Call of Duty… Pining for the Fjords
The Call of Duty series is dying. We all know it. One of the most successful video game franchises in recent memory is fading fast and I don’t know how we can stem the inevitable tide. A decade from now we will declare Call of Duty to have passed on, to have met its maker, to be bereft of life and pushing up the daisies. “This”, we shall all say, “is an ex-franchise”.
Of course I’m being facetious. Call of Duty remains one of the medium’s most lucrative series and you would be hard-pressed to find a gamer alive who hasn’t owned at least one game in the franchise. The series’ most recent instalment, Modern Warfare 3, grossed over $400 million in its first 24 hours of sale alone, making it the most successful entertainment launch of all time. MW3 arrived to worldwide critical acclaim and attained a respectable average score of 88 on Metacritic.
But one look at Metacritic will show you that there are dissenting voices. “It’s the same game as before in different $60 packaging” say some user reviews, “Ths game fukin sucks” say others. And as amusing as some of these reviews are to read, they bring me to a very serious point that it seems a great many people are coming around to: that the Call of Duty franchise is beginning to stagnate and in danger of becoming a parody of itself.
And that is a point that I, unfortunately, feel compelled to endorse. I was largely unimpressed by 2010’s Black Ops and considerably less so by Modern Warfare 3. The series for me feels like it is merely going through the motions although Activision is undoubtedly too busy swimming through makeshift piles of their own DLC-generated cash to even contemplate caring what I, a worthless ten-a-penny scribe, make of their efforts.
I remember waiting in line at my local Tesco store at 23:57 on 7th November 2011, knowing that Modern Warfare 3 would be on sale in a mere matter of minutes. I was standing with a good friend of mine and looking eagerly down the line of fellow gamers, knowing that a copy of Infinity Ward’s latest masterpiece would be within my grasp before long. But the excitement soon turned to anxiety as I listened to the words of the two men stood in front of me, also in line for a copy.
“To be honest,” said one gamer, “I don’t know why I’m here. Dan got his copy in the post today and I had a go, it’s just the same as every other COD game”.
“Let me guess,” said the friend, “You run around shooting everything in sight until the game slows down and blurs when a bomb goes off near you?”
“I hate that.”
“Yeah, me too.”
It was a gross oversimplification, admittedly. But what these chaps had just discussed reminded me of exactly why I grew tired of Modern Warfare 2 and why I got bored within days of Black Ops. It almost feels clichéd to criticise the Call of Duty series for not upgrading its perfectly functional game engine sufficiently but when you think about the last couple of instalments in the franchise, what more has the single-player campaign actually offered other than a couple hundred-thousand nameless enemies and the occasional “shell-shock” moment?
A good story certainly hasn’t been present. Since the superb, understated narrative of the first Modern Warfare and the thrilling, gritty experience of World at War there has been very little in the way of a compelling story from a Call of Duty game. Modern Warfare 2’s campaign, which revolved around a Soviet invasion of the United States of America following a massacre at an airport, felt rushed and aside from some impressive set pieces there was no real emotional pull to the narrative. That isn’t to say the campaign in Modern Warfare 2 wasn’t enjoyable; seeing Captain Price’s face emerge from the darkness in a Russian gulag was one of the best moments in the series and the actual gameplay was challenging and immersive, it just felt let down by a poorly-executed narrative.
With that said, Modern Warfare 2 would feel like Citizen Kane compared to 2010’s Black Ops. When it was announced that Treyarch’s second game in the main series would be set around the time of the Vietnam War there was a great deal of anticipation. The potential for a compelling story set in the Vietnam period was huge: would Treyarch focus on the never-ending battle of the American soldier fighting an increasingly unwinnable war? Would they perhaps be even bolder and look at the issue of African-American soldiers fighting for a country that didn’t accept them?
