Years go by in the video game industry and things change. New IPs are launched, studios collapse and even new consoles are released (soon). One thing has been ever present at the start of November ever since 2005, a new Call of Duty. It has become perhaps the biggest-selling franchise in video games, partly due to that regularity, but can we truly call it one of the best? Up until the release of Modern Warfare 3 back in 2011 and I would defend the franchise to the respawn, but now I’ve developed the CoD fatigue that many have experienced before me. And I’m not sure I’ll ever recover.
Like millions of others, my first Call of Duty game was the 4th edition, Modern Warfare. It’s still one of the most intense campaigns I’ve ever played, zipping across the world and taking part in exceptionally innovative and exciting missions interwoven by a story, although not a shining beacon of originality, that was gripping. Okay the campaign wasn’t very long, but it packed-a-punch. I never got a chance to play the multiplayer component until I finally signed up for PlayStation Network after a few months had gone past. But once I’d had a taste, online Call of Duty was a sweet addiction that took years to kick.
Call of Duty multiplayer used to be two things. Simple to pick up, and hard to master. Anyone can play Call of Duty, but only a few can grasp all of the intricacies involved to become a great player. When I started with Call of Duty 4, I was far from a great player. By scratching through the thin veneer of class customisation and gameplay mechanics, over the course of the next few iterations of the series, I became good at the game and enjoyed it so much. Learning which guns were best to use when, lines of sight and general tactics made me able to do better on average. This learning curve made the game so rewarding to play.
World at War was also a brilliant game. The campaign brought World War II to life in an exciting and interesting way. Okay, it wasn’t as ‘Michael Bay’ as CoD4, naturally given the setting, but I found it resonated with me on another level. The multiplayer, while much the same, had some of the best map design I’ve ever seen in a game. Again, they had simple paths to learn and spots to frequent, but by learning the maps more thoroughly and more intimately, the game could be perfected.
This leads me to the tipping point of the series: the love-hate relationship I had with Modern Warfare 2. If I had to fall on either side of the fence, I’d say it was the most fun online video game I’ve ever played. But at the same time, its flaws and problems were some of the most frustrating and rage-inducing experiences I’ve had whilst ‘having fun’. MW2 took the mantra of simple to learn, hard to master and made both extremes further apart. With the ability to have enhanced explosive grenade launchers and triple health, after having died 3 times – it’s fair to say that the game made it easy for players who weren’t as skilled, to level the playing field. There were many game features that could provoke angry responses.
On the other hand, the introduction of customisable killstreaks (in my opinion the series’ last great ‘invention’ since perks) meant that the goal of the game had changed from playing the objective and maintaining a good level of kills to playing the objective whilst tactically working towards killstreaks. Managing both was much more difficult than doing well at CoD4 ever was.
MW2 was as frustrating as games have ever been to me, but I believe the frustration was more that I believed the game could have been so much better without the issues that plagued it. Like when someone with potential squanders their opportunities; I wanted to enjoy the game to the fullest, in the way that I knew I could.
Sadly, Infinity Ward was too busy self-destructing over human resource struggles to support the game enough to earn its’ place I believe it could have had in gaming history. Over the summer after MW2 came out, I spent days of my time playing with friends and having a great time. As many as ten of us played the game at a time, which is a huge number considering there were perhaps a hundred pupils in total in our school year. Yes, I rage quit every few sessions, but when I was playing I had as much fun as I think games can be. Modern Warfare 2 is one of the best, although at times worst, games I’ve ever played.
Not all of the Call of Duty fan base enjoyed MW2 as much as I did, and because of the lack of developer support and the well-deserved resulting fan backlash, Call of Duty’s development took a different turn that has stifled its’ creativity. Modern Warfare 2 took the ‘original’ game and changed it in many ways, with a lot changing for the better and plenty changing for the worse. The last three Call of Dutys have all tried to shy away from radical change for fear of reprisals. And that has led to my desire for my multiplayer fix to be vanquished.
