There’s no denying that battle royale games are the hottest thing in gaming right now. PUBG has been a smash success since the moment it burst onto the scene early last year and Fortnite is currently enjoying an unprecedented level of monetary success. This incredible level of success and popularity, however, has all the characteristics of a trend; a bubble that’s going to burst as soon as interest starts to wane. The development community knows this, so outfits large and small are all clamoring to get a piece of the pie before it’s gone. It’s hard to blame them when Epic is pulling in $1.5 million a day just from the mobile version of their battle royale game. Understandable as their motivations are, one can’t help but question the impulsiveness currently on display within the game-making community. Trend chasing isn’t inherently wrong, but sacrificing the long-term integrity of one’s products and reputation in its pursuit is the wrong way to do it. Who would be willing to do such a thing in order to chase a trend? Why, Activision would of course.
Several days ago, rumors started swirling that the next Call of Duty game, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, wouldn’t have a traditional single-player campaign. Instead, Polygon’s sources stated that the game would be focusing solely on its multiplayer component and would feature a battle royale mode in place of the traditional single player campaign. It’s probably safe to say that the majority of Call of Duty players won’t care all that much about this since they’re only there for the multiplayer anyway. They probably don’t think this shift will affect them since the part they like is still there and will get even more focus than ever before. That is a dangerous line of thinking, though, because it completely disregards the need for each entry to bring in new players. Without new players coming in and getting invested in their game, Call of Duty will surely die a slow and agonizing death as more and more legacy players move on to greener and more interesting pastures. Single player campaigns might not keep the cash rolling in, but removing them is still similar to removing a vital organ.
The Call of Duty series’ campaigns have largely been written-off as a joke by the wider gaming community at this point. They’ve been criticized for their linearity, for discarding interesting mechanics as quickly as they introduce them, for their shallow structure and for their hammy plots. They’ve been the butt of a multitude of memes and have reached a point where hardly anyone has expected anything noteworthy of them for the past several years. Despite this, despite how bad they may or may not be, despite how little is expected of them, the Call of Duty campaign still serves two vitally important functions: maintaining the series’ identity, and even more importantly, teaching new players how to play the game. Without it, both of these tasks become much more difficult to accomplish.
Call of Duty has always been defined by both its multiplayer and its single player components. The single player portion would set the tone and give context to what’s going on with the multiplayer, while the multiplayer is what new players would graduate to once they completed the campaign. With the campaign gone and replaced by a battle royale mode, players will instead have no choice but to dive into one of the multiplayer modes from the word “go.” It’s here, in the formative hours of their new players, that Activision’s decision to replace the traditional campaign with the trendy battle royale made will hurt them the most.
New players need something to ease them into the experience before getting dropped into the warzone that is online multiplayer. If they don’t get that, then it’s a matter of whether or not they’ll be patient enough to learn on the fly. Considering that Call of Duty appeals mostly to younger players, chances are that they won’t, and they’ll move onto something better once their patience is inevitably lost. The cooperative zombies mode might work alright, but that’s only if they get partnered up with understanding players willing to show them the ropes. As for the battle royale mode, it might as well not even be considered an option.
There are plenty of arguments to be made that battle royale is a pointless addition for Call of Duty to make. Call of Duty is a military shooter played by those who enjoy fast and frantic multiplayer shooter action. It’s not something that mixes well with the overall slower pace of the battle royale game type. Beyond that, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds already has the realistic military version of the game type on lock-down. Its community is already established, meaning that there’s little Call of Duty can do to steal players from it. This mode will be crippled from the beginning in that sense, but the real issue is still what it’s trying to replace. Battle royale is just as poor a teacher as traditional multiplayer; it could actually be worse considering its reliance on chance, large gaps between encounters and the unique set of skills it encourages. It’s an unforgiving mode to begin with and works differently from normal Call of Duty fare. As a result, it’s practically worthless as a training environment. Going even further, it won’t even provide value as context for the game.
Is there anything about battle royale multiplayer that screams “Black Ops?” Is there anything at all? What about zombies or the traditional multiplayer? What’s so “Black Ops” about them? Not a single thing. Nothing at all; that’s what. Beyond depriving their new players a chance to learn how to player the game on their own terms, Activision is cutting out the one and only thing that justifies calling this entry of Call of Duty “Black Op,” heck it’s depriving it of any justification to be called “Call of Duty.”
As bland and uninteresting as many of them were, the traditional campaigns at least helped the name make sense. Each and every one of them has been a depiction of a soldier doing their duty, no matter the personal cost, for their country or faction. Without a campaign built around this idea to anchor it to its roots, there’s no reason to call the game “Call of Duty.” It might as well be called “Gun Game #534” for all the name has to do with the game it’s attached to.
There’s nothing wrong with going after a popular trend. Game developers and publishers alike have been doing it since the beginning of the medium. Doing so cannot come at the expense of one’s product, though. Shoehorning trendy mechanics and modes in to games that don’t lend themselves to them has never gone over well. It’s always hurt the companies that do it and Activision should know this as a company that’s been burned by doing so in the past. Yet, here they are taking it even further by allegedly removing a vital component from their most important franchise. There are many that have been wanting to see Call of Duty finally fall for years and now that the game’s very identity and means to bring in new players is getting stripped out, those people may finally get the chance to see their wish come true.