I feel safe postulating that a good portion of people who clicked the link that brought them here did so looking for a fight. An increasingly vocal number of people will not be interested in buying this year’s Call of Duty. Perhaps they write it off as a fatigued franchise, gone the way of Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero; two other Activision-owned properties. Maybe they equate Call of Duty to some tyrannical beast that devours more than its fair share of the market and relegates other “hardcore” titles to its boundless shadow. And of their ranks, a depressing amount of them will continue to troll internet forums and comment sections even after they’ve cast aside their virtues and begrudgingly purchased the newest installment to play with their more “casual” friends for a month or so. But is their passion-imbued vitriol justified? I suggest that Call of Duty, its derivatives, and its ancestors are vital threads in the rich tapestry of gaming that envelopes our free time.
Primarily, we must consider the importance of genre in gaming and also ponder why it is rarely treated with the same level of respect that it garners in the film industry. Games are rarely dissected in analysis beyond the simplest available terms. Commonly, we classify things as either “indie” or “AAA” but don’t give the concept much thought beyond that. Sure, on an intellectual level we recognize that there are indeed various game genres, action-adventure holding some primacy, but how much can we say that the genre of a game matters to us? What governs our choice in title? Are we merely blowing through the most recent blockbusters? Are we playing what our friends are playing? Are we taking a hipster approach in selection? How often are we letting our mood govern what we play? Perhaps that last question is the most important bit, and, if Call of Duty is as reviled as it is, one can fairly assume that we’re not giving much credence to its answer.
You see, as much as a game can affect our mood, our mood can affect a game--both whether we’ll play it and how. The bliss of a game well suited to your mood is something that can’t be understated, and to achieve proper synchronization, you need a wide array of options. If my dog just died or I was just fired, and I’m not looking for that misery-loves-company vibe; I am probably not going to be popping in Heavy Rain. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy Heavy Rain, because I really do. It simply means that I don’t enjoy playing Heavy Rain when I’m down.
I love art and story as much as the next guy, but I can't always play games that are emotionally exhausting. I don't know why we've adopted this belief that all games need to be an intellectual pursuit to be worth our time. Sometimes I require "popcorn" entertainment, realizing that one can't enjoy Citizen Kane every day. I enjoy glorious beams of sunshine when I’m sad. Sometimes, I can supplement sunshine with explosions and a Jerry Bruckheimer vibe. Sometimes I need a little bit of Adam Sandler. To that extent, with multiplayer game modes ranging from fast death fests to more tactical endeavors such as Search and Destroy, Call of Duty succeeds gloriously.
But maybe that point isn't compelling to you. Perhaps you do require something more substantial in your game, in which case you’ll be delighted to learn that there’s a myriad of things that Call of Duty does well besides enabling us to sit around and unwind with some lighthearted gunfire.
Immediately apparent is a sense of accessibility that permits for everyone, from your younger brother to my conservative mother, to understand the gameplay and relish the experience. With a little bit of luck, just about anyone can get a killstreak going. As such, it is perfectly reasonable for even the least skilled of players to experience the occasional high of success, which can be a wholly addicting experience. In the end, the best players have more of a challenge in their games, even when they are matched with unskilled players. Naturally, the skilled should still rise to the top, so killstreaks won’t ruin the balance. They’re just implemented to allow everyone the equal opportunity to have fun and be challenged, which is important, because a gigantic competitive scene has sprung up around Call of Duty. A rising tide raises all ships, and whatnot.
The trick about designing sequels to competitive games is to maintain the core of the experience--an element that can be hard to identify and isolate. I believe this aspect of game design is largely responsible for the number one complaint about the franchise, being that the series doesn’t evolve quickly enough. While I agree that the multiplayer experience doesn’t evolve very rapidly, it undoubtedly demonstrates some form of steady growth year after year. Considering the Call of Duty skills people fine tune, practice and hone in the Cyber Gaming Pantheon, a major change would turn the game’s multiplayer strategy on its head in a way which would negatively impact the experience. Think of the complaints Gears of War and Halo garnered in the past regarding substantial changes to layout and mechanics. Consider how angry League of Legends players would be if a patch were released that restructured the move sets of every single character. Briefly consider how it might be ludicrous if people were able to say, “I’m terrific at Modern Warfare but terrible at Modern Warfare 2.”
That established, maybe the insults are directed towards the single-player campaign; an element of the game that manages to be well executed, considering that it hardly even has to be present for a generation that puts a premium on the multiplayer experience. I argue that the complaint against the campaign doesn’t hold much weight; they have actually changed a great deal if you’ve been paying any attention.
