Once seen as a competitor to the Medal of Honor series, Call of Duty has come a long way from its origins as one of the many games that were based upon the most destructive conflict in human history. Ever since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the Call of Duty franchise has visited the Middle East and Russia for a modern era brawl between superpowers, the streets of Europe and the jungles of Asia during World War II and the Cold War, the Americas as the drones and exoskeletons of the near future dominate the battlefield, and even the fringes of our solar system in a hypothetical war between planets.
But as each new game strives for bigger and better explosions and increasingly ridiculous customization options, one has to ask if Call of Duty can ever truly return to its roots as a mildly realistic, or at least plausible, game that revolves around a story that, even if dramatized, isn’t bordering on the realm of fantasy. After all, there’s a world of difference between making up some story about a crazy CEO who wants to take over the world with his company of mercenaries and creating a game based on events that happened not too long ago. Fortunately enough for Sledgehammer Games, the developer of (the super creatively titled) Call of Duty: WWII, their largest competitor already found a way to mix good gameplay with a fairly serious topic without distancing itself from casual audiences.
While Battlefield 1 is neither a perfect nor a 100% historically accurate game, it was so relatively well received that one of the most notable criticisms of the game was that its singleplayer campaign wasn’t large enough (in fact, some people actually want DLC that expands it), which can partially be attributed to the mood that the game conveys. Simply take a look at Battlefield 1’s marketing material to get a sense of why a game’s mood is so important, especially given the context: within the first 10 seconds of the official reveal trailer, someone gets beaten to death in the mud, immediately putting aside the notion that there was any glory to be had in this conflict. By the end of the trailer, you get a sense that if you buy this game, you will be playing something that is reasonably serious regarding its source material. Compared to some of Call of Duty’s live action ads, there is a world of difference between the two, and not just because live action ads don’t show any gameplay.
Anyone who actually played Battlefield 1 will likely also tell you about how its singleplayer campaign does a good job of presenting multiple viewpoints in the same war. You get to fight as an Italian shock trooper, multiple Harlem Hellfighters, a young British tank driver, a war weary Australian, a female Bedouin guerrilla, and a cocky American pilot, all with their own miniature stories of grief, excitement, and yes, even patriotism. All while reminding the player that this destructive war is something that happened not that long ago, and that many people paid some kind of price for it. Sounds familiar? That’s because Call of Duty had a similar method of presenting its singleplayer campaign, one which works well considering the global scale of the World Wars, but it was abandoned in later games along with the somber (if somewhat annoying) set of quotes that popped up whenever you died.
Though having multiple playable protagonists is nothing new, Sledgehammer could follow in Battlefield 1’s steps and feature protagonists from factions that have never really seen the spotlight in World War II games. While being able to play as an American fighting in Europe or the Pacific is practically guaranteed, Sledgehammer can also incorporate so many other perspectives from the war, showing the fascinating and horrifying experiences that some people lived through. Examples can include the evacuation of Dunkirk or the conflict in North Africa, the actions of various resistance organizations, the Battle of the Bulge; there are so many historical events that could make for interesting gameplay, but it is up to Sledgehammer to determine whether or not they want to try something new, or go with the usual American-British-Russian trio of perspectives. Furthermore, their decision on who the protagonist(s) may be will set the mood for the campaign, in turn determining whether Call of Duty: WWII is going to be another Fast & Furious action hero game or a Saving Private Ryan “War is an ugly business” game.
In any case, Call of Duty: WWII may also have to reexamine the way it does multiplayer, as fast paced “YOU are the action hero” 6v6 mechanics doesn’t really make much sense when your average soldier was pretty much just a normal guy, especially when some of the more famous battles of the conflict involved thousands upon thousands of people. While slowing down Call of Duty’s gameplay, incorporating large maps for dozens of people, and maybe even removing killstreaks may cause some people to complain that Call of Duty: WWII is trying to copy Battlefield, the alternative is to stay the course and have your standard, stale, 6v6 with city block sized maps that allow people to get from one end to the other within seconds. After all, Battlefield 1’s Grand Operations isn’t humbling or immersive because it lets you pretend to be Usain Bolt with a gun, but rather because it offers an experience that is as close to the popular image of World War I combat as reasonably possible.
The only thing that can be guaranteed is that the ball is certainly in Sledgehammer’s court now, and though Call of Duty: World at War did a good job of showing the horrors of a World War, that was a game that was made almost a decade ago with a different developer, being released to an audience that still had a fairly positive outlook of the Call of Duty brand. Given the negative backlash to Infinite Warfare, Sledgehammer must show that this Call of Duty will not be the same as the Mountain Dew and Doritos fueled Call of Dutys of the past, especially if they want the brand to regain any of the dignity it once had in the eyes of an audience that is already sick and weary of games that have a history of having yearly releases.