You probably have one Call of Duty game that you absolutely played the hell out of. You might’ve sunk an improbably high number of hours into the sequels, but there’s one that’s close to your heart. For me, it was Black Ops. You know, the Memento-meets-Manchurian Candidate one. JFK killed zombies in it. That one.
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OK, nothing’s going to beat the original Modern Warfare – it changed the gaming landscape, but by the time we got to Black Ops, the devs had fully refined the format. Familiar, sure, but with enough fresh ideas to keep us playing. For hours. Months. Years. I got combat fatigue after that, I was exhausted. I’d see Hanoi in my dreams, my nightmares.
I always wonder how much the single-player story comes into play here (and not just because I’m a narrative nerd). That story sets the tone for the whole game and places us within the universe. I’ve already mentioned how strong the Modern Warfare-era characters are, they get remembered along with the rest of the genre-defining game. And I can more or less remember the entire plot of Black Ops. But name one character from Advanced Warfare that isn’t Kevin Spacey; tell me who your CO is in Black Ops III without Googling, Binging or Yahooing the answer. Because I sure as hell can’t remember.
A schism occurred right after Black Ops. MW3 felt…samey. Competent and more or less fun, but samey. By the time Black Ops II was released, I was feeling uneasy – for me, they’d gone too far the other way, in an effort to breathe a little life into the corpse (and hey, I know I’m in a majority, since it’s one of the most highly rated games in the series). Was it this strange alternate future war I was fighting? Was it level design? What was it that left me feeling cold?
Ghosts followed, and I kinda liked it. Nothing special, but not the worst shooter I’ve ever had the misfortune of playing. The vast maps put some off, but after so long playing Nuketown, I let it slide, wondering just how much inspiration developers Infinity Ward had taken from Battlefield 3’s epic maps. And hey, at least it wasn’t the future.
COD’s strength has always been to offer something new, a new world, a new era – and I completely reject the idea that it’s the same game re-skinned for the last 10 years. We’ve leapt around from WWII to present day to the Vietnam War to the future…and then the future… and then the future.
This reliance on the future shows just how lost Call of Duty is right now, a place to try out not particularly creative ideas (i.e. desperately rip-off Titanfall) in order to keep gamers enthused about the series. They didn’t need to do that, because including was never what was going to stop people playing – for me, at least, it was always about clearly reaching the next level and, in-game, getting those sweet killstreak rewards. Let’s be honest, outside of developing the zombie mode, post-MW games has never provided gameplay evolution – they sure as shit haven’t stopped making those indefatigable three-lane multiplayer maps, have they? And when lazy level design is at the heart of your game, why even bother to change anything else? For a prime example of how to be inspired by the past, see Battlefield 1, or absolutely any COD prior to 2010. These games embrace their real-world era limitations.
It’s not easy topping the last game in the series, and as each successive game comes out, the pool of ideas runs just that little bit drier. So we throw in mechs and ever-more complex levelling systems and loot and ridiculous outfits… Pretty soon, you don’t have a Call of Duty anymore, but some RPG-lite Destiny wannabe mess; no more simple shooter where levelling up and unlock that next gun becomes as addictive as [insert drug of choice here]. The result: the game becomes lesser than the sum of all parts.
So I’m not convinced it’s the future that ruined Call of Duty, but that the wrong sort of future has been used as a crutch for dwindling creativity and petrified fear that one day, probably around the time Infinite Warfare is set, COD may not be the biggest shooter in the world.