Way back in the early 2000s, when Call of Duty games were first hitting store shelves, this first-person shooter’s heated war action took place in a digitized version of World War II. It was intense, involving, grab-a-controller-and-duck battling that gamers flocked to.
Of course, if you’re a gamemaker cranking out a new edition every year, that retro GI Joe crawl-in-a-foxhole stuff can start to feel, uh, dated after a while. So in subsequent releases, the franchise aimed at more futuristic trigger-pulling, with globe-trotting military conflicts that incorporated tons of high-tech super weaponry. But hey, even building-bounding robot limbs, helper drones and brain-implanted computer chips can start to feel like old hat at some point.
So now it’s time for … World War II once again.
The campaign side of this title follows Pvt. “Red” Daniels as he and his fellow squad of hard-driven grunts gun their way through pivotal battles in the European theater—such as the D-Day landing on Normandy, the liberation of Paris and the Battle of the Bulge. The game immerses players in a Hollywood-style story full of gritty, fast-paced combat, while at the same time keeping the character action more realistic and interactive than a lot of shooters do.
To create that realism, Call of Duty: WWII quickly establishes the fact that Red and the other characters we play are not invincible. They’re not overpowered super soldiers who can singlehandedly take out Hitler and win the war. In fact, it’s pretty much just the opposite. Gameplay is a level-by-level push just to survive, simply to make it through another day. Any unwise misstep or poorly thought-out run from cover could mean a quick death. To that end, instead of an automatic regeneration health system, gamers need to get their hands on a med pack quickly if they’re hit with a bullet or two.
That’s where the rest of Red’s squad comes into play. Each character is a specialist with abilities you’ll need regularly. For instance, one guy will be happy to toss you that med pack you need if you are close by. Another soldier can help you out when your ammo runs low. Yet another is really good at mortar fire. Etc. Only when you and your AI squad work as a team do things get done well. Teamwork becomes this game’s substitute for all that futuristic fancy tech of recent CoD games.
The only time the game takes you out of this established support system is when it gives the story reins to other in-game characters who move the overall narrative forward a notch or two. We play as a French female resistance fighter at one point, for example, who must infiltrate a Third Reich stronghold and complete an espionage mission. And in another mission we slip into the shoes of an U.S. tank operator who has to help clear a demolished town street-by-street and take on flanking German Panzers.
All that plays out in compelling ways and involves gamers in an emotional tug-and-pull story. And it delivers a very satisfying sense of what fighting by your fellow soldiers—progressing day-by-day, town-by-town—might really have felt like.
Of course, the other side of all that realism is the messy stuff of war. Language in the heat of battle is densely packed with profanities that include lots of f- and s-words, blasphemous exclamations and scores of other crudities. There’s no lack of nasty tongue lashings from your squad’s sergeant in these crawl-on-your-belly-through-the-muck settings, either.
In order to lend the fighting more gravitas and grit, you’re also surrounded on all sides by the bloody battlefield death. As in a real war, characters you’ve come to care about are suddenly snuffed out by a bullet to the temple that blows their head apart, or a detonation that guts them on the spot. Soldiers crawl in anguish with terrorized looks on their faces while dragging bloody stumps where limbs used to be. And you unleash similar agonies, of course, on the foes you take aim at. Constant slaughter ceases only when an enemy surrenders and the game refuses to let you then take that soldier’s life.
Of course, all that duck-a-bullet intensity is only compounded when you get to the various multiplayer modes of the game. Things may not feel as movie-driven here as in campaign mode, but the online team missions still immerse you in the brutality of historically shrouded conflicts. Players can be torn and riddled by everything from an upgraded grease gun to a flamethrower or even a hacking shovel pulled out of your pack.
That particular weapon gets well used in the Nazi Zombie mode, too. There, a hodgepodge group of four online players takes on wave after wave of increasingly powerful skeletal attackers covered in rotting flesh. Your ultimate goal? Ending a ghoulish Nazi experiment involving a horrific terror composed of myriad grotesque corpses. Backbones are snapped, heads cut free with any tool that comes to hand, and the gushing blood meter gets cranked up to full in this mode—one that’s based more outlandish horror than on realistic war battles.
The game as a whole, then, plays out in much the same way that other Call of Duty games have. There are well-staged victories to be fought for here and even life lessons to be gleaned. But battlefield coarseness and gut-spilling gruesomeness warrant keeping younger brothers-in-arms at bay.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.