For all its faults and shortcomings and repetitiveness, no one can deny that Activison’s Call of Duty of franchise is one of the most successful first person shooters, multi-platform franchises, multiplayer titles – the list goes on – of all time. For every little asset reused, every familiar gun, every side character killed off, no one can deny that. When the first Call of Duty came around, it introduced a side of World War 2 we had never seen before: One that could be extremely realistic, while still packing in tons of action and excitement. It only got better with Call of Duty 2, which trounced the floor with Electronic Arts’ Medal of Honor franchise.
But with the pending release of Call of Duty 2: Black Ops, one also can’t deny that an interesting little wall has been reached. The wall between realistic yet action-packed, “Hollywood” military shooter and balls to the wall fictional shooter. Let’s call this wall, “jumping the shark” because there are so many things that cease to be awkward when that happens. As we see winged jetpacks, tanks with legs, tactical strikes and no doubt other unrevealed additions (and remember, this was after Modern Warfare 2’s heartbeat sensors), when does it come time to admit that the franchise is no longer rooted in a pseudo-realistic shooter environment? Said environment seems to be a wholly COD one however, with it’s own rules and tenets.
Despite shifting the action across different theaters of war, both fictional and historical, and introducing both intrinsic plots and pure fluff; despite giving you crossbows, and QTEs, and Spec Ops Survival mode, the franchise simply cannot exit that COD environment it’s so comfortable with. The same environment that makes you feel like you’re playing the same game over and over again, where the guns behave the same, whether they shoot fire or bullets, and running and leaping and chaotic shooting against epic set pieces is encouraged. With the slow move to more highly futuristic settings for Call of Duty, does the point where it stops being a military shooter – like Medal of Honor is trying so hard to be these days, as it bases itself in contemporary times – mean it becomes a better game? Or even a new game altogether?
Activision and it’s teams can crow about the multiplayer being more improved than ever, and the deep storylines you’ll come across. Heck, they’re even introducing certain sandbox missions with Black Ops 2, that allow you to make your own choices and proceed down separate paths. But again, by keeping the same mechanics intact, it begins to feel more and more like FIFA: The same thing, with a few noticeable changes and a partially new shiny cover. And even then, FIFA has better AI. When 343 Industries can take what makes the Halo franchise great and repackage it into something that expands, rather than augments, it further as with Halo 4, then how hard is it for Activision to do the same? Sure, it may not have other franchises to fall back on for raking in the money, but nowadays, fewer and fewer developers do. Can anyone name a Microsoft Games Studio franchise that might outsell Halo 4 when the year is up?
So indeed, what is next for Call of Duty? What is next for the franchise that revolutionized multiplayer with Call of Duty 4, popularized the blockbuster set piece format with Modern Warfare 2…even re-popularizing Nazi Zombies with World at War. Nazi Zombies! Do those guys even need lobbying? And yet, the Zombies mini-games and modes continue to be the most popular thing across mobiles and consoles alike. Most importantly, what’s next for the franchise that motivated Electronic Arts to up their game or risk being left behind? Will it be warfare in space? Medieval warfare? Intergalactic warfare? Planetside-style massively multiplayer online battles? Or will it simply be the same thing, year in and year out, only made to appear different by flitting back and forth between realism and conceptual technology, hopping across the proverbial shark each time?
Whatever it turns out to be, there’s no denying, like everything else, that Call of Duty will hit the proverbial bump in the road – like a Resident Evil Zero, or even its own Call of Duty 3 – before it has to reinvent itself. And for those who doubt that time will come, just look at the series of Resident Evil games since, with RE 6 racking up millions at the sales counter. Change is thus like franchising: it’s due for repetition, sooner or later.