One of the first videogames that I can remember having a real, profound effect on me was the debut Call of Duty. At the time of its release, the approach it took to its World War II setting was unnerving, the first-person perspective of the action making the horrors of combat more visceral and terrifying than any film or written report. It was a bold and innovative game that wouldn’t reach the same heights again until its similarly brilliant fourth installment, Modern Warfare.
Now, with the announcement of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 all these years later, I have to wonder where all the excitement has gone. The first Black Ops could have been really good. The premise sure was interesting, allowing the developers at Treyarch to introduce historical scenarios from across the latter half of the 20
century (including the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive and the invasion of the Bay of Pigs) and maybe reintroduce some of what made previous Call of Duty titles great, but, unfortunately, the whole thing felt like, well, just another shooter. Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Game’s hyperactive Modern Warfare 3 campaign continued in the same vein, demonstrating how tired the entire series has become.
Despite these setbacks there probably still are ways to make Call of Duty interesting again.
Tell a Relatable Story
The Modern Warfare branch of the Call of Duty franchise got off to an excellent start, the first game positing a Clancy-ish worst case scenario that aptly depicted just how easily shifts in the power balance between our global superpowers could pitch the world into a savage and massively destructive war. What got lost over the following entries, though, was the sense of any realism. Call of Duty 4 was compelling because it described (a slightly overblown, but still somewhat plausible) “what if?” scenario that was always, above all else, grounded in the real world. The detonation of a nuclear warhead was suitably apocalyptic; travelling through the devastation of post-meltdown Pripyat demonstrated the high stakes of the conflict at hand. It all worked to make for a deeply human story that provided more food for thought and emotional impact than the following games’ action movie simplicity. A return to storytelling that attempts to say something about warfare rather than simply depict it would go a long way toward revitalizing the franchise.
Remember that Less Can be More
A big part of the appeal of the Call of Duty games comes from the cinematic nature of the storytelling. The giant explosions, chase scenes and desperate battles all make for absorbing stuff. Every creative type should know, though, that you tire your audience out when you give them non-stop action without any breathing room. Just like how a symphony that hurried to a crescendo in the first two bars and never relented from that sonic peak would never have any emotional power, a videogame that maintains a breakneck pace without any slower moments becomes more tiring than entertaining. Staggering action set-pieces with quieter, more contemplative moments makes for a far more interesting experience.
Try Something New
More than anything else, Call of Duty needs to try out new ideas. Despite how unimpressive it was to actually play Black Ops, the game’s multiple settings (and even its batshit insane framing device) made it worth continuing through a bland campaign if for no other reason than to see what happened next. Imagine if that sort of willingness to experiment with setting was followed with equally unique gameplay? Rather than giving players the same mixture of scripted action moments, pseudo-stealth segments and predictable fixed-gun “turret sequences,” a Call of Duty willing to experiment with different mechanics would be much more exciting. This goes beyond the single-player portion as well. Why not release a half-price title comprised of nothing but Special Ops missions (maybe with settings drawn from the Second World War to the near future)? How about an annual, downloadable, multiplayer-only release that gives diehard online players a steady stream of new content without requiring a stable of developers to rush out boring solo campaigns at the same time? Whatever they are, introducing new concepts is the only way the series can continue to maintain relevance.
No More Infinitely Respawning Enemies
Just stop it. Everyone got wise to this trick years ago and all it does is frustrate players. The jig is up, guys.
* In the day following writing this column, tons of new information on Black Ops 2 has come out, making it look like the story will actually be interesting (and perhaps a bit more relevant). It also seems like the game will be trying out new design techniques (branching storylines!). Looks like at least a few of my hopes might be realized.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He founded, writes and edits the videogame blog digitallovechild.com and is Twitter-ready @reidmccarter.