Call of Duty: WWII made me question the entire enterprise of virtually reenacting real-life conflict for fun. Sledgehammer Games’ decision to go back to the series’ World War II origins already smacks of crowd-pleasing revanchism after the corporately untenable dip in sales suffered by Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare; but to revisit the subject matter as blithely as they’ve done here betrays a collapse of creative imagination.
From its oddly NowThis-style opening crawl, which whisks the player past the irrelevancies of the conflict pre-1944—IT IS THE DEADLIEST CONFLICT IN HUMAN HISTORY, the massive sans-serif letters boast—the game is laser-focused on “our boys” fighting in Europe. This is in stark contrast to the first trio of WWII-set Call of Duty games which, although they were no less militaristic, featured Polish, Canadian, Soviet, and British forces in addition to American squads.
True to their name, Sledgehammer do not go in for subtlety. The cast is all square-jawed Boys hoisting bazookas and bayoneting Jerries, writing letters to their mommas, and swearing never to let their Pas down again. One brief, promising interlude—that is, there are no guns—involving a French Resistance officer tosses it all away for a stupid, gaudy riff on Colonel Hans Landa from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. But the main reference point for this lad-heavy story is the glut of prestige-pedigree WWII media triggered by Steven Spielberg’s 1998 Saving Private Ryan though the tired, corny tone lands it closer to Michael Bay’s risible 2001 Pearl Harbor.
So Call of Duty: WWII opens, as it must, with yet another bloody reinscription of the June 6th, 1944 Allied assault on Normandy into the flesh of our collective memory. WWII has no new insights to share with you about this monstrous day; it perhaps valorizes the Americans, but only in privileging their viewpoint. Otherwise it splays dismembered character models across the screen in some crass thirdhand attempt to impart the Reality Of War—as if these lovingly mutilated corpses spoke to anything but the painstaking labor of their own creation. One of the first sights in the game is an American soldier lying dead and drained, his arm gone, leaving a splintered knob of bone protruding from his ruined shoulder. The blood carefully stippled over his slack face catches the early Normandy light just so. The player is forced to gawk at this puerile monument as part of a brief cutscene. “Oh Jesus,” the protagonist mutters before the game resumes, confidently having done its due diligence to remind players that war is not merely an immersive and breathtaking shooter experience but, indeed, hell.
The many trappings of a modern shooter are incongruously slapped over the photorealistic aesthetic of WWII; cartoon blood obscuring the player’s vision as they near death, giant waypoints directing her down each flight of a staircase like a dog trainer coaxing a distractible terrier; pop-up text informing her that “Prone is blocked.” Both critics and players have accepted these garish accoutrements, the safety bars on the rollercoaster of “flow,” as part-and-parcel of the big-budget videogame experience, even when they go well overboard—a screenshot I saw of Horizon: Zero Dawn in which a gorgeously roaring bonfire dense with particle effects is overlaid by a fucking stylized fire icon is a particularly extreme example.
The entire game contrives to make the player feel special and comfortable, from goofy “Heroic Action” moments, which are essentially another collectible tally to check off as the player pulls someone out of harm’s way and they thank her effusively, to squadmates complimenting her crack headshot skills as if no one in the thick of battle has anything better to do than admire their friend’s aim. A few attempts to build woke consciousness into the cast of stereotypes, like a soldier sharply commenting that “they have families too” after a squadmate gawks at a bunch of charred Nazi corpses, are an escape-hatch way in which the game takes the edge off the war’s true ugliness, which didn’t lie in showy gore effects but in the brutality and hate that fuels armed conflict.
And it’s well-documented that the elaborate theatre of a Call of Duty game ceases to function if the player, its star, fails to hit her marks. WWII is no different in this regard. I watched a German soldier stagger down a lamplit street under fire from several of my squadmates but it was not until I laid into him that he collapsed in a welter of blood; the privilege of killing enemy combatants is granted to the player-purchaser alone.
French director Francois Truffaut is often misquoted as saying that there’s “no such thing as an anti-war film.” The closest version of this quote I can verify concerns Truffaut’s brief interest in making a film about Maurice Audin, a mathematics student and communist activist who disappeared during the Battle of Algiers, and remains presumed dead to this day—his fate never confirmed.
Truffaut actually wrote that a fictionalized account of Audin’s story would be “inappropriate, for to show something is to ennoble it.” This is a more versatile version of his sentiment; Call of Duty WWII in no way purports to be anti-war, but it unequivocally ennobles war in every aspect of its design, from the subtle touches I discussed above, which make the player feel like a hero—the hero, the only man on the squad who matters—to the obvious and constant valorization of violence that had unimaginable real-life consequences.
There are anti-war games, just as there are anti-war films (Elem Klimov’s Come and See being the canonical example of the latter). Most of them do not depict armed combat in detail, because both on film and in games it is impossible to avoid slipping into action tropes that cast war in an exciting, simplified light. On this point I quote Sledgehammer co-founder Michael Condrey on the then-nascent Call of Duty: WWII project: “[World War II’s] a great hero’s war, kind of the last that was recognised as a noble cause in a war … I think a next generation game with the latest production values and robustness in a World War II setting like Band of Brothers would be amazing.”
The finished product does indeed buy into the idea of a “hero’s war’—and while “production values” are a AAA development buzzword, there’s something baldly grotesque in the notion that the latest version of Infinity Ward’s proprietary Call of Duty engine will really make those death camps sparkle. Traipsing through digital battlefields, popping headshots on glowing Nazi soldiers, reveals nothing about the terror and waste of murderous conflict and while Call of Duty WWII is hardly the most tasteless war game, its thoughtless splashes of gore are freshly repulsive. In rehashing the series’ original milieu, Sledgehammer inadvertently reveals the hollowness at the core of historical shooters—a pervasive and fundamental inability to reconcile their own gleeful violence.
Astrid B writes about movies and videogames on the internet. Follow her on Twitter.