Call of Duty Black Ops III comes out today amidst a general feeling of despair at what hath become of a once-great franchise. Daniel Rutledge is a solitary voice to the contrary.
There’s a specific look of shock I know all too well. Sometimes it’s not shock, but rather disgust, or bemusement; but it’s always the same sort of look from the same sort of person. It comes usually at gaming media events shortly after saying hello to another journalist, finding out where each other is from and then being asked what I’ve been playing recently.
It comes when I say Call of Duty, and gets worse when I say it’s one of my favourite franchises. That’s a bit like piping up in a room full of film critics at a festival in Cannes or Toronto and saying, “Michael Bay’s Transformers movies are favourites of mine, I watch them regularly.”
Call of Duty is a behemoth franchise that has raked in over US$10 billion in sales for its owners Activision. That money has come from a controversial annual release strategy coupled with forcing the rabid fanbase to pay exorbitant amounts for additional digital content that other games give away for free. That fanbase is somewhat made up of chest-thumping dude-bros – the sort non-gamers think of when they think of gamers – saying the most offensive shit imaginable nonchalantly over headsets as they battle each other online. Over its 12 year lifespan the franchise has been considerably dumbed down, becoming a ridiculously populist, repetitive, ultra militaristic beast.
And I adore it.
Allow me to explain.
In every video game fan’s life there are standout titles that produce gaming periods they’ll remember fondly for all of their days. For me some of those include Summer Games on the Commodore 64, Streets of Rage 2 on the Mega Drive, the first two Resident Evil games on the original PlayStation and Resident Evil 4 on the PS2, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City on the PS2 and more recently The Last of Us on PS3.
Call of Duty 2 on the Xbox 360 was another, but it was quite different to those mentioned above. It was the first game I played in the seventh generation of home consoles, but more importantly the first game I played with a broadband connection on a console. It was a brilliantly designed multiplayer first-person shooter supported by a WWII single-player campaign and it fused over a particular part of my brain forever with just how massively enjoyable it was. Activision has been able to capitalise on that joy over the years since in a way the owners of those other games haven’t, meaning I’ve stood in line at midnight release queues and forked out hundreds of dollars on it even as countless others turn their noses up at what the series has become.
As the franchise has become more and more unashamedly populist and ridiculous, I’ve lapped it all up. And there’s nothing to stop me from liking any of the high-brow indie titles that have come out in recent years as well as Call of Duty. I just don’t like many of them nearly as much as Activision’s juggernaut moneymaker. And boy, do I love it.
“Was that you that chur-hooed really loudly when Call of Duty came up?” a fellow Kiwi games journalist asked me after the Microsoft E3 media briefing in LA a few years back, an event with a few thousand people in attendance and hundreds of thousands more streaming it live around the world. “Yes,” I replied.
My fandom for the franchise took me to a crazy event called Call of Duty XP in LA during September 2011. For two days, me and 6000 of the world’s most hardcore fans played various titles of the beloved franchise, competed for US$1 million at an on-site tournament, ogled real-life weapons used in the games and carried out a number of activities based on the games they wouldn’t have been able to anywhere else in the world.
A bunch of celebrities and several hundred serving and ex-US military personnel were among those in attendance. Kanye West performed to most of the crowd at it, singing down to them from an overhead crane. It was a wonderful few days of excess. I wrote a pretty exhaustive and elated love letter to the event for 3 News.
The twelfth main release in the franchise, Call of Duty: Black Ops III is out today and as much as I can’t wait to start wasting bad guys in it, it’ll be a far cry from that first game I fell in love with. The early Call of Duty games were groundbreaking and critically acclaimed. They took what Medal of Honor was doing with the military first-person shooter genre and elevated it dramatically, with vastly enhanced graphics, gameplay upgrades like the ability to look down gun sights, and interesting characters in engaging storylines based on historically accurate WWII campaigns. They also honoured veterans with a fairly bleak, almost anti-war feel and meaningful historical quotes displayed onscreen every time you died.
Those early titles caused an explosion of popularity which went absolutely nuclear with 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. This is the one that turned the franchise into a cultural phenomenon, the one that shattered records and the one that even people who hate Call of Duty now will admit is one of the greatest games ever made. As the title suggests, it brought the franchise’s setting into the modern age, replacing Nazis and Japanese troops as the enemies with Middle Eastern terrorists and an Ultra-nationalist Russian army. It elevated the entire first-person shooter genre, both for single-player and multiplayer, in ways too many to get into.
