What the hell happened to Call of Duty?

By Matt Martin, Friday, 13 May 2016 08:04 GMT

We few. We happy few. We band of cybernetically enhanced special operatives.

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“Black Ops 3 didn’t just jump the shark, it fixed a laser turret to its back and rode it into battle.”

Excuse the slow reaction but it’s taken me a while to process the Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare reveal. Because I didn’t recognise the game at all. This didn’t look anything like Call of Duty. It looked like one of those b-list sci-fi shooters people don’t play anymore.

I’m not one of those people that doesn’t want change. I love change. I advocate ripping things apart and starting again. And I kind of respect Infinity Ward’s decision to pack its first-person shooter into a rocket and shoot it at the moon. Fuck it, light the touchpaper and see where it goes.

But Call of Duty no longer speaks to me as a fan of the series. I think I knew this during Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 but didn’t want to admit it. I didn’t finish the campaign and hardly touched the multiplayer. With previous Call of Duty games I had my own ritual of playing the campaign, then playing it again on Veteran, then moving on to the multiplayer for hours with friends, playing until 4am, semi-drunk and laughing. I haven’t done that for a while. I miss those days.

It’s had different lives, Call of Duty. The original World War II theme served the series well, with some incredible set-pieces – D-Day, the Battle of Stalingrad, Omaha beach. More importantly the allied AI and use of suppressive fire helped it dig in and outlast the competition. No longer lone wolves, we were backed by infantry brothers. They fell for us to advance. The History Channel footage and solemn quotes upon death were clumsy, but an admirable attempt to acknowledge the horrors or war in blockbuster video games. At least it was trying.

Then with the Modern Warfare era we took part in close-to-the-bone situations that flirted between realistic and tasteless. Death From Above was uncomfortably close to TV footage of real-world conflict where you pulled the trigger disassociated from committing legalised murder. Aftermath was perhaps the most realistic and emotional the game has ever been, without the need for forced storytelling or cliched characters.

1960s paranoia and cold war conflict allowed Treyarch to carve a new niche with Black Ops, with the sequel’s 1980s sections just keeping the sci-fi levels in check. Ghosts felt like an anomaly at the time but looking back it’s probably where the series unofficially decided not to bother with identity anymore. An appropriate name for an entry no one really remembers.

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“One year you get 4-player co-op campaigns and are able to play levels in any order you want. The next year, you don’t. The things you like disappear.”

Then exo suits and Hollywood actors took Advanced Warfare someplace weird. The bombast had always been part of Call of Duty, but with million dollar budgets, script writing went off the rails. From World at War’s Kiefer Sutherland shouting “shoot the barrels!” to Kevin Spacey spitting “we don’t need congress!”. Call of Duty the game never needed Hollywood, but Activision so desperately wanted Hollywood recognition it broke open the coffers.

Trench warfare has led to mass graves and bodybags, torture and co-ordinated dog attacks. I don’t suppose the violence could get any more extreme. After you’ve gunned down hundreds of innocents in No Russian where do you go next? Sledgehammer had us cutting our own hand off with a knife to drop Kevin Spacey from a rooftop. Black Ops 3 opened with both our own arms being ripped out of their sockets and flung away by a robot. There’s not a lot to say after that.

Last year’s Black Ops 3 didn’t just jump the shark, it fixed a laser turret to its back and rode it into battle. You could play as a robot or teleport back in time. Maybe in this world of hashtags printed on chocolate bars and selfies at funerals it’s a natural progression to buy Hotline Bling and Dab taunts for your multiplayer sessions.

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It’s wrong to criticise Call of Duty for not innovating. This year’s release sounds like it’s trying something new, but there’s never any sense of cohesion between the three main Call of Duty studios. One year you get 4-player co-op campaigns and are able to play levels in any order you want. The next year, you don’t. The things you like disappear. Deal with it.

I don’t want to bash CoD: Infinite Warfare for the sake of it. I’m not going to start a campaign to boo a trailer and try to influence bullshit metrics. But honestly, I don’t recognise Call of Duty in Infinite Warfare in anything but name. Even the addition of a Modern Warfare remaster is tainted by the cynical move of forcing you to buy the entire package for $80 in order to play it. Do you like old Call of Duty? You’re going to love paying twice the price for it and getting a space shooter you didn’t want for free.

What the hell happened to Call of Duty, man? It sold out to novelty dances and sci-fi trends, double-jumps, gimmicks, scene-chewing Hollywood actors and special edition cash grabs. It replaced spent ammo shells with nukes and tanks with spaceships. “No man fights alone” became “watch me nae nae”.

That’s what Call of Duty is today. I don’t recognise it. But I do know that after 14 games, it’s no longer for me.

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