12-gauge: can Modern Warfare 4 save CoD’s decline?

Monday, 16 April 2012 08:43 GMT By Patrick Garratt

Modern Warfare 3 didn’t progress Activision’s beloved action format and we’re seeing clear signs of a peak. The Call of Duty dial’s been stuck at 11 for years: is this just the publisher’s latest strip-mine victim?

Everything’s blown up. We’ve had a World War. That’s a thing with a capital “W” on both words. When both your words are capped up, how do you increase the intensity? Have a WORLD WAR? Go galactic?

I was recently explaining to a first-time Modern Warfare player why he felt let down by the MW3 campaign. His normal FPS style is to hang back and pick off enemies until it’s safe to move forwards. Claustrophobia and endless respawning was leaving him grumpy. Don’t think about it too much, I said. Run forward, shoot everyone and watch everything blow up.

Is this really what Call of Duty is? I’ve only just got round to playing Modern Warfare 3, and it seems obvious to me that the formula has been taken to the logical conclusion. It’s still the epitome of excitement in the action genre, but I’ve played this game before. At this point it’s easy to argue that Call of Duty has run into a dead-end.

If indications are accurate, franchise sales have peaked. Modern Warfare 3 is now lagging behind Black Ops’ success, and has only recorded about half its predecessor’s figures in its corresponding March. What happened? Is this the disaster many speculated when Guitar Hero went pop? Or is there a way back?

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Single-player Modern Warfare 3 is the spectacle FPS defined. Its barrage of set-pieces is deconstructable if you look even a few inches passed the façade of explosions and bullets, but there’s a lunatic thrill to be had if you leave your brain at the door and rush forward at full-auto. No game does blowing things up better than Modern Warfare, and MW3 is probably the pinnacle of that.

As you should know by now, MW3 is about a third World War, in which a lot of stuff explodes, the Russians go globally hostile and all the president’s men from all countries get kidnapped and are only savable by you and your “mates”. You shoot terrorists from speeding tube trains and every helicopter spirals in flames. There are parts where you really don’t do much apart from push up.

If we’re asking what’s happened to spoil Call of Duty’s growth chart, there’s a horribly obvious answer: it ran out of ideas. You can change the textures on the buildings and topple yet another landmark, but there’s no significant progression from MW2. On an aesthetic level, it’s not clear where Modern Warfare goes from here. I doubt it’s accidental that Rob Bowling, probably the most Modern Warfare-iest person on earth, has chosen this year to leave Infinity Ward. Modern Warfare 3′s done, and the DLC’s fully in motion. That he should decide he’s had enough now, as development on the next game starts proper, could be telling.

Everything’s blown up. We’ve had a World War. That’s a thing with a capital “W” on both words. When both your words are capped up, how do you increase the intensity? Have a WORLD WAR? Go galactic?

Even Spinal Tap understood the concept of
going “one louder”. And their amps didn’t go
to 12.

Modern Warfare 2 was a more private game. Yes, we had Russia invading the US, but it was essentially about special forces on covert operations, about people behind the scenes of normality averting complete disaster. The plot structure is easily reminiscent of Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears, in which you have a catastrophe on US soil (a nuke at a football game in that instance) but total global war is averted. MW3 plays out in public, on the streets of the world’s capitals, with tanks rolling, civilians screaming and armies invading entire continents. The game takes every layer of society and shreds it. It’s 11. It’s difficult to see how the dial can go any higher.

“You’re on ten on your guitar”

Multiplayer, too, appears to have reached a feature-peak. I’ve never seriously got into CoD’s online side, but it’s clear from the amount of debate in the community that it’s hit a creative level. Modern Warfare 3′s multiplayer is not better than what’s come before. There’s no consensus. It’s just another take on a trusted formula rather than a revolution.

We have complaints about drop-shotting, lazy camp points, imbalance in the weapon set, rushed map designs, spawn conflicts, frame-locking, borked hit detection, quick-scoping and all the rest of it. I looked in on the PC version last week and less than 1,000 people were playing a bunch of the public modes. In the latest Call of Duty game? Really?

And while the general experience from a community aspect is very welcoming, all the name-calling is still there. I’ve been called a “noob” and a “fag” a few times because I stayed in one place for 20 seconds and shot some people. That means I’m a camper, apparently. The incidents are isolated, though, and most rounds just end up with a list of “gg” and some smileys. It’s all you can hope for. But “fag”? Isn’t that, like, illegal? And isn’t it plain old?

Modern Warfare 3′s multiplayer is not better than what’s come before. There’s no consensus. It’s just another take on a trusted formula rather than a revolution.

I did have one guy playing techno and screaming, “We’re drunk,” until everyone called him a “retard,” at which point he turned his music up and started whooping. Everyone just laughed. Most people, in the PC version at least, are there for a good time. If anyone gets angry there’s usually someone telling them to not take it so seriously. Open play isn’t an especially vicious environment.

But it’s the same as it ever was. I asked VG247 readers for their opinions on MW3 multiplay as I don’t have an amazing frame of reference, and there was no decisive verdict on which of the recent games is “best”. There’s no one saying, “They’ve really moved it on and fixed everything this time.” Put “Modern Warfare 3 sucks” into YouTube to see what I mean.

Spec Ops is brilliant fun in co-op, and when you add up the entire package MW3′s an essential buy if you’re an action fan, but would you feel the same if you’ve just spent hundreds of hours playing something incrementally different?

Evidence suggests you will, but only to a point. Whether or not this really is it for CoD is highly debatable. It’s important to remember that Modern Warfare 3 was being put together as Infinity Ward imploded in 2010, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too shocked that the concept wasn’t moved forward significantly. Innovation could be found again.

And it’s not as if Activision’s releasing Modern Warfare games every year. The publisher has perfected its staggered development approach to Call of Duty, meaning we’re going to get Black Ops 2 at the end of this year and Infinity Ward’s follow-up shipping at the end of 2013. The next Modern Warfare will have enough of a break to generate excitement again.

But the creative formula does need to change before it burns out. It’s at 11, and it’s been there since CoD4 in 2007. The expected timing for both the next Xbox and PlayStation is Christmas next year, and it may be that new hardware is the number 12 on Modern Warfare’s dial. It needs something: sooner or later everyone gets bored of the same level, no matter how thrilling or polished.

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