Where to now for Call of Duty?
Please note before reading any further, this essay includes spoilers related to Modern Warfare 2.
I can remember the excitement in 2003 when I loaded up Call of Duty for the first time. It was palpable. The ability to immerse myself in the visceral combat of WWII and work through some of the more historic maneuvres of the war was an experience not to be missed.
Call of Duty's arrival marked the apex of a shift in FPS gameplay that has given birth to some of the seminal shooters of the last ten years. Six years later and Infinity Ward's seminal masterpiece has sired the biggest release of all time. The release-day sales of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 eclipsed even the phenomenal sales of GTA IV upon its release.
As well as breaking all the sales records, Modern Warfare 2 also managed to make massive ripples in the press, first when Activision not only announced that the RRP for the game would be 54.99 GBP (in the UK) but Bobby Kotick said that it was worth every penny, and second with its 'No Russian' airport level.
The comments from Kotick were largely regarded as hyperbole and most retailers chose to ignore the ridiculous 55 GBP price tag with the game selling for no more than 45 GBP upon release day.
More controversial was the 'No Russian' level of course. First off, the Russians decided that 'that level' needed to be removed from the game before it would get anywhere near a shop floor. In the UK the Daily Mail newspaper were expectedly affronted. The most surprising thing was the level itself. Here was a level which was supposed to be thought-provoking but could be skipped at the choice of the player. This design choice is baffling. Surely if you have content that is meant to provoke thought and incite debate about a very contentious issue then it should not be optional? Would it not be written in as a plot-centric part of the game, rather than an optional afterthought?
That is not the only problem with the level. Commentators from across games journalism, from Ve3tro to Crispy Gamer via GamesTM magazine were questioning the value of the 'No Russian' level as an artistic statement. As it happens, the level forces the player to participate in the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians as an undercover agent within a terrorist cell. Now, even the most trigger-happy of CIA undercover operatives would probably think twice when asked to engage in such a massacre. Nonetheless, not only is it a level in which the player-character dies at the end, but if you turn your guns on your fellow terrorists then you fail the mission and have to replay the whole thing until you get it right.
To make matters even more confusing, there is not any real characterisation going on. You are introduced to your character and then what seems like five minutes later you end up moving from a Private in the US Marine Corps to a deep cover operative for the CIA. This kind of shallow characterisation undermines any poignancy in the scene by neglecting to develop empathy between player and character. It is not reasonable to assume that just because a player is controlling the character they have an affinity for the character they control.
This controversy brings me neatly onto my main point: where can Call of Duty go now?
Moral debates aside, Modern Warfare 2 is an exceptionally accomplished game and does show what the FPS genre is capable of.
The journey to the top has not been so smooth though. After reaching a zenith in terms of WWII content in Call of Duty 2, Treyarch's interpretation of the series in Call of Duty 3 was a pale imitation of the previous game and the Wii adaptation was known to give players serious cases of repetetive strain injury.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare blew everyone out of the water and took the series to a whole new level and still commands a pricetag of 40 GBP. Introducing the world to a new way to play at war with an exceptionally addictive multiplayer component and single player levels like the sublime stealth level, 'Ghillies in the Mist' ensured a brace of industry awards and the love of gamers all over the world.
World at War went back to developer Treyarch and was a different story. Despite introducing the Japanese conflict, Kiefer Sutherland and Nazi zombies, it was little more than an inferior WWII clone of Modern Warfare and was arguably not as enjoyable as Treyarch's interpretation of Quantum of Solace - which used the same game engine.
With Modern Warfare 2, Infinity Ward has not only returned the venerable FPS series to its former glory it has positioned the series as the biggest game of all time. Now the series has reached the top, where does it go from here?
Despite being hailed by critics as a masterpiece, Modern Warfare 2 has also drawn fire for not really doing anything new. The first Modern Warfare was a massive step forward in terms of multiplayer and it also offered a much more sophisticated Tom Clancy-style narrative that put Ubisoft to shame. Modern Warfare 2 by comparison is a refinement and not all the changes were welcomed. The major issue was the dropping of dedicated servers for the PC version. PC hackers have also found inactive code for other multiplayer game modes that never made the final game and Activision are yet to confirm what the reasons for this were.
The tiredness of the Treyarch games and the stumbling of the team at Infinity Ward over attempts to insert some sort of serious social commetary on the nature of war show that there are cracks in the kevlar of gaming's most respected multi-format FPS franchise.
Treyarch have taken steps to breathe new life into the franchise by (rumour has it) basing their latest effort in the Vietnam conflict with a heavy emphasis on narrative. To some extent this seems to be a bit of a shot in the dark as the there has yet to be decent use of the Vietnam subject matter in a video game. However, it does seem to be the best choice if Activision are to allow the series to carry on in the short term.
Other news that, after Treyarch's Vietnam-themed effort, the series will be handed to Bay-area newcomers Sledghammer Games again casts doubt over the future of the series as Infinty Ward begin to distance themselves from the series that has made their name a household one.
The Call of Duty series may have become the very pinnacle of FPS gaming, but it has gained a reputation similar to Star Trek's where only every second game is really good. Treyarch have so far only managed to produce so-so iterations in comparison to the works of series creator Infinity Ward. With their departure for at least the next two titles in the series to work on an as-yet unnamed project, Modern Warfare 2 is beginning to cast a mighty shadow over the future of the series.
The continued success of the Call of Duty franchise now rests with Treyarch and come this November we will find out, for better or worse, whether they can step up and show that the franchise can survive Activison's annual iteration blitzkrieg.
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