Around this time two years ago, I predicted that Treyarch’s 2015 Call of Duty game would go back to the trenches of World War II. I even labelled that prediction as “extremely likely”. Turns out I was on the wrong side of history with that one, and while I’m happy to eat humble pie, I firmly believe that Call of Duty 2017 will jump back to where the series began, in the trenches of World War II.
Naturally, it helps that recent leaks suggest that Sledgehammer Games’ 2017 series entry will be called Call of Duty: WW2. Obviously, it’s possible that these leaked images are fake – we do, after all, live in the Photoshop age – but it’s likely they’re on point. Here’s why.
I firmly believe that Call of Duty 2017 will jump back to where the series began, in the trenches of World War II.
Aside from having the questionable taste of using a David Bowie cover song a few months after his death, the reveal trailer for Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is infamous because of its epic collection of YouTube thumbs down. At the time of writing, it had 571,860 thumbs up and a staggering 3,491,692 thumbs down. In fairness, I actually don’t think it’s a bad trailer.
Regardless, aside from conspiracy theories about militant Battlefield fans deliberately downvoting the trailer, the more practical reality seems to be that a number of CoD fans didn’t react kindly to the franchise continuing to blaze further and further into the future. What was established in the original Call of Duty games set in World War II, and solidified in the contemporary era of the Modern Warfare series, was an arsenal grounded in reality.
Moving the franchise into the future meant that the familiarity of ballistic armaments was disintegrated in favour of fictional sci-fi arms that had little identifiable meaning at first glance. The problem with lasers, phasers, and other non-ballistic guns is they tend to bleed into one another. Shooter fans are well versed in the visual and gameplay differences between SMGs, shotguns, assault rifles, and LMGs. But it’s not like Infinite Warfare is the first time that fans have raised issues with the futuristic thrust of the franchise.
Sledgehammer Games’ Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare felt derivative at launch because Titanfall had released earlier in the year with similar (and, arguably, better) advanced movement mechanics. It also had a similar sci-fi setting. Respawn Entertainment (comprised of ex-Infinity Ward devs) had, in many respects, created the next logical iteration of the Call of Duty gameplay formula in Titanfall. Even Black Ops III would borrow Titanfall’s wall running a year later (not that Titanfall was the first AAA shooter to use wall-running – that was Brink – but Titanfall executed it brilliantly).
The sci-fi view of Call of Duty had already dropped from orbit with Titanfall, and as Call of Duty continued to warp further into the future, the voices grew louder for a return to more of a contemporary CoD setting. Hell, it seems like the release of Modern Warfare Remastered (cleverly bundled with Infinite Warfare) was there to both appease and tease fans of what to expect next.
It’s Sledgehammer’s turn again to make a Call of Duty game and it makes sense that the newest CoD developer takes the game back to its roots. It’s less of a risk conscripting Sledgehammer for World War II calls of duty than it is for one of the established two. Treyarch and Infinity Ward are the CoD veteran developers, which may mean they’re seen as the studios that can take the safer risks with the franchise. Sledgehammer, on the other hand, was originally working on a third-person Call of Duty game set in Vietnam prior to its assistance on Modern Warfare 3 and its own Advanced Warfare game.
On top of this, there are multiple failsafe options for Activision should the 1940s time-warp prove to be too jarring. Like Ghosts, a less-than-stellar reception to one of the Call of Duty sub-series can simply lead to its abandonment.
Sledgehammer and Activision would have had time to take note of the fan concerns about the franchise’s continued sci-fi obsession, and put a plan in place for a return to Call of Duty’s roots.
If the World War II gamble pays off, the three Call of Duty developers can operate in separate eras: one in the past, one in the present (after all, Modern Warfare Remastered was positively received), and one in the future. But should a hypothetical 2017 Call of Duty game set in World War II turn out to be a catastrophic failure (spoilers: it won’t), Activision can take a leaf out of Ubisoft Montreal’s book and announce a second season pass for Infinite Warfare and/or Black Ops III (just like in Rainbow Six Siege) to tide over fans until its Treyarch’s turn to show off Call of Duty 2018.
