The Call of Duty of today just doesn’t work in the coveted WW2 setting.
It’s very hard not to be engulfed back into the world of Call of Duty every year, especially as a lover of first person shooters. I was excited to go back to World War II and experience a new harrowing chapter set against the backdrop that we first stepped foot into when we played the first few games in the series almost 15 years ago now. However, that huge period of time away from the era has allotted me a more full knowledge of history, a chance to listen to Stories about World War II from veterans still alive today as a documentarian, and even a chance to explore the history of my own grandfather, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Now, that’s not to say these experiences have changed the way I’ve absorbed entertainment, especially about war. Many of the great games and films I’ve played and watched today are deeply rooted in war stories, historic and modern. Some of them are brutal and real in their portrayals (The Grey Zone, Saving Private Ryan) and some of them are outlandish and caricaturistic (Inglourious Basterds, Wolfenstein). Yet, those stories have planted their stance on war in some way or another.
Which is why playing CoD: WW2 makes me feel so uncomfortable. The campaign’s story itself seems a prisoner to the franchise’s own devices that make it popular today. You see, we want excitement, we want massive explosions and glorious kill-streaks, we want the rush of the microscopic sense of combat experience that CoD gives to us. The thing is, do we want that for the story that CoD: WW2 is trying to tell? I’m finding it more and more difficult to discern what this single-player campaign wants to provide. Exciting, hard-hitting action fighting Nazis deep in the European Theater, or a realistic slice of life into the experiences of a soldier during that difficult time?
The thing is, I don’t think I want the combination of those two things anymore. Sure, the campaign of WW2 never expressly thinks itself to be a truly realistic portrayal of what it was like during the war, but I just can’t help but feel like the experiences and the feelings the veterans may have had become slightly dulled by the need for the single player campaigns to maintain any kind of entertainment value.
No one wants a boring game, right? Here’s the thing: I’d be willing to forgo harrowing train crashes, intense tank stand offs, and explosive, collapsing bridge runs for a truer sense of the effects of combat on the mental capacities of soldiers. Or for a truer glimpse of what if feels like to leave a wounded friend behind. Or for an iota of sense for what it’s like to walk through the emptied shell of a camp that murdered thousands of people. Within the game’s campaign, these experiences feel like they are earmarked as essential tropes needed to have a fuller experience of the horrors of World War II and because of that, it makes that history feel more serial and cartoony than real.
Contrast that to a game like Spec Ops: The Line, where nearly the entire storyline is deeply rooted in the actions your character has made as a soldier and moreso, how those actions have severely influenced your mental status to the point where you aren’t sure what’s real to you anymore. Not even a walk through a Nazi death camp in CoD: WW2 felt like it carried a modicum of mental weight compared to the burdens that you as a player feel you are meant to carry when you walk through the blood-stained sands of Dubai in Spec Ops.
I spent some time documenting the personal tales of a select few World War II vets during their deployment in the Pacific and their stories were quiet but plentiful. The intricacies were certainly there but layered with anecdotal emotion. They remembered how scared they were when their plane made their first bomb run. And how annoyed they were with the enemy flying close above their camps, not even attacking them but just keeping them awake with their loud engines. Those emotions would always be at the forefront of these stories and would almost certainly make them infinitely better because of it.
We miss out on a lot of great emotional storytelling in CoD: WW2 because we’re almost doomed to crave the onslaught of the action set pieces that come with the territory of the franchise. We barely get a chance to sit with the horrific battles that unfolded moments before us when the next chapter begins. And when we transition, it’s almost as if that last moment of bravery or horror didn’t even exist.
I find myself wanting to lean towards the idea that going back to the World War II era isn’t exactly the greatest idea anymore. Yet, there are games like Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus that come along, a game the most definitely falls into the outlandish and caricaturistic category in regards to its depiction of the what happens in their version of World War II, and yet it remains steadfast and truthful to its nature and in its storytelling. It does not shy away from the emotion, however exaggerated it may be. The events that occur in The New Colossus surely warrant that emotion. We certainly feel the extent of that in the war-ravaged BJ Blazkowicz, or the insane Irene Engel, or even the maniacal Adolf Hitler, all of whom managed to stay truthful to their character and ideals amidst the insanity of Wolfenstein.
When it comes down to it, that is what CoD: WW2 needed to strive for: a truth in knowing what it wanted to be within the confines of the story that the World War II setting could give. To me, the nature of what the CoD franchise is today overtook that potential truth and the attempt to tell a story with poise ultimately tarnished itself with its own hubris.
World War II was certainly a tough time in our history and an even tougher experience for those who lived through it, but to visit that era is and forever will be important. Never should it ever be off-limits to storytellers (even to ones who come up with outrageously wild stories like Wolfenstein and Inglourious Basterds). As long as the truth is there, presented in all its glory and represented to the best of it ability, storytellers will do just fine… but if the Call of Duty franchise continues on its current path, perhaps it shouldn’t go back to the World War II era any time soon.
Brandon Hunt is responsible for some of the memes you may have seen on the IGN Social channels. Please don’t hurt him. You can check out the documentary about WWII vets that he worked on here: https://www.eleventhemovie.com/ – Follow him on Twitter @mediavandal.