Call of Duty – Back To Basics? Ahem…

 

I don’t hate Call of Duty.

I said this years ago (2011, actually, man I’ve been doing this a long time) – enjoyable fluff is still enjoyable fluff. A 6 out of 10 game can still entertain in spite of any inherent flaws. That said, it’s been a while and I slowly went off Call of Duty – not because of any particularly snobbish gamer reasoning mind you. I still don’t hate it. But it became clear that ActiVision and its studios had no idea where to take the series – or indeed, how to advance on a formula which has been annually turned out for nine years, and in existence for thirteen years. Familiarity breeding not contempt but apathy – it became white noise, just something that happened every year and you got used to it.

So after the sales slump that accompanied Infinite Warfare, ActiVision now wants a “back to basics” approach.

Thing is, I’m not convinced this will work. Not because I think the notion of going back and focusing on the core Call of Duty experience is inherently the wrong thing to do; one thing the series badly needs is to reestablish its foundations before the additional surface-layer pushes it all into the ground. There’s a sound logic underpinning this – Infinite Warfare, for all its show and tell, was all style and very little substance and in a market where home console sales have hit the skids, what you have left is a gamer-focused market which demands substance as well as style. It went out of this world – quite literally – but it was superficial, and the game beneath that layer was still pushing a formula which many have grown somewhat tired of.

No, that last bit is the real issue.

Call of Duty is suffering from something called “over-exposure”; it’s been nine years and I believe in that time we’ve had thirteen different Call of Duty games. That’s a lot of instalments, when you consider even Mario tends to take a year off from time to time. The problem with pushing so many games in a franchise in such a condensed period of time is that in truth, they’ve stopped being special. We barely even pay attention now, because it works almost like clockwork these days. Revealed at E3, some talk of DLC, exclusivity arrangements, a little marketing spiel and then the game gets released sometime in the fall. Rinse and repeat. It has become predictable – not just that the formula the game runs on has remained somewhat the same for so long, but the whole business surrounding it has become something you can set your watch to.

Worse than that, not even the press can get excited for it. My favourite example of this was in December, at The PlayStation Experience. There was a lot of hype and excitement, then Call of Duty came around and the audience mysteriously went silent. There was no excitement – just that inevitable feeling that of course this was going to happen, yawn, can we be done with this already? Everyone was bored the moment the logo appeared on the big screen.

That, ActiVision, is the problem here. There’s no excitement because Call of Duty has become part of the furniture of our industry. It’s the wash basin – it’s there, and people are meant to use it but more people are just not (you filthy people, you).

Going back to basics sounds good but even that is just marketing spiel right now. It’s a nice thing to say – particularly after a major dip in sales – but really, it’s just words. It’s meaningless. Another “broader appeal”, or “player-driven choice”. Like “Triple-A”, these things sound good. Which is ultimately why they get said – they sound nice, and reassure investors, but in the real world for consumers of this content they are terms that have very little weight. The proof of the pudding is always in the eating, and you can make it sound delicious and mouth-watering but if you overcook (or undercook) the crème brûlée, it’s not so appetising.

There’s a reason why Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been setting tongues wagging for more than a year. A new Zelda game comes along once or twice a generation, if that, and it’s an event in and of itself. What have they cooked up this time? Where is it in the timeline? How do the Goron and Zora look here? Are there any new or returning races? How does Zelda look this time? Where is Ganon? What are the items we’re using this time? This is just a fraction of the questions we’re unlikely to have complete answers to until the game is released on March 3rd. But we’re asking them, and it’s exciting. It’s unpredictable. It’s mysterious. There’s just as much fun in guessing what happens next as there is in getting stuck in and experiencing it. This keeps Breath of the Wild in the headlines – it also looks amazing, which helps a lot.

The mystery of a series like Call of Duty has sort of died. It’s hard to muster up the same kind of reaction. A new Call of Duty isn’t an event – it’s becoming a footnote, just something we know is going to happen. A bullet point rather than a headline.

