous style, and to play it is to be totally at odds with the mini-series cutscenes. I didn’t think it was possible to get WWII so wrong. But the biggest let-down with raging quitting at this stage is I know what follows; a sequence where one of my buddies is captured and taken to a concentration camp. I don’t know if that would wind up coming across as a No Russian moment, but I do know games have matured enough to tackle such troubling subjects. I also know WWII isn’t the game to do it. It’s far too generic to really do such an experience justice; if Red had been involved, if we’d actually had our own war to fight, I might have applauded such a moment. I’ll never know, because I have no intention of playing this again. If WWII wants to step foot in a concentration camp, it needs to put every foot right that leads to that moment, and WWII just followed in CoD1’s footsteps.
And so ends my CoD playthrough. It’s been eye-opening, rage-quitting mayhem. I was wrong about much of the modern era; MW as a trilogy is absolutely fantastic; the first Black Ops is one of my new all-time greats, and Advanced Warfare is an absolute blinder. But what marked them out was the story, the reasons for shooting. Whenever CoD slipped into the generic, it was when the story wasn’t compelling enough to drive you forward. With Black Ops IIII multiplayer only, it does seem if as Activision has finally dropped any pretence of the storymode meaning anything to them. I always thought story didn’t matter in CoD either, but this playthrough has proved it’s not a war without a reason.
We’ve answered the call enough times now though. Activision’s duty should be to let Treyarch, Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer loose to create their own franchises; in those later games you get the sense that they want to be doing something else; IW was a prime example. I’d love to see what those devs can do when their tour of duty is up.
After all this, the original still reins in my eyes. It’s one of the exceptions that proves the rule; CoD 1 has no story to speak of, but it’s just a great shooter filled with exciting missions, clear objectives and lets you be a war hero. I know games can’t come close but they can channel the most heroic, selfless elements of war and despite its age, CoD1 came closest to that.