Black Ops was certainly enjoyable. It took a more subdued approach than MW2, but took the meta gameplay elements (killstreaks, unlocks etc.) and improved on them slightly. After going from the A.D.D. levels of stimulation of MW2, though, Black Ops felt tame by comparison. The decision to remove the extra damage perk Stopping Power, while good intentioned, meant that killing people took that little bit longer and changed the gameplay from its’ traditional pace. This was perhaps the only real departure from the last game, but it meant that the quality of connection to other players (an issue that has forever plagued online multiplayer games) was more of an issue. Whilst the addition of a theatre mode was welcome, the further drop in gameplay performance, which was widely attributed to it, was not. It was not the manna from heaven Call of Duty fans were looking for when Treyarch said that they’d be making a game that builds on MW2’s successes whist nulling its failures. However, the campaign was one of the most well written and exciting stints I’ve had in a short single-player outing. Add to that a more fleshed out and entertaining Zombies mode, and I still consider Black Ops to be a good game, but not with the raw appeal of MW2.
This is where the series stops for me. All the games before Modern Warfare 3 had their problems, but entertainment could still be had. Not with MW3. Playing a new Call of Duty had always been a fun experience for me beforehand. For at least a few weeks, my friends and I would sing its praises like the new version was a gift from the gaming gods. Then the cracks would start to show, and we’d see the true colours of the games. MW3 was shipped with cracks. Blame can be apportioned on the developer’s rush to release the game, still reeling from the internal struggles that left MW2 a flawed game. From day one I found little enjoyment in running around the maps. The only real changes gameplay wise were that you could control which killstreak to call in rather than rely on a simple queue and the ability to choose to earn said killstreaks in three different ways: as normal, as normal but earning extra perks instead, or taking longer to earn killstreaks but not losing progress when dying. The latter feature added more problems than it fixed, making gunfights almost secondary to defending from air support. Other than that, and the game was MW2 with better graphics, less exciting maps and worse gameplay performance due to a new beefed-up version of a feature called ‘lag compensation’, which made online connection in a game appeal to the lowest common denominator. When a game’s predecessor is more fun to play, it’s a sure sign that it’s not very good.
Black Ops 2 didn’t enthuse me much either. Its campaign was interesting and fun, at least. But it was not as good an experience as the first iteration in this sub-series, but still worthwhile playing. It tried to introduce a strategic element of choice in how events played out, but this feature was whittled down to minor obscurity by the choices’ small overall impacts. The Zombies element was completely ruined in my regard. Maps were cluttered and difficult to explore, which was the very thing that made the mode so appealing and addictive in the first place. The simplicity of the mode was being diminished by the time the latest map packs for the first Black Ops were released, but Black Ops 2 left simplicity out of the equation. The multiplayer, for me, was just not fun. The first Black Ops was not as entertaining as MW2, but I could still have fun. But in Black Ops 2, the perks, guns and maps all felt character-less and sterile. When I did play well, there was not the same thrill as with previous games.
Although I’ve said it many times before, this year I am not going to buy the new Call of Duty. Unlike every other year, I haven’t kept tabs on the latest iteration, Ghosts, other than the launch trailer, simply because I doubt that it will be truly revolutionary in the way they claim yet again.
By releasing the game on both current and next generation consoles, Infinity Ward, the developers, should be more focussed on releasing a game that fits both sets of hardware. This leaves little room for true gameplay innovation. Even their latest announcement of the Extinction survival mode, will likely be a rehash of Zombies gameplay mechanics mixed with some of the less fun ideas from MW3’s own survival mode. The only thing about Ghosts that interests me slightly is the rumoured multiplayer function which allows you to play competitive matches as a team with your friends and save your progress. If it’s successful, I’ll perhaps look forward to an improved version of it in a new game.
I’m waiting for a new franchise to storm the first-person shooter market, and truly change the genre in the way that Call of Duty 4 did. Surely one developer can produce a game that feels fresh and fun to play, keeping with traditional FPS gameplay values and adding a new twist.
Until then, I’m just going to keep on frequenting CoD4 and MW2 every now and then, and reminisce about the days I spent enjoying playing Call of Duty. Sometimes the more something changes, the more you yearn for it to be as it was. Call of Duty definitely falls into that category for me.