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Call of Duty WWII Review: A stunning return to the beaches of Normandy

Jordan Crook

Late last week, Call of Duty: WWII launched. The title marks CoD's return to boots-on-the-ground gameplay for the first time in three years.

For folks who have played Call of Duty since the beginning, this is a welcome return to the game they fell in love with. Soldiers appear more human, instead of looking like some futuristic, cyber-mutant Marine. And because the soldiers' physical ability is limited -- they can't sprint too long before tiring or jump more than a few feet -- strategy is now a priority.

For the younger generation of CoD players, this will be a brand-new type of Call of Duty. Without jetpacks and the ability to wall-run, CoD:WWII is about positioning, decision-making and gun skill. But at the same time, the new game returns to a time the series hasn't visited in a while — World War II — and doesn't shy away from the horrors of it all.

As is standard with CoD titles, World War II is truly three games wrapped up into one. There is the Campaign, an immersive single-player story that takes the player (Private Daniels) on an actual tour, fighting in historic battles, of the Western Front. Then there is Multiplayer, a cornerstone of CoD titles, where players face off with other players online in a range of game modes. And, finally, there's Nazi Zombies, a co-op mode where players go head-to-head with gamebots.

Multiplayer

For the past few years, CoD's campaigns have always taken a backseat to Multiplayer. And with good reason. Playing against other people will always prove to be a challenge. No matter how good you get, others will get better, too.

With WWII, Activision and Sledgehammer have added some new features to the game that help bridge the gap between the hyper-futuristic titles of the recent past with the boots-on-the-ground experience that is CoD's foundation. The organizations do this all while trying to remain true to the history of World War II.

The most notable differences you'll find in this game, when compared against other CoD titles, is the Divisions set up and headquarters.

Instead of "Create A Class," which lets users build out various equipment set-ups, WWII asks users to enlist in a Division, which gives them certain abilities that could be compared to perks from old games. For example, the Armored division has extra protection against explosive damage, which is akin to using Flak Jacket. This gives users less flexibility to get creative with their equipment set up, but also brings a new challenge to the game.

Then there's the headquarters of CoD Multiplayer. Instead of the usual in-game menu, the player is dropped into HQ, where they can purchase contracts, open supply drops, get training for Scorestreaks, face off against other players in a 1v1 pit, get some target practice on the gun range, and pick up their in-game currency. It's a bit of a rip-off of Destiny with the Tower or Destiny 2 with the Farm, but it's a smart move for the game, giving a bit of life to the moments between the action.

There is also a new game mode called War Mode, which asks players to complete a series of different tasks, from building a bridge to protecting supplies to holding an area against intruding enemies. You could think of it as a combination of a handful of game modes, from S&D to Hardpoint, with some building and breaking down of barriers thrown in there.

Though WWII's Multiplayer experience is beautiful, fun and satisfying, it doesn't come without its flaws. Game modes like Capture the Flag and Gridiron don't quite feel as realistic as Search and Destroy or Team Deathmatch, as there's obviously no part in World War II where warring nations were playing basketball with guns. That said, Sledgehammer did their research, and everything from the weapons to the gear to the maps come from real equipment and locations during World War II.

Unfortunately, there were a few annoying bugs at launch, including one where players got locked into the leaderboard at the end of each map, making it impossible to enjoy headquarters or leave the lobby to find a new activity. To fix this, Activision had to close down the servers repeatedly throughout the weekend, which suggests that the game might have been rushed to meet the ship date. These are kinks that will be worked out over time, of course, but die-hard fans who showed up on launch day were undoubtedly disappointed, as was I.

Campaign

More so than any Call of Duty I've ever played (which is most, but not all of them), WWII has the best campaign. Not only are the graphics and audio some of the best I've ever experienced, but the storyline itself adds a level of drama and emotion that is hard to find in other games.

Our hero is Private Daniels, and for the vast majority of the Campaign, players will be playing as Daniels himself. The opening scene of the campaign puts Daniels and his various platoon-mates in a galley aboard a ship headed for Normandy. But before the inspirational speech from the commander and before the choppy boat ride to the beach, we learn of the relationships that these soldiers have with one another.

It makes the game play all the more high stakes. The player, as Private Daniels, can respawn as many times as they need to. But if his friends die, they stay dead.

What's more, the Campaign takes you through a trip across Europe, staring at Normandy and going through to Marigny and then heading to the liberation of Paris. Within each mission, there are opportunities to perform 'heroic actions,' which basically means that you put yourself in harm's way to drag a fellow soldier out of the line of fire.

There is also a wide range of different kinds of fighting. At times you're driving a jeep to take down a German armored train, and at others you're driving a tank down the streets of Aachen. And at one point, the first-person character you take over is Rousseau, a French spy helping to liberate Paris in a mission that feels eerily similar to Hitman.

All in all, the CoD: WWII campaign is a show of good story-telling within a video game, and is most certainly one worth finishing. Maybe more than once.

Nazi Zombies

Surprisingly, Nazi Zombies feels a bit more polished than Multiplayer. It takes an increasing amount of strategy to unlock new layers of the map, and the graphics and audio elicit a very real level of fear when zombies start closing in on you from all sides.

The map, the Final Reich, has plenty of loops and various points of entry/exit, and load-outs can affect your success quite a bit. Understanding the map and preparing for each match with the right equipment and consumables will make all the difference to whether or not you survive heavy waves.

That said, Nazi Zombies takes a backseat to the Campaign and the Multiplayer experience.

Fans who have loved previous Zombies iterations will enjoy this one all the same, as it's a fantastic co-op mode, but it feels the furthest removed from the CoD: WWII game as a whole. It's an entirely separate experience, and it has little to no bearing on the Campaign or multiplayer experience, save for the word "Nazi" in the name.

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While CoD: WWII is arguably one of the best CoDs to date, it's also the most important. Activision, which owns the franchise, releases Call of Duty games on a yearly schedule, contracting three separate studios to develop games to maintain this yearly release pattern.

Last year, Infinity Ward introduced the world to Infinite Warfare, which has been one of the most disappointing CoD titles both in content and in sales.

World War II is meant to win back disappointed players, while making space for itself in a crowded FPS landscape. Battlefield One is a year old, still fostering a loyal community, while Wolfenstein II's stellar single-player mode was released just a week ago. And then there's Destiny 2.

CoD: WWII joins the fight with most everything it needs to compete, from a familiar and fun Multiplayer experience to an above-and-beyond Campaign.

Call of Duty: World War II standard edition is available now for Xbox One/One X, PS4 and PC for $60.