There’s something oddly ‘oh, it’s you’ about COD’s multiplayer going back to World War 2 in Call of Duty WW2. Not in a bad way, it’s just instantly familiar and genuinely surprising how at home you feel in seconds. Mud, boots and basic aiming skill over access to a Bond level of gadgets? I found myself thinking, ‘why did we ever stop doing this?’ before remembering Modern Warfare 2, and the subsequent, tumbling, literal arms race that gave us robots in space and drive-by basketball.
This is a stripped back multiplayer experience compared to more recent installments but, honestly, refreshingly better for it. It’s clean, cleansing almost. With fewer distractions the focus is all on the skill of the combat. Where previous CODs had spiralled out of control with boost jumps and exoskeletons, this gives you feet, a gun, a general direction to run in, and little else. It’s minimalist compared to years of remote control bomb cars, camera nosed homing missiles, or insta-win disco killstreaks, and going back to basics feels almost revolutionary. The considered pace is instantly more enjoyable, and the rewards more tangible because there’s less between you and the action – just find someone to shoot at, and be better than them.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some familiar throwbacks to space COD. You can still call in a drone, for example. Except now it’s a reconnaissance plane. Or there are strafing attacks where you briefly control a stuka on a dive-bombing run. It’s stuff you still recognise as identifiably Call of Duty, but presented in a more civilised fashion. Gameplay is slower as a result, but in a more intimate ‘fight for your life’ way. There’s something almost gentlemanly about about the clashes here after years of teenage screaming and rounds that looks like the footage was sped up.
This reductionist approach might sound a little like what Battlefield 1’s been doing with its World War 1 setting but there’s a difference of scale here. The maps are a touch smaller, as are the teams, meaning it recreates a similar experience but at a more manageable size. This is most obvious with Call of Duty’s new War mode. It’s an asymmetrical multiplayer clash where teams compete to control different objectives across a map. For the level I played that involved fighting to reach different stages. First we had to take a house to secure some intel, hold a bridge to rebuild it, destroy an ammo cache and finally escort a tank. It’s a case of moving from point to point, fighting back the other side as they try to stop you.
Again, this might sound like Battlefield 1, especially its Operations mode, but it’s a far tighter, more compact event. Instead of lasting an hour or more across a sprawling terrain, matches are more like 20 minute affairs. It’s not better or worse, it just suits different needs and moods. Especially if you want, or only have time for, a smaller blast. The reduced teams and maps also keep things more focused, staying in the action and spending less time running to get there.
With multiplayer usually the real draw for COD it’ll make things really interesting this year when fans get hands on with this (there’s an undated beta on the way later this year). Battlefield 1 players seemed to barely notice the change in setting when it launched, but that game is very much a period reskin – mechanically little has really changed. COD, while adapting some of its mechanics to the historical period, feels like the balance and pace has changed significantly, and for the better.