Call of Duty and Battlefield fans have been going at each other's throats like cats on keyboards for years now, but Dave Cook feels this is one war that doesn't have winners or losers. Join him as he looks back at almost a decade of PS3 and Xbox 360 shooters through his nostalgia-tinted specs.
”It all goes back to that dynamic experience, and the idea that we’re no longer passive consumers of on-screen action. We’re now the orchestrator, the person that makes those buildings topple, or those vehicles explode, rather than having our scripted protagonist do it for us.”
In 2006 a law was passed here in Scotland that deemed it unlawful for fans of Activision's Call of Duty franchise to derive any degree of pleasure from EA's rival Battlefield series. The same rule applied in the opposite direction. Any breach of the legislation was decreed punishable by extreme ridicule on an Internet forum of the court's choosing, and would be followed by 300 hours of community service and severe name calling on Myspace.
This obviously never happened, but I'm still confused by people who act like it's literally impossible to like both Call of Duty and Battlefield at the same time. As far as gaming industry 'wars' go, this is up there with the likes of the 16-Bit exchange between Sega and Nintendo, or what's happening now with Sony and Microsoft, although if I'm being completely honest none of these industry skirmishes have winner or losers.
Put it this way; the rivalry between Activision and EA over its flagship shooters triggered an annual game of one-upmanship from both firms that resulted in an abundance of new FPS titles. Each release had more effort than the last, and even if that led to naff gimmicks or genuinely neat features designed to keep things feeling fresh, you always had something new to look forward to each holiday season.
So if you're a shooter fan in general terms - never mind a staunch Call of Duty or Battlefield follower - then you're a winner as far as I'm concerned. You really are spoilt for choice, and you were most certainly not a loser for publicly admitting you preferred one series over the other. Those games aside, you also have IP like Halo and a host of other shooters that have been inspired by the big players, so really, you've always had shooters out the arse my friends. Out the chundering arse.
Bringing the Boom
Something miraculous happened as the industry charged into the late '90s. Thanks to the emergence of PlayStation and disc-based formats, developers finally had the power to make games more cinematic, and that sparked an exciting trend of crude but no-less enthralling FMV and CGI sequences in games. Remember the first time you saw Final Fantasy 7's intro video? I guarantee a large percentage of you sat there at the time and thought, 'this is it... the future.'
”This was what developers had dreamed of ever since they first saw the Holodeck concept in Star Trek; immersing worlds that pulled the player out of their bedroom and into a world of escapism.”
Fast-forward to the turn of the new millennium and you started to see studios teaching themselves how take those scenes and re-work them into something playable, so that we were no longer passive watchers of pre-scripted movies - we were right there in the heart of the action, exerting real influence over events as they unfolded.
I first felt we had made that leap when I sat and watched my friend playing the Omaha Beach landing mission in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault on PC. It was eye-watering, a truly watershed moment.
I saw cowering, screaming men pinned down behind steel fixtures as stray Nazi rounds churned up sand around them, while white-hot streaks of lead screamed past my ears, and the sound of explosions rumbled on the horizon as if Zeus himself had just broken wind.
This was what developers had dreamed of ever since they first saw the Holodeck concept in Star Trek; immersing worlds that pulled the player out of their bedroom and into a world of escapism, where they could be a race driver tearing around Hockenheim, a secret agent deep behind the Iron Curtain, or in Allied Assault's case, a solider fighting at the peak of World War II.
We had arrived at that special place, and I'm certain the gaming press of the day - as it's often known to do - deemed that games like Allied Assault were as far as we'd go in terms of cinematic direction and immersion. Little did those jaw-droppers know that we had only just touched the fringe of what was possible, and all it took for us to realise this was for the team behind that game - 2015 Inc. - to defect from EA and set up a new studio called Infinity Ward. The first Call of Duty released in 2003 and the shooter war was firmly on.
These games didn't start the rise of cinematic shooters of course, and it'd be remiss to glaze over the impact of GoldenEye 007 on Nintendo 64, Timesplitters 2 and Halo: Combat Evolved to name a few. Each of these titles were cinematic in their own special way - from Rare's opening Dam level with its superb pacing and fresh ideas, to Halo's explosive final escape - but as the industry entered the PS3 and Xbox 360 generation, it was clear that Hollywood and military shooters were about to converge in spectacular fashion.
It's weird actually, because on more than one occasion I've had gamers tell me that shooters set before modern times are boring due to their lack of gadgets and high-tech weaponry, but one glance back at Allied Assault's brutal beach landing or Call of Duty 2's Russian pipeline mission - one of my personal favourites - shows they can still be exhilarating to this day. These set-pieces were tense, engaging and worked hard to provoke urgency in the player with great effect.
One downside of cinematic shooters is, of course, the fact that you're largely beholden to what the developer wants you to see, and this is a method of design that really started to inform the Call of Duty franchise with the release of the first Modern Warfare. This was about the time DICE, which was seeing great success with Battlefield 2: Modern Combat, was being placed as Activision's closest rival, following Medal of Honor losing significant purchase in the market. The realm of military console shooters had become a two-horse race.