Call of Duty games have a three-year development cycle, so you’d expect the majority of the team at Sledgehammer moved on to the next Call of Duty project after the launch of Advanced Warfare. As is typical, a comparatively smaller number of devs would have been working on DLC for Advanced Warfare, and an even smaller group would have provided ongoing support (patches and whatnot) for Advanced Warfare’s multiplayer.
Sledgehammer and Activision would have had time to take note of the fan concerns about the franchise’s continued sci-fi obsession, and put a plan in place for a return to Call of Duty’s roots. Since that hypothetical start of development, there’s been plenty of indirect validation, too.
The indie space has capitalised on the mainstream shift away from competitive World War II shooters. Games like Battalion 1944 and Days of War had successful Kickstarter campaigns to help with development. The creators of hardcore shooter Insurgency also recently released Day of Infamy, which is enjoying a ‘Very Positive’ rating on Steam. As far as Activision should be concerned, the interest in competitive Call of Duty( of old)-like first-person shooters set in World War II is free market research.
On top of this, Call of Duty’s biggest competitor, the Battlefield franchise, recently ditched the contemporary setting of its five most recent entries to have a punt at a World War I-era setting. In terms of critical reception, sales, and fan feedback, Battlefield 1 was a resounding success.
Another reason Activision may want to get a World War II shooter out the door is so that it beats EA to the punch. There’s no guarantee that the next Battlefield game will be set in World War II whenever it lands, but given that it’s been eight years since Battlefield 1943, which was, in many respects, a Frostbite-engine reskinning of Battlefield 1942 (released in 2002), it stands to reason that DICE will run with the goodwill of Battlefield 1’s release and take the franchise back to where it started in World War II.
The great thing is that a World War II Call of Duty game doesn’t have to be a reskin of the earlier games in the series, much like Modern Warfare Remastered was. Thanks to hardware advancements since 2008, when World at War was released, a World War II-set Call of Duty game has the opportunity to not only look great, but be more expansive in terms of its campaign scope and all-important multiplayer mechanics.
Thanks to the real-world warfare innovations that came about during World War II (including the birth of the assault rifle), there’s a wealth of experimental military hardware that hasn’t been properly tapped in games. This includes around-the-corner assault rifles; explosive-packed rats and dogs, plus remote-controlled mini-tanks (for Score Streak lovers); as well as bioweapons and even death rays, to name a few.
It’s also a chance to bang another nail into the coffin of Medal of Honor. Much like Respawn Entertainment is comprised of ex-Infinity Ward devs, the entirety of Infinity Ward was originally comprised of devs who’d worked on Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. Call of Duty became a better version of Medal of Honor, but because CoD was born after MoH, some of the bigger moments from cinematic depictions of World War II had already been used in the older World War II shooter.
While the original Call of Duty looked to Hollywood World War II B-movies like Enemy at the Gates, Medal of Honor had already consulted with powerhouse director Steven Spielberg and lifted classic scenes from his iconic World War II movie Saving Private Ryan and series Band of Brothers. Given that those Medal of Honor games were made around the early 21st century, Sledgehammer Games would be free to revisit without it feeling like they’re ripping off a recently released competing title.
There are also plenty of aspects of World War II that haven’t been depicted in games, outside of the Hollywood mainstays. More importantly, though, it’s an excuse to return to the squad roots of Call of Duty and move away from the Halo-like power fantasy of one super soldier versus a seemingly never-ending wave of mindless goons.
Given the leak, it’s likely Activision will officially unveil Sledgehammer’s next Call of Duty game in the coming weeks. We’ll know then if the World War II setting proves true, but if it does – and it seems likely – it’ll likely prove to be a smart play to move the franchise back to where it began.
Nathan Lawrence is a freelance writer based in Sydney and shooter specialist. Track him down on Twitter.