By Ben Strauss
I spend my evenings after work doing a multitude of different things. Whether I’m doing research, working through a new novel or inventing new ways to amuse myself, I am inevitably given a ring from one of my friends beckoning me to join them online for some video gaming fun.
While my friends and I do have our share of games we like to play, the truth of the matter is that we always end up on some sort of shooter game, and popular polling of my friends puts me into either Modern Warfare 2 or Black Ops. By the end of the night, we’ve either amused ourselves with gaming shenanigans, or we turn off our consoles in frustration because of the incessant grenade spamming that is occurring. All in all, the pattern remains the same and we sign online to play the game.
To be frank, none of us particularly enjoy Black Ops online. We were sort of all right with howModern Warfare 2 played (we could certainly do without the 10th prestige lobby messages from every single underage kid playing the game), but you can bet the farm that all of us would gladly get online for Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
The point is that Call of Duty for us and for many has become a time wasting opportunity as some place for us to get together. Call of Duty has become the go-to shooter title for my friends and myself even though we’re not particularly excited about it. The game works (most of the time) and simply stands as the game we play to have a night to talk together and at least have some manner of fun.
Therein lies the problem; there is a distinct lack of desire to even put the game into my console so that I may play it. I’ll be the first to admit that I spend more time playing single player titles than I do online; it is really the idea of playing with my buddies that spurs me online.
Do I believe that this is something of an isolated incident, though? Looking at the progression of the Call of Duty series, it becomes increasingly obvious that the franchise has dwindled enough to where initial consumer reaction for the upcoming Modern Warfare 3 has been noticeably barren. It is as if the core gaming community as a whole looked upon the announcement trailer and simply sighed, resigning itself to another spent $60 to play amongst a large community of shooter fans.
While the numbers certainly give more than enough proclamation to Call of Duty’s continued success, the yearly release schedule is bearing striking resemblance to the downfall of Guitar Hero. Guitar Hero saw momentous growth through the main titles with Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero IIand Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. Even World Tour was able to capture strong sales, but as quickly as success had come, Guitar Hero 5 and Warriors of Rock signaled the end for a franchise once thought nigh unstoppable.
Activision’s game plan for the two franchises, with yearly releases and multiple studios working on separate titles, is all too similar. While correlation of these two franchises does not signify causation, the old anecdote of learning from the past does come to mind.
Many have already asked the question: Is Call of Duty about to go the way of Guitar Hero? I say to you that Modern Warfare 3 will not result in the death of the franchise, perhaps not even a drastic decline in sales, even. Looking at Black Ops and MW2 we see that both titles did incredibly well, helping gaming to reach beyond the core audience. You simply cannot knock a triple-A title for expanding the joy that we all share in playing video games. The feeling trends more towards the idea that Modern Warfare 3 is more akin to Guitar Hero: World Tour in that it will still do well, but not as many people will wait with bated breath.
If the early critic reviews have anything to say about MW3‘s future, then this theory holds some water. The first impression is the one that people usually stick to, and Modern Warfare 3 hands-on to many seemed underwhelming. For example, Kotaku’s Brian Crecente comments “that it’s a game that will be a period, not an exclamation point for this era of Modern Warfare series.”
Perhaps his rationale is based upon Kotaku having essentially ruining the plot of the game to themselves through a ‘reliable source,’ but even with knowing the details their response is somewhat muted. Eerily similar comments have come from other major review sites, with several reputable groups looking to MW3 as a necessary chore, rather than a must-have title.
It is a condescending, perhaps even pessimistic view of a franchise that by all accounts looks as healthy as if it were the latest and greatest. At any given point during the day Modern Warfare 2and Black Ops dominate the PS3 and Xbox 360, and no other title looks close to bringing them down anytime soon. So why is there this continued sense of nonchalant definition towards November 8?
Simply put, Call of Duty has faltered.
This past year has been an up and down roller-coaster for a studio so celebrated in days past. Infinity Ward has plainly seen itself transformed due to the legal battle between former studio heads Jason West and Vince Zampella and Activision. Perhaps the title has been pushed to a breaking point with a yearly release schedule, given that three separate studios are working to ship it out on time. Perhaps it is that gamers are looking for something more. Modern Warfare 3might deliver on the scope, but I fear that it shall not deliver on the quality.
Surely, shooter titles are developed to give us a point-and-shoot perspective of the world. Lawmakers and concerned citizens alike have beckoned for reason as to why these games should be allowed to exist. Call of Duty though, is one of those rare titles that has transcended past the ‘gamer’ barrier. It has hit just about every single market out there, and it has succeeded.
I might have stars in my eyes, but Call of Duty was a franchise that against all of the norms stood out to provide more than the shoot’em-up-bang-bang experience. We’ve had driving characters, a masterful musical score and a scope that pushed the boundaries of what we could expect from a game. It showed the mainstream that games could have a reason. While Call of Duty is certainly not a masterful work of art, it was a step in the right direction.
That said, Modern Warfare 3 has several major titles to compete against; chief among them is Electronic Arts’ Battlefield 3. Our earlier discussions with EA Games boss Frank Gibeau made it earnestly clear that come holiday season 2011, it’s Call of Duty vs. Battlefield, and Gibeau believes that Battlefield will come out on top. The CoD franchise has taken some hard knocks recently, and how it recovers remains to be seen.
We look at an orange-flavored apple and an apple-flavored orange. Two titles so similar, yet so distant in scope and definition, it is almost ineffective to truly compare the two games directly. Activision seeks to provide a fast-paced, Hollywood type experience where gamers are constantly at each other’s throats in smaller environments. By contrast, EA gives us a title with a grand, set-piece battle scale that requires greater numbers. The discussion is that Battlefield is a larger scope title in terms of PvP. Whereas Battlefield is more strategic, MW2 relies more on individual tactics. They are different styles of games even though both are modern military first person shooters.
While each game brings something to the table, it has become clear that BF3 has expanded upon the ideas explored in BF2 and engaged in Bad Company 2. In that moment, the feeling becomes a little clearer. What we have is a rapid evolution in capabilities from DICE. What we currently lackis that same showing from Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer. There is simply no apparent evolution in the Call of Duty franchise at this stage.
I cannot say for certain that I believe Battlefield has quite what it takes to topple Modern Warfarethis round, but this is certainly the year that EA is going to make a dent in the effectiveness of Call of Duty‘s reach. EA has several things going for it this season, and DICE has done a superb job with their work on Frostbite 2. While Infinity Ward has stated they’ve made graphical improvements to their latest title, the announcement trailer did little to confirm the claim. Ultimately, we’ll have to wait until after the ball drops in Times Square to see how both games stack up in sales.
What I say to you is this: Modern Warfare 3 could very well mark the beginning of the end for Activision’s golden console egg. When Modern Warfare 3 comes out, I will still be playing it on launch night, both in campaign and online. I will discuss all of the cool things I see in the game, and I will continue to play. Through all of the gameplay and good times with my friends, however, somewhere in the back of my mind, I will still be waiting for something more. Perhaps Battlefield 3can fill that void.