Call of Duty’s Identity Crisis

Posted in Kulturecade by - March 05, 2017

A few weeks ago, it was widely reported that during an earnings call, Activision said that the 2017 Call of Duty game will take the series “back to its roots.” There’s nothing strange about that statement at face value, as the latest release in the franchise, Infinite Warfare, received good-but-not-stellar reviews and was a divisive game for series fans. The question is not necessarily if the franchise should go back, but whether or not it still can.

I only just got around to playing Infinite Warfare in bid to clean up my backlog before the spring release season gets into full swing, and I walked away with mixed feelings. I enjoyed the campaign, and I appreciated the rare semi-grounded approach to sci-fi that it offered. Zombies in Spaceland is still classic zombies, just with retro flair and a few more mechanics. The part of the game that didn’t sit quite right with me, however, was the multiplayer.

I haven’t invested a serious amount of time in a Call of Duty game since Black Ops 2. The franchise just didn’t excite me after that, and while I enjoyed dropping in every year to play a new campaign, I neglected multiplayer in favor of other games. As those who have dutifully kept up with the series might imagine, Infinite Warfare’s multiplayer seemed completely alien to me, a far cry from the relative simplicity of Black Ops 2. Combat rigs, loot boxes, weapon crafting, wall running, hover packs- when did all of this become integral to Call of Duty?

That’s not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with all that (although I do have my grievances concerning Infinite Warfare’s matchmaking). The notable issue is that these are not cosmetic changes, but fundamental alterations to the core gameplay of the series that will be hard to undo gracefully. Due to the popularity of Battlefield 1, it seems safe to assume that Activision’s attempt to go back to basics will probably involve a jump back in time as well. A vocal contingent of fans steadfastly asserts that Call of Duty was at its finest when it was set during World War II. But Battlefield has shied away from killstreaks and absurd weaponry; the shift to World War I was drastic from an aesthetic perspective but didn’t fundamentally alter the flow of the core Battlefield gameplay. Call of Duty doesn’t have the same luxury. Soldiers in the 1940s didn’t run on walls or hover using jetpacks, and they most certainly didn’t have access to Blackbird jets and drone strikes. As Call of Duty has gotten older, and its settings have gotten more futuristic, it has implemented more and more familiar abilities and killstreaks that will be hard to fit into the historical context of any conflict before the modern era.

Even disregarding the aesthetic changes, what about the players who like the new Call of Duty? Surely, they won’t be pleased to see the franchise revert from fanciful escapism to a grittier, (very loosely) historically accurate setting. And what of the professional players, the YouTubers and MLG teams that have spent recent years acclimating to the changes to the core gameplay, only to have the rug pulled out from under them? Admittedly, playing an FPS is a bit like riding a bicycle in terms of simplicity and muscle memory, but the shift to a pared-down version of what has come before will at least be jarring, if not entirely unwelcome by some.

In 2017, Call of Duty finds itself in an awkward situation. In an effort to make fans happy, the series seems poised to return to the past, but one can’t help but wonder what will become of all of the new additions to the series that cannot feasibly survive the transition. Almost every sequel aims for the “bigger, bolder, better” approach, but in scaling down and refocusing, the next Call of Duty game has the potential to perhaps be the most intriguing entry in the franchise in some time. But even so, the balancing act that needs to be achieved is unenviable. If the next game ditches all of the conventions of the most recent entries, some will undoubtedly call it a return to form, but others will just as certainly criticize it for “dumbing down” a formula that was just beginning to show signs of experimentation. If the game doesn’t change enough, it could very well be an incongruous mess. Throwing the Call of Duty franchise into the future was a risk, but sending it back to the past may prove even riskier. If Call of Duty wants to shake things up again, it needs to pick an approach and stick with it this time.

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