It feels good to be back.
"Movement has been tamed, the weapons feel hefty, every bullet counts."
How times change.
Last year we were all laying into Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. Kicking it around the gutter as it took off into space, leaving fans in its blast radius scorched and stunned. Space combat was perhaps an inevitable conclusion to a series that has gradually morphed over the years into a weird hi-tech war fantasy, but it still burned.
Pretty much everyone registered disinterest although that didn't stop it from selling. Nothing ever does. Call of Duty is its own thing outside of the games echo chamber. It escaped the frenzy and criticism of fandom long ago. There are only a few games that have achieved that - FIFA, Madden, Pokemon - games that thrive as entertainment or pop culture, no longer shackled by the 'games' tag. Every developer wants to be in that position but very few are.
Call of Duty could have continued to do whatever the hell it wanted every year. But the announcement of Call of Duty: WWII has done a lot to reverse its fortune in the eyes of fans. Sledgehammer has come back to the echo chamber where the cries of "back to its roots" still ring loud. Call of Duty is now repeating those very words back to its fans; it's boots on the ground, soldier.
It doesn't look like lip service either. The early reveal of WWII was a great set-up. Better still, its recent multiplayer hands-on has reassured me, us, and those lucky enough to play it at E3, that it's perfectly on track to deliver tight combat with a focus on tactical and skillful play and no gimmicks. Movement has been tamed, the weapons feel hefty, every bullet counts.
War mode is the big addition to Call of Duty multiplayer this year - a hybrid that throws in narrative objectives, Overwatch Payload, Call of Duty Zombies and Battlefield 1's Operations. Play across a map shifts as teams complete objectives; attacking or defend an outpost, building a bridge and escorting a tank, obliterating an enemy bunker. It gives a full squad of players a real focus and sense of purpose, putting teamwork front and center. That determined push to advance as a united (6v6) force will be what wins the day.
Phase one of the map we played began with a small chateau being held by Nazi forces. As Allies we needed to claim it, a tough starting assault but not impossible. There's plenty of cover, alternate routes if you look out for them, and even a frontal assault isn't suicidal if you have someone with an eagle-eye and a Garand backing you up. As Nazi players you're able to build defenses here, such as hammering shut entrances and bolting a heavy machine gun to a window of your choice. Locking down a lane of approach becomes key, chopping up any players who break cover.
Push the Nazi's back and the second phase moves to a bridge. Allies need to get their tool kits out and repair it while the enemy takes shots with snipers and mounted machine guns. With plenty of smoke for cover it's doable so long as our squad takes on roles - there needs to be a lot of defending team-mates as they mess about with a spanner, while someone else should try to flush enemy snipers into the open where possible. You can never have enough smoke grenades. It's a total killzone around the bridge and you're going to have to sacrifice yourself and the rest of the troop to eventually get the job done.
"Locking down a lane of approach becomes key, chopping up any players who break cover."
If you do manage that, through gritted teeth, it's on to destroying a supply depot. You'll need to arm a bomb and defend it, while the Axis spawn in and try to clear you out. You can build barriers here and if you're smart use them to funnel enemies into a particular area that other team-mates can use as a choke point, cutting down players who have nowhere else to go. This turned into a very close quarters fight for us, with shotguns, SMGs, pistols and a spade being the most reliable weapons.
Phase four is the final push for allies as they escort a tank across the map. Stand close to it and it rolls out, but move away from it and it retreats. Although no one gets to drive the tank, it does move quickly and you can use the mounted gun on it to lay down some brutal fire. Combine that with the rest of your team using the tank for cover, lots of smoke and quick wits and you can get that payload to its destination surprisingly quickly. It's a great final objective to a mode that's intense and unforgiving but never cheap.
What I found interesting was that it demands sacrifice. There are no killstreaks here and there's hardly emphasis on kill death ratios or point scoring for the sake of it. It's all about skill, determination and playing to the objective without any additional help. It felt like it intentionally asks you to sacrifice your soldier, especially during the bridge fixing phase, in order to push forward and succeed. I can see that rankling some players obsessed with stats.
That's only one War mode map and I'm keen to see more. Shifting objectives keeps everyone on their toes and the gameplay fresh as you move from one goal to another. It's busy, varied and chaotic, and far more rewarding than stumbling through Deathmatch with an average K/D.
It made me realise how glad I am to see the back of all that wall-running, double jumping and ridiculous laser weapons that had become embedded in Call of Duty over the years. It's not entirely fresh and you could even say it's familiar - certainly, not much in video games is innovative. But the thrills generated by War mode have reawakened the buzz for Call of Duty that I haven't felt in some years. I'm very pleased we're back, heels in the dirt, objectives won or lost with a single shot.
Call of Duty: WWII's private beta runs at the end of August and start of September for those who preorder the game. Call of Duty: WWII is due for release November 3 on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.