The past three iterations in the Call of Duty franchise have seen the game take place in the future; exo-suits, wall-running, and futuristic, unfamiliar weapons have been the focus for each of the three studios' latest endeavours. Advanced Warfare was Sledgehammer's first full instalment to the acclaimed franchise and the first to tackle the 'jetpack era' and while it was fresh initially, by the time Infinite Warfare rolled around, fans were clamouring for another "boots on the ground" experience. It was Sledgehammer's time once again and they've opted to return to World War II, a period not seen in the series since Treyarch's World at War back in 2008.
Initial impressions are that it's fantastic; the lack of jetpacks makes it the most tactical and strategic Call of Duty experience we've seen since Ghosts, even though the three smaller maps available in the beta meant it maintained a similar pace to the last few instalments. A notable mention must go to the sound design; planes flying overhead, explosions erupting throughout the map, and the constant gunfire makes WWII the grittiest and most realistic representation of war we've seen from the franchise in a long time, and we haven't even touched the single player narrative yet.
We played a LOT of the beta. Over the course of the extended weekend, we levelled every single gun up to the maximum, experienced all the maps, and every playstyle possible. And not just because we had to, but because WWII brought pure enjoyment, something we hadn't experienced in a Call of Duty game for years. Going into more detail, one of the first things we played was the new War game mode.
Not to get it confused with the previous War mode in World at War, this time around War consists of four objectives. If you're on the attacking side, you must capture an area, similar to Domination or Hardpoint, before progressing forward and constructing a bridge to cross a dry riverbed. Planting a bomb, Search & Destroy-esque comes after that, before the final objective which is essentially the same as any payload mode in something like Overwatch or Team Fortress 2, but the payload is a tank with a seat for the gunner in the top. It's quite unlike anything seen previously in the franchise.
It promotes teamplay; just 'kill-whoring' serves no purpose if you're not trying to assist with the objective, to the point where there isn't even a kill-death ratio on the leaderboard for each player. On the sole map dedicated to the mode in the beta, the attackers were heavily favoured, so to win on defence required a considerable amount of teamwork and strategy, to the point where people were occasionally communicating through the in-game chat. Our only suggestion is that the mode should be one long game; at the half-time mark, it counts as starting a brand new game when you switch sides, but that should be amended and it would be better off as one match, like how it works in Overwatch.
In the beta, three standard modes were available: Team Deathmatch, Domination, and Hardpoint. All of them played identically to how they have before, with one sole difference in that hardpoints were only available for 60 seconds at a time, compared to the 90 in previous games. This meant games were often closer affairs, as players could rotate to the next area much quicker and more of the map was being used at each time due to players always setting up to battle it out at the next point.
Three vastly different maps were on offer. Ardennes Forest was the first we played, a wintery region in southern Belgium and the biggest map to play, featuring three distinct lanes. Church ruins to one side, a path straight down the middle with a burnt out tank and various bits of cover, and a mini 'No Man's Land' on the other side, covered by two opposing mounted machine guns. The traditional lane layout, commonly found in older Call of Duty titles, means Ardennes Forest was the smoothest and most enjoyable map to play for every mode, as it also combined close quarters combat with a lot of ranged sight lines.
Pointe du Hoc is the name of the second map, a real world location during the war, on the coast of Normandy in France. Perhaps the epitome of what comes to mind when you think of World War II, Pointe du Hoc consists of five bunkers and a farmhouse around the outskirts of the map, while the centre contains winding trenches and paths where shotguns and submachine guns flourish. Perhaps the best map for Hardpoint due to the constant rotation and mix between short to mid-ranged combat, but it doesn't work quite as well for Team Deathmatch - it's much slower paced and the spawns often seem nonsensical.
Gibraltar is the third map, set in the British Overseas Territory in the south of Spain. This map features a lot of elevation, with multiple hills and stairways everywhere and is suitable for rifles and SMGs; snipers and shotgunners will struggle to make an impact. The issue with Gibraltar is the map has no flow; it's difficult to discern why, but the lack of structure meant play often became staggered. There are too many corners to check, the vast majority of deaths will come just from being shot in the back, and the spawns can flip at a moment's notice. Undoubtedly the least enjoyable of the three maps for all three modes, but whether that could change with the introduction of modes like Search & Destroy is yet to be seen.
Weapon balance is something that Call of Duty developers have always struggled with early on; there's usually one or two guns for each type that are far superior to the other options. In WWII, the STG-44 is the one. With little to no recoil, especially if you use the grip attachment, the STG can often beat SMGs in close quarters combat, other rifles at medium range, and is able to beat out snipers from a distance. We haven't seen the other guns in the full game yet, but it will be very surprising if there are many better options than the STG.
That's not to say the other two rifles were bad. The M1941 fires faster than the STG, but is much less accurate and the iron sights are poor, meaning a reflex sight is a necessary addition, taking up an attachment slot that could go to something more worthwhile. The M1 Garand is semi-automatic and will always kill in 2-3 bullets, but the recoil after each shot is heavy, especially with the flinch mechanic. If you get hit while trying to pick someone off, good luck getting your aim back on target.
Four submachine guns were available throughout the beta, and somewhat impressively, all four were completely viable options and it's hard to say one was outright better than another. The Type 100 was the most accurate, especially with grip, but fired comparably slower to the Waffe 28 which aesthetically, looks very similar to the Type 100 but with a much faster fire rate but trickier recoil to control. The Grease Gun packed a lot of punch per shot, but suffered from recoil issues as well as shooting even slower. The PPSh-41 was the most well rounded SMG, with average stats in all three main categories.
