Into the Ground

Into the Ground

I’ve played and beaten every major Call of Duty game that has been released. Most of them weren’t even intentional. Sometimes a misguided but well-meaning family member sees and buys the first video game that catches their eye for your birthday or you get sent a copy to review or your roommate’s Xbox’s disc drive is stuck and the last thing in there was Call of Duty: World at War. Basically what I’m saying is that things happen.

No regrets, though. None of them were terrible, and in fact a few of them are now seminal pieces in the industry’s historical tapestry. Iron sights, heavily scripted set pieces, and more can be traced to some degree to the series, if not as a progenitor then definitely as the one that made those things popular. And of course, there’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

Perhaps no other game shook up an industry, a genre, and a franchise so wholly as the first Modern Warfare. Of course there is World of Warcraft and Minecraft and Angry Birds, but this reminded people that even staunchly set-in-their-ways games can do well with innovation. The main dude fucking died. It proved that the right mix of RPG elements into a traditionally run ‘n gun category of games can have absolutely amazing results, as can nailing the feel of shooting virtual bad guys in the face.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Its single-player missions were stellar. Who doesn’t remember sneaking along in the grass, hoping not to get spotted by the veritable phalanx of soldiers and tanks all around you? Who can’t vividly and passionately recall taking that sniper shot from what felt like worlds away, taking a digital pulse of the wind and the rotation of the Earth? And that was all on top of a redefinition of addictive multiplayer.

Then the series kind of coasted. Or at least half coasted considering no one held Treyarch in particularly high regard back then. (And still?) We got more dead main characters and more nukes in space while innovation got shuffled into a Cards Against Humanity deck, cards pulled out one at a time and added to the series: “No Russian“, torture, etc.

It eventually became a joke. It became Madden. It became Guitar Hero. It became a series that many considered an annual cash grab and still it sold like god damn gold-dusted hot cakes. Confusingly, erroneously, impossibly it sold. I guess we were all taking crazy pills back then.

Grand Theft Auto V

How are you supposed to innovate on a yearly schedule? You ship and immediately start working on DLC and then figure out why all those bugs are still in the engine and then oh god it’s four months until we ship again. Guess why there’s so much new stuff in Grand Theft Auto V: it’s because Grand Theft Auto is not a yearly franchise. I’m not saying it’s the only reason (Rockstar is a talented studio) but it certainly didn’t hurt that they had more than a few months to plan.

Worse yet, how are you supposed to consolidate the large stable of usual development problems while you try to make a game work on completely new hardware? Poised to be launch titles on the new generation of consoles, Call of Duty: Ghosts is among the first through the veil to the future. The problem with living on the frontier, though, is that you have to learn how to navigate the unknown. No matter how ample, making efficient use of memory is still a puzzle to be solved in any generation.

So it makes sense that Ghosts is not simply treading water, maintaining the same level of quality as before with just a new system for earning weapons and levels and allowing you to stealth-kill as a dog. It actually took a step back in many ways. The dog sections make a traditionally linear game even more straightforward. And the dependency on an aging Quake engine is starting to show its limits. And that’s not to mention the heavy recycling of old missions and tropes.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II

And after the addition of streaming capabilities to Call of Duty: Black Ops II, you’d think there would be a more focused aim towards eSports considerations. But Ghosts, apparently, doesn’t give an eff. For the most part, the maps are too big and eschew pseudo-lanes for chaos. The lengthy melee kill animation in multiplayer effectively stabs the rhythm of the game in the neck.

Sports have been finely tuned rules-wise for so long now. By and large, every major sport has an authority that presides over its development. With eSports, though, so much comes down to the developer, and with so much time spent on simply making the game work, that doesn’t leave a lot of space on the calendar for making sure it works well as a competitive format. So far, Riot with League of Legends seems to be doing it right.

Call of Duty, though, changes yearly, and not just with minor value tweaks. In terms of innovation, the changes are minuscule. (“Dual rendering” is an actual feature touted in marketing for sniper rifles, meaning you have peripheral vision when zoomed. I mean, come on.) But they are also deep enough that they fundamentally change the way high-level games are played. In basketball, they just have to concern themselves with flopping, which, as an aside, should have been dealt with long ago.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Then you throw in Zombies or Extinction or Squads or whatever, and it becomes obvious that being run into the ground is not the exact problem with the franchise. That is the result. The cause is that it is being spread too thin. Millions of dollars are on the line in each major Call of Duty tournament. An obscene amount more is at stake when it comes to pulling together a cohesive story when it’s now relegated to the second disc.

You can see it all falling apart at the seams because of this. It’s starting to look like too little butter spread over too much toast. The franchise has tried so many things and it has decided to keep all of them. Zombies should be its own game. Extinction could be its own game. Single-player probably doesn’t appeal to half of those that play multiplayer.

There is no easy solution, unless quitting counts as a solution. But that carries the same baggage as taking longer on each iteration; investors want big results and results don’t get bigger than a $1 billion debut. But to serve the fans better, you need to take the time to make a better, more considered product.

Call of Duty: Ghosts

Call of Duty is in the ground. Much like in the stories it tells, it’s fighting wars on several fronts, and none of them are looking up. It’s still a decent product, but how long will decent keep it afloat? How long does treading water count as success?

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