Sledgehammer takes Call of Duty back to its roots, refining rather than redefining the series for the best entry in years.
It begins, unsurprisingly, on the beach. The throwback to a throwback, from Call of Duty World War to Call of Duty 2, from Medal of Honor Allied Assault all the way to Saving Private Ryan. As the bullets whistle past your ears and thud into the churning sea, as sand scatters and machine guns rattle, as soldiers scream and shout and run, there's more than a feeling that we've done this all before.
And of course we have many times over, but not like this, at least not for a while. WW2, the 14th mainline Call of Duty, is a reclamation of the series' fundamentals - an eschewing of sci-fi tropes, of Black Ops conspiracies, Kit Harrington and the Ghosts, whoever they were. This is Call of Duty as it once was, or at least that's what the marketing would have you think. In actual fact, this is Call of Duty refined if not entirely redefined - a slick, luxurious and impressive triple-A product, forged in the image of Sledgehammer but shameless in its lifting of ideas, concepts and mechanics from both the series past and any number of its competitors. And it's all the better for it.
Call of Duty WW2, as is now the series' tradition, is split into three distinct sections, each almost feeling like their own game. It's a little disconcerting to see the words 'NAZI ZOMBIES' emblazoned across a product that's otherwise keen to demonstrate how earnest and respectful it is to the subject matter, but such is the way with Call of Duty, whose tonal inconsistencies you've been able to rely upon since Modern Warfare 2.
It'd be easy to skip past the campaign and go straight into the meat of the multiplayer, but to do so here would be to miss the strongest single-player Call of Duty offering since Black Ops 2. A spirited run-through of the 'greatest hits' of the war's decisive last two years, it doesn't deviate from the classic Call of Duty formula of rollercoaster shooting galleries and scenery-crunching set pieces, but it does it all with some style. Sledgehammer has worked hard to both streamline and subtly change the COD formula, opting for a back-to-basics approach of set-up, shootout and cool-down, broken up across key parts of the Western European theatre.
It's all mercifully light on low-agency scripted set pieces, too. Aside from a couple of weak driving sections and a final mission that could have done with a few less Panzerschreck, this is a game of epic, thrilling shootouts and a surprisingly engaging story, with more than a little heart. It's cliche after cliche, of course, but the performances are so strong and the game so stunning to behold that it's easy to get wrapped up in its theatrics.
It helps, too, that your band of brothers are given an active role on the battlefield. As levels progress, your squad mates gain access to helpful abilities which you can call on - one can chuck you an med pack, for example, while another offers ammo. These aren't huge paradigm shifts for Call of Duty, but you're consistently interacting with your mates and it helps create a sense of camaraderie in a smart piece of design.
A more noticeable change comes in the form of medpacks and diminishable health, marking a move away from the trend of healing yourself by hiding behind a wall and breathing heavily that's gripped first-person shooters for well over a decade. It's another smart move - there's inherent tension in having low health in a shooter - and while you're rarely caught without a medpack to hand, having something to manage while you're navigating the carnage makes every shootout that much more engaging. It all helps make for a memorable campaign, matching some wonderful production values with everything you'd hope for from vanilla Call of Duty.
It's also tonally respectful - if a little over earnest - which is more than can be said for the Zombies mode. Still, for all its incongruity Zombies has come a long way since the watered down Left4Dead of old, doing away with the tedious planks-on-windows nonsense, and focusing instead on a dense, elaborately designed environment. It's still not a patch on Gears Of War's horde, or even Mass Effect 3's multiplayer for that matter, but there's an awful lot of fun to be found in the knowing schlock of what remains a seriously odd diversion.
Onto the main course, then. Call of Duty WW2's multiplayer marks a real change of direction for the series - the biggest, perhaps, since Sledgehammer's own Advanced Warfare revolutionised Call of Duty's player movement. Here, you won't be seeing 1940's infantrymen and women double jumping or wall-running, so the competition refocuses on lines-of-sight and gun-on-gun accuracy. And, of course, shooting people in the back while hidden under a table.
It's a treat to go back to basics. Black Ops 3 and Infinite Warfare always felt like bad Titanfall rip-offs to me, as they nixed some of Advanced Warfare's more interesting movements in favour of ludicrous slides and easy wall-runs. Here, though, Call of Duty regains some of its own identity, and it's a reminder of how good that fundamental game really is.
As always, your actual enjoyment of the multiplayer will vary depending on your skill. It's funny how almost any multiplayer shooter is enjoyable when you're demolishing your opposition, and a horrible broken mess when you're on a 2-27 K/D run and you just got quickscoped by someone a pixel high. Yet even at its most frustrating Call of Duty WW2 is evidently a very high quality online shooter. The usual modes are now joined by the frankly excellent War, which liberally nicks bits of Battlefield and Overwatch to create something very enjoyable indeed. Basically, it's Battlefield's Rush, but with much smaller teams and far more varied objectives. It benefits from the same thrill of pushing an objective or holding a bunker that both Overwatch and Battlefield fans know only too well.
It's a mode that flies in the face of the K/D nursing Call of Duty community, but the map and objective design is good enough to make you forget about that precious stat just long enough to charge up the Omaha beach, or push a tank deep into a German village. Still, most people will likely spend their time in staples such as Team Deathmatch, Domination or even Free For All, but War is most definitely where it's at (probably not a tagline they should use on the box, mind).
Now I can't leave without addressing that hottest of hot topics, those loot boxes. Well, controversial opinion time - I'd be lying if I said I didn't like them. The daft manner in which they appear from the sky, the way all the players in the Tower-like social space stare at them as they open, the stupid cosmetics that pop out - it's enjoyably ridiculous, and most importantly it doesn't affect the core loop of the multiplayer at all. Some will hate them regardless, and certainly it's tough to sell a game on its authenticity when such patent ridiculousness is right there in the middle of the social space, but for me, they're good fun. Your own mileage may vary, of course.
A quick word on that social space too. It's neatly designed, full of little secrets and tidbits like the Pit 1-on-1 mode, the firing range's hidden sequences, and there's even a collection of retro Activision games, all of which amounts to a fun diversion - if and when it works. Somewhat atypically for the series, Call of Duty WW2 has launched with more than its share of teething issues, with server problems and social spaces that are embarrassingly devoid of other players. Be warned that, in these early days, this is a game that's still finding its feet.
Even taking those issues into consideration, Call of Duty WW2 is quite the package. By returning the series to its roots, Sledgehammer has made the series feel relevant again. There's a stunning-looking campaign that's the most enjoyable single-player since Black Ops 2, a smartly retrogressive multiplayer with some enjoyable add-ons, and a game that looks like it's going to earn every bit of its inevitable commercial success. Call of Duty WW2 isn't just a throwback - it's the best entry in the series for quite some time.