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What Can ‘Call of Duty’ Do to Avoid Being Gaming’s Own Coldplay?

Safe, bland and formulaic, <i>Call of Duty</i>'s a commercial heavyweight – but now its publisher is promising change for 2015.

by Chris Schilling
10 February 2015, 5:03pm

A screen from Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare's multiplayer mode

It says a lot about video games that Call of Duty is our middle-of-the-road. Despite the kind of worldview that, in any other medium, would spawn dozens of hand-wringing op-eds – exhibit A: American Sniper – its pro-gun, pro-war, "America, fuck yeah!" politics attract less opprobrium than its adherence to genre convention and risk-averse design. It's safe, bland, formulaic fare for the masses, peddling the same old shit year after year to steadily diminishing returns. Yep, Call of Duty is our Coldplay. Drink that in.

Not that Activision is particularly bothered. Its recent financial results revealed that CoD has generated a metric dick-ton of cash: more than $11 billion from global retail sales since 2003, with last year's Advanced Warfare earning $1bn. That shouldn't come as a surprise: if the world has taught us anything in recent years it's that there's money to be earned from fictional wars centred on killing people who don't speak American.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare – campaign story trailer

Just as predictable was the news that we're getting another entry in November this year, with the publisher's Dennis Durkin telling investors it was going to be "exciting" – a tacit suggestion, you might argue, that last year's game was thunderously boring – and, more intriguingly, "loaded with innovation". The use of military terminology is telling; perhaps next year's game will be "explosively intense", or "more devastating than an unmanned drone strike".

But I digress: it's the latter claim I'm particularly interested in. Calling this year's game "exciting" isn't about chucking Advanced Warfare under the bus – not with six months' worth of map packs still to sell, at any rate – so much as an easy way to keep investors happy without really having to explain any further. There's a new entry, it's exciting, let's move on. Except a phrase like "loaded with innovation", when applied to a long-running series like CoD, makes you sit up and take notice – not least because it's a promise that developer Treyarch is going to struggle to deliver on. Not only is it operating from a position of relative stasis, it's doing so from within a series that's designed to be disposable. Can a new Call of Duty really afford to be "loaded with innovation" when it's only meant to last a year at most?

It's wise to treat that statement with some suspicion, then, though that's not to say that CoD isn't capable of producing minor surprises – and it's worth remembering that the original Modern Warfare established the contemporary multiplayer template, such that almost every shooter since has borrowed ideas from it. But it made me wonder what kind of meaningful improvements we could potentially see in a new Call of Duty.

Last year's game was widely mocked for its infamous funeral scene, as we were told to hold the square button to solemnly pay our respects to a fallen comrade (or X, depending on your system). Maybe this year we'll jab triangle to weep openly, or mash circle to leap onto the casket as it's lowered into the ground, thumping the lid while wailing, "Why, God, WHY?" (Even then, it's never going to top THQ's Homefront for weapons-grade crassness; one scene invited players to "press X to jump in mass grave".)

Homefront's mass grave scene

How else could CoD shake things up? Maybe, in a stunning reversal of convention, the game's villain won't turn out to be the guy you're told is the best thing since sliced Twinkies, but who has a disturbing glint in his eyes every time war and/or money is mentioned. Treyarch might just opt to skip the bit where you crawl dutifully through the grass, crouched in tight formation behind two other dudes like the back end of a militarised human centipede. Or maybe – and I realise I'm getting dangerously radical here – you'll get to play as a woman.

I'm being glib, of course, and a little unfair. There's no doubt that Call of Duty continues to serve and satisfy a substantial audience. Video games are expensive – particularly so these days, with publishers' voracious desire to bilk money from punters with microtransactions and season passes meaning you rarely get an entire game for your initial outlay – and people like to know what they're getting. In that light, you can forgive some players for embracing the comfort of the familiar. And while the breakneck pace of its multiplayer isn't to everyone's tastes, it maintains the interest of its players simply by being bloody good at what it does.

In the interests of balance, then, let's consider what kind of progress we can reasonably expect from a new Call of Duty. Whispers suggest Treyarch is building another Black Ops game, though in light of the controversy that understandably greeted EA's Battlefield: Hardline (which felt misjudged even before Ferguson) a return to real-world war might not be the wisest idea. Then again, CoD has recently – and perhaps deliberately – moved away from realism. This may be a series that uses authentic military hardware and aims for a degree of verisimilitude, but while, say, Advanced Warfare's future tech may be meticulously researched, it's in service of a game that bears more of a resemblance to Michael Bay's Transformers than it does to contemporary conflict.

Could The Vanishing of Ethan Carter be an influence on the next CoD?

And when considering what a new Call of Duty can bring to the table, we're not just talking about this one series, but the entire FPS genre. It's been a while since we saw something really new, after all: it says something when games like Titanfall (CoD with mechs) and Destiny (a Halo MMO with mobile game hooks) are considered innovators. Even in a series whose heyday might have passed, it's hard to see Activision willing to take too many risks when it's still earning big bucks, so an open-world CoD is almost certainly out.

So we might just see Treyarch take a few cues from the recent spate of so-called "walking simulators". The rise of the first-person experience – or FPX, as appears to be the accepted acronym – is likely to be one of 2015's prevailing trends, as indie games like Gone Home, Dear Esther and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter inspire more thoughtful, contemplative ways of exploring digital spaces. Later this year we're getting a bucolic vision of the apocalypse in the Shropshire-set Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, while Adr1ft is basically Gravity minus Sandra Bullock gasping for breath every two seconds. That these games should all feel strange and new has much to do with the fact that they don't force us to look at the world down iron sights.

Sure, all that might seem at odds with CoD's traditional everything-go-boom milieu, but then a bit of downtime could potentially offer a more emotionally satisfying way of engaging with the narrative than "press this button to do an emotion". Perhaps the most revolutionary thing Call of Duty could do this year is to call a temporary ceasefire: to ask you to put the guns down, and think about what you've done. Hey, if nothing else, it'd be a more convincing take on the consequences of war than watching Bradley Cooper staring into the middle-distance while using his little finger to jog the dead arm of a fake plastic baby.

@schillingc

Previously:

A Brief Look at the Worst Gadgets in Video Gaming History

It's Not All About You: Decentralising Gaming's Domineering Protagonists

Playing the Holy Trinity of Video Gaming's Roguelike Resurgence