Call of Duty: WWII is Sledgehammer Games' attempt to roll with the edict that the 2017 entry in the COD series take things back to the Second World War because it "resonates with fans." And as much as I may snark about how we clearly haven't gotten over WWII even in 2017, well, it is obviously true. The game sold twice as many copies in its first three days as Infinite Warfare did last year, and you can't chalk that all up to the differences in the world economy between 2017 and 2016. More than that, we've been seeing a rise in WWII-themed media all around, which coincides with the rise of the Alt Right and other fringe conservative groups in Europe and the United Kingdom. For all of our jokes about Nazi Punching at the expense of Richard Spenser's face, we are facing pressures from white nationalist groups much like those that led to the second world war. So if there was ever a time to make a game about WWII, 2017 was that time.
And Activision delivered, but not really the way we wanted them to. Despite their best efforts, there are some obvious moments in COD: WWII that make it pretty obvious that Sledgehammer Games was making a game they didn't quite want to make. The single player campaign, while being longer than some previous entries in the series, featured the kind of wartime masturbation and cookie-cutter dialogue that failed to take any real stance. Which wasn't quite surprising. Activision don't publish a lot of games that push those kinds of social boundaries in any way, but more of a missed opportunity and a let-down.
Instead of reminding us why WWII was hell on earth for a variety of reasons, instead of reminding us why isolationist and nativist movements are not great ideas, we got a game that seemed to take it's talking points from Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers fanfiction. Sure, our faceless whitebread protagonist Private Daniels might argue to his buddies that laughing at the charred corpses of Nazi soldiers isn't kosher because "not all Germans are bad," but the whole game falls completely flat in 2017. We can't keep simplifying WWII into Nazis vs Americans because that is a totally inaccurate depiction of the war. It's probably the biggest evidence in the idea that "the winner decides the truth," because much like during WWI, the Americans came in when the war was mostly over. We waited until we were directly drawn in because of the attack on Pearl Harbor, because America was in the midst of a pretty isolationist, America-centric swing in its internal politics. There were also many pro-Axis supporters in the country.
And despite taking place in the Western Theater, Call of Duty: WWII does a ridiculously revisionist job of assigning sides. We're never forced to question our presence in the conflict, never really brought to deal with the fallout of liberating any concentration camps. Sure, we finally have a CoD that doesn't ignore the Holocaust, but it does a freaking pathetic attempt at broaching the topic. When so much of the game's campaign is written with ham-fisted subtlety and complete lack of empathy, I didn't have a lot of hope. But what we got was pathetic. Sure, it actually acknowledges the fact that the Holocaust happened, but that's it. It's a horrifyingly low bar.
Sure, for an America that's elected a celebrity businessman to their highest office, has seen the rights of many immigrants disappear, has approved a new tax plan that benefits big business at the expense of the constantly downtrodden lower-classes, in a place where "blue lives matter" is supposed to be a mature response to the Black Lives Matter movement, we deserve a game so unironically tonedeaf. You play as Ronald "Red" Daniels and your best friend and squadmate is Robert Zussman, a German Jew from Chicago, so we're actually working with somewhat decent material there. Sure, we probably should have been playing as Zussman to give us a really different feel to the game, but I suppose even in 2017 it is too early to ask gamers to play as a Jewish character. So despite Zussman being your bestie, and despite acknowledging the Holocaust as a thing that happens, well. It gets brushed off to the ending voiceover epilogue.
All of the heavy lifting is left for an epistolic recap that attempts to serve us 38 as the ending to Zussman's story by tying it up in a neat little bow. We get 38 words about our best friend who was captured by Nazi soliders, and they're the most trite of platitudes I have ever heard given by a video game.
"I thought I knew what cruelty was; I didn't know anything. But one thing is for certain: What I saw stayed with me forever."
That's it. That's the Holocaust according to COD: WWII. Cruelty that would last forever. Not the absolute horrors of dehumanization, not the tragedy that so many people had to die before anyone took notice, not that nativist and anti-Semitic values lead to nothing but a world of ruin and death the likes of which humanity has rarely seen before or since. Not that the Holocaust was a genocide of staggering proportions. No, just cruelty.
And the worst part is, thanks to the Nazi Zombies mode, we know very well Sledgehammer could have given us some real body-horror, nightmare fuel with a side of absolutely heart-wrecking empathy. The kind of image that would stick with us as much as the photographs of newly liberated concentration camps did. You know the ones. Instead, we got 38 ineffective words and this:
Despite the incredibly infuriating story with it's horrible dialogue, I didn't actually hate playing this game as much as I wanted to, and that really annoys me. The game is gorgeously rendered, has stable content, and despite the incoming micro-transactions, is a really fun product. For once, you have to use the physical sights of the gun model you're using to make a shot- you don't have a target reticle unless you're using a rifle with an optical scope on it which comes equipped with a crosshair. If you pick up a Kar98 Ironsights, you actually have to use the rifle's ironsights to fire. Which is a small detail, but it really does hammer home the idea that, well, you're shooting a real gun. And that's got a lot more gravity to it than usual. Because lifting a rifle to my shoulder in game shouldn't mean that I actually shoot at the targets in the mid-screen reticle. That's now where I'd be aiming.
But you can't separate the combat from the story, from the setting. Not even a little bit. Because every part of COD: WWII is designed to evoke a sense of the second world war that seems "authentic" in the usual Hollywood way. And while it might be the kind of authenticity that doesn't really matter, it reminds you of where you are every single second. And where we are is in a nostalgic fantasy that has no basis in reality and fails to capitalize on the current sociopolitical climate or depict the Holocaust with any kind of respect for the victims of a genocide.
Then again, maybe I'm just mad I wasn't playing Wolfenstein 2.
Or maybe, I think we need to accept that video games are much like playable films – they have just as much, if not more of, an impact on their audiences. And we need to hold them to higher standards than replay value, visual quality, and "how good is the multiplayer?"
So while we may have deserved everything we got with Call of Duty: WWII – it just might be the most mediocre attempts to depict WWII that I have ever seen which is the perfect way to sum up 2017 as a whole – but it wasn't the one we needed to play. We needed a game that reminded us WWII isn't just about feel-good wartime buddy comedy with a side of roasted, faceless Nazis. We needed something of value, of cultural significance. Something that would make Call of Duty: WWII more memorable than just 2017's COD game. Something other than a multiplayer and micro-transaction machine.