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Call of Duty’s Role in the New Generation
With this past generation of video games finally coming to a close, it’s hard to look back and put into perspective how much games have evolved. The boundaries of technical achievement and artistic innovation have been pushed so far, it’s amazing to witness how much has been achieved in so little time. In terms of the overall legacy of last generation, time will tell what we remember most. One thing is for certain: first-person shooters were the force to be reckoned with, both critically and commercially. In fact, the Xbox 360 (tagged as the reputed “shooter console” of last generation) saw seven of its top ten best-selling games taken by first-person shooters. Even on the less shooter-friendly PlayStation 3, we saw six of the top ten best-selling games fall into the FPS genre. Granted, these games all belong to the powerhouse Call of Duty, Halo, and Battlefield franchises, but that wasn’t always the case.
It’s actually not surprising at all when you break down how the generation started. Within two years of the Xbox 360’s release we saw two of the most influential games of the genre hit shelves. They would set the tone for what the next decade of video games would have to offer. These two games were BioShock and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. BioShock pushed the boundaries of storytelling and redefined immersion in video games. It was as haunting and uncomfortable in tone as it was a blast to play. It tore at your heartstrings by forcing you to make the choice between savage and savior, and it never apologized for forcing you to make those choices. The world they created felt grandiose and confined at the same time, and the journey they pulled you through is as memorable today as it was eight years ago.
On the other side of the spectrum, we had Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Following the universal disappointment that was Call of Duty 3, Treyarch and Activision decided it was time to give the series a breath of new life. Remembered simply now as Modern Warfare, Infinity Ward brought to video games what I thought wouldn’t be possible until much farther in the future: a military shooter that perfectly meshed gritty realism with fast-paced arcade action. All I’d ever wanted was the up-and-down insanity of Counter-Strike mixed with a Rainbow Six setting, and it had finally arrived. Looking back, Modern Warfare‘s success wasn’t really based on it doing anything unique. The success of the title (especially in comparison to its contemporaries) was a product of it being a culmination of all the best parts of the genre. It had just enough of everything to keep everyone happy. 18 million copies later, it seems as though as they succeeded.
Momentum built, sales continued to reach prodigious heights, and more projects popped up, bringing gameplay and storytelling to new levels. Call of Duty was the poster child of this rise, exemplified when Modern Warfare 2 sold 4.7 million copies within 24 hours. With great success, however, came great backlash. As the franchise continued into a pattern of annualization, critics (professional and otherwise) began to accuse the franchise of not doing anything new. The series became a lightning rod of internet hostility, but the bottom line was never affected and sales continued to rise.
I haven’t bought a Call of Duty game since Modern Warfare 2. I actually believe there is some merit to the arguments that the series has lacked innovation in recent years. The genre has so much to offer now, the franchise hasn’t really had anything special to offer me. The aforementioned single player/story-driven FPS experiences also had a lot to do with my deviation from the competitive shooter landscape. The compact experiences of Far Cry, BioShock, and Deus Ex gave more a sense of satisfaction and had more of a purpose than just headshots and teabags galore. All this success couldn’t last forever, though, and the decline has already begun.
The apparent “death of shooters” started around the fall of 2013. Call of Duty: Ghosts suffered from disappointing sales and reviews. Ghosts has still sold nearly 20 million worldwide which, for most any franchise, would be a phenomenal success, but we’re not talking about just any franchise. The second-largest FPS franchise, Battlefield, also saw a new release that season. Battlefield 4 also met with critical and commercial disappointment, accompanied by nightmarish technical issues that have still not been completely fixed, even a year later. Even though the technical shortcomings had nothing to do whatsoever with the team that brought us Call of Duty, it did nothing to help the genre’s reputation.
So why do I still have faith that Call of Duty can thrive in this generation? It’s all about trends. Titanfall was a hugely important title for the evolution of the FPS genre. It was a critical darling that breathed new life into a genre that had become complacent. Titanfall has been met with disappointing sales, giving FPS haters even more fuel for their crusade. People shouldn’t read too much into Titanfall‘s disappointing sales. It was a new IP on a limited install base. Microsoft came at them with a boatload of cash to pay for exclusivity, and that exclusivity left a bad taste in people’s mouths. Make no mistake, there will be a Titanfall 2; it won’t be a console exclusive and it will be a huge success. Titanfall 2 is the elephant in the room. It hasn’t even been announced yet, but we know it’s coming. That lingering feeling of a franchise breathing down your neck to go on top of declining sales has made Activision nervous. It’s time for them to step up their game. Enter Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
I’ve been watching Advanced Warfare‘s development closely. Lead developer Sledgehammer wants to put their stamp on the franchise in a big way. With now a third development team working on Call of Duty, developers now work on their games with a three-year development cycle instead of two. What’s coming in the next few years? I have no idea. One thing I know: Advanced Warfare will be the first Call of Duty game I buy since Modern Warfare 2. Like the original Modern Warfare before it, Advanced Warfare needs to be the title that sets the momentum in the right direction. Every game series is allowed its duds. Hiccups are a part of any franchise’s life cycle. One is fine, two in a row could be a death-knell.
With an enormous lineup of games coming this fall and people looking for excuses to finally upgrade to new systems, Activision has too much riding on Advanced Warfare for it to be “just another dumb shooter.” They’re also aware that Titanfall is looming in the shadows, ready to strike and steal their spot on the podium. With the smell of real competition on the horizon, and the flourishing success and interest in the single-player FPS experience, Advanced Warfare looks to put itself back in the forefront. With Battlefield Hardline delayed until Winter 2015, Advanced Warfare has a prime opportunity to dominate sales this holiday season. The next year will be telling in terms of its staying power. Call of Duty isn’t going anywhere, but the fate of the franchise as we know it remains to be seen. With my return to the franchise, I’ll be going into it with an open mind and cautious optimism. Only time will tell whether they can hook me (and millions of others) into their addicting web of headshots and teabags galore. If they fail, then maybe this downward spiral is just beginning. Until then, I’ll continue to believe that speculation on Call of Duty‘s death have been exaggerated.