In terms of the other, lesser used weapon categories, the Winchester 1897 is by far the best shotgun, with better range and one-hit kills whereas the other two usually required two shots. The bolt action Commonwealth is the far superior sniper rifle, with much better accuracy and less recoil than the semi-automatic Karabin. None of the light machine guns was particularly impressive, but the Lewis was the best of the ones available. Equip rapid fire and grip and there's a gun that can compete with the more common weapons.
One new system Sledgehammer has introduced is the Divisions. There's five available, one for each weapon class; Infantry (Rifle), Airborne (SMG), Armored (LMG), Expeditionary (Shotgun), and Mountain (Sniper). Each one comes with class specific benefits, such as a bayonet attached to your rifle or a bipod for the LMGs. Shotguns receive incendiary shells which sound like a big upgrade, but seemingly reduce the damage per shell in favour of setting your target on fire briefly. It can be a one hit kill, but often requires two shots or one, followed by a desperate flee as you hope they burn to death and don't end you beforehand.
It was usually better to run Infantry or Airborne on every class no matter the weapon, because as you level the divisions up you get non-specific upgrades like an extra attachment for your primary weapon, or sprinting for longer distances. What we did find lacking, however, was the ability to disable some of these benefits if we didn't want to use them. One example is with the incendiary shells; they're automatically equipped whenever you spawn with a shotgun and the Expeditionary division, and they take a good five seconds to unload then reload your normal bullets. If you're not a fan of them like we weren't, then running Expeditionary is simply a hindrance every time you respawn.
Perks have been replaced by the aforementioned Divisions, along with Basic Training options. You can choose one per class and these are very minor benefits, such as Gunslinger, that means you can shoot while sprinting and diving, or Lookout, so enemy targets appear from farther away and you have a larger mini-map. Hustle was what we often ran, for all run and gun classes at the very least, as it allows you to reload much faster and while sprinting. The fact they make less of an impact than perks means they're the perfect replacement, as players are on a more even playing field and rely less on the perks chosen prior to the game.
While on the topic of perfect replacements, the score-streak system hasn't been completely revamped, but most rewards now cost more than they have done in previous games. An example of this is 500 points to earn a Recon Plane that shows enemy positions on the mini-map; it seems steep given that it only required 3-4 kills in previous games, but once again, it means players are on a more even playing field and can't rely on aspects other than their own gun-skill and game knowledge.
Fighter Pilot is one of the coolest score-streaks seen in a while in Call of Duty; it costs 625 to attain and sees you take the role of a pilot in a dive bombing plane, with around five seconds to pepper bullets at enemies on the ground. On the other end of the scale, Paratroopers calls in some AI reinforcements for your team. The issue is that they're utterly awful, comparable to playing the single player on the easiest difficulty. To add insult to injury, they cost 1200 to achieve, which is laughably expensive.
Molotovs, previously seen as lethal grenades but are the cheapest score-streak reward in WWII, need altering too. They cost 300 so are fairly easy to get, and you're given two. Get a direct hit with one? Instant kill. But how often do you get a direct hit with a grenade? They should be used as area-of-effect tools, clearing out a flag or hardpoint, and the fire should light the ground for longer. Currently, you need to run around with them in your hand and use them reflexively, meaning you're in a tough situation if you come across more than one enemy at a time.
One of the most questionable decisions made by Sledgehammer in the beta, is how prevalent the enemy battle chatter is. A considerable amount of our deaths during each game were as a result of our character shouting out the location of the enemy, but then any nearby enemies could hear and would know exactly where we were. It worked in our favour too, we killed plenty of people just by paying attention to the battle chatter, but those kills felt cheap and undeserved.
Friendly explosions also cause severe shellshock effects. It makes sense for hostile ones to affect sight and orientation, but if friendly fire is off (like it is in all core playlists), friendly explosions shouldn't negatively affect players on the same team. These are two simple changes, and would make the game feel much fairer as a result.
Another simple change would be to the grenade icons. In the beta, it was hard to tell exactly where a grenade was, as the icon would often point down, as if the explosive was behind us, despite it actually being in front of us and the downward arrow meaning it was at our feet as opposed to... floating in mid-air? It's a completely unnecessary change from previous Call of Duty games and is incredibly confusing, meaning we were regularly killed by walking into a grenade despite thinking we were evading it.
Other simple additions to the game would be including a ping counter or indication of players connection strengths to the lobby, as again, they've been in most previous games and there's no reason to not include them. The menu system is also completely revamped, and it doesn't quite work; when you pause the game, the mini-map should be on the same screen as your classes so you can quickly look at both, and the lobby menus shouldn't be so split up between classes, friends, your party, etc. It took two clicks to invite a friend in other games, now it takes many more.
WWII has taken a number of things from games like Overwatch such as the payload objective in War, but perhaps the biggest idea they've 'stolen' is the Play of the Game concept. Renamed to the Bronze Medal and awarded for an act of heroic bravery, the end of each game will show the best 'play' from the match as opposed to the final killcam that used to be there. It favours objective kills and defends as opposed to simple multi-kills, but it still seems like the formula and criteria for selecting the best play needs some work. Often times we'd get a four or five man multi-kill, yet a simple double kill from inside the hardpoint will take precedent, which doesn't require as much skill. A fantastic addition and should get rid of all the 'trick shooters' trying to go for some spinning no-scope final kills.
Call of Duty: WWII is shaping up to be the best Call of Duty game since Black Ops 2. Being firmly back on the ground is a great feeling, and Sledgehammer has knocked it out of the park in terms of the create a class system and how the game simply feels to play. It's still in the beta phase so there's understandably some teething problems, but this could be the year that Call of Duty starts to garner praise from the masses again.