If there is one franchise over the last ten or so years which has stood above all else when it comes to general popularity and sales controversy it’s Call of Duty. Astonishing sales figures flowed through the years as the franchise grew to the point where multiple development houses took it in turns to pump out visceral twitch-based shooters that influenced a whole generation of titles. Then something happened: as the titles moved away from the World War II era in which they were born this seemed to marry up with franchise fatigue and a subsequent drop in hype and revenue. With one eye on the hugely successful Battlefield 1 the suits at Activision decided to cease with their futuristic mech suit, robot-filled newer games and take the franchise back to its roots - back to what made it such a huge draw in the first place. Was this a wise move or a cynical cash grab by a franchise desperately clinging to its player base? The answer is a bit of both really.
The game itself is built on three core pillars; campaign, multiplayer and the ever random and weird zombie mode. Starting with the campaign and arguably the weakest element of the package it’s back to World War II and an often told tale of a wholesome Middle American soldier who just wants to get the war done so he can return home to his family. It’s boots on the ground as the campaign begins in familiar bombastic style with the US battalions storming the beaches in Normandy on D-Day. You play as Private Daniels, who is one part of what very much feels like a Band of Brothers-style squad, each member being able to assist you along the campaign with supplies. You see unlike most of the recent Call of Dutyadventures there is no regenerating health and supplies aren’t littered all over each missions map, you need to rely on your squadmates for help. Utilising core commands with your team will see them throw over some health when low, or pass across some much needed ammo when in a tight spot. It’s a bit of a change for Call of Duty players who are used to picking up ammo everywhere and having their health regenerate but the mechanics are actually well executed and even if in a small gamey sort of way, make you feel like you have teammates and this is an adventure filled with the type of camaraderie you'd expect from a TV show set in that era.
The single-player campaign begins on 6th June, 1944 with a battle that is about to become very real for U.S Army Private Ronald 'Red' Daniels as his platoon is set to disembark its landing craft onto a heavily fortified Normandy beach. The sound of those guns pummelling the beach greets the player as the level begins, you feel exposed and vulnerable as you try to get off that damn sand. It’s in these first few seconds that you begin to see this old but new Call of Duty play its hand. It’s bombastic, it’s genuinely a bit difficult at first and it’s gorgeous to look at, it has however, all been done before, literally. The reasonably sized campaign will take you around six to eight hours depending on difficulty and is best described as standard, as in bog standard. It’s great to be back shooting Nazis and that will never get old because you know, Nazis, however it’s no more than a straightforward, box-ticking first-person shooter which Call of Duty has done time and time again. Bombastic opening, check, sneaky forced stealth mission, check, borderline on-rails vehicle missions, check, take an area then turn around and use the mounted gun to hold the enemy back, check, grab a sniper rifle and take out the snipers, check - it’s got all the Call of Duty things a Call of Duty game could ever want.
There is one section however within the campaign that takes a bit of a left turn, puts the guns away and sees you going undercover within a Nazi complex. This section, whilst mainly just walking around talking to people mixed in with some stealth gameplay is arguably more interesting than a number of the campaign missions. It’s not to say that this Call of Duty isn’t giving us, the fans, what Activision thought we wanted, it absolutely does, it’s just at this point old hat and it’s really difficult to get excited about a Michael Bay version of World War II.
There is one big positive to take away from the generally by-the-numbers campaign and that is the visuals. If you possess even a reasonable 4K TV along with an Xbox One X or a PS4 Pro you are in for a treat. To really take advantage of the frequent moments of over-the-top madness being portrayed onscreen in all its slo-mo glory the graphical presentation on the aforementioned 4K TV is very nice indeed. Even if you don’t have the budget for the best in class OLED screen something decent with HDR will impress you without doubt. Granted, it’s not the best looking game out there right now but it’s most certainly one of the better looking ones; add to this the bombastic gameplay of the bulk of the campaign, and it’s quite a showcase for anyone considering an upgrade.
Zombies returns and is satisfyingly as bonkers and random as ever. A solid cast of misfits played by a random set of great actors thrown into a campaign which as per most other Zombie modes in Call of Duty starts simple and escalates ridiculously as you progress. No hands are held in this mode and what feels like a breeze on earlier levels quickly turns to absolute madness within a few minutes - not only do you need to concern yourselves with wave after wave of zombies you need to also consider where to go and what to do to progress. Cue lots of fraught frantic moments as your team of up to four try desperately to push past the higher waves and use trial and error whilst surrounded to progress. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, often frantic at times, to the point that it can really be an assault on the senses especially if you do manage to get quite far into a mission run, so for some of us (me basically), it’s best enjoyed in short sharp bursts.
Multiplayer has been the standout performer for the Call of Duty franchise for a number of years to the point where a large percentage of the player base didn’t even touch the campaign despite huge budgets, A-List actors and some decent storylines along the way. Even multiplayer wasn’t unscathed by the dying interest in the latest batch of games. Re-invigorated and “boots on the ground”, as they say the hope was that this new multiplayer experience would be back to basics, with all the 4K trimmings.
Most of the familiar modes are back, including Team Deathmatch, Hardpoint, Search and Destroy, Kill Confirmed, Domination, Free-for-all, and Capture the Flag. There are also some new kids on the block such as Grid Iron, which is best described as American football with guns.
The standout performer in the multiplayer package is actually a brand new mode called War, which adds a multi-stage Axis vs. Allies objective-based match which plays out in a similar fashion to some of the main campaign missions. Teams take turns to attack (while the other defends) through a series of choke points, each with a specific outcome that needs to be met successfully if they are to move one step closer to the final objective and victory. It’s big and quite bold in the grand scheme of modes and with a decent team can really feel like a strategic battle rather than the run of the mill get shot in the back consistently modes which have dominated for years. It’s a real welcome change to feel part of an ongoing conflict in multiplayer and feels so much more engaging that a bog standard team deathmatch.
Call of Duty returns to its routes in what some would call a cynical move after seeing the success of Battlefield 1 along with the slow sales decline we observed with the last few robot-laden adventures. The campaign is cliched over-the-top nonsense but there is fun to be had there, particularly if you like the “let’s Michael Bay this” approach taken throughout. Zombies is as ridiculous and hectic as it’s ever been and an absolute riot with friends. Multiplayer is pretty much the same too, with the excellent addition of the War gameplay mode, and if you like twitch gameplay you will find a solid home here. Overall it’s a solid entry into the franchise but won’t necessarily win over new players to the franchise (if there is such a thing any more) or jaded players alike.