Around April/May each year, the gaming community collectively sighs at the tease of a new upcoming Call of Duty. Despite the franchise suffering fatigue since Black Ops II pushed the futuristic sci-fi setting to the forefront of releases to come for the next half decade, there was still a solid fanbase to market the games towards. However, the fanbase that Activision altogether failed to acknowledge was the initial fans of the series, going back to the first three entries in the series all predominantly focused on World War II. Sure, it might’ve been a wise move at the time to shift its timeline in Modern Warfare since the World War II setting was failing to meet expectations of new, inventive gameplay and thus becoming more stale, it was a necessary move that unfortunately meant a decline in the overall quality and ingenuity that the original games brought. But with Call of Duty: WWII recently being announced, should we actually be excited for a return to World War II? And most importantly, is this simply a case of teaching an old dog new tricks?
I may be a bit hypocritical in saying that I’m skeptical of Call of Duty: WWII since I was begging for a return to boots on the ground gameplay since Advanced Warfare misfired the series in the wrong direction, but ironically enough, it’s Advanced Warfare’s developers, Sledgehammer Games, that are responsible for bringing the series back to its glory days with WWII. Now this poses a few interesting dilemmas. Infinity Ward was largely responsible for the original trilogy and its landmark design that gave a refreshing spin on World War II, even if it seemed like the series’ setting was meeting rocky shores in its lasting appeal. Modern Warfare was a necessary move in keeping the franchise relevant and constantly evolving, but in its evolution into space and beyond, it lost much of what made the series so iconic and groundbreaking in the first place.
Sledgehammer Games first made a name for themselves as a sub-developer of Modern Warfare 3, and in 2014, reinvented the entire series with Advanced Warfare (even though there was signs of trouble since Black Ops II). It’s strange to see Sledgehammer Games be the phoenix rising out of the ashes of Infinity Ward after Infinite Warfare completely lost a large part of their fanbase – a creative design instigated by Sledgehammer themselves. But the decrease in fans also had one massive external element in the form of another 2016 shooter that actually did justice to the World War setting: Battlefield 1.
Several distraught fans unhappy with the direction Infinite Warfare took the Call of Duty series jumped with excitement at the prospect of EA DICE’s Battlefield, the main competitor to Call of Duty, actually giving them what Activision failed to deliver; a boots on the ground, unique experience again. And boy, what a unique experience it was. Battlefield 1 benefited from its setting, World War I, a period in history that many developers tended to shy away from due to the extremely difficult task of making it exciting and accessible. Yet, EA DICE nailed it in almost every conceivable way, putting Activision in a bit of a stalemate. After the poor reception that Infinite Warfare received, with player numbers being abysmally short for the massive annual franchise, it was perhaps in Activision’s best interests to analyse what went wrong.
Knowing the development cycle of the Call of Duty games with its three primary developers, Infinity Ward, Treyarch and Sledgehammer, all rotating around a 2-3 year period, it’s safe to say WWII was in development by Sledgehammer for a while before the negative reception of Infinite Warfare even shuddered at the success of Battlefield 1, so it’s a bit presumptuous of me to assume the last-minute decision to replicate the excitement surrounding its competitor was intentional. However, it still played a huge factor in it, and largely in part to Activision’s lack of engagement with fans demands. A World War II setting is, ideally, the best possible move to take the Call of Duty franchise right now, returning to its former glory days and also playing to the demands (at this point we should rather call it prayers) of fans still holding on to this glimmer of hope. We only know little about the game apart from its setting until the reveal, but should we actually be excited about this?
Part of my skepticism for this is, like I mentioned earlier, the appeal of the World War II setting. Battlefield 1’s success rested on the shoulders of a daring concept that was never done before through World War I, but the World War II shooter has ultimately exhausted its greatest ideas through other series like Medal of Honor, Brothers In Arms, and even earlier Battlefield entries excluding what Call of Duty had already brought to the table. Why more developers have shifted to modern warfare is because of the spike of World War II shooters in the early 2000’s that saw a struggle between creative minds to introduce their own inventiveness into the war, which admittedly was already limited and dried of all original ideas as a result. This raises a red flag for Call of Duty: WWII.
While it is true that the gaming industry has shifted away from older war shooters over the years, the demand of gamers to go back to that era of gaming certainly speaks more about the nostalgic aspects of World War II shooters as opposed to it being done as a wholly original and innovative product. Sledgehammer Games may have their work cut out for them if they wish to reinvigorate the same amount of interest and appeal with some ingenuity to make WWII a justified return to form. Otherwise, this upcoming game could suffer from feeling like a pretty shell of its former self; a genuine concern for many who feel conflicted about what Activision aims to achieve with this apart from giving in to fan demands without any real new creative direction.
On the bright side, it is a good sign to see the behemoth publisher finally willing to listen to what fans have been demanding for what feels like an eternity. Apart from my concerns, I’m still very excited to see exactly what Sledgehammer Games can bring to the table with their first bout into World War II. If the admittedly bold move to boost Call of Duty far into the future with Advanced Warfare was an objectively fresh spin on a tired formula, I have faith they can use that same visionary drive to give WWII an edge over the tired tropes of the World War II shooter. We can only patiently wait now to see if Call of Duty: WWII succeeds or fails as this could very well be the series’ ultimate tipping point.