The makers of the Call of Duty (COD) series probably don't need my help, as proof by the piles of money it rakes in year after year with its incredibly fun multiplayer game.
But, COD isn't only a multiplayer game, it also has a single player story which, in the newest installment, Ghosts, was mostly panned by critics. In fact Call of Duty: Ghosts received the lowest overall rating of any game in the series since it started the yearly release schedule back in 2006, so why does it keep selling like hotcakes? Is COD immune to critics just like yearly sports games like Madden and FIFA are? Or is there something to be learned from another big series that remade itself.
A similar problem befell the Halo series a decade after its initial release, but Halo broke the mold by releasing arguably the best game in franchise history and a departure that stayed true to the original formula with Halo: Reach. In my opinion Call of Duty could learn a thing or two about the changes made in Reach that just could jump-start a generation of COD games to come.
It has been said by Activision, the publisher of the Call of Duty franchise, that Call of Duty gamers are Call of Duty gamers. Meaning, like many sports games – Madden, FIFA, NBA2K – that it's all they play. The same thing was definitely said about Halo players not so long ago. Call of Duty: Ghosts developer Infinity Ward doesn't see COD gamers has hardcore gamers at all. Producer Mark Rubin told OXM, "It's kind of a weird, ironic thing to say; They aren't hardcore gamers, or even gamers, but they play Call of Duty every night.”
Immune to review
So if the heads of the developer see you, the thinking, breathing, COD gamer who bothers to read articles like this as the exception to its cash cow, the COD-only gamer, then why the hell would it even try to make a good game? With a corporate attitude like that why not just shovel out the same games as last year? And that's exactly what many critics thought about last year's release, Ghosts. In my review for Ghosts I went directly to the best part of the game, multiplayer. But grudgingly I moved on to the tediously bad single player game, with its short burst of almost interactive gaming. The formula of following other characters and no-practice required gunplay only gets worse until the player is somewhere between a budget PC port that forgot to add physics to the tanks, and a story so muddled that nobody, not even the characters seem to give a damn.
In my review of Ghosts I didn't pan the game completely, because really it's two different games, and the multiplayer is so solid it makes up for a forgettable single-player experience. I would encourage you not to bother with it. This seemed to be the consensus across the game critic world, but did that hinder sales? No way. Ghosts is still topping charts months after its releases and although selling millions of copies didn't quite keep up with its predecessor, Black Ops 2, selling about 19% less in the holiday season according to analyst Cowen & Company. So why, with such lackluster reviews, was it able to sell so many copies?
When was the last time you read a review for a new Madden game? That's right, you don't. Why would you bother? Gamers know exactly what their getting into when they purchase the game. It's not like Madden is going to add jet packs this year or have an unlockable Martian league. The same is true with Call of Duty, gamers know exactly what they're going to get. Great multiplayer, maybe a fun mode like Zombies of Extinction (which I found to be the best part of Ghosts) and a cheesy follow-fest where you'll be shuffled along quickly between scenes for some barely-interactive life or death quick-time events.
What did Halo do?
I found myself saying nearly the exact same thing about another series just a few years ago . When Halo 3: ODST came out in late 2009 Bungie tried to take the series in a new direction by taking players out of the near-invincible armor of Master Chief and dumping you with wimpy humans struggling to survive in a city being blown apart by war. While it was a new direction for the series the dual storyline ended up getting muddled and confusing. While multiplayer was a good standby, the series didn't entirely break new ground.
However just a year later Bungie dropped Halo: Reach and surprised everyone with a game that made gamers fall back in love with the series all over again. The changes seemed small but address some big complaints by implementing subtle fixes. The single-player game was improved with a new storyline, taking the dark vibe that began with Halo: ODST and taking it a step further. While the storyline certainly wasn't going to have anyone in tears it kept it fresh and interesting by avoiding that common Halo pitfall of becoming too confusing.
Combat was improved by offering slightly tougher foes and new features like jump packs and several new vehicles. The world overall felt grittier, the battles more intense and the stress of being vastly outnumbered and outgunned gave Noble Team the recognition they deserved. Another big change was giving the player a few more options to explore. Gamers weren’t just stuck following an AI player or down a conveniently on-rails path. Maps gave players the option to explore a little bit, not greatly – it was by no means open world – but the option was there and felt a little more free. This is one of the huge problems with Call of Duty: Ghosts, there is no freedom to explore, no chance to linger or go “off rails” to explore the maps or hold onto certain weapons you like from one map to another.
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What can Call of Duty do to win back the critics?
Maybe Call of Duty games don't need critical success to make lots of money. Perhaps Infinity Ward was right when it said that COD gamers only play COD games. But I'd like to think any blockbuster game series and big name developers would take those millions of dollars earned each year and try to make the best game it can. We're not talking about reinventing the wheel here, just changing things up enough to keep it interesting or at the very least build in a single-player game that's worth playing.
If Call of Duty took just a few of the changes to heart that the Halo series made with Reach it could create a entirely new love for the series. And, more importantly, attract a whole new generation of non-indoctrinated COD cannon fodder into multiplayer.
After all, whatever your opinion of the series, there will be another Call of Duty next year.