World War 2 Is the Shot In the Arm 'Call of Duty' Needs

World War 2 Is the Shot In the Arm 'Call of Duty' Needs

In many ways, it was inevitable that Call of Duty would return to WW2 Activision

'Call of Duty: WWII' goes back to its roots in an attempt to get reacquainted with its spirit

'Call of Duty: WWII' goes back to its roots in an attempt to get reacquainted with its spirit

D-Day is the ultimate FPS benchmark. It has the spectacle of a wave of landing craft roaring toward a sweeping seafront bristling with gun emplacements. It has the technical ambition of filling the screen with hundreds of soldiers amid the blood and thunder of shells exploding all around. And it has the narrative drive of a do-or-die push that marks the beginning of the end for an evil empire.

After all, once the beachhead is secured, ahead lies the march into enemy territory and on to victory, a swiftly moving offensive on a vast scale. For games, Saving Private Ryan’s vision of the Normandy landings of June 6 1944 has got it all. And for a few years after 2002’s Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, video games went all-in on depicting it, too.

Until they stopped. When Call of Duty: World at War came out in 2008, WW2 felt utterly played out. After nearly a decade of WW2 FPS games – starting with 1999’s original Medal of Honor – their grammar of plodding fronts and Tommy guns had dulled or, worse, become oddly quaint in the face of the throw-everything-at-the-screen Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which released the previous year. Modern Warfare reset the expectations of a generation with the kinetic globetrotting of a band of special operatives bearing automatic rifles and eye-in-the-sky gun platforms.

Now we’re going back. Call of Duty: World War II returns to the beaches, recalling the series’ first three games, each set during WW2. But while it maintains some of the series’ post-Modern Warfare swagger with a title that claims status as the war’s definitive game, CoD: WWII is born of an attempt to save a blockbuster series in slow decline. Call of Duty peaked between 2010 and 2012 with Modern Warfare 3 and Black Ops, and last year’s space-based Infinite Warfare sold, to some estimates, only half as many physical copies as 2015’s Black Ops III.

There are many reasons why Infinite Warfare didn’t sell well, from falling victim to a fan smear campaign – the reveal trailer became one of the most downvoted YouTube videos ever – to a futuristic setting that alienated fans. It seemed to lose some of the immediacy of a series that’s striking for its quasi-realism. The best, or most arresting, first-person moments of post-Modern Warfare games are those which feel like they could actually happen in our world, from being blown up in an atom bomb, to witnessing an airport shooting.

Attempting to find new features and ideas, recent CoD games have been looking towards science-fiction, finding their kicks in double-jumps, zero-G and starfighters. On the one hand, CoD’s imagination has been shackled by its need to adhere to a semblance of realism. And on the other, new FPS series have been growing around it. Overwatch, shorn of all reality, went all-in on multiplayer and larger-than-life characters in which anyone could find themselves at home. DayZ created a new subgenre that twisted realism around survival mechanics, while offshoots such as Battlegrounds and H1Z1: King of the Kill added hugely popular competitive play to the mix.

So a jump back to simpler times could help to re-ground Call of Duty in the values that established it: a sense of scale in a realistic setting, and a celebration of valor and sacrifice among soldiers.

It's a formula that’s certainly worked for EA's Battlefield. Last year’s Battlefield 1 – set in WWI – was the series’ biggest-ever launch. It proved there’s an appetite for archaic military hardware. Without laser sights and targeting systems, combat becomes more intimate and gritty; the distance of engagement brought much closer, the tools for killing simpler and more direct.

WW2, however, is a far better setting for a game. WWI’s trouble is its ambiguity. There are no good guys and bad guys in that murky horror of a war. Soldiers didn’t sacrifice themselves for valor; they were slaughtered on every side, sent to their doom in vast waves by indifferent generals and politicians. To play Battlefield 1 is to feel constant disquiet in the knowledge that play is being raised from the blood-soaked mud of the Somme. By contrast, in the roar of the Normandy landings there’s no moral ambiguity, only the glory of righteous liberation.

In many ways, it was inevitable that Call of Duty would return to WW2. There are no wars of the modern era that have its blend of moral certainty and epic scale. Iraq? Too messy, too one-sided. Korea? The Seventies movie and TV show M*A*S*H claimed that one. Vietnam? Only Black Ops could occupy that sweaty shadiness. So where else can you go?

And while WW2 was dropped back in 2008 because it had become so well-trodden, we’re now in the midst of a fresh console generation. With new motion capture techniques and underwritten by the power of current-gen consoles, not to mention the headroom given by high-spec PCs, CoD: WWII’s D-Day will almost certainly feel the closest-yet to the gritty spectacle its predecessors were trying to match.

To a generation raised on Modern Warfare and Black Ops, WWII will feel fresh, while for the previous generation, it'll be a welcome return to an era that all but defined their affair with Activision's longest-running series. But it’s also an admission that the CoD-style military shooter is out of new ideas and settings. It’s gone into the future and found gimmickry can only go so far, and now it’s looking back to go forward. Once we’ve experienced the thrill of a new generation’s take on D-Day, will WW2 maintain our interest? Is CoD: WWII a sign that we’re simply starting a new cycle, and that the modern day will be next, then the future and back again? Where else can Call of Duty go without losing its essential character?