At least since 2007, the powerhouse Call of Duty franchise has been one of the most dominant franchises in the entirety of the video gaming medium. While the earliest entries in the series had a pretty strict focus on maintaining a commitment to representing warfare during the globally-defining Second World War, the series made a massive popular leap forward with the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC. Infinity Ward’s groundbreaking fourth entry in the Call of Duty series dared to give a perspective on the concept of warfare in contemporary times, and it connected with gamers everywhere almost instantly.
Weirdly enough, that decision to represent contemporary warfare would set a bit of an interesting course for the COD franchise going forward. While Modern Warfare would itself spawn two sequels by Infinity Ward in 2009 and 2011, fellow COD developer Treyarch’s original Black Ops game in 2010 would be the last historically-oriented COD game for quite a while. In its 2012 sequel, Black Ops II, the series would make its first foray into speculative future warfare, where the series has remained ever since.
In 2014, developer Sledgehammer Games – which had done some work with IW in Modern Warfare 3 – became the third regular developer on the Call of Duty franchise, reducing the workload on Infinity Ward and Treyarch while allowing those legacy devs to add an additional year to their games’ development cycles. In 2014, Sledgehammer released Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which was a significant visual leap for the series at the time, bringing a polish and narrative shift to COD that garnered largely positive reviews. After other future forays in 2015’s Black Ops III by Treyarch and 2016’s Infinite Warfare by Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer’s latest efforts once again signifies a possible shift in the course of the series by returning it to its roots.
Call of Duty: WWII, releasing this November on consoles and PC’s, takes the series back to its inaugural setting, with a few obvious differences. The most visible one, of course, is that modern hardware brings with it the greatest possible potential for the series thus far to represent the era of World War II with greater visual truthfulness than any previous game in the series, and when you power up the special private beta that ran this past weekend, the visual authenticity is nearly overriding.
The first thing you do when you power up the beta for the first time is choose between a few predetermined classes that emphasize the kind of soldier you want to be on these battlefields called “Divisions.” Each Division gives specific perks that affect how you can fight on the battlefield. When you actually start playing a game of Team Deathmatch or the new showcased “War” mode, the biggest indicators that show you’re playing an overall leaner COD experience comes from basic locomotion.
While Call of Duty seemed to take a lot of hints from other games like Titanfall in recent years with regard to jetpacks, wall-running, and more parkour-like free-jumping, all of those kinds of bells and whistles are gone now for a grittier, boots-on-the-ground battle experience that gets back to the fundamental core of what the series innovated back in the early-to-mid 2000’s. One of the biggest tactics that make its return (even though it never truly left the series) is “jump-shotting,” the act of literally jumping around a corner in order to try and anticipate an enemy lurking around the corner while simultaneously taking them down I close-quarters. Your weapon is aimed downward in an effectively maneuvered jump-shot, and when used well can make a big difference in a tense one-on-one encounter.
Similarly, emphasis on drop-shotting – where you squeeze off a few rounds before going prone on the ground for a final few rounds to finish an enemy off – also returns. The lack of the more advanced mobility found in the previous games definitely keep you closer to the ground, but there’s still a limited element of verticality that comes with a renewed emphasis on these classic COD techniques. Jumping into the repertoire for this game is a “dolphin dive,” which is pretty self-explanatory: hold the B or Circle button on an Xbox or PS4 to dive onto your belly and quickly turn around, which in the best cases can catch your enemy off guard long enough for a few well-placed shots to take them down.
The feel of the game overall has definitely had some quirks thrown in, such as a longer sprint out time (the duration it takes for you to be able to fire after a sprinting run) and the effectiveness of all weapons – to varying degrees, of course – as well as renewed effectiveness of things like smoke grenades and division-specific skills. While some games might limit you to certain weapons based on a chosen class, that limitation doesn’t exist in WWII, which is a nice change of pace.
Finally, the biggest new mode to explore in this beta is “War,” which represents quite a significant new addition to COD overall. While inevitable comparisons will likely be made to the sweeping and all-encompassing “Operations” mode found in the Battlefield series, War mode in Call of Duty: WWII feels far more focused, which is to its credit. Given a series of four specific objectives to accomplish on a larger battle map, you’re charged with attacking or defending different sectors while also being charged with accomplishing specific tasks under enemy fire. You might have to build a bridge to get to the next sector, rig a charge to blow out a wall that’s in your way, or carve out a nest for a larger machine gun to post up and drive off your enemy by force.
War represents a bit of an influence in previous single player game modes into the multiplayer function, which should be particularly encouraging for players that buy COD more for single player than multiplayer (a group of players which does exist, contrary to popular belief!).
Overall, the beta for Call of Duty: WWII feels like, perhaps, the most innovative entry in the series from a functional perspective, perhaps, since the original Modern Warfare. Returning to the setting that put the franchise on the map in the first place represents both a shot in the arm for the series’ modern gameplay mechanics, while also representing a bit of uncharacteristic listening to the fans by Activision. After the somewhat tepid response to the most future-bearing entry in the series in last year’s Infinite Warfare, the franchise looks poised to return to its roots in an imaginative way.
Of course, this is only a beta, and we don’t have any idea if Activision and Sledgehammer Games will indeed “stick the landing” given the promise laid out here. The final multiplayer mode will conceivably be far more robust than this one, and we’ll definitely have to see of all the elements combine with the highly-anticipated single player mode to make this game realize its significant potential. Still, this beta portends a lot of really interesting additions for one of the most popular franchises in modern gaming, and we’ll be eagerly anticipating the full game when Call of Duty: WWII launches on November 3rd.