[16 May 2014]
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare was announced some week ago, and it conjured up some odd feelings in me: interest, curiosity, anticipation, but most of all excitement. According to the Internet, both the critical corner of it and the “hardcore” corner of it, I shouldn’t be excited for Call of Duty. I should be dismissive of it because it represents everything that’s wrong with blockbuster gaming: a cash-grab of a franchise that kowtows to the lowest common denominator of gamer while never doing anything interesting or unique. Right?
I disagree with that for multiple reasons that I’ve written about before, but also I think it’s a fascinating franchise to study critically, specifically because it has had a new entry every year for the past 11 years. Call of Duty has in fact evolved since its inception, and it has evolved fast. In just 11 years and 11 games, it has a history that rivals gaming mainstays like Resident Evil (9 “main” games in 18 years), Final Fantasy (17 “numbered” games in 27 years), or Tomb Raider (10 games in 18 years). For as much as people harp on the series for being the same game over and over again, each entry changes a little bit, and those little differences stack up over time until the franchise becomes unrecognizable. Sometimes this is a good thing for a franchise (see: Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes) and sometimes it’s a bad thing (see: Resident Evil 6), but it is always—at the very least—interesting.
Even just the announcement and its brief descriptions of future-tech contains noteworthy implications. Call of Duty, for all its popularity, has never really been a trendsetter. Sure. it touched off the whole modern-military shooter thing, but it certainly wasn’t the first World War II shooter, and Advance Warfare certainly isn’t the first semi-futuristic shooter. It might not set trends, but it is aware of them, so as Call of Duty becomes increasingly outlandish (i.e. Ghosts and Advance Warfare) that implies bad things for the “realistic” aesthetic that many shooters still stick to.
Even stepping away from a view of the bbig picture, the franchise is interesting because of how it has jumped between developers. At this point, it has done so often enough that each developer has… developed… their own style within the franchise.
The Infinity Ward games are reflective and mindful, at least as much as a Call of Duty game can be. The original games were a response to Medal of Honor and wanted to put you in the shoes of an average soldier. The Modern Warfare trilogy was a serious commentary on war that nearly lost its message in its commitment to spectacle as it grew. Ghosts is a kind of reinvention of the series, doing its best impressions of Moonraker, Thunderball, and Rex the Wonder Dog. It acknowledges how the series has changed, upping the crazy spectacle and then specifically casting you in the role of an awesome, amazing, super cool soldier instead of an average soldier. Infinity Ward is always thinking of history, whether world history or its own.
The Treyarch games were grim affairs initially in a seeming attempt to “out shock” audiences (see: World at War and the flamethrower). But as the proverbial “B team” for several years, Treyarch was encouraged to take more risks narratively and mechanically. Black Ops was the most plot-driven that Call of Duty has ever been and even introduced some vehicle segments. Black Ops 2 was even more ambitious in its mechanics, which included strategy game elements and also featured a branching narrative based on combat, not on moral choices.
Now with a third developer jumping into the mix, Sledgehammer Games, we’ll get to see yet another take on the Call of Duty formula. Theirs seems to be the most wild version yet with exo-suits, “verticality,” and a story about Private Military Corporations that seems to fly in the face of the franchise’s name.
So I’m excited for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. I’m excited to see where the series goes next and how it goes there, and I’m especially excited to play the campaign because Call of Duty campaigns have always been good. Whether thoughtful or bombastic, they’ve always been written with—at worst—the sophistication of a Michael Bay knockoff and at best a thoughtful reflection on war. That’s more than I can say for far too many other shooters, like Killzone: Shadowfall, Battlefield 3, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Syndicate, and Medal of Honor.