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Hands-On ‘Call of Duty: WWII’ at E3: Franchise Returns to Its Roots but Multiplayer Shows New Tricks Up Its Sleeve

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    Nine games after 2008’s World at War, the Call of Duty franchise finally returns to the Second World War with Call of Duty: WWII.

    It’s been almost fifteen years since Infinity Ward debuted the original Call of Duty and almost single-handedly unseated Medal of Honor as the reigning king of military first-person shooters. Nearly every year since then, another installment in the franchise has dominated the holiday season.

    With the success of Modern Warfare when it arrived on the scene in 2007, it seemed that there was no going back after developer Treyarch’s last stab at WWII with World at War. Successive iterations moved the franchise further and further into the weapons and technology of the future, eventually pushing wholly into science fiction with the release of last year’s Infinite Warfare. With each successive generation of the franchise, player fatigue has become more of a threat than digital enemies.

    But history repeats itself, and Call of Duty: WWII is taking aim at a franchise revival by going “back to its roots,” as described by COO Thomas Tippl earlier this year. We sat down for a few multiplayer rounds at E3 2017 after watching a playthrough of one of the campaign’s earliest levels.

    The single player mission took us through Marigny, France, in the franchise’s typical hail of bullets. Cinematic set piece moments framed the action, but it was the sheer level of graphic violence that really drew the eye. Despite its Mature rating, Call of Duty has traditionally shied away from being explicitly gory. Not so in WWII. Internal organs were on garish, bloody display as explosives and machine gun fire tore through Axis and Allies soldiers alike. We saw the ambush of a German tank and a disastrous belltower climb that ended in an avalanche of debris as the giant bell crashed down through the stairway below. The sequence was heavily scripted but as polished as you’d expect from the series.

    It felt like a fitting interpretation of World War 2 from a development team called Sledgehammer Games: heavy on the sound and fury, but lacking some of the gravity and subtlety that I had hoped to see. That said, narrative context is responsible for giving a good single player campaign its weight, and what we saw was a very brief segment of isolated gameplay. Within the greater context of the story, it might become less the arcadey shooting gallery than it seemed.

    The multiplayer demo was an unmitigated success. I haven’t enjoyed my time in Call of Duty this much since Call of Duty 2 or perhaps the original Modern Warfare.  That is very much how it felt; a juxtaposition of two very different games responsible for the franchise’s rise to super-stardom. In the wrong hands, that combination could skirt the edges of awkwardness and irrelevance. In Sledgehammer’s, it shone.

    The objective-based multiplayer mode we played, War, was new to the series. The appropriately titled mode saw us pitted against Axis forces guarding a battery of anti-aircraft guns after we had taken a turn as its defenders. We had managed to fend the opposing team off in the second stage of the map. It was time to see whether we could do any better than they had on offense. Based on the relative kill counts, I wasn’t optimistic.

    We began by capturing a command post to get information on their defenses. Pushing into fortified enemy territory was daunting, but we soon foiled the enemy with clever usage of countless entry points and plentiful cover. More comfortable with mouse and keyboard than a controller, I relegated myself to support with an LMG, allowing my more nimble console brethren to advance under a hail of my cover fire.

    Once we had secured the outpost, it was time to hastily construct a makeshift bridge to advance the bulk of our forces. This was easier said than done. Axis forces had a massive tactical advantage, with several easy angles from which to pin us down as we tried to fill the progress bar.

    But here is where objective-centric teamwork beat the other team’s slight advantage in raw twitch reflex. With a couple of well-placed snipers and another barrage of machine gun fire that I charitably supplied, we pushed over our newly constructed bridge in minutes. Next stop, the AA gun ammo dump. After the hell that was constructing our improvised bridge, this should be much simpler.

    We hit it like a drunk walking into a stop sign.

    Most of the match time was spent in an endless loop of carnage surrounding the map point at which we had to plant the explosives. Individual skill held the proverbial spotlight, and we were taking a dramatic stage death. But in the face of superior marksmen, we got creative again. Everyone started covering the area in smoke and poison gas bombs, reducing visibility to the point where we could even the playing field. In close quarters, our twitch-reflex disadvantage was virtually nullified. I crawled forward and planted the explosive.

    Moments later, a tank was barreling forward on the route we had fashioned under whithering enemy fire. Our progress faltered again, until I realized that someone could actually get into the tank and take control of its anti-personnel gun. We pushed through and won the day.

    Incidentally, my colleague, Lucas Nolan, was on the opposing team. I did not let him forget this for the remainder of the show.

    If it sounds like I was the inadvertent hero of the match, it’s because that is precisely how it felt. I’m sure that most of the players would have similar stories to tell. The new War mode rewards coordination and tactical play. To be sure, your ability to hold a bead on a moving target with a thumbstick is a pretty major advantage as well, but we beat back a team that seemed to be objectively more skilled because we deliberately tried to function as a unit. Even absent of any real manner of communication, our cooperative nature won a battle that we shouldn’t have based on raw talent.

    A lot of shooters chase that ideal, but few succeed. And while my experience with Call of Duty: WWII was admittedly brief, it was also the most promising thing I’ve seen from the franchise in nearly a decade. Will the finished project reflect the polish and fun of this fleeting taste, or is it a savory bite of an otherwise bland meal? We’ll find us on November 3 when boots hit the ground.

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    Follow Nate Church @Get2Church on Twitter for the latest news in gaming and technology, and snarky opinions on both.

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