Hands-on at E3 2017 — Call of Duty: WWII is a refreshing look back

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“Going back to our roots” is a tried and true PR statement, but for Call of Duty: WWII at E3 2017, there’s never been a better time to look into their storied past.

It’s hard to course correct when the going is smooth and good. Certainly, the fans let Activision know that looking forward towards the future too much, for too long, will certainly wear them out. That’s partially why Activision shifted to a three-studio cycle for their iconic FPS series; when games like Call of Duty: WWII are announced to take the battle back to the European front of late World War II, it actually seems like a bold new move.

Frankly, the timing was right to go back, even if so many early-2000s FPS titles covered this era. Very few titles since the PS2 era have had an incredible level of polish and dedication to getting things right on the level Activision can provide, and after getting both some hands-on time with the game (as well as seeing a presentation of a single-player campaign mission), Call of Duty: WWII might have finally pulled me back into the series with gusto.

Let’s start with the campaign. Call of Duty: WWII starts like any other game, but the E3 2017 presentation begins with an exaggerated recreation of Operation Cobra, a Normandy offensive effort in the village of Marigny. The player rushes to take over a church tower, provide cover for another division’s efforts, get the hell out and make it out alive.

There are certainly moments of patented “CoD cinematic moments” in Call of Duty: WWII, especially when it comes to loud ear-ringing crashes and big explosions. There’s certainly also a more grim tone throughout, showcasing the brutality of war. I witnessed a wounded German soldier shoot himself in the head and machine gun fire tear a fellow private in half. You wouldn’t quite feel the same emotional feedback from the player without the historical backing present in the game.

Besides the lively exchanges of era-accurate gunfire (God, I love the sound of the M1 Garand’s clip *PING* sound), a huge gameplay change immediately noticeable in this presentation was the use of health packs. It seems like a private, when there are moments of downtime, will throw one to you if you need it. Damage is permanent, meaning you will need to properly find cover (including flipping over available tables) to protect your neck.

Call of Duty WWII Screenshot
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I’m hoping that there is a level-dependent scoring or feedback system baked into Call of Duty: WWII, similar to that of classic Medal of Honor games. There’s nothing better than winning a Gold Medal or some sort of medal of valor for strong efforts during story missions, and the health pack-based system reinforces the idea that this isn’t your traditional twitch FPS, at least from a narrative standpoint.

Don’t worry, multiplayer fans; the regenerative health system remains intact in the Call of Duty: WWII multiplayer. The map sizes remain familiar, too, providing a challenge for Sledgehammer games to transpose the modernized FPS setting with an era-specific environment.

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Thankfully, there is enough footage of Pointe du Hoc to draw from in order to get a faithful recreation. The first of three multiplayer matches was in Team Deathmatch, and the combination of trenches, hilltop houses and Normandy coastline made for a surreal fight.

Players had the choice of two loadouts for five different classes: Airborne (light), Mountain (sniper/stealth), Infantry (well geared), Armored (heavy weapons) and Explosive (incendiary/short-ranged). Each class seemed to fit the setting, with the exception of Mountain. No matter what, unless you’re in a forest, running around in a full green Ghillie suit looks a little goofy and out of place.

Regardless, Pointe du Hoc was fairly balanced. More than that, the visual fidelity was remarkable, with gunshots showing realistic bloody feedback on targets’ bodies and explosions just as gruesome. It appeared appropriately muted, with Sledgehammer Games’ attention to detail shining through in its environmental design.

Call of Duty WWII Screenshot
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A perfect contrast to this was the Ardennes Forest; a snow-drenched arena played in Domination Mode. You have your standard three flags to capture, with the main contested flag placed on a densely-packed area with three different routes for an approach. This makes for a difficult approach, requiring a balanced team to keep the firepower going in short and long ranges.

Honestly, most approaches work in this Call of Duty: WWII map, no matter if you want to snipe or run and gun. Weapons like the MP40, M1 Garand, BAR or Springfield (or their German equivalents) each have their uses, with long ranges on the sides, dense building routes in the middle and enough mid-ranged passages. Plus, with a 200-point Domination where teams flip sides at whoever hits 100 first, you get the chance to really explore the maps from all angles.

More importantly, it looks gorgeous. It’s hard to fight the notion that this was an adaptation of a probable real-life incursion, but with enough of a creative license taken into effect, you need to really tip your hat to the development team.

Call of Duty WWII Screenshot
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Finally, and this is certainly the moment that will likely sell me on Call of Duty: WWII, is the War Mode. Nothing feels more like a war effort than playing as a team trying to complete a series of objectives, or working together as the team trying to defend a series of engagement points.

“Operation Breakout” saw my Allies team try to seize and secure a village by setting off a bomb, build a bridge over an empty river, fend off enemies and escort a tank toward anti-aircraft artillery at the end of the stage.

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The constant evolution of a map forces the player to scale their objectives based on the position, setting up inevitable chokepoints and a real push-and-pull gameplay dynamic. It also forces a team to actually work as a team, as there are only a few minutes for an offensive team to hit each of their objectives in time.

Call of Duty WWII Screenshot
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One of my favorite gameplay moments of E3 2017 so far was watching the clock wind down as a bridge neared completion. However, the builder got shot in the head by a sniper. Not only did I return fire, but nailed two other enemy players, threw a smoke grenade down and finished the bridge with seconds to spare, continuing the mission for the Allies. The rush of adrenaline was real, and I’m certain players will come to enjoy that Atlas-esque moment over and over.

There was certainly a lefit balance question or two that can be asked ofCall of Duty: WWII’s War Mode, especially when it comes to the defensive side nearing the end of Operation Breakout. Armored classes can just hide out in foxholes or behind deep cover and pour bullets into one final chokehold, preventing the tank from escorting to the final objective properly.

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With that one exception, though, I found Operation Breakout enthralling, marrying contemporary multiplayer experience within a 1940s-specific setting. Call of Duty: WWII will have its core fanbase of millions, but even those who have turned their nose at the franchise as of late will be doing themselves a great disservice by not at least checking out the beta in August.