Sledgehammer’s Sincerity Makes Call of Duty: WWII’s Story a Personal One [Preview]
Admittedly, I was skeptical about Call of Duty: WWII when it was announced. Sure, it looked pretty, but we'd been here before. A lot. While Activision's recent turns into more fantastical military shooters may not have been grounded in gritty realism of historical encounters, they at least offered the multiple Call of Duty dev teams the chance to tell stories we hadn't seen before. After sitting down with Sledgehammer Games' Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey for a demo of Call of Duty: WWII's story, I can say I'm more intrigued than ever for a Call of Duty game.
We've now reached the point in history when virtually every story about World War II is being told second- or third-hand. The number of veterans from the last great war has diminished as we're now more than 70 years removed from D-Day and the subsequent battles in the European theater. Young adults and children no longer have the context that many of us in our 30s and older had when growing up alongside relatives who were very close to, or directly involved in, the war efforts on all sides. To Sledgehammer Games, showcasing the stories of World War II was an important and personal challenge to honor the global sacrifices millions made decades before this latest generation was born.
It's been 20 years since Saving Private Ryan redefined what World War II was like for moviegoers, and over a decade since Band of Brothers continued that narrative line. Call of Duty: WWII falls under a similar motif, with the single-player campaign following a platoon from the Fighting First. Sledgehammer's game does pick up during D-Day, but rather than aping Steven Spielberg's approach, players will arrive on a later boat, when the chaos has left the beaches of Normandy devastated.
This allowed Sledgehammer to show that same historic moment from a completely different angle, which is an approach the developer took for the entirety of the game. Call of Duty: WWII isn't just about showing off one man's heroic journey to stop the Nazis; it's an all-encompassing narrative built around a number of Allied forces including the women of the French Resistance, the segregated black soldiers from the US, and Britain's RAF. This war touched upon so many lives in numerous ways, and Schofield, Condrey, and the rest of the Sledgehammer team spent three years crafting a compelling, thoughtful story that would touch on as many of those contributions as possible in a video game campaign.
Even as the Sledgehammer co-founders continued elaborating on game systems and what they were able to accomplish with this new take, you could hear the sincerity and honesty in their speech. The development team has put a lot of personal touches into this year's Call of Duty, making sure it's more than just another first-person shooter. They want this to be a title that shows off the authenticity of one of the world's most brutal conflicts, from the camaraderie of the platoon, to the horrors of war, and even touching on the various cultural attitudes of the era. We didn't get to see much of that in our demo, but hearing Schofield and Condrey tell it, you get the sense they aren't pulling punches to show the glamour of combat. This is a serious story that begins in France and leads all the way into the heart of Germany, and Sledgehammer wants to ensure players can learn lessons about World War II that they otherwise wouldn't be able to anymore.
As for the footage we saw, the Fighting First had made it through Normandy and was in the middle of a shootout in the town of Marigny. With an objective to secure the high ground from a church bell tower, the platoon moved through the obliterated village slowly, taking Nazi troops down as they made their way to the town center. Marigny was likely a very beautiful place before it was touched by the war, but as with so many locales across Europe in the '40s, the ruins only left smoldering promises of what once stood strong.
What's interesting about these homes and buildings you make your way through as you progress is how Sledgehammer made sure everything in the world was telling a story. Before artists could place something so innocuous as a table in a room, they had to come up with a backstory for it. How many people were sitting there? What were they doing? Did they make it out before the Nazis ruined their lives? That kind of thoughtfulness is seen around every corner, and even includes other soldiers. At one point, our character "Red" Daniels (named after Schofield's father) comes up the stairs in a crumbling home only to find a Nazi officer sitting on the floor across from him. Rather than be captured by the American troops, he kills himself right in front of us. It's a scripted moment, but again, it's one that calls back to the idea that every scene and set must tell part of the story of World War II.
And yes, there are new wrinkles to the way Call of Duty: WWII will play, including special platoon abilities like a medic, who offers you health packs, and a spotter, who can highlight all your sniping targets. Health packs are necessary in the campaign as there is no health regeneration (don't worry, it's still there in multiplayer), as Sledgehammer felt it robbed the game of its honesty. You can't just take hundreds of bullets in and wait out your health bar anymore. You have to be thoughtful with your movement and cover, which led to the developers having to really put some thought into the level design. It's not just enough to have waist-high walls everywhere; you've also got to have busted vehicles or fallen buildings creating new obstacles for both the Axis and Allied forces.
It would have been easy to just place this new Call of Duty in the era of World War II and walk away, but Sledgehammer has more stake in this game and its story than just a setting. It's a personal journey for this developer, and one that they hope fans will take with them for more reasons than those three little words in the title. If you can look past all the industry jargon and buzzwords surrounding this annual release, you can see the authenticity in Sledgehammer's approach, and for that reason alone, Call of Duty: WWII is one game we'll be keeping a much closer eye on in 2017.
Call of Duty: World War II will be available on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC on November 3.