Allow me to offer you a Cliff’s Notes version of story progression.
Modern Warfare, the first astonishingly popular entry in the series, brought war gaming into a contemporary setting, which was as huge a departure for the series as it was for the genre in general. In this case, the multiplayer experience didn’t change all that much from the critically lukewarm game, Call of Duty 3. However, the addition of RPG elements helped solidify its place in the disc trays of millions of teens.
2009 rolled around, and with it came the second Modern Warfare, shattering all sales records in the veritable category of things that are entertaining. Eat that, James Cameron’s Titanic. Eat that, Halo. Eat that, celebrated national treasure Britney Spears’ “Oops! I Did It Again!”
Exciting vehicle missions, an improved engine, a globe-trotting locale, rebalanced guns, and the co-operative Spec Ops mode, which could almost function as a standalone game, made this entry into the series one of the most beloved by fans and critics alike.
The year after, Black Ops reared its head, taking us back to the past and telling an entirely original story that brought gamers into an alternate timeline rife with conspiracy and drama. My favorite Zombie Mode to date was also present in order to satiate the non-competitive types out there.
Then Modern Warfare 3 launched, which once again shattered sales records…but also left some gamers disappointed. MW3 is objectively a step back in a way that breaks free of the realm of opinion and lands shattered in the war-torn drop zone of cold, depressing fact. With map design and weapon choice that poor, perhaps we can consider the entry a learning experience of what can go wrong when you change too much, and how fine the line between “too much” and “just right” actually is.
But, the following year, Black Ops 2 arrived to redeem the franchise for the follies of its predecessor, which had been created in the tumultuous wake of the Infinity Ward/Activision lawsuit in an environment that consisted of a gutted team and a completely separate, possibly delusional team. Black Ops 2 tells a story that encompasses two generations, forcing players to make crucial decisions in frantic settings, infusing the characters with emotion and moral ambiguity, yet still manages to establish what is arguably their best multiplayer experience to date.
This year, we’re looking forward to the landmark release of the tenth Call of Duty title, which has been praised for being unlike anything we’ve seen from the franchise before. In addition to the promise of merit it holds, Call of Duty: Ghosts incorporates an animal companion into gameplay; you’ll have a dog in your squad. You’ll also be fighting for an America that has lost its position as a superpower in the wake of an unknown catastrophe. It’s a welcome change of perspective.
As sufficiently evidenced, the franchise’s growth is irrefutable in all regards. All the while, they’ve maintained the feel that you’re in an action movie; a feeling I sometimes long for. This level of consistency is something I love about the franchise. To an extent, I will always know what I’m getting when I pick up a new Call of Duty game, albeit with few a surprises along the way. Call of Duty has earned itself a revered spot in my gaming library alongside my copies of Super Mario Bros. U, Dead Space 3, Dragon Age, and Skyrim. They all have their different purposes and suit different moods. Taking issue with Call of Duty is just about the silliest thing in the world to me because, in all reality, we’re only taking issue with another option. Personally, I like having options, because I am a constantly changing and growing person. If you don’t like it, don’t play it. That’s your option.
Call of Duty is nothing more than today’s Golden Eye or Counter Strike. It’s widely played and enjoyed among friends. Back in the day, you’d be hard pressed to find a college dormitory that didn’t contain at least one passion-driven grudge match of these games or a mod of them. And the enjoyment of those titles continued, without sequels, for the longest time.
Yes, Call of Duty has had yearly iterations; iterations that nobody has forced anybody to buy. One could easily continue playing the oldest model if he or she felt so inclined. The simple truth of the matter is that consumers want the new features, and they want to play with their friends in a familiar game with just enough new content to freshen the experience for another year. If that weren’t the case, Call of Duty would cease to exist. But I imagine it will be the case until another game comes along that can offer up the same universal appeal that Call of Duty manages to bring to the table. That’s how business works; we vote with our wallets.
Look, I know it can be fun to fight the popular things. Sometimes, it allows us to feel bigger than the thing we’re fighting--just ask the Yankees. Sometimes, we like to root on the underdogs–just ask the Red Sox. I know there are a lot of people playing Call of Duty that you just don’t want to get along with and, truthfully, hating the series has made sense to me in the past. It’s unnerving to think that you’re just as susceptible to a trend as anybody else or that it’s that easy to market to you. But consider this: there is just as little individuality in definitively going against the current as always going with it. We should always objectively analyze each installment and then decide if it’s for us. Don’t let a hipster mentality cause you to miss out on something you may end up liking again and, please, don’t wage wars on gamers who do happen to enjoy Call of Duty just as much as they enjoy Braid.
They can be hardcore, too.