What sort of game is Sledgehammer making with Call of Duty: WWII?

With the Call of Duty WWII reveal behind us, Sledgehammer Games gave us quite a few shocking pieces of info. No more regenerating health? No jet packs or wall runs? Limited ammo and gun selection? Just what sort of game is Sledgehammer making? Well, the answer might surprise you, and might take the COD series in a completely different and risky direction.

Doubling Down on The Military Shooter… Or Are They?

In recent times it’s become clear that Call of Duty has abandoned its military shooter roots. Wall runs, jet packs, laser weapons, and more kept pushing Call of Duty closer and closer to popular arcade shooters like Overwatch. This time, it appears as if Sledgehammer Games is deciding to break from popular trends and double down on Call of Duty’s military shooter roots.

While heavy details on gameplay are still under-wraps, we do know what we won’t see. We won’t see the aforementioned jet-packs or wall-running. We won’t see much heavy weaponry or crazy super-powered perks. In fact, we aren’t going to see much of anything that will make you feel like a super soldier.

Sledgehammer Games is trying to pull the focus off the individual and instead put it on the platoon. Battles are won with teamwork and strategy, not with rocket launchers and satellite hacks, and this has lead them to take some rather massive risks with the formula, at least when compared with other popular shooters on the market.

The most talked about change to the Call of Duty system is the choice to abandon regenerating health. Call of Duty was the game that popularized the mechanic and made it a staple for an entire genre. However, regenerating health does come with some sacrifices. For example, it completely removes the role of combat medic from the game, since every character is their own pocket combat medic.

So in order to bring that role back, a role that was very important in World War II, Sledgehammer took away regenerating health. Most people have begun to assume that this means we are going to be picking up health packs on the ground, like we did in the age of Goldeneye. However, I sincerely doubt that will be the case. Instead, we will likely be relying on our squad mates for healing and support, once again putting the focus on the platoon.

But wait a minute… team synergy? Support based on character classes? A focus on healing in order to provide unit survivability? Doesn’t this sound a whole lot like an arcade shooter? After all, Overwatch doesn’t have regenerating health.

And this is the absolute genius of the Call of Duty WWII formula. Sledgehammer is having their cake and eating it too. While their heavy focus on World War II will please all the military shooter buffs in the Call of Duty fanbase, the mechanics will fall more in line with squad-based arcade-style shooters to allow it to compete with other popular shooter titles on the market, and they have done all this while keeping the mechanics completely thematic. Kudos, Sledgehammer Games. You put a lot of thought into this one.

Let’s Talk Story

While I’m primarily concerned with CODWWII’s core mechanics and multiplayer experience, the reveal focused primarily on the single-player campaign. So let’s talk about that.

The theme of CODWWII runs directly against the jingoism of most COD games. Whereas past COD titles glorify the protagonist as a sort of savior against a great evil, Sledgehammer has said that they wanted to make clear that war is a tragedy. The tone of CODWWII has a bit more in common with Spec-Ops: The Line than it does any other COD game. People are going to die, lives are going to get ruined, and no one truly “wins” in this conflict.

Sledgehammer has also said that they want to make the game feel more personal. For much of the game you will be controlling one character, Ronald “Red” Daniels, a 19 year old from Texas. Red won’t be traveling the world. He won’t be participating in all the great conflicts of WWII. He won’t single-handedly fight off the Nazis. He will stick to his post and fight the missions he is given.

The devs kept bringing up the word “horror” when talking about WWII. It seems as if they are taking another big gamble in that they aren’t making the single-player campaign “fun” in the traditional sense. Artistically relevant, yes. Compelling, yes. But not fun. The game is going to be hard and brutal and emotionally devastating, not a happy-happy shoot em’ up power fantasy.

They are also taking a risk by dealing with issues that are not often tackled in first-person shooters. The game will tackle things like racism, sexism, and religious persecution. I applaud Sledgehammer for being willing to address issues like this, but I have to say I’m cautiously skeptical. Many of these issues require lots of time and nuance, more time than can be spent in a three minute between missions cutscene. If Sledgehammer succeeds, then they will be one of the first AAA studios to tackle these issues head on, and in one of the most popular mainstream franchises to boot. It will be sure to change the way we look at single-player game narratives in the future… if it all goes over well. If it doesn’t, it might come off as heavy-handed and preachy, or worse, end up stumbling over its message (especially because issues of racism, religious persecution, and sexism are still going to be tackled from the perspective of a white, straight, male, Christian protagonist from Texas). I’m not going to say how they should design the game’s narrative to tell this story effectively, but I will applaud them for having the guts to step into this political minefield.

A New Kind of War

The multiplayer details we received were few and far between, primarily because a full multiplayer reveal will hit at this year’s E3. We do know that there will be an entirely separate multiplayer co-op campaign, but we don’t know who it will focus on or what the story will be. We also don’t know how many players it will support or whether or not it will be online or local. However, I think this would be a fantastic opportunity to tell the story of platoons other than Red’s, and showcase other fronts in the war that we wouldn’t otherwise see.

The main multiplayer details we were given have to do with how the game treats classes and what its primary new mode will be. The new mode is called, appropriately enough, “War.” This mode differs from traditional COD multiplayer in that it is a story-driven mode. Yes, Call of Duty, for the first time ever, is integrating narrative into its standard multiplayer gameplay. Way to cater to pretentious games-as-art hipsters like me!

How will they do this? Well, the War mode will bring you to many different conflicts across World War II. However, these conflicts are not going to be symmetrical. One side will play as the Axis and the other as the Allies, and they will have completely different objectives. An example that was given was the storming of the beaches of Normandy. The Allies will have to push further and further up the beach while the Axis has to impede their progress. Once again, you can see some of the arcade-style multiplayer influence this mode has, since this sounds very similar to asymmetrical attack/defense control point maps in games like Overwatch and Team Fortress 2.

Characters will not be divided into classes, but instead will be separated by divisions. Each division will have its own unique role in battle. So, for example, there will be one division that is responsible for healing, one division that is responsible for providing ammo, one division for recon, and of course, one division to shoot the other guy. It all feels a lot more like Battlefield than it does Call of Duty. Unfortunately, particulars about how these divisions will play are still unknown, but one thing is for certain, team composition is going to matter far more in this COD than almost any other. Of course, a heavy focus on team competition points toward this being a very fruitful game in the e-sports world, if it isn’t undermined by the next Call of Duty yearly release.

Finally, we have the new “Headquarters,” which is somewhat analogous to Destiny’s tower. It’s a social space where players can hang out in between matches, which gives the game a bizarre kind of roleplaying element. Sledgehammer has said that players will be able to gain rewards and special perks for participating in this mode, which might be yet another move toward making Call of Duty WWII feel personal.

And I think that’s the key here. CODWII is going to be a very personal game. Unlike most other COD titles, which encourage you to put a million bullets into the other guy, CODWWII seems to be saturating its violence with a sort of realistic weight to it, and this persists even in the multiplayer.

But the real question is, will this weight go over with the COD fanbase, who is rather used to shooting everything just because it’s fun? Will this be the game that solidifies COD as the king of shooters by proving it can do goofy sci-fi action and traumatic realistic drama at the same time? Or will this just alienate COD from the people who loved it so much? Let us know what you think in the comments.