The first image in Call of Duty: WWII is of the Call of Duty logo, within which can be seen black-and-white documentary footage from World War II. It’s a literal representation of the way in which this franchise has come to crassly appropriate history for the purposes of entertainment. That’s a feeling borne out by the platitude-heavy single-player campaign, one that—despite massive improvements in motion capture-aided cinematics over the years—feels far more limited in scope and emotion than the series’s last WWII-set game, 2006’s Call of Duty 3. WWII‘s own interface cheapens the story’s historical context, as now you have a social hub for multiplayer missions in which you can watch eSports videos from a tent pitched on the now-corpse-free beaches of Normandy, and the game’s most elaborate setting, a Gothic village in Bavaria, is wasted on the franchise’s increasingly redundant tiresome mode.
For all this, WWII isn’t a shoddy game so much as an uninspired one. A generic line uttered by one of Ronald “Red” Daniels’s squadmates comes to mind: “There’s bad, and then there’s worse.” Yes, this game could have been worse, but that it plays smoothly isn’t enough to distract from the fact that it lacks both the creativity of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and the authenticity and grit of Battlefield 1. The game’s opening mission, “D-Day,” which begins in a sardine-like Higgins boat, should be horrific—its first-person perspective a demonstration of the senselessness of that bloody landing, given that the boat’s narrow gangway creates a perfectly shaped kill corridor. But the game-y quality of the whole thing—the way you’re only handed control until you’ve already leapt overboard and swum onto the open beach, and the way you’re moved forward with a giant and distracting objective marker—only undermines the sobriety that’s intended by the developers.
There’s no shock to the frequent deaths that occur while storming the beach, or in fulfilling any number of largely interchangeable objectives (whether your target is a tank or a mortar, it takes only a push of a button to destroy it) in largely interchangeable locations (the ruins of Marigny look much like those of Aachen). All that matters is whether a moment can deliver adrenaline thrills, and so you’ll learn nothing of Staff Sergeant Perez and Second Lieutenant Matthew Weber beyond the machinery they operate. During the stealthy infiltration of a German garrison, you’ll come to understand more about a French Resistance member’s cover identity than her actual motivations, a choice that makes her abrupt encounter with a German commander all the more awkward for its lack of context.
WWII aims to tell a story of the brotherhood between “Red” and his squadmates, but it’s one that’s ill-served by undeveloped characterizations. There are some good moments, particularly in the mo-cap performances from Josh Duhamel, who plays Red’s traumatized commander, Pierson, and Jonathan Tucker, whose character, Zussman, demonstrates his loyalty early on by taking a knife for Daniels. But there’s a dissonance between the vulnerability shown in these pre-recorded, non-interactive cutscenes and how these characters actually serve alongside you in combat.
Zussman isn’t shielding you on the battlefield, and save for one early game sequence that teaches you how to pull a soldier to safety, nor are you protecting him. During missions, your squadmates are essentially invulnerable, their only interactions with you limited to an activation of their arcade-like powers, which grant you extra ammunition or serve to highlight enemy positions. The game’s story insists that brotherhood and sacrifice are the foundations of your unit but demonstrates these bonds in the cheapest fashion: as quid pro quo, a reward for your Nazi-killing prowess.
A sense of emotional investment is missing here, and that’s not something WWII can fix by taking a slow step back from the action to establish the setting. Just before the Battle of the Bulge, the game shallowly attempts to humanize these anonymous soldiers by tasking players with placing extra ammo under an ally’s makeshift Christmas tree in the frosty Ardennes Forest. However, by making this a mandatory mission, the game exposes the artificial intention behind said mission, as if the mundanity of that task is the thing that will finally help players to understand what it means to truly be a soldier.
Heroism and sacrifice can’t be reduced to linear objectives; they require meaningful choices and observable consequences. It might have been better if the game had you choose which ally to give ammunition to, making you grapple with the decision of sending one man to his death at the expense of saving another. Instead, because you’re told exactly what to do and where to go, you aren’t interacting with the game, manipulating its story, so much as blindly following directions. This is heroism by numbers, and it’s a problem that also marks the game’s so-called “Heroic Actions,” clearly marked and timed secondary objectives in which you can attempt to save an anonymous soldier who lies bleeding out in the open, or who’s precariously grappling with a Nazi. These tasks are optional, but they have no bearing on the actual game.
The lack of purposeful interactions throughout WWII makes the methods by which Sledgehammer Games appropriates history feel especially tacky. The campaign’s final level egregiously attempts to elevate the game’s emotional resonance by at last acknowledging the horrors of the Holocaust, but the only thing that’s accomplished by this calculated sendoff is to remind players of how little emotion the game has displayed up to this point.