Call of Duty is quietly hoping you won't notice what it's doing until it's too late.
Modern Warfare Remastered is Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare's Trojan Horse
There's only so long you can keep making the same game over and over. Right?
Wrong, probably. For all the bells and whistles touted by promotional materials each year, the big sporting franchises keep on pulling it off - and some of them have been doing it for literal decades. And of course, there's Call of Duty.
Call of Duty’s evolution slips quietly through the Modern Warfare-shaped door in our hearts.
Ahh, Call of Duty! Our annual juggernaut. The reliable 20 million or so sales per entry - even on a dud release. The multiplayer event of the year, every year. One of a select number of properties that can hold its head up as an "entertainment franchise", charting alongside viral hit-driven albums, blockbuster movies openings and cultural phenomena like Harry Potter.
There was a time when Call of Duty was just another military shooter in what felt like an endless sea of military shooters. The arrival of Modern Warfare changed that, turning the series into the dominant FPS experience of a generation. Modern Warfare 2 built on it, spectacularly, and for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation era, Call of Duty became almost synonymous with gaming outside the core. Even more so than the somehow still increasingly bombastic campaigns, the slick, fast-paced PvP action is the bar that must be met - and in fact exceeded - in order to carve out a piece of a sodding enormous pie.
Activision is an ancient and cunning beast, and apart from pitching fits at Infinity Ward leaders Jason West and Vince Zampella (a story that's not as clear cut as many believe), has babied its goose through multiple golden eggs. Treyarch has gone from being the eye-rolling off year to a powerhouse, and Activision has very sensibly introduced multiple satellite studios to help out the big boys, as well as introducing Sledgehammer Games into the rotation, to ease the pressure of annual releases as the cost and length of current-gen development rises on and on.
Even Call of Duty's "failures" are achievements almost any other game would call wins. The less successful entries bear such ignoble marks as "second place in the active player charts to last year's Call of Duty" and "sold less than the last one", where the amount sold is still three, four, or five times what constitutes a hit in any other franchise bar the mighty, infrequent GTA, and revenue figures most publishing executives would eat a human hand to see attached to just one or two games, let alone an annual release.
Shoot stuff, admire whatever remarkable bit of brutality the writers have managed to escalate to this time, shoot some more stuff, play so much PvP you end up in physio for your RSI.
If you're not a fan of Call of Duty, or even if you are, you may declare that each year's entry is the same game, over and over again: shoot stuff, admire whatever remarkable bit of brutality the writers have managed to escalate to this time, shoot some more stuff, play so much PvP you end up in physio for your RSI. Each successful innovation quickly becomes a series standard (see Zombies mode, for example). The return of favourite maps and modes seems to indicate there's a limit on new ideas for ways for players to shoot each other's faces.
In order to avoid looking like a cut and paste with an HD brush up, the series has been slowly moving forward in time. Just as Modern Warfare pushed forward from WWII to the current era, so have successive sequels crept ever forward; even Black Ops is futuristic now. This has allowed Call of Duty to embrace trends found in competing titles, like mobility abilities. What else is it going to do? Go backwards? Insist players used to M4 Carbines stand around reloading muskets?
So here we are in 2016, and Call of Duty's gone to the "distant future", because of course it has. And that's cool, right? Watch a pretty space cutscene, say "cor", then board a ship and do some corridor shooting - just like last time. More of the same, yeah?
Except: maybe not. Some of what Activision is saying about Infinite Warfare is suspiciously new and different. Players will command a spaceship, which is customisable. they'll engage in dogfights in space. They'll walk around a hub world chatting with NPCs and selecting side quests before choosing their destination from the bridge of their spaceship.
Does that sound a little like role playing to you? There's a certain subset of the Call of Duty audience which breaks out in a sweat at the thought of wandering into the realms of RPG - for all levelling and experience systems have become absolutely essential to every genre under the sun. It wasn't that long ago, before The Elder Scrolls and Game of Thrones went big time, that anything smacking of swords and sorcery and the gameplay systems long associated with them were cause for deep and abiding suspicion in the bro-culture of multiplayer console shooters.
Some of what Activision is saying about Infinite Warfare is suspiciously new and different.
This probably has to happen. It's not just a matter of evolving the franchise to avoid fatigue; it's about preventing the hundreds of staff who work on these projects collapsing at their desks from sheer boredom. I suspect you really can't make the same game forever, unless you have the imagination of a clam.
Is the audience going to like it? Debatable. Activision has a lot of money on the line, and it's unlikely to push the button on anything it's not extremely confident with. But there's certainly been some backlash to the reveal trailer (although who knows how much of that was just outrage over a terrible cover version; too soon, Acti, far too soon) and the usual cynical declarations that, based on a single piece of marketing material, someone Done Fucked Up.
But for all the snark on social media and in comments section, the 30 million strong Call of Duty tribe is almost certainly hammering the pre-order button at retailers around the world, if only because of Modern Warfare Remastered. "I'm more excited about MWR than IW," one of my pals told me - and I was not at all surprised. A chance to revisit the one that started it all, in glorious HD on our glorious new consoles? Heck yes, we'll take ten.
It's a brilliant strategy. The Call of Duty faithful are pre-ordering because... Call of Duty. The new-and-different crowd is excited by Infinite Warfare's seeming growth and exploration. The nostalgic and cynical are drawn in by a genuine modern classic.
The new ideas coming with Infinite Warfare have been almost overshadowed by hype for a remaster, because this is video games, and that's how we do. Call of Duty's evolution slips quietly through the Modern Warfare-shaped door in our hearts. The franchise evolves, grows, changes, and maybe thrives - largely risk-free.
Don't be surprised if Call of Duty - born 2003, crowned 2007 - rules the roost for another decade.