OPINION: The Sad State of Call of Duty
I weep for the Call of Duty franchise.
At one point in time, this series was definitive for me. So many of my fondest gaming memories came in that magical period of time between 2010 and 2013 when Call of Duty was on top of the world with Modern Warfare 2 and 3 and the first two Black Ops games. Ghosts never really hooked me like the other games did, even though there was a lot I could respect about it.
But then, something changed.
Starting with the 2014 release of Advanced Warfare, the Call of Duty franchise went on a slow painful descent to the point where it is now: a shadow of its former self. Granted, the descent had unofficially begun many years ago in terms of the core foundation of its story, when Modern Warfare 2 transformed the franchise from a deliberate rejection of the power fantasy prevalent in most shooter games into a pure testosterone-fueled Michael Bay fever dream of an interactive action movie. But I’m not here to talk about the underplayed Call of Duty campaigns; I’m here to talk about its ever-popular multiplayer component.
Once upon a time, Call of Duty was king. When Modern Warfare came out in 2007, it changed the first-person shooter market forever. Instead of the World War II shooters that had been a dime a dozen, suddenly everyone was rushing to make modern military shooters. Online multiplayer started taking inspiration from the Call of Duty style, with progression-based unlocks, customizable loadouts, and a focus on fast-paced arcade-style gameplay becoming part of numerous other shooters that came in its wake. Call of Duty became, for better and for worse, the thing that everyone wanted to imitate.
But as the eighth console generation rolled in, the imitated became the imitator. When Titanfall - a game made by former Call of Duty developers who had had a less-than-friendly split with Activision - released, featuring a far-future setting with advanced mobility such as wallrunning and boost jumping and technology like powered exoskeletons and giant robots, Call of Duty responded with Advanced Warfare, which took those concepts and jammed them into the typical formula. This style of gameplay lasted for three games, until fatigue with the futuristic settings came to its peak on Infinite Warfare before being remedied with WWII’s return to “boots-on-the-ground” gameplay.
In those years between Advanced Warfare and WWII, players saw a growth of numerous trends in the shooter market. Tactical, realistic shooters such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Rainbow Six: Siege gained massive playerbases. Overwatch showed that a hero shooter could be a widely-appealing success. Games like Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds brought the Battle Royale formula to the masses, with the former becoming the most popular online game. There’s a reason I specifically mentioned those trends and games in particular, and that’s because Black Ops 4, the newest Call of Duty game, has elements of all of those games mashed up in it.
Black Ops 4 has taken the Call of Duty franchise, cut it open on an operating table, extracted the guts, and then replaced them with guts taken from a bunch of unwilling organ donors to the point where it is now more imitation than original. Here are just a few of the changes made to this game:
- Full minimap coverage is now replaced with a Fog of War system, which only reveals a small section of the map to the player while making team communication an important component in filling in the blanks. This idea isn’t awful on PC, where players can freely use text chat, but on consoles - which have no in-game text chat and a notable lack of players who own voice chat headsets and actually use them in game - this system will cause more frustration than it will teamwork.
- Players now have a visible numeric health bar on screen, which has been raised to 150 vs 100. Healing is now no longer automatic, requiring the player to press a healing button to manually heal themselves.
- Everyone who damages an enemy gets full credit for killing them, eliminating the all-too-frequent assists of earlier Call of Duty games. This is arguably the most innocuous of the decisions made in this game, even though it is at its core an adaptation of the kill system from Overwatch.
- Matches are now 5v5 rather than 6v6.
- The recoil system is now more in line with Counter-Strike’s more predictable recoil patterns.
- Online multiplayer places a heavy focus on heroes - sorry, specialists - that each have their own unique abilities and can only be picked once per team.
- Campaign has been replaced with a Battle Royale mode.
The changes outlined above are significant ones to the Call of Duty formula. While they may seem small on their own, they represent the franchise at the peak of its recent identity crisis, cramming as many ideas from popular games as it can in an attempt to draw back some of its dwindling audience. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t, but Activision doesn’t care what players think of the game quality-wise. They just care about the money those players will spend on it.
The Call of Duty franchise has three different forms of monetization tied to it. There’s the base game itself, including the half-dozen different editions and accompanying bonuses that publishers still think are necessary, the season pass and map packs (because Activision is totally fine with fragmenting the playerbase with paid content despite nearly every other publisher moving into a free content model), and the microtransactions and lootboxes.
One of the things that used to be so appealing about Call of Duty was the constant striving towards something. If, for example, you wanted a really cool playercard in Modern Warfare 2, you had to figure out how to earn it. Maybe the process of earning that playercard required you to step out of your comfort zone and use a weapon you hadn’t used before. The effort that you put in was rewarded, which gave you a reason to keep playing the game for months on end. Now nearly all of that content is locked behind lootboxes. Acquiring something cosmetic that you want has gone from being a process of effort and reward to either grinding out for hours to get one lootbox that might have the thing you want or spending money on lootboxes to maybe have a marginally better chance of having the thing you want. In chasing quick, effortless profit, Activision have thrown away what was once one of the core appeals of Call of Duty. That, in addition to the trend-chasing gameplay, is what has turned the franchise into a shadow of its former shelf.
Call of Duty is barely a game anymore. It’s become little more than a vessel used by Activision to squeeze as much money as it can out of its players. But that alone isn’t the main problem with the monetization. The problem is that it works. Year after year, Call of Duty inevitably ends up doing extremely well in sales, despite any backlash or negative attention directed at it before launch. Every YouTuber and Redditor in the world can spread the word about how the Black Ops Pass will do more harm than good, but it’s not going to mean anything because millions of people will still buy the game without thinking of the consequences. As long as that happens, nothing will change. An entire generation’s nostalgia will fuel sales, despite the fact that what we’re now buying has little remaining resemblance to what we fell in love with.