Modern Warfare was so successful, it changed the Activision treated the franchise in ways that aren’t all good. Little nuggets of gameplay that fans loved as little nuggets were exploited and abused, ramped up to a crazy degree that killed some of the fun. That bleak, almost anti-war sentiment has been replaced with a jingoistic ‘kill everyone!’ mentality. Horrible multiplayer practices such as sniper quick-scoping and C4-throwing were seemingly encouraged by Activision, rather than moderated. Since 2013, Call of Duty has been set not in modern times but in the future. That sense of historical accuracy and realism from early in the franchise has been replaced by a silly science fiction vibe. That groundbreaking nature of the single-player campaigns was replaced with what was widely considered repetitive, formulaic experiences. The single-player campaigns became insanely over-the-top, intense cinematic experiences that resembled Michael Bay’s dreams. These in particular chagrin many critics, but their excessive silliness pleases me greatly. I despise the Transformers movies, just for the record, but games and films are very different experiences and this sort of thing really works when you have a controller in your hand.
It’s become such a dumb franchise. Just look at this new trailer for Black Ops III, a 90-odd second advert starring Cara Delevingne, Michael B. Jordan and NFL star Marshawn Lynch. It also features music by the Rolling Stones that presumably cost a bomb to license and it’s filled with highly impressive special effects that would drive up the production costs further still. And it sucks. Even as a huge fan of the franchise, there’s nothing clever or funny about this trailer. It’s just mildly entertaining. It’s basically obnoxiously boasting about how much money they have whilst looking ugly doing it – the game trailer version of a real-life person carrying a Louis Vuitton bag around.
This rise in the franchise’s stupidity is tied to its rise in bleeding maximum money out of its fans. Want the ugliest, most dubstep-esque pattern available painted all over your gun? Cough up a few more bucks. Want a pulsating neon purple outfit on your soldier? Just put your credit card details in and its yours.
Gross cosmetic upgrades are one thing, but what’s far worse is forcing players to pay increasing amounts of money to access all the multiplayer maps and, atrociously, extra weapons and attachments. This crazy greed splits the online player base and is coming dangerously close to the dreaded ‘pay-to-win’ model.
I’ll also freely admit Call of Duty‘s rival franchise Battlefield was a superior product for many of its glory years. The EA-owned series has long-featured cool stuff Call of Duty doesn’t like destructible terrain, vehicle combat and more tactical multiplayer gameplay. But it’s never been as fun.
That irrepressible, fast-paced, crowd-pleasing, arcade rather than simulator nature of Call of Duty just hits on a certain magic formula over and over again. It’s like a big dumb dog that’s just endlessly eager to please and its enormous stupidity has become part of what endears me to it. Yes, it’s very different to what it was in the old days, but dumb new Call of Duty still does what it does very, very well. No matter how garish the marketing material and cosmetic additions have become, year on year this franchise delivers 10 or so hours of a epic, cinematic single-player campaign, and upwards of 100 hours of multiplayer action joy. No matter what offensive ways Activision ekes out more and more money from us, me and millions of other knuckleheads will grit our teeth and keep forking it out. Because no other franchise delivers the Call of Duty thrills to which we are addicted.
While 2013’s Ghosts was the biggest disappointment in the franchise since Call of Duty 3, I found ways in which to enjoy it thoroughly – specifically, playing private matches of Hunted FFA on the Freight level with my squad mates Rapsnitch and Nek Lev Doggy. My gamer name is Cuttyface, by the way.
Grand Theft Auto V came out that year too and put an emphatic kibosh to Call of Duty breaking game sales records year-on-year. Ghosts was pretty dreary, lacking on all fronts. It was the first release on the PS4 / XB1 generation of consoles and it looked like the franchise might be starting to crumble, but then last year’s Advanced Warfare came out and kicked serious arse. I reckon it was the best it’s been since Modern Warfare.
Black Ops III is released today and, of course, I pre-ordered a copy. As you’re reading this I’m probably playing it. I know it’ll be a silly sci-fi escapade of excess and ridiculousness that is a world away from what Call of Duty originally stood for. And I know I’ll be enjoying it with a unique passion only this franchise can satisfy.
And that’s worth facing any shocked look or condescending laugh I get from anyone for continuing to love this game.
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