Fade to Black
Want a glimpse into the insanity of trying to please gamers? Just check out the Metacritic user reviews for the past few Call of Duty games. Since the first Modern Warfare, there’s been a steady decline in ratings, culminating in a pretty depressing 2.7 for the Xbox 360 version of Ghosts. The reviews themselves are full of snarky comments like “I already played this game when it was called Modern Warfare.” Then, when Advanced Warfare hit last year, promising to bring the biggest changes to the series in years, there was a slight uptick into the mid-fives—with nearly all the negative reviews claiming the changes Sledgehammer did make were too different and ruined the core gameplay that had made prior entries so great.
I’ll admit, with a fair degree of shame, that I’m one of those fans with unreasonable expectations. As much as I enjoyed Advanced Warfare’s boost jumps and Exo abilities, I found myself constantly thinking how insignificant it all felt compared to the first time I booted up Modern Warfare back in college. Yes, the moment-to-moment gameplay got a nice little shot in the arm, but it lacked the sheer audacity and genius of Infinity Ward’s genre-defining effort—especially considering games like Titanfall and BioShock Infinite had already zeroed in on the concept of mobility and beaten Activision to the punch.
Whether it’s fair or not, I’m putting all my hopes on Black Ops III as the last chance for Call of Duty to reclaim that lost cultural relevance. If it can’t rekindle the sense of wonder that first made me a fan, then I just don’t think the franchise has anything meaningful left to offer me—or gaming, for that matter.
Now, by no means am I forecasting an instantaneous apocalypse should Treyarch’s next offering fail to amaze. If the series’ most consistent developer can’t deliver something huge in its first effort backed by three full years of development time, however, it’ll be a clear signal that Call of Duty is all but finished when it comes to delivering big ideas. From there, the future seems self-apparent. We get another disappointing outing from the burnt-out husk of Infinity Ward. We get another Advanced Warfare, this time without the sheen of novelty or the charisma of Kevin Spacey. As time goes on, people will stop caring quite as much, and sales will gradually dwindle. If it doesn’t fizzle out completely, then Call of Duty survives in a comfortable mid-tier sameness, still enjoyable but kind of boring when you stop to think about it. Either option will take years to manifest, no doubt. Rome, after all, didn’t fall in a day.
Yes, each Call of Duty release still sells more than 10 million copies, but those numbers certainly aren’t what they used to be. Like clockwork, each November used to bring a press release from Activision touting how the first-week sales of the new Call of Duty shattered some record for entertainment launches. With Ghosts, they boasted about how many copies they’d sold to retailers—not to customers—and with Advanced Warfare, all we got was the gentle assurance that it was doing better than Ghosts had.
Not to mention that popularity and relevance are two entirely distinct things, of course. Sales, generally speaking, are more about momentum and marketing than real cultural importance. At best, they’re a lagging indicator. With an annual game like Call of Duty, a huge launch isn’t a sign that this year’s model is the best and most potentially influential. It’s proof that the goodwill and strong word of mouth earned by prior releases is finally paying off. The consecutive record-breaking launches of Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops, Modern Warfare 3, and Black Ops II were built on the backs of the first Modern Warfare and the legendary reputation it rightfully earned as the game that redefined online multiplayer shooters.
No, if you want to see what’s really important in any medium, look at what’s being ripped off the most. Batman Begins prefigured the gritty reboots of James Bond and Superman, and even game franchises like Tomb Raider, to an extent. The success of Marvel films has birthed a mad scramble in Hollywood to turn everything from the obvious (DC superheroes) to the absurd (Ghostbusters? Really?) in its own little connected universe of sequels and standalone films. And you’d be hard-pressed to argue that those aren’t the two most influential ideas in the last decade of mainstream cinema.
Once upon a time, Call of Duty was that sort of game-changer. In the years after Modern Warfare was released, everyone wanted their own toehold in the multiplayer shooter market, and they weren’t afraid to steal CoD’s XP and loadout customization systems to get there—provided they weren’t just ripping off the entire game. It was almost comical. BioShock 2, Homefront, Spec Ops: The Line, Medal of Honor, Gameloft’s shameless Modern Combat on mobile. Even Battlefield, despite being a year older than Call of Duty, jumped on the bandwagon, though that was arguably one of the few instances where a game managed to retain its own identity in the process.
No one is ripping off Call of Duty anymore. Now we’re awash in a sea of survival games—thanks to Minecraft and DayZ—and “unique” takes on the MOBA formula—courtesy of League of Legends and Dota 2. Those games, whether through luck or planning, have become the perfect embodiment of the current gaming zeitgeist, one that embraces the emergence, unpredictability, and slower pace that make spectating a game on Twitch as much fun as playing it. They’re also experiences designed to live and evolve year after year with new content and features. Call of Duty, with its annual releases and predictable DLC schedule, looks like a holdover from a different era, a foregone conclusion at best and a punchline at worst.
Maybe there’s a critical mass for this sort of thing, a threshold that, once crossed, makes it nearly impossible to turn back. By now, everyone surely has their own expectations of what Call of Duty is and what it should be, as evidenced by those impossible-to-please Metacritic reviewers. Exhibit B: When an image recently leaked of Black Ops III’s cover art, featuring a soldier with servo motors mounted on (or possibly serving as a cybernetic replacement for) his elbows, fan communities all across the Net went crazy. Check the various Call of Duty subreddits, and you’ll find plenty of people heralding the death of the franchise if Advanced Warfare’s double-jumps and Exo abilities carry over into Black Ops III. You’ll also find no shortage of defenders who desperately want to see those features return.
It’s a catch-22, but I don’t think it has to be. The thing that made Modern Warfare so universally beloved was that it defied expectations of what a first-person shooter could and should be. By introducing persistence, it fundamentally changed the relationship between the player and the online FPS. In the process, it gave people something they didn’t even know they wanted. Vision is not iterating on what came before. Vision is not seeing where everyone else is going and getting there at the same time. Vision is getting there first. That’s what the franchise has lacked for the past eight years, and that’s what Black Ops III needs in order to reinvigorate Call of Duty.
Treyarch can tinker with the details all they want. They can let me quadruple-jump and wall-run and punch through sheet metal with hulking robot arms. They can throw in twice as many competitive ladders and upgrade the loadout system to Pick 27. They can go back to basics and focus on delivering the best ground game they can. But when it comes to Call of Duty’s legacy—and my personal investment in the franchise—none of those specifics will matter unless they’re backed by a big idea. If Black Ops III can find one, Activision can prove once and for all that Call of Duty’s success wasn’t just the fluky byproduct of a bygone era.
And if not? Well, then I guess I already played that game when it was called Modern Warfare.