Earlier this week, Activision finally revealed the next game in its absurdly successful Call of Duty series. After seven years of trudging about in modern times, the series has dropped its now iconic subtitle in favor of a fresh one: Advanced Warfare. The debut trailer showed a future world, chock full of all kinds of new weapons and items to use. Climbing up buildings, deploying portable cover, and summoning robotic support tanks to take out enemies were all shown. It was Call of Duty’s moment to display progression and to rewrite its now notorious reputation. Well…it should have been. Despite this stark contrast to past games, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare debuted in a troubled element. Despite all these mechanics that never appeared in any game in the series, despite this promise of renovation and rebirth, Advanced Warfare serves as an open confession of the series’ state of mind, a mentality of desperation to keep up with its many shooter peers and of exhaustion in how far the series has fallen.
It’s so hard to believe that Call of Duty’s origins are rooted in World War II, but the original Call of Duty set the stage for a future that would embrace Infinity Ward for years. Though the first two (three, if you’re lenient) were impressive spectacles of war shooters, it wasn’t until Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare that the series became what we now know it to be. The embrace of the modern era allowed for the expansion of new tools and weapons, highlighting spectacle further. But the inventive multiplayer mode is where Modern Warfare shined. With an addictive customization element, both in loadouts and perks, duking it out online became a personal affair. The loadout system would become extremely commonplace in future games and other series, from Halo to Bioshock. Regardless of today’s connotation, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare became a paramount step forward for multiplayer in shooters. Like Goldeneye 007, Half-Life, and Halo: Combat Evolved before it, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare earned its place in the Pantheon of first-person shooters.
But that sense of invention is no longer what drives the series. You could even argue that it doesn’t even exist anymore. From Modern Warfare 2 onward, the Call of Duty series earned itself the dubious honors as one of the most corporate video game series of all-time. By “corporate”, I’m speaking of the series’ disturbing lack of artistic progress, while building upon simple and inexpensive ideas and the constant marketing and merchandising of the series. Though the series continued to deliver a fun multiplayer experience, the drought of gameplay innovations and oversaturation of yearly releases gave the series a toxic reputation in the gaming community. Single-player campaigns became shorter and more limited, downloadable content became a routine focus for further purchases by gamers, and paltry gameplay novelties took the place of substantial moments of design evolution. This came to a head with the most recent title in the series, 2013’s Call of Duty: Ghosts, which epitomized the running-in-place development ideology and the absurd level of merchandising to produce hype.
But this week, the next Call of Duty game was announced, and truth be told, it was a pretty unexpected first impression. Abandoning the “modern” warfare aesthetic, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is the series move into the future…quite literally. With wall-crawling, enhanced drone support bots, and super-powered cyber-exoskeletons, Advanced Warfare dips into the sci-fi cinema of today for tons of new gadgetry and devices to take the series into a whole new setting. After years of having the games take place in the same general time period with the same weapons and support items, getting this banquet of bizarre new tech is something remarkably refreshing for the series to show. By no longer being bound by modern realism, the possibilities are endless.
But there’s still something wrong here. Why did it take seven long years for the series to finally reach such a point of setting revitalization? After seven years of annual releases, paid DLC barrages, and double XP weekend commercials, why are we just now getting such a big step for the series, one that really allows for new ideas to appear? And even more curious, why is this so underwhelming a display?
We gamers have been stuck in Call of Duty’s panic room of modern warfare for a while now; it really doesn’t feel like only seven years. Upon first seeing this new trailer for Advanced Warfare, it’s very easy to gush over this new aesthetic, but that sense of reverence loses clarity very quickly. The fact of the matter is this: Call of Duty is not as important now as it was in 2009. It’s become so jaded and labeled so vehemently that any new idea it brings just doesn’t shine as brightly as Modern Warfare 2 did (or even Black Ops, for that matter).
You could label this growing sense of apathy toward the series to the routinely underdeveloped yearly releases, with Call of Duty: Ghosts selling less than its predecessor Call of Duty: Black Ops II. As Activision has done before with Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk Pro Skater, oversaturation of a series can lead to a tipping point of interest that can damage public impression. You could also attribute this decline in interest with the disappearance of B titles and the steady weathering of AAA titles. When it comes to big-budget games, Call of Duty is the king of the castle. Development budgets of Call of Duty games have reached astronomically high costs, while sub-AAA games have found little success in today’s market and the cheap, inventive indie games have grown considerably in popularity. Call of Duty is still a remarkably successful series, but gamers have become so conditioned with seeing Call of Duty everywhere that any sense of spectacle or hype is met with apathy. We already know that Call of Duty is one of the biggest game series on the market, and that’s the problem: we already know.
And even though Advanced Warfare is such a step forward for the series, it’s certainly not a step forward for gaming, or even the FPS genre as a whole. The ideas of superhuman abilities and increased mobility are nothing new to games. Titanfall adopted a fluid, mobility-energized shooter experience, Halo: Combat Evolved displayed a use of stealthy cloaking devices, and as cool as hoverbikes sound, we’ve seen that idea before many times. These ideas might refresh the series to a degree, yes, but now more than ever, new shooter franchises are appearing. Developers like Bungie and Respawn understand that in order to combat such a juggernaut like Call of Duty in this day and age, they need to distinguish themselves from it. Bungie’s Destiny looks more expansive and creative than even their pedigree can hold, while Respawn used their experience developing at Infinity Ward back in the day and their growing creativity to make a shooter driven by new mechanics. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare doesn’t have that sense of escalation. Its “new” ideas don’t feel like ideas driven by personal ambition; they feel like nervous responses to an intimidating stampede of new, much more appealing shooter designs. Advanced Warfare, in a nutshell, feels completely reactionary.
That sense of pressured reaction combined with the series’ exhausting production cycle is why Advanced Warfare appears so underwhelming. For a series so ingrained with a corporate mentality of assembly-line processed annual releases with a disdain for creativity and adventurousness, this moment of rejuvenation should’ve been exactly what the series needed. It should feel like coming up for air after drowning in heartbeat sensor pulses and predator missile debris. The wall-climbing, the exoskeletons, every single bit of futuristic panache should’ve charged this series up instantly. But it didn’t. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare doesn’t show spark. The series is steadily being overshadowed by big upcoming releases that demonstrate both spectacle and creativity, making these nuances and changes to the game’s setting and gameplay appear forced and unnatural.
It’s too early to tell whether Advanced Warfare will be able to deliver, but right now, the series doesn’t seem confident. This moment of redemption and revitalization appears less like a blessing and more like an open confession of how nervous the series is toward its much more promising rivals.