Call of Duty: WWII wants to tell a harrowing tale of heroes and sacrifice by following the US Army’s 1st Infantry Division throughout the war. The game’s squad-building mechanics are supposed to have impact, but they mostly mean having a dude sometimes toss you a medkit.
In Call of Duty: WWII, your squadmates can assist you in the field by sharing supplies. I remember the exact moment that Call of Duty: WWII’s squad mechanic disappointed me. It was during the Invasion of Normandy, the game’s opening mission. I was running through a trench with my squadmate Private Robert Zussman when I noticed a small indicator near his name. My goodness, I thought, this is his health bar and if I don’t protect him, he will die violent in the trenches. But then the bar began to fill as we fought and when it reached maximum, Zussman gained the ability to give me a health pack.
One of the core mechanics in Call of Duty: WWII is the ability for squadmates to slowly build the aforementioned meter for a variety of effects. The kindhearted First Lieutenant Turner can give you ammo; the ill-tempered Sergeant Peirson can spot enemies and outline them with highlights that makes it easier to locate and shoot them. Throughout the campaign, I learned my squad’s abilities and used them when I could. But this was a hollow means of bonding with them, based entirely on their ability to affect my gameplay. There was no tension; they were invincible NPCs who occasionally gave me trinkets. It was like playing with a dozen grimy Elizabeths from BioShock Infinite.
I played through the entire campaign, losing a few friends along the way in scripted narrative events. The only appreciable effect of these losses was getting less ammo packs or fewer grenades or lose the ability to call in airstrikes. (Note: These examples are picked at random and don’t necessarily reflect what happens in game.) It didn’t feel like a loss of unit cohesion or ability or the loss of comrades-in-arms.
After finishing the game, I loaded up my copy of the original Call of Duty. It doesn’t have the fancy squad mechanic, but it was so much more impactful.
Call of Duty features dozens of allies that fight by your side. If you hover your crosshairs over them, you see their names. But unlike the invincible squadmates from WWII, destined to die only when the plot can craft the most visually stunning and dramatic scenes, these characters die left and right. It is sudden and horrible.
You and the man at your side will peer over a fence at your enemies only for a stray bullet to suddenly snuff out their life. You might turn to cover the angle and see three more of your allies are now dead. They all had names, and they all died without ceremony. They don’t receive grand cutscenes.
WWII’s squad mechanics end up feeling insufficient when compared to the original game’s unpredictable violence. I might appreciate the spare health pack from time to time, but I never built affection for my squad. WWII chases after war media like Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan, but in offering near invulnerability to the squad, it robs the game of tension. I hardly remember any of my squadmates from WWII, but I do remember all the fallen soldiers who fought alongside me in the classic game.