I’m not sure it’s entirely safe to label a Call of Duty release the “biggest entertainment launch ever,” let alone the year. It didn’t happen last year and it probably won’t happen this year. Not only has that been on a downward trajectory for a while now (something Activision foolishly blames on the generational transition), but there is also sizable competition this year.
There’s Assassin’s Creed Unity and Assassin’s Creed Rogue in about a week, though it’s possible the split console titles might also split total sales. Then there’s also the Halo: Master Chief Collection, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Far Cry 4, LittleBigPlanet 3, new Pokémon and Super Smash Bros., and the PlayStation 4/Xbox One re-release of Grand Theft Auto V, the game that undoubtedly shoved Call of Duty: Ghosts from the top slot last year. (And let’s not forget earlier releases like Destiny and Titanfall.)
But what’s happening this go-round with the 11-year annual franchise isn’t the important part; it’s what happening in the future. With increasing development times and costs in resources, Activision has taken the logical and necessary step to maintain their yearly shooter schedule by moving to a three-year, three-studio rotation including Advanced Warfare‘s Sledgehammer Games, Ghosts‘ Infinity Ward, and Black Ops II‘s Treyarch.
It’s been rumored and debunked that Treyarch is putting out World at War II next year, so math puts Infinity War down for 2016. (It’s absurd to me that games are being announced/assumed this far ahead, kind of like the nigh clairvoyant Marvel film releases.) This division of responsibilities raises some concerns, especially with some revelatory additions to Advanced Warfare.
First off, Advanced Warfare is a good game. I would say it’s a great game, but its redundancy as a franchise slackens an otherwise taut grip on exploding action into, onto, and all over our collective faces. And its most compelling changes have been more or less proven—and to a more extreme degree—in Titanfall: mobility. With the future tech of empowering exoskeletons, you and your comrades (and enemies) have the ability to double jump, dash, and dodge.
It makes the extraordinarily fine-tuned yet exceptionally flat gameplay of the Call of Duty series actually interesting rather than just precise. Being able to move at an additionally variable speed makes both the campaign and the multiplayer vastly more engaging, with the extra offensive strategies allowed by the currently nonexistent technology making the usually nominal, trite exchange of bullets and cover something genuinely original.
The problem is that we’re unlikely to see this again. Or at least until we get another game from Sledgehammer. While the World at War II leak may not be true, it doesn’t necessarily tie Treyarch to making another World War II game. However, studios traditionally tackle their own era and their own sub-series under the overarching Call of Duty umbrella. Infinity Ward handles all of the Modern Warfares and thus anything with the current/pseudo-current fighting. Sledgehammer just established itself as the moderately near future studio.
And Treyarch has unfortunately locked away the stuff of the past. This means that we probably won’t be seeing the exoskeleton-induced mobility in next year’s release, and if Infinity Ward carries on with present day combat, 2016 will be without the compelling addition either.
It’s unfortunate because even with the small amount of time going back to last year’s Ghosts after spending a few hours with Advanced Warfare, I found the lack of future tech, well, dull. Uninspired, even, despite finding it acceptable one year ago. And it’s certainly not a new problem with the franchise either.
Black Ops II was the first of the series to contain a branching storyline based on player choice, and it actually made a not insignificant portion of the game’s narrative rather interesting. But then, with a different studio at the helm, it went missing with Ghosts. A large omission of a noteworthy improvement.
Also from Treyarch in the Black Ops pairing was the dolphin dive, an odd but useful bonus in the shooter’s repertoire. It also went missing in the intervening releases from Infinity Ward. Whether good or bad, it and the integration of player choice and the focus on player mobility represent the greatest problem facing the formerly monolithic and unstoppable franchise: fragmentation.
There is no cohesive or unifying direction of the series regarding these differences. And I don’t see how they could in the short term considering development of all three studios is all in parallel. But this actively hurts the franchise since no good ideas or lessons from poor experiments get transplanted to the following year. Worse than that, each studio may wholeheartedly revel in the idea of pushing back and being entirely unique, for better or worse.
This wouldn’t be terrible if all three studios weren’t ostensibly aiming for the same goal. The interesting thing about, say, the Mission Impossible movies switching directors is that each one takes a massive detour in terms of tone, action, and general milieu. Every Call of Duty, however, tries to gin up categorical summer blockbuster action, hanging you from launch rockets and speeding busses and the like.
The end result is a feeling of petty conflict, and if not that, some degree of punitive ignorance. Whether it’s true or not, it’s a real enough sensation. Wouldn’t the combination of the best parts of three studios’ worth of ingenuity result in the best Call of Duty possible? Maybe not, but it’s certainly worth finding out rather than assuming it’s not.