Let’s get this out of the way; I am -not- a Call of Duty ‘fan’. Yes, they’re competently made for the most part but they have, over time, become so cookie-cutter and generic that I lost most interest in the series – I know people like the game, and they like familiarity, but after a decade I’ve become convinced that the series needed a radical shake-up.
So cue my shock and surprise that reports are coming in that Black Ops 4 is indeed shaking things up… by ditching the single player campaign.
Now. Ahem. Let me phrase this correctly; I have read the reports that suggest this was because they did not believe the single player campaign was ‘salvageable’ for the release date; as this is an annualised franchise, and those dates are set in stone for reasons that no-one can fathom, the solution was to bin the single player portion and focus entirely on the multiplayer component – also, the reports suggest that it will include a “Battle Royale” mode because of course it does (in FPS terms, isn’t that just an old-school deathmatch? Am I missing something here? Did I imagine Unreal Tournament 2004?). Taken as such – it’s hard not to think that there’s a whiff of desperation to this, that Activision – perhaps realising that the single-player was going to be rubbish if not unfinished – just jettisoned it entirely.
It’s a dumb thing to do. And annoyingly… ugh, I can’t believe I’m going to bat for this, but… it kind of makes sense.
Call of Duty, in recent years, has pumped more cash into its multiplayer than into its single player campaigns – that much has been clear, because the single player campaigns have been so predominantly forgettable. Yet the series has, in recent years, found more success and popularity as an online game; with Zombies modes alongside other “services” proffered by Activision. It’s therefore an unassailable (if unkind and uncomfortable) fact that binning the single player should in theory direct more cash and attention into what has made Call of Duty a big commercial success; online gaming.
The shift makes way more sense when you take the market as it currently stands.
Call of Duty’s single-player will never stand up in a market with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, or Nioh, or Horizon: Zero Dawn. Heck, it hasn’t stood up against games like The Last of Us, or even something as silly as Hyrule Warriors or Mario+Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. Hell, it hasn’t stood up against Prey or Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, or Doom or Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. Call me vulgar or stupid for pointing this out, but it’s become clear that many games are quite happy to settle into being one thing; a single-player experience or a multiplayer experience. Neither element is “dead”; no matter which lobotomised chimp I mean industry executive waddles out to say such. Rather, it’s just that the wider trend for shoehorning in a multiplayer or co-op option for a game, or likewise a single-player campaign that can be bested in a couple of hours, died several years ago quietly in a ditch somewhere outside Glasgow. Probably. And we all peed on the corpse in 2017. Why yes I’m making a zombie joke oh how original.
The reasons for this are complicated and varied but one of the major drivers on a business front is critical consensus (or: We Need To Look Good On Metacritic); when you’re offered a purely online or purely single-player experience, you judge the game based on its own merits. And that’s fine. If your intention is to make a single-player horror game and it’s a good horror game then congratulations, you hit the jackpot. That is also easier to do and, on the whole, cheaper as well; knowing what you are and sticking rigidly to your guns means a better and more focused development cycle which, in turn, keeps the costs from going wild (unless you’re, oh I don’t know, trying to reboot System Shock… oh I just made myself sad…).
If you have a single player AND a multiplayer offering and one of the two falls down, it brings down the whole package; on averages, if your multiplayer is an 8 and your single player is a 4, that’s 12/20 or 6 out of 10. An unqualified disaster of a rating for most developers – particularly if your bonuses are still tied to Metacritic ratings. That’s largely been one of Call of Duty’s biggest downfalls on a critical front; most reviewers don’t get a lot of time to play games these days, with review copies sent out much later than they used to be and the need to keep up with the competition in the media space, the solution has been to focus on one element you can knock out quickly for a clickbait-style review and then later do an op-ed on the other part; what do you think gets played first? If you answered “the dubious single-player portion”, then congratulations, your ability for pointing out the obvious is unmatched!
Whilst the basis for binning the single-player may be rooted in reported problems or rumoured incompetency, the online portion of Call of Duty has remained a significant part of the series continued success. It’s not something I’ve dabbled in much, to be fair, but I am aware that it continues to be a popular thing and it no doubt makes Activision more cash in the long-term, with map packs and additional options being added in at a later date. Cutting to the chase and just getting people into the supposed decent part isn’t just sensible – it may actually be a fantastic decision overall, with people able to talk about the games purported strengths without having to go through what has been its weakest element for some time. And if they’re binning it after working on it for a reported year or so already, chances are even Activision realised they couldn’t handle the fallout of making a truly awful single-player campaign.
Or maybe I’m wrong and Black Ops 4 is a game that now looks like it needs waaaaay more time in the oven before serving to the general public. Hey, EA got its kicking last year; if Activision hasn’t learned from its rivals mistake, then get on your steel-capped boots because Christmas may arrive a little bit early for some people.
It will be interesting to see what happens. But I’m guessing few tears will be shed. Yes, some people want a single-player campaign.
If you’re still playing Call of Duty for that though… why?
Note: Yes the header is from Infinite Warfare.
This is a quick opinion at 1:30am.
Still tired and needing a new place to move.