The Call of Duty franchise has, since the very first game released way back in 2003, given players the opportunity to explore the jungles of Vietnam in Black Ops, conflict in the Middle-East via Modern Warfare, and last year's Infinite Warfare even let players venture beyond Earth and take the fight out into the vastness of space. Call of Duty is therefore no stranger to exploring warfare through different eras, both fictional and factual, but while this series has been exploring new frontiers, there has been a growing demand for a return to historical combat. Thus, for the next chapter in the world's biggest video game series, one that's crucial for the series going forward, a fresh take on proceedings was essential.
First off, several leaks hinted at a return to the European battlefields of World War II, in other words, a return to the origins of the series, and maybe even a return to form after the criticism from some regarding the space setting of last year's instalment (not from us, to be fair, we liked it). As long-time fans of the series, our eyes lit up when the setting was finally confirmed at the press event, because Call of Duty is diving back into the gritty battlefields of the Second World War. The franchise is dialling the clock backwards, and it's on a mission to reconnect with what made it what it is today.
As you might know, the series is now under the stewardship of three different studios, with teams taking it in turns to work on the annual franchise. This year it's Sledgehammer Games, and studio director Michael Condrey hadn't even introduced himself at the event before he started telling us about his enormous excitement for the game, elaborating on how they wanted to go back to World War II ever since they worked on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. The message was clear, and was further enforced by Condrey's opening statement: "now is finally the time to bring Call of Duty back to its former glory." Bold words.
We were all in for a treat, then, as Sledgehammer showed one trailer, two gameplay videos, and a making of documentary - far more than we expected. The developers were without a doubt confident in their product and were eager to share this enthusiasm with the assembled press.
The trailer treated us to various battles that took place across the European theatre, and focused on an American squad and how their relationships with each other strengthened and developed throughout the various challenges they faced along the way. It featured scenarios including intense forest bombardments, small French villages and, of course, the landing at Normandy. The brief, cinematic look offered a taste of what was to come.
After the trailer, Condrey resumed the presentation by talking more about the narrative core of the game. The player will mainly play as an American soldier fighting towards the liberation of Europe and victory in Germany, but Condrey emphasised the importance of showing all sides of the war, however, and the squad will encounter an array of different nationalities including French resistance, and even the human aspects of the German forces (an aspect not often explored in the shooter space). There is, in other words, diversity, and Sledgehammer wants to reintroduce players to one of the greatest conflicts of modern history, and they'll do so with broad strokes.
The gameplay we saw took place during the battles of Hürtgen in the forests bordering Germany and Belgium. We got a quick look into the group dynamics of the main characters before they headed into battle, and noticed in particular the visual overhaul, and how the dynamics of weather, vegetation, and even the audio effects at times looked and sounded lifelike.
After moving through the misty woods for a couple of minutes, with the camera slowly panning around showing the environments, the squad arrived at a German camp. The player quickly drew his sniper rifle and started firing away. Just from watching we got a sense of the intensity of the weapons, the weight of the rifle, the travel of the bullet. In terms of the campaign, it was fairly obvious than some level of historical accuracy was important for Sledgehammer. How that'll jive with players who want something fast and twitchy as with recent offerings, however, is unknown for the time being.
The Germans then started bombarding the Americans with heavy artillery, which looked phenomenal. Trees, moss, and earth were flying everywhere as the bombs started hitting everything in sight, and at the end, the main character was hit and the presentation ended. Perhaps most important for those looking for a more traditional Call of Duty experience, the presentation looked and felt less like typical over-the-top action; less Michael Bay and more like Steven Spielberg's Band of Brothers or Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge. It was gritty, dirty, low-to-the-ground stuff.
The second demonstration centred on the battle of Normandy, the beginning of the end of the conflict in Western Europe, and a powerful example of the horrors of war. Just as in the classic Spielberg film, Saving Private Ryan, the action started with the Allies arriving in boats, pushing onto the beach while the German's fired down at them mercilessly. The main character gets covered in bodies and has to abandon ship, jumping into the blood-filled water, and after making his way to the beach he gets the task of blowing an opening through the German defences, leading to an intensive sprint towards the bunker.
The quality of the audio-visual presentation was stunning, and it managed to suck us into the moment. Every detail, from the massacre on the boats to the gripping and horrifying dash to relative safety, looked exhilirating. If you've felt disconnected from the supernatural science fiction events of recent instalments, this'll more than making up for it, and it does so by simply focusing on putting you in the boots of a terrified infantryman surrounded by death. We then witnessed a firefight inside the bunker, and as our soldier moved through the frightening darkness, he was jumped by a German soldier, which led to an intense and brutal battle ending with the player having to mutilate the German with his own helmet.
The Normandy and Hürtgen missions were carefully selected to show both the stealthy and all-action aspects of the game, and they did a good job of doing just that. Even though the Normandy demo was more impressive from an audio-visual perspective, the Hürtgen demo was more gripping, and it felt like a step in a new direction for the Call of Duty series.
Condrey wrapped up the presentation with a short documentary showcasing the development process, which jumped from talking to army experts to travelling around Europe, before finally coming back to the crew as they explained their excitement about going back to the roots of Call of Duty. Condrey also delved into the importance of providing a multiplayer experience worthy of the Call of Duty name, and how it was a far cry from the exo-suits and robots of the newer games, instead focusing again on this boots-on-the-ground gameplay. It's also worth noting that WWII will feature three new modes: Division, War, and Headquarters.
Instead of providing in-depth descriptions of each mode, Condrey gave us an idea about tone, saying how he wants the multiplayer to make you feel more like a character having an impact on the war than a lone wolf fighting for your own survival. Customising your character in Call of Duty: World War II has therefore received a great deal of attention. Headquarters, meanwhile, are social hub spaces, where players can interact and meet outside of battle. We asked for more details, only to be told that we're going to have to wait for E3.
Finally, we had to ask whether they ever considered calling the game Call of Duty 5, as it feels like the freshest and most radical Call of Duty since Modern Warfare, but the team stands by World War II, and think it's a fitting name that describes the essence of the game. The common theme of the presentation might have been how they're "going back to the roots" of the series, however, it seemed to us as being the exact opposite. Call of Duty: World War II might be returning to where it all began, but it looks like it's going to be the most refreshing entry in the series for quite some time.