Sledgehammer aims to bring the series back to its roots by doubling down on the humanity and horrors of war.
Call of Duty, and shooters in general, have slowly moved away from telling the stories of flawed, limited humans, instead focusing on giving players the power fantasy of embodying what amounts to a defacto superhero. Wall running, double jumping, future tech – these all work in harmony to give us an experience that’s fun, rather than one that bears any semblance to reality. But with Call of Duty: WWII, developer Sledgehammer Games wants to change that.
I spent the afternoon at Sledgehammer’s studio speaking with developers of every discipline, seeing a handful of different levels, and digging through the mission statement of Call of Duty: WWII. Here’s what I learned.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Sledgehammer’s WWII (I don’t think I’ll ever get used to using this as a short-hand name for the game), doesn’t hop around the globe – there won’t be any levels showcasing the Pacific or Northern Africa or Italy or Russia. As the developers put it, they, “didn’t want a greatest hits of World War II.” Instead, it’ll focus on a war story that’s grounded, human, and intimate, while still delivering the familiar horrors of events like D-Day and The Battle of the Bulge.
You fill the boots of Ronald “Red” Daniels, a 19-year-old kid from Texas. He isn’t a superhero. He wasn’t trained to be an army of one. He’s a kid who wanted to serve his country, traveled to Europe for the first time in his young life, and had a gun shoved in his hands. Cut to next scene, he’s standing shoulder to shoulder with similar kids on a landing craft slowly approaching the shores of France on a June afternoon. It’s slightly overcast.
Horror is a word I keep coming back to when telling people about Call of Duty: WWII.
One of the two single-player demos I saw was D-Day, one of the most infamous/iconic moments in all of human history. We’ve seen it before in countless movies and games, but given how the major AAA shooters have shied away from World War II for the better part of a decade, there was a visual fidelity to CoD 2017’s depiction of it that made the chaos and destruction horrific.
Horror is a word I keep coming back to when telling people about Call of Duty: WWII, and for good reason. Sledgehammer was founded in 2009 by leads at Visceral, creators of Dead Space. Those horror roots are apparent in the madness of the D-Day mission – as Red emerges from the blood-soaked waters of Omaha Beach, he immediately dives headfirst in the sands behind the nearest hedgehog barricade. The cacophony of gunfire, explosions, and screams are endless. War is truly hell, and this game is trying to emulate that.
They Marched Into Sunlight
You’ll be experiencing 95% of the game through Red’s eyes, and the developers insist that you’ll never be doing something that this 19-year-old kid from Texas wouldn’t be able to do. That leads me to believe that the final 5% of playtime will have you filling the role of pilot, or someone with a similarly-extraordinary ability.
Your squad is fleshed out by a handful of characters who’ll help Red’s journey through Europe. You have two surrogate father figures in the form of Sergeant Pearson and Lieutenant Turner. Pearson, played by Josh Duhamel of the Transformer series, is all about completing the mission, even if it means losing his men. The other side of the coin is Turner, who values the lives of his soldiers above all else. The tension between these two diametrically-opposed creeds has the potential to create a compelling dramatic pull throughout the campaign.
The Hurtgen Forest demo showcased just how gorgeous and terrifying CoD 2017 can be.
Speaking of the campaign, the second mission I got to see took place in late ’44 in Hurtgen Forest on the German/Belgian border. This demo showcased just how gorgeous and terrifying CoD 2017 can be. The level started out with a peaceful stroll alongside a beautiful riverbed. Lush greens and a surreal mist surrounded Red, and the quiet hum of nature was everywhere. But after being spotted by a group of German troops, all thoughts of peace were thrown out the window, and hell stepped front and center.
German artillery began raining down on the squad, ripping apart the giant trees with nightmarish force. The ancient wood splintering all around Red sounded like thousands of bones snapping in half. The monstrous trees came crashing to the ground, crushing and impaling men with complete disregard. Again, the word horror comes to mind when I think about how affecting the scene was. If this is the direction that the series’ iconic set-pieces are headed in, I’m all aboard.
The Things They Carried
So much of the way that developers at Sledgehammer spoke to me about the game pointed towards a more thoughtful, methodical shooter that has more in common with the fantastic Spec-Ops: The Line than with any other Call of Duty game. For example, health doesn’t auto-regenerate if you duck behind cover long enough. Instead, you have to limp over to your medic and ask for help. Same goes for ammo – according to developers, if you run out, you’ll have to rely on your squad to toss you more.
Sledgehammer promises to tackle issues of racism, religious persecution, and sexism.
Then there are the social issues that existed front and center throughout not only the war, but the world itself in the mid-20th century. Things like racism, religious persecution, and sexism. Sledgehammer showed us a picture of over a dozen characters you’ll meet throughout the campaign, which included women, people of color, children, and the elderly, and the developer insists that those social issues will be dealt with throughout the story, like when you come across an African American platoon, or through the lens of your best friend and squad mate, who’s a Jewish-American.
While all of this sounds incredible on paper, and I welcome the idea of one of the biggest entertainment properties on the planet taking these risks, I’m still spectacle of how surgically they can handle these issues when the primary verbs of the game are “point” and “shoot.” I’m also genuinely curious how a new generation of Call of Duty fans who got their toes wet in the post-Modern Warfare era are going to react to a campaign that strips you of those superhero powers, and instead humbles you into a character who doesn’t power-slide, but rather dives head-first into the dirt out of sheer survival instinct.
A Rumor of War
Obviously, single-player is just one of the major pillars of any Call of Duty game. There are still countless questions relating to multiplayer, co-op, and zombies, the latter of which hasn’t been formally announced, but given its popularity and Sledgehammer’s roots in the Dead Space series, is a safe bet. Luckily, we have a bit of info about some of those other modes.
We know there is a separate, story-drive co-op campaign in the game. And that’s about it. Is it local co-op? How many players? Does the story follow characters we meet in the SP campaign, or new ones? Does it still take place in the same corner of Europe? The series has had a history of co-op modes, with games like World at War and Black Ops III. Time will tell how this one differs from those.
There are still countless questions relating to multiplayer, co-op, and zombies.
When it comes to traditional multiplayer, we’ll have to wait for the full reveal at E3 2017 in June, where it’ll also be playable. Right now, we know that there’s a mode called War, which is a story-based asymmetrical battle between teams with different objectives. The example we were given was the storming of the beaches at Normandy. One team plays as the Allies, with specific goals of pushing further and further up the beach. The other team assumes the role of the Axis, and has their own set of objectives that revolves around impeding their opponent’s progress.
The other interesting element teased is called “Headquarters,” which sounds like Call of Duty’s answer to Destiny’s Tower. It’s a social space that exists between matches for players to connect, hang out, and gain specific rewards. I’m super curious as to how Sledgehammer handles this.
From what I got a chance to see and hear, Call of Duty: WWII seems like the biggest departure for the series since Modern Warfare in 2007. Which is ironic, considering this departure was achieved by going back to the series’ roots. Whether or not Sledgehammer can deliver on all of these lofty promises remains to be seen, but my interest has certainly been piqued on the road to November 3rd.
Marty Sliva is an Executive Editor at IGN. A girl he was dating once stepped on his PlayStation 4, and now he no longer owns PT. But don’t worry, they broke up. Follow him on Twitter @McBiggitty.