Opinion: 'Call of Duty: WWII' Has To Top the Original Game's Best Moment

Opinion: 'Call of Duty: WWII' Has To Top the Original Game's Best Moment


Activision's shooter series already delivered the ultimate Second World War setpiece, now all Sledgehammer Games need to do is match it

Activision's shooter series already delivered the ultimate Second World War setpiece, now all Sledgehammer Games need to do is match it

"No hesitation, comrades! Do not take one step backwards," snarls Soviet corporal Filatov. "For Mother Russia, comrades," adds commander Kozlov, seconds before ordering a suicidal charge on mounted German guns. "Victory or death!"

Call of Duty's most evocative moment rarely gets written about. Ask CoD fans for their favorite setpiece from the blockbusting first-person-shooter franchise, and you'll be met with a stellar shortlist of highlights – mostly from 2007's seminal Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The cutthroat tension of carrying out very literal wetwork on that storm-swept tanker with Captain Price and co; the Marine Corps campaign ending on the irradiated shock and awe of a mushroom cloud; and above all, the never-bettered, exquisitely paced All Ghillied Up stealthy sniper operation through the chilling ruins of Chernobyl.

In contrast, few will mention (or even remember) the very first Call of Duty's Red Square level. It's understandable. The original entry in the all-conquering shooter phenomenon is now 13 years old, so unless you've got the memory of an elephant, chances are you won't recall the beginning of that game's 16th mission.

I just hope Sledgehammer Games has slightly sharper powers of recollection. Tasked with taking the series back to its roots with the forthcoming Call of Duty: World War II, the blisteringly brutal opening to Red Square is exactly the sort of moment the studio should be looking to recreate in its quest to capture the solemn sadness of the conflict.

But I'll come back to the original CoD's most stirring setpiece in a moment. In the meantime, Call of Duty: WWII has a clear mission statement: it needs to suck a whole lot less than last November's bloated Infinite Warfare. Infinity Ward's thoroughly stupid space-based shooter may have rocketed that trademark gut punch combat to the stars, but in doing so, it finally disintegrated the last strands of reality the series has been desperately clinging to since the far-superior Modern Warfare.

With waning sales figures and all-time negative fan feedback aimed at the last installment, Call of Duty desperately needs to plant its boots back into more grounded territory, and fast. Thankfully, early signs point to Call of Duty: WWII being a refreshing reboot that could revitalize the franchise. Sledgehammer has made all the right noises: CoD is embracing its past, jettisoning all that space nonsense, while once again focusing on what first made the series a household name: namely, spectacular recreations of Second World War battles.

Speaking at the GamesBeat Summit held in Berkeley, California last month, Sledgehammer Games co-founder Glen Schofield was keen to emphasize that his team is aiming to make a title that honors the legacy of WWII veterans. "Saving Private Ryan has been a custodian [for honoring World War II veterans] for the past 19 years when people talk about D-Day," said Schofield. "We want 20 years later, this generation to reference us."

Setting out to recreate the soul-slaying atrocity of Steven Spielberg's 1998 Oscar winner was always going to rank high on Sledgehammer's agenda. After all, the director's brutal depiction of the D-Day Normandy landings not only set a new benchmark for unflinching movie warfare, it damn near singlehandedly inspired the glut of WWII games that have clogged the market these past two decades. This wave of 1940s-set shooters started when EA debuted the original Medal of Honor back in 1999; hit a thrillingly authentic peak with 2002's Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and its game-changing Omaha Beach mission; then seemingly petered out for good when the underwhelming Call of Duty: World at War hit shelves in 2008.

The latest CoD needs more than a standout D-Day level, though. Do the brief trailer glimpses of Sledgehammer's take on the devastating beach landings suggest a whole new breed of cinematic spectacle? Sure. Yet if the studio is to fully tap into what made the original Call of Duty so poignant, it should instill a level of vulnerability in the player that its previous game, 2014's Advanced Warfare, so deliberately lacked.

In an interview with Glixel early last month, Sledgehammer's Christopher Stone spoke directly to this idea – the team's art director describing how CoD: WWII wants to make you feel painfully mortal. "Here, the player character is vulnerable. He struggles to reload his weapon, he dives in the dirt to avoid fire. He hides from gunfire instead of just charging head on."

This brings me right back to Red Square. Make no mistake: no moment in Call of Duty has ever made its players feel quite as terrifyingly disposable as that mission's fateful charge.

Following a level set around the 1943 Battle of Stalingrad – a sustained setpiece that riffs heavily on Jean-Jacques Annaud's oft forgotten war flick Enemy at the GatesCOD settles in for its pivotal moment. Standing on the edges of Moscow's Red Square, an embattled barrier company of Soviet soldiers attempts to break through German lines in an effort to recapture the iconic plaza.

Honestly, words can't do justice to what follows. Just watch this...

Spine-tingling, no? The desperate cries as hopelessly outgunned Russian conscripts psyche themselves up for an impossible charge; the relentless, deadly whirr of those Nazi MG-42 emplacements; the constant flood of interchangeable soldiers mowed down with the casual indifference of a fly swat. It's a savage, yet undeniably electric moment that sweeps you up through stomach-churning sacrifice. That, and a friggin' brilliant soundtrack.

Scored by the terrific film composer Michael Giacchino – Star Trek Beyond, Rogue One, Up – and performed by the Hollywood Studio Symphony, the aptly named "Red Square Theme" is the standout piece from Call of Duty's fabulous soundtrack. A mournful horn solo; a stirring chorus inspired by the Welsh hymn Ebenezer; the clashing notes of a chilling cymbal. It's an astonishing piece of noble music that utterly makes the scene, and one which will forever give me goosebumps.

Of course, real war isn't ennobling: it's incomprehensibly sad and almost always painfully pointless. Yet in so willingly showing the true collateral damage of warfare (however fleetingly), Call of Duty's Red Square opening outlines the courage of those who died in the conflict in a way not one of the shooter's 12 subsequent sequels comes close to.

Sledgehammer should learn from the raw senseless slaughter of the original game's defining moment, and in turn force the series to once again present war in the unsterilized manner the subject matter deserves. Deliver a moment that's fit to be mentioned in the same breadth as that last gasp Soviet charge, and you might have one hell of a campaign to look forward to when Call of Duty: WWII launches on November 3.