Treyarch had a multitude of exciting, potentially genre-changing ideas available to them but chose instead to jump, nay, orbit the shark and produce one of the most convoluted, confusing and downright ludicrous plotlines ever committed to a video game disc. Not only was your character being held captive by his own commanding officer until he remembered that he was a sleeper agent programmed to activate a deadly poison gas across America, but he was also being haunted by the vision of a Russian Gary Oldman who forced him to do his bidding from beyond the grave (unsurprisingly Gary Oldman proved to be the best part of the game).
Thankfully Black Ops was saved by its excellent multiplayer. The online multiplayer was enjoyable with a superb range of weapons and maps, from the close-quarters of Nuketown to the vast open areas of Array, Black Ops made up for its convoluted campaign with its entertaining and engaging multiplayer format. The infamous Zombies mode was just as entertaining and I still love to spend a good few hours with friends blasting away the undead in a deserted mansion.
Modern Warfare 3 was expected by everyone (well, me anyway) to blow Black Ops out of the water, with Infinity Ward ready to show Treyarch just how to make an engrossing FPS experience. Unfortunately, despite my initial excitement in that line at Tesco, Modern Warfare 3 proved to be the worst game of the series so far. The single-player campaign, which was supposed to bring a definite end to the Modern Warfare trilogy, wound up raising more questions than it answered. Familiar stalwarts Price and Soap turned from dependable war-buddies into genuine arseholes, becoming instantly dislikeable from the first time they maliciously stabbed an African militiaman in the neck.
Not even the multiplayer, the brightest jewel in Activision’s cash-friendly crown, could save MW3 from being the series’ unwanted albeit expensive cast-out child. Taking MW3 online was an deplorably generic multiplayer experience set in an endless series of tight corridors and camping spots. From battling your enemies in “Generic Village With Tight Streets #1” to battling them in “Generic Village With Tight Streets #3”, nothing seemed new or exciting in Modern Warfare 3. It felt stagnant. It was pining for the fjords.
So, what of the future? Where does Activision go from here? Black Ops 2 was announced last week and will be set in 2025, where unmanned weapons have taken over warfare and rogue enemies attempt to take control of them (a plot lifted straight from Metal Gear Solid 4). The only apparent links to the original Black Ops are the appearance of Frank Woods (clearly just “resting” and definitely not “bleeding demised” as originally thought) and the knowledge that you take control of David Mason, son of number-obsessed Alex from the original game.
The potential is definitely there for Treyarch to tell a better story than they told in Black Ops, Hideo Kojima managed a half-decent one with an identical plotline after all. But the worry that Call of Duty has got too “flash” to focus on a decent story and multiplayer remains. Modern Warfare 3 represented the series at its very worst: nothing but hardcore gun porn and half-arsed writing. The multiplayer has long been Call of Duty’s strongpoint but in Modern Warfare 3, even that felt stagnant and, hesitant as I am to use such a word, boring.
I’m sure I’m not the only gamer in the world to feel this way, just as I’m sure that there will be several million gamers out there who will disagree with me and tell me so. But allow me to leave you with this thought. Remember the first ever Call of Duty? Remember the three soldiers you took charge of during the campaign mode as you fought through Stalingrad and to the Reichstag? Do you remember their names?
The chances are that you don’t. I certainly don’t. And that was always the most poignant part of Call of Duty: emphasising the role of the average soldier in global combat and recognising the struggle of the troops who will never be truly acknowledged for their individual sacrifice. That famous scene in the first Modern Warfare where you drag the lifeless legs of a dying soldier around a post-nuclear accident wasteland probably conveyed that message better than any other game on the market. It’s a shame that Infinity Ward and Treyarch appear to have abandoned that principle in favour of, as those chaps in the queue at Tesco said, “shooting everything in sight until the game slows down when a bomb goes off near you”.
Certainly, this lucrative series will live on. It hasn’t demised. It hasn’t gone to meet its maker, nor has it joined the choir invisible. Call of Duty is certainly far from an ex-franchise.
But it is beginning to show signs of tiring. That its plumage may have been ruffled. That it may well be pining for the fjords after all.