Bringing Knives to the Gunfight
In this line of work you don't have to look far to see someone sticking the knife in, berating another for daring to like console shooters. So what? Games like Battlefield and Call of Duty are great for just kicking back and enjoying the sight of men and women shooting each other with big guns after a long, hard day at work.
It's raw escapist nonsense at its best, and sometimes you want to be funnelled down a corridor to engage predictable AI in a relatively mindless skirmish, while other times you want to be more alert and earn the satisfaction that comes with winning a Battlefield match through sheer teamwork and communication.
”If you're a shooter fan in general terms - never mind a staunch Call of Duty or Battlefield follower - then you're a winner as far as I'm concerned. You really are spoilt for choice, and you were most certainly not a loser for publicly admitting you preferred one series over the other.”
What's incredible is how both of these franchises together have helped popularise the notion of online multiplayer. Infinity Ward's progression mechanic in Call of Duty 4 really did start a trend of experience gain and well-paced unlocks in online shooters that has endured to this day. It wasn't the first to offer unlocks and XP of course, but you'd be kidding yourself if you said that it wasn't a format that was copied within an inch of its life by other companies since 2007. Oh and Prestige mode is everywhere now. Just saying.
I had never really played online shooters before Call of Duty 4 came out on Xbox 360, and from that point I was on the bloody thing ever night after work for about a year solid. I was hooked on just how insane the action would become during the height of battle, the satisfaction that came with slotting an enemy with a sweet shot and the social experience of playing with friends. It was new and exciting as I was never much of a PC gamer before that, having missed out on the Quake 3: Arena and Unreal Tournament craze.
In DICE-land, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is up there with Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 as one of my favourite online shooters because of that social online element. Before I started working on VG247 I was living down south working at my first job in the gaming press. It was a pretty daunting time, having moved for a pay-cut and never really knowing if I'd ever make it back to Scotland or not. But I knew that every Friday night at around 8pm, I'd jump on Bad Company 2 to play with my friends back home.
We'd fire up our Xbox 360s, form a squad and catch up with each other as we shot our opponents to bits while levelling entire maps to the ground. We laughed, got mad at each other's ineptitude and played game after game until we noticed it had turned 4am. Oops.
The idea that Call of Duty and Battlefield games are full of puerile kids being homophobic, sexist little shits is valid to a point, but that's not the experience I take away from these games. These have always been social sessions that bring fun and hilarious banter in droves.
”This regular production line of annual shooters can get tiring, especially when all of the games start to look too similar. It’s all about franchised nature of the triple-a sector, with its rotating releases, big spends and lowered capacity for radical financial risk.”
Away from those personal memories, it's incredible just how influential this form of multiplayer has become. You often see other shooters pinching mechanics or little ideas from Battlefield or Call of Duty, and they both routinely inform each other on a yearly basis.
DICE's destruction mechanic - like Call of Duty 4's multiplayer component - is another big deal that saw many studios trying to ramp up the dynamic mayhem in their games. It was utterly game-changing in the first Bad Company, and simply exploded from there.
While I felt Battlefield 4's destruction didn't result in the same level of carnage that I enjoyed in Bad Company 2, you can't honestly say it doesn't look even a shade impressive. It all goes back to that dynamic experience, and the idea that we're no longer passive consumers of on-screen action. We're now the orchestrator, the person that makes those buildings topple, or those vehicles explode, rather than having our scripted protagonist do it for us.
That's empowering and it comes not from a sheer plan to one-up the efforts of Activision and the Call of Duty franchise, but from the collective pooling of influences, ideas and talent that both franchises have brought to the industry over the last ten years. Like I said at the start; there are no winners or losers in this race, because we're all benefiting from those innovations and that desire to make the best shooter possible.
Sure, this regular production line of annual shooters can get tiring, especially when all of the games start to look too similar. I get and respect that, I really do. It's all about franchised nature of the triple-a sector, with its rotating releases, big spends and lowered capacity for radical financial risk. It's not entirely bad when you view it as a way for DICE and Activision's teams to refine and hone their craft to the point where we're guaranteed a solid, dense and competent shooter year-in, year-out. These aren't terrible games, even if they sometimes feel over-familiar.
But who knows, perhaps both of these brands will inspire the next two big shooters destined to lock horns over the next ten years? Maybe it'll be Halo 6 versus Titanfall 2, or something we've not even seen or considered yet? It's a cyclical genre that goes through trends, so I'm sure World War 2 shooters will return to style once the near-future settings have dried up, but as an FPS fan you can always depend on the constant; that there will always be new, quality shooters out there to look forward to.
I firmly believe we owe a lot to Call of Duty and Battlefield in that regard, like or loathe them. They may not be around forever, but you can be sure their legacy will be felt throughout gaming for decades to come.