There is perhaps no greater example of the bizarre sense of importance folks have when it comes to gaming than the general consensus within the video gaming community regarding Call of Duty.
Call of Duty is blockbuster gaming at its most obvious, both in terms of production values and popularity, and people commonly compare it with big summer movies because of that. And being the biggest franchise in mainstream console gaming means everybody has an opinion about it. It also means people have a strong tendency to brush it off as being an artistically flimsy experience with nothing to actually say.
It is true that the rise of Call of Duty is largely due to its online multiplayer component, and thus it could be argued that it’s the focus of the series, but Activision keeps spending loads of cash on story campaigns with each iteration because there’s a significant group of people who keep returning to these games for the campaigns. I’m one of them, to be honest. Yes, I do enjoy dicking around online same as everyone else, but the main pull of Call of Duty to me will always be the campaign.
There are a number of reasons for this. Ease of use is certainly key. If you’ve played one Call of Duty game, it won’t be terribly difficult to hop into another one. The developers keep the core of how the games play intact, while throwing in some new flavors every time. You never have to relearn how to play from year to year, and that’s a sort of accessibility that remains rare as game franchises constantly reinvent themselves. Call of Duty has had the best “feel” of any shooter game for more than a decade, and thankfully the people who make them understand that means there’s no need for them to reconstruct how shooting works every year like so many others in the industry do.
Accessibility isn’t just about feel, though. Call of Duty story campaigns are short, around five or six hours usually, and thus playing is not some life-consuming prospect the way games so often aspire to be. They’re also easy to revisit as a result. I can’t imagine ever playing through The Witcher 3 or most other open world games again, but I regularly play throuCall of Duty games because I don’t have to put my life on hold to do so.
None of that would matter to me, however, if there weren’t some substance to go with it. Call of Duty is commonly considered a jingoistic, rah-rah-America, “the military is so amazing and can solve any problem” sort of experience and critics use that as an excuse to brush it off. They’re wrong, but since Call of Duty has that stigma locked in we don’t get much of a meaningful discussion about it.
It’s not as if Call of Duty tells particularly profound stories, and the summer blockbuster comparison is an apt one. But the idea that a summer blockbuster film or a summer blockbuster-type game could never have something to say is pretty silly. That assertion becomes straight up hilarious when you remember it comes from a demographic that holds up the Metal Gear Solid franchise, an overblown, ham-fisted action fantasy created by a man who worships cheesy ‘80s Kurt Russell flicks, as an example of Great Art. That many of those same folks turn around and dismiss Call of Duty out of hand only adds to the comedy.
The most controversial entry to date in the Call of Duty canon is Modern Warfare 2, which featured a mission called “No Russian” in which the player accompanies an antagonist character in massacring civilians in a Russian airport. If Call of Duty ever truly approached profundity, it was in this sequence, but we never had that discussion. “No Russian” was simply decried as appalling, and the context was widely ignored on the way to declaring that MW2 was little more than typical jingoisitic shooter nonsense.
Warning: this shit is graphic
Partly this was due to failings in storytelling, as important details are thrown at you quickly and if you don’t pay close attention it becomes easy to miss some of the nuance. The context for “No Russian” is fascinating, though. In that mission you play as an American soldier who had infiltrated a Russian ultranationalist terrorist group. At the end of the mission, you discover that they knew you were a mole as the leader of the group shoots you dead and leaves your body for police to find. It was a setup—the Russian terrorist leader, Makarov, and the American General Shepard had colluded to start a war between Russia and the US. The rest of the game is not jingoistic at all, but rather commentary on jingoism. Shepard wanted to start this war because he felt that Americans weren’t jingoistic enough.
“Tomorrow, there will be no shortage of volunteers, no shortage of patriots,” he says later.
Modern Warfare 2 should have sparked meaningful debate about the role of the player in narrative games, and how developers forcing the player to do something that repugnant could be a compelling aspect of games as an art form. “No Russian” was disturbing, yes, but that was the point. You weren’t supposed to enjoy that. And you were supposed to be even more disturbed when you realized all you accomplished by playing along—by, in character, doing your job as a soldier—was to start World War III, something you thought you were trying to stop with this infiltration. This is cool, and worth talking about, but we never did because it’s Call of Duty.
The Black Ops subset of the franchise plays with that idea in more subtle ways, with main characters getting caught up in events that they don’t fully understand. Mason, the player character of the first Black Ops, is brainwashed to operate as a Soviet sleeper agent and is thus explicitly not in control of anything, but he has to carry on even so. Black Ops 2 is a 40-year saga exploring how covert American involvement in foreign affairs in the 1980s accidentally brings about an apocalypse scenario in the 2020s. Further complicating events is a branching narrative that changes based on whether you succeed or fail at accomplishing certain objectives during missions (like whether you fight through bad guys quickly enough to prevent a major character from being kidnapped) or decisions you make in situations where the consequences are quite vague, or even in a couple instances when you may not realize there’s even a choice involved at all.
Even Call of Duty: Ghosts, possibly the worst game in the entire series, manages to have some creative ambition amidst its general ineptitude. That’s been the least we can expect from the series since it began producing actual narratives for its campaigns with the original Modern Warfare in 2007 (as opposed to the WWII fantasy of the earlier games). They still have kinks to work out with their delivery and presentation, with our generally low standards for what counts as a good story in games, Call of Duty is consistently in the top tier.
This is why I’m ready for Black Ops 3. It probably won’t blow my mind, but there’s a good chance I’ll be happier with the story experience it provides than most anything else I’ve played this year. That’s what Call of Duty tends to give me each November. It won’t be 75 hours long, and it won’t be filled with “content” or explore what it’s like to be a dad or make me cry. It won’t fit the mold for What Makes A Game Of The Year. But maybe that mold is exactly what’s made most games so stale.
Phil Owen is a freelance journalist and critic based in Los Angeles. He tweets for free at @philrowen.
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