Yesterday Activision unveiled the latest in their annual cash cow – Call of Duty: World War II. The reaction has been varied, some heralding this as a chance for the series to start afresh. Others (like me), can’t help but laugh at the awkwardly amusing length’s Activision is going to in order to justify releasing games on an annual basis. Because having been everywhere possible, it’s somewhat amusing to see the series return to the very thing it was trying to escape from in the first place.
Not to long ago, it was Infinity Ward and Activision that led the charge; breaking free from the tired World War 2 shooter and delivering a delightfully engaging game that shook up the first person genre. Modern Warfare was a breath of fresh air among console shooters that had long become too comfortable in their niche. It shook everything up and showcased just how things should be done – blending beautiful cinematic work with tense gameplay. It made Call of Duty THE premier destination for first person shooter fans.
Yet here we are, not ten years later and the franchise is all but out of ideas. Having plundered every historical and hypothetical war zone it can, Call of Duty has retreated into openly mimicking its biggest rival – Battlefield. Some are heralding this return to World War II as the series returning to its roots. For me though, it’s just a sign that Call of Duty is a tired old dog that needs putting out of its misery.
The annual release slog has reduced the series to a creative blur. Between jumping from the Cold War to the far future, something got lost in translation. The series may have gotten grander in scope and scale – increased its budget and brought on bigger names – but it’s failed to capture that excitement that Infinity Ward managed to home in on back in 2007. When fans are more interested in playing Raven Software’s remaster of Modern Warfare over flying wall-running and futuristic endeavours, you know something has gone seriously wrong.
Not that I blame Sledgehammer Games. Creatively stifled and struggling to justify its continued existence, the series has become a monument to greed and terribly thought out ideas. After Modern Warfare 3, the series has seemingly been throwing every suit out the closet in a hurried attempt to find a new outfit that fits. It tried the near-future to mixed results, the even further future (With drones and cyber warfare) to less grand results, eventually throwing its arms up and going full on Star Wars in its last outing. Where on earth could the series go from grand space battles? It’s an interesting question, one I suspect caused Sledgehammer to look at the path the series is on and decide to revisit its roots.
Of course the other big factor in this decision was likely the success of Battlefield One – which garnered huge critical praise and sales thanks to its World War One setting. Say what you will but EA and DICE’s gamble with the setting paid off big time – and left Call of Duty looking remarkably silly with its pew-pew space battles and zombies. If you can’t beat them, mimic their best moves and go right next to them.
Yet at its core – the gameplay on offer just doesn’t excite throughout the series. The single player modes in particular has long since struggled to break new ground – offering up tired ideas among set piece moments. Modern Warfare wasn’t great in this aspect, but it did a fantastic job of marrying tension and storytelling during those grinding gameplay segments. Things get changed year-on-year, but the series has failed to revolutionise itself – and in World War II I don’t get the sense this will change.
The series has long since settled into a pattern of regurgitating it’s best parts while quietly changing up minor details to help sell copy’s. Year on year sales of the series have been sinking for years now – fans have long since caught on to the rot. The flashy cinematic are empty of emotion, the characters unmemorable. Those days where Soap was dragging us through the emotional toils feel like another universe entirely. Rather than change and adapt, the series has become lazy.
What’s more disappointing though is that we’ve been here before. We’ve leaped from the digital boats in Normandy, crawled across that France oh so many times. We’ve seen the story told ad nausea – there’s very little value in returning to these if there’s nothing new to offer. From the early footage, it seems like we’re getting more of the same. Sure this time round regenerating health is gone, but that’s not a game seller by itself (If it was, they’d have been doing years before). Hell, you can tell just how wafer thin the creative stub is within the game by they were quick to showoff the zombie mode. They just couldn’t leave it out for a year – they had to pander.
At the end of the discussion, this new Call of Duty is a showcase of everything wrong with the last ten years of Call of Duty. A destructive, short-sighted mess that’s relegated the series to a tailspin. Slick cinematics and top notch voice work can’t hide the fact that the series has nothing new to bring to the table.
Maybe I’ll be wrong. Maybe this will be the year that the series finally ups its game. I’m not holding out too much hope though – given that we’ve heard this kind of talk before – and look where it led us.