My suggestion then is radical (if also common sense) – Call of Duty needs to take a year off.

Before people shriek – hear me out.

Destiny 2 is set for the end of 2017, and whilst it isn’t a game that interests me personally I can’t and won’t deny that Destiny does have an avid audience. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say there is a lot of crossover between Destiny’s audience and the Call of Duty faithful. With a whole new Destiny to partake in this year, the need for a Call of Duty to underline the year isn’t there. Indeed, for some, they’ll be forced to choose between the two games which may come within a month or so of each other, and my guess is many of them will take the shiny new Destiny that has taken three years to put together over a Call of Duty which has probably already been set in stone for a year or so now, and comes every year. They’ll want the exciting new thing that comes every few years – not the brand which is there every year, whether we want it to be there or not.

Call of Duty can afford to take a year off. The series continues to put out some DLC maps from time to time, which keeps the older game ticking over. But more than that, it gives us a breather and it means when it turns up in 2018, we’re more switched on. Because it’s been out of action for a year. Okay, so what have they done with the added year? See – just like that, interest returns to a brand that has become familiar. Doing the unexpected is sometimes the most refreshing thing (but not too much or you end up like Sonic the Hedgehog – no stable foundations to speak of).

I don’t want Call of Duty to disappear entirely – better the devil you know sometimes. But the annualisation of some of these franchises is robbing the market of something – an air of unpredictability. Back in the early 2000’s, you never knew what was coming. Some things fell flat. Others seemed thrilling, exciting even. But it was a constantly changing market; games came, games went. Now, we can basically reel off games we know will be announced every year – Call of Duty, Battlefield and/or Battlefront, Assassin’s Creed, a new FIFA, a new WWE game… oh, and two or three new TellTale games all based off the same formula. Alongside Just Dance and a bunch of other games. It’s just tiring now.

Taking a time out gives a series the much-needed breathing space it needs to build up some excitement. Look at Super Mario Odyssey – it’s been a few years now since the last big Mario game (not counting Mario Maker in that). And even longer since the last proper open-concept Mario game, which I think we can date back to Sunshine on the Nintendo Gamecube. End result? Show me more. I’m interested. I’m intrigued.

There’s no mystery to making this work – Nintendo does it habitually, over and over again. It could turn out a Pokémon game every year with GameFreak and they’d roll in the dough. But the series gets gap years – just enough that a new Pokémon game is interesting and distanced enough from the last one to emphasise how interesting it is. With talk and rumour abound Metroid Prime is set for an E3 reveal, again, we’ve waited some time for a proper new Metroid game (and no, Federation Force wasn’t that and no, it wasn’t a terrible game either). It’s a Nintendo formula, and we know it works this way for them… but it works for them. It keeps franchises twenty to thirty years old now fresh and interesting. ActiVision could do with taking a lesson from Nintendo here. Destiny 2 is going to be huge – perhaps one of the most important games of the year, even. Why have another Call of Duty to rob it of sales – or worse, to see sales slide on a series which already has seen a slide in sales?

I don’t hate Call of Duty. I’m just bored of it now. It’s just a thing, not a thing. It’s not even trashy fare now. It’s just… there. And that’s when it becomes easy to ignore it – you pass it every year, over and over again, and eventually you stop noticing it.

Come on Bobby Kotick. As evil as you are (and we love you for it, weirdly), even you must know it’s time CoD took a well-deserved holiday. You’ve pimped it out every year for almost a decade. It’s made you buckets of cash. It’s made ActiVision one of the biggest third-party publishers in the world. And that’s incredible. I don’t think we take time out often enough to remind ourselves just how incredible that is sometimes.

Back to Basics can wait. Right now… we just need a break. And if you won’t give the series one, we’ll continue to just give ourselves a break from it instead.

And that would be a sorry end to such an important franchise.

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