‘Call of Duty: WWII’ turns the Great War into a time­share

The Day - - DAYBREAK - By MICHAEL THOM­SEN

“Call of Duty: WWII” Devel­oper: Sledge­ham­mer Games, Raven Soft­ware Pub­lisher: Ac­tivi­sion Avail­able on: PlaySta­tion 4, Xbox One, Win­dows

How many times have the beaches of Nor­mandy been stormed in a video game? Off the top of my head I can re­call that it’s been recre­ated in “Medal of Honor,” “Com­pany of Heroes,” and even “Conker’s Bad Fur Day,” which spoofed “Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan,” by re­cast­ing the Al­lied sol­diers as squir­rels stum­bling across the blood-soaked sand. And even though it has only been done once be­fore in the “Call of Duty” series, there’s a sense of fa­mil­iar­ity when, in the new­est game, “Call of Duty: WWII,” an­other band of sol­diers speed to­ward the ar­mored sea­walls in the gray driz­zle of dawn.

Of pri­mary in­ter­est is Ron­ald Daniels, a ruddy pri­vate nick­named “Red” by his com­rades in the 16th In­fantry Reg­i­ment. His com­mand­ing of­fi­cer, a sour drunk with a soap­opera-star looks, at­tempts to in­spire the sol­diers packed into Hig­gins boats with a pep talk. The speech has the op­po­site ef­fect on Red, re­mind­ing him of one of his high school foot­ball coach’s in­spi­ra­tional ora­tions back in Texas. “We lost that game by 42 points,” Red re­calls.

Sur­pris­ingly, the level that fol­lows isn’t pre­sented as a tragedy but as a tu­to­rial, giv­ing play­ers a chance to re-learn what most will al­ready know by heart — how to crouch, go prone, aim down sights, and match the on­screen but­ton prompts dur­ing a few slow-mo­tion ac­tion se­quences. A sense of rep­e­ti­tion hangs over every mis­sion in the story, which fol­lows Red and his friends from Nor­mandy through to the fall of Ger­many. Each mis­sion is full of pre­vi­ously-for­got­ten mem­o­ries, not of his­tory or war­fare, but of time spent play­ing video games in an­other era. An early level, set dur­ing the bat­tle for Aachen, the first ma­jor Ger­man town to be cap­tured by Amer­i­cans, re­minded me that I’d al­ready gone through this dig­i­tal fan­tasy, in 2004’s “Call of Duty: Finest Hour.”

An­other mis­sion in “WWII,” re-cre­at­ing the Bat­tle of the Bulge, trig­gered sim­i­lar mem­o­ries of both “Call of Duty: United Of­fen­sive” and “Call of Duty: Black Ops III,” the lat­ter of which used it in a brief hal­lu­ci­na­tory flash­back. This new­est ren­der­ing of the snowy Ar­dennes for­est per­fectly en­cap­su­lates how dra­mat­i­cally the series has changed since the early 2000s. The ear­li­est “Call of Duty” games were of­ten built around open-ended lev­els that left you un­der con­stant fire from all di­rec­tions while play­ers tried to fig­ure out where they were meant to go next. It was stress­ful and dis­ori­ent­ing. The lev­els in “WWII” ren­der war­fare as stage­craft, in which the stage dress­ing and scenery is changed reg­u­larly to make the rel­a­tively straight­for­ward ac­tion of aim­ing and shoot­ing seem heroic.

The Bat­tle of the Bulge level opens with the am­bush of a quiet camp in the snow-cov­ered for­est, then switches to an aerial com­bat for a few min­utes as you pro­tect a fleet of bombers be­ing redi­rected to of­fer sup­port. You later switch back to Red on the ground, mark­ing Ger­man tanks for those bombers, and the level cli­maxes with the Ger­mans flood­ing the win­try for­est with smoke grenades for one last dis­ori­ent­ing as­sault. It doesn’t want you to play so much as it wants you to play along.

At first glance, the game’s com­pet­i­tive mul­ti­player mode seems to have been re­vamped around a new hub space called “Head­quar­ters,” which was also the name of a now-de­funct ga­me­type that first ap­peared in 2007’s “Call of Duty 4: Mod­ern War­fare.” But this space is more of an elab­o­rate con­ces­sion stand that helps or­ga­nize the enor­mous econ­omy of cur­ren­cies you can earn and spend in be­tween matches. Ev­ery­thing in the game has an ex­pe­ri­ence me­ter to fill up — your char­ac­ter gains ex­pe­ri­ence points with each kill, your weapons level up the more fre­quently you use them, and you cwan chip your way through lev­els in one of five gen­eral classes you choose be­fore each match. On top of this, you can ac­cept “Mis­sions” that re­ward you for ac­com­plish­ing goals.

AC­TIVI­SION.

The lev­els in “Call of Duty: WWII” ren­der war­fare as stage­craft, in which the stage dress­ing and scenery is changed reg­u­larly to make aim­ing and shoot­ing seem heroic.

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