With three years in development at Sledgehammer Games, a new engine and overhauled multiplayer, Activision is taking a big risk with its most valuable console franchise.
Call of Duty has become something of a byword for annualisation, even amongst those who really enjoy Activision’s bombastic shooter series.
Activision has weathered this criticism with a great deal of dignity, introducing first a second and now a third core team into the franchise’s development schedule, and backing these teams up with help from periphery studios. However much you may dislike Call of Duty, there’s no saying the games don’t achieve what they set out to achieve – highly accessible multiplayer with loads of content, and a spectacle-filled single-player campaign that goes from peak to peak.
There are some signs that the franchise may be feeling its years, but I don’t think we should put the old girl out to pasture yet. It’s true that there’s not really any way for the series to up the ante in terms of story events now; we’ve all watched so much slaughter and subsequently saved the entire world so many times that unless a Call of Duty game blows up, say, the entire United States, nobody will blink an eye. I suspect that’s why review scores have been declining since the high notes of Modern Warfare 2.
However much you may dislike Call of Duty, there’s no saying the games don’t achieve what they set out to achieve – highly accessible multiplayer with loads of content, and a spectacle-filled single-player campaign that goes from peak to peak. There are some signs that the franchise may be feeling its years, but I don’t think we should put the old girl out to pasture yet.
But let’s face it – the story campaigns, while entertaining in an explosive-big-dumb-action-movie way (I don’t mean to be derogatory here; I love explosive big dumb action movies), are not the end goal for the majority of the 30 million or so punters who sign up each year.
No, what Call of Duty thrives on is its multiplayer – much to the dismay of old school shooter purists who dislike its run-and-gun gameplay. I don’t think we should knock Call of Duty’s multiplayer, personally. Maybe it’s not as tense and tactical as your favourite PC exclusive from 1998, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a laugh. It’s supposed to be something you can put on after a hard day while you crack a bevvy and chat to your mates. It’s a couch game, despite the incredible level of skill shown by its best players.
There’s room in the world for tense, tactical shooters and more relaxed experiences, and it’s pretty obvious from Call of Duty’s phenomenal success that it’s supplying something players want.
There’s so much snobbery and elitism about Call of Duty that even as, towards the end of each year, it becomes the default social multiplayer experience, you get a lot of mileage out of ragging on it.
I don’t think Activision gets enough credit for producing Call of Duty each year. The fact that it offered its development teams two years, and then with the extra pressure of new consoles three years, to push out a new shooter is admirable. It works hard to maintain a certain level of quality, and the money it throws at the franchise in terms of man power is eye-opening.
We tend to think of the Call of Duty brand as lumbering along under its own Steam, but the truth is if it wasn’t carefully guarded it would go the way of Guitar Hero or any other causality of sequelitis – the Activision of the late 2000’s and beyond has learned from its mistakes, and is way too savvy to permit any harm to its most bountiful cash cow.
There’s a persistent assumption in certain cynical corners that Activision just takes last year’s game, changes the title, and re-skins it. That’s simply not true. If it were, the series would have collapsed long before now, and not because of the inevitable franchise fatigue.
What is true is that Activision’s Call of Duty studios share technology and expertise internally; the series could not have kept up the pace otherwise. This has been one of the most widely criticised aspects of the franchise to date: that the engine has not been improved dramatically enough from release to release.
There are two sides to this argument. One is that the original engine has been iterated on with each release, so that by the time Call of Duty: Ghosts released last year, it was a very different beast to the modified id Tech 3 base Infinity Ward made its own in Call of Duty 2. Gradual iteration kept the tech up to date, without necessitating the huge investment and high level of risk required to build a whole new engine.
The other side of the argument just points out that Call of Duty: Ghosts was built on tech originally design for Quake 3: Arena, and rests its case. It is, unfortunately, a much more compelling story, and it’s not exactly easy to disperse when Activision throws preview events for its games and gets enthusiastic about features like “fish react to the player!” as if these weren’t things games had been doing since the PS2 era (or maybe further back, gosh).
I’ve always found it funny that there’s so much criticism of Call of Duty’s reuse of old tech when it is one of the few series to consistently achieve a framerate of 60FPS, something you continue to insist is super important.
Well, it’s time to hang up your whinging pants, because this year things are set to change.
Activision is taking a huge gamble by handing its previous, precious baby to Sledgehammer Games; despite the staff’s experience both in and outside of the franchise, the studio has never led development of a major release. Given that, you might have expected the publisher to insist on playing it safe, at least for Sledgehammer’s first release.
It didn’t, though. It green lit Michael Condrey and Glen Schofield’s vision of future warfare, and it didn’t insist on Sledgehammer using the same, well-established tech of previous entries. Sledgehammer hasn’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and has adopted some pieces of code from past Call of Duty games, but the vast majority of Advanced Warfare’s engine has been written from scratch by Sledgehammer Games for this game.
That makes me a little bit nervous about Advanced Warfare, actually, but it puts paid to one of the biggest complaints about the franchise in recent years. It’s something Sledgehammer and Activision deserve more credit for.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare arrives on PC, PlayStation 3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One on November 4.