'Call of Duty: WWII' to explore the emotional toll of war

“I can tell you one thing — it’s the best game of our lives.”

Glen Schofield doesn’t mince words when it comes to “Call of Duty: WWII.” The co-founder and studio head of developer of Activision’s (ATVI) Sledgehammer Games leads a team tasked with taking the series back into the trenches of World War II, and he’s well aware that it’s a tall order.

Due out Nov. 3 for Microsoft’s (MSFT) Xbox One, Sony’s (SNE) PS4 and PC, the historical shooter is in a tricky spot. On one hand, it has to cater to the finicky whims of an expansive fanbase with built-in expectations of what a “Call of Duty” game is supposed to deliver. At the same time, Sledgehammer has great reverence for the subject matter, and in turn hopes to craft a game as much about the emotional challenge of dealing with war with the big, noisy explosions the series is known for.

“These guys were 17 years old with eight weeks worth of training and were thrown into the war,” Schofield said during a demo at the company’s Bay Area’s office. “They had to dig deep in their life for the knowledge and lessons from their family to get through the experience. That’s sort of how we’ll bring you through the game.”

Battle cry

Set in the European theater between 1944-45, “Call of Duty: WWII” follows U.S. Army private Ronald “Red” Daniels and the 1st Infantry Division (the “Fighting First”) as they struggle through some of the most intense battles of the war, including legendary encounters in occupied France, Belgium and across the Rhine river into Germany.

Of course, “Call of Duty” has been here before. The first three games in the series were all set during World War II, but while they performed well with both critics and consumers, the franchise didn’t turn into the sales juggernaut it is today until the switch to a contemporary setting in 2007’s “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.” That was also the game that set the tone for what most folks think of when they hear “Call of Duty”: insane, over-the-top action, amazing set pieces and robust multiplayer.

“WWII” will have plenty of that, but Sledgehammer’s goal isn’t to just wow you with fancy pyrotechnics and empower you with ridiculous abilities.

“In that time period, it was common men at war,” Sledgehammer’s co-founder Michael Condrey pointed out. “You didn’t have Tier-1 super-soldiers. It was a group of young enlisted men coming together and forming bonds of camaraderie and fighting against an overwhelming enemy. It gives us the canvas for true emotional storytelling that’s really important for the studio.”

An emotional “Call of Duty?” That’s the pitch, and it’s echoed by just about every member of the development team. To nail it home, Sledgehammer showed off a bit of gameplay, starting with perhaps the most iconic of all World War II encounters: the storming of Normandy beach.

Grit and grime

From the epic opening sequence of “Saving Private Ryan” to the entirety of “The Longest Day” to games like 2002’s “Medal of Honor: Allied Assault” (a game co-written by “Ryan” director Steven Spielberg), D-Day is no stranger to media treatments. And sure enough, “Call of Duty: WWII’s” take hits all the expected notes. Soldiers nervously bob towards shore in a rain-soaked landing craft, the doors opening to a hail of gunfire that decimates the platoon save for a lucky few who escape overboard, only to emerge in a chaotic spray of bullets and blood.

It’s not new, but “WWII”‘s Omaha Beach is terrifying. Trudging up the beach and diving to cover behind battered Czech hedgehogs, your character (Daniels, presumably) can’t tear his eyes off his fallen, bloodied comrades. It’s ugly and harsh and gripping.

Having fought his way to a German bunker, Daniels finds himself in hand-to-hand conflict with an enemy soldier, struggling to stop a knife to the liver by grabbing a discarded helmet and gruesomely beating the nazi to death with it. Compared to the super-powered antics of recent “Call of Duty” games like “Advanced Warfare,” “Black Ops III,” and “Infinite Warfare,” it’s shocking blunt and weirdly refreshing.

Another level is set in the lesser-known Battle of Hurtgen Forest. Daniels and his squad creep through the dense foliage, ambushing a group of enemies before the nazis literally blow up the treetops. It’s here that “WWII” shows its lineage – the squad dodges falling trees in a hectic run to safety – but it’s more organic and feels much more personal than the cacophonous set piece moments in past “Call of Duty” games.

Honor role

That’s by design. Schofield and Condrey repeatedly emphasized the importance of honoring the legacy of those who fought in World War II, in part because they feel that time isn’t on their side.

“We have an incredible military historian who’s been with us since the beginning in Marty Morgan, who worked ten years ago on [HBO show] ‘Band of Brothers,’” Condrey said. “He knew the real winters and the whole 101st airborne crew. He documented their stories. And this year he said to us, “None of them are around anymore.” In 10 years we’ve lost an entire generation of heroes…you think back 75 years ago now, that’s a long time.

“It’s been nearly 30 years since the Berlin Wall came down. There’s a whole generation of kids that don’t even remember the wall. So this is an important story we don’t want to have fade because we can’t let it happen again.”

Though Schofield balks at calling his team preservationists – they’re making a commercial video game, after all – he shares his partner’s urgency in telling these stories.

“‘Private Ryan’ was two decades ago…there are so many stories out there that haven’t been told,” he said. “We are telling some stories in here that we never heard of, including a very big part of the game that has only been uncovered in the last five to 10 years. We discovered some things that at the point of WWII ending were just swept under the rug. I don’t know if it’s preserving, uncovering…it’s just about telling great stories.”

Naturally, the juiciest details of “Call of Duty:WWII” are still under wraps. Players will be able to “enlist” in different divisions and play objective-based, narrative-driven multiplayer maps, while a new section called Headquarters will serve as a social space that Condrey says will “radically transform” the way players interact. There’s a co-operative mode as well, but the company is keeping mum on all of this stuff until the E3 conference in June.

The team may talk a big game, but delivering on their lofty goals won’t be a cakewalk. For the last decade or so, “Call of Duty” has been less about authenticity and more about exaggeration. Bringing the series back to a grounded, heavily-researched historical setting will undoubtedly please older fans of the franchise, but connecting with younger gamers who grew up on fancier weapons and popcorn power fantasies might not be so easy.

To Schofield, that’s a challenge the team relishes.

“We learned a lot on the last few games about how to tell a story … the more we can have people relate to this — ‘I was 17 once and I don’t know if I could have gone to war’ — the better. Art is meant to provoke thought.”

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Ben Silverman is on Twitter at ben_silverman.

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