Gamed: It’s time for Call of Duty to stop making campaigns

If you plan to play the campaign for Call of Duty: Ghosts, prepare yourself for a minor spoiler: the story borders on pathetic. It isn’t that it just doesn’t work, it’s that it doesn’t even try to work. The campaign creates a unique world, and then explains how that world came to be almost as an afterthought. You have a new superpower and they attack America. That’s all you’re told. They don’t even bother to say it’s because they hate freedom.

Infinity Ward’s weak effort is almost insulting, and raises the question: why even bother with a campaign anymore? It’s a massive waste of time and resources, and the series would be better off just cutting it in favor of revamping the competitive and co-op multiplayer. 

Ghosts_Struck_Down_EnvironmentIn Ghosts, the story takes place 10 years after the “Federation” rises in South America. The game briefly mentions something about the oil industry collapsing, which somehow led to South America uniting. And apparently this is a bad thing. It’s never really clear if the various South American nations were conquered by one of their own, if they simply united under a central government, or as I choose to believe – an organization like Cobra from GI Joe finally succeeded in one of its many capers; and was so surprised to win, it just decided to blow more stuff up because it felt right. Whatever the reason, following unification, they then attacked America. Just because.

Check out this clip, which is pretty much the only explanation you receive for what kicks off a 10-year war.

That is literally it. And I’m not using the word “literally” incorrectly. I don’t mean it in the way some people would say “McDonald’s is literally the worst fast food restaurant on Earth.” (No offense, Golden Arch-iacs). The game never bothers to go into any more detail.

But let’s give that a pass for a moment – the problem is bigger than that. There is a serious lack of effort to create a compelling narrative at all. The Call of Duty games have always been the equivalent of a summer blockbuster film, where the story was generally an excuse to blow things up real pretty, but Ghosts’ problems highlight a systemic issue with the series in whole.

MW 2 EMPFollowing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (which still has the best story in the series), the games have continued to devolve into a series of “big moments.” You may not remember the plot of Modern Warfare 2, but you probably remember Washington DC getting hit by an EMP. It was dumb, but at least it was fun to shoot enemies in the White House.

Black Ops chose big moments from history first and then built the narrative around that – the Tet Offensive, a rocket launch in Star City, the Bay of Pigs, etc. The next game in the series, Modern Warfare 3, just blew up the world, but at least it had familiar characters. It’s this reliance on the big moments that have killed the campaign as a viable feature, and they continue to be introduce in ways that bend the story around them, for the worse. I like mindless shooting as much as the next guy, but relying on big moments at the cost of story makes it feel like a hollow run through a shooing gallery rather than living out an action movie. You don’t need a ton of background, but you need to at least give it an effort. 

Take the early section from Ghosts that occurs in space. This is a tiny spoiler, but it happens in the first 10 minutes of gameplay, and bits of it are featured prominently in the ads anyway. The 10-year-long war begins when the Federation breaks a treaty – or so one of the characters mentions in passing – and attacks a manned U.S. military orbital satellite. They do this by taking the station by surprise. In space. The Federation evades both orbital and ground detection, launches a rocket powerful enough to leave the atmosphere without anyone noticing, then proceeds to fully dock with a technologically sophisticated space station, which finally alerts the crackerjack crew that something is possibly happening.

Space nopeAgain, they snuck up on a military station. In space. Can’t stress that enough. The Federation’s entire cunning plan could have been thwarted by someone glancing out a window or a lock on the door. If you have any inclination towards space exploration, the ridiculousness of this is overwhelming. Another mission has you attack a remote Federation fueling station on foot rather than just bombing it, probably so you can escape from the explosions. And I haven’t even mentioned Riley, the remote-controlled uber-dog that can take down helicopters on his (or maybe its) own. 

With Ghosts, it feels like the campaign was something Infinity Ward did because they always have before. There was no real care put in to it, and so it fell heavily on the formula that worked – blow things up in interesting ways. Now, there are some fun moments in the campaign, and it does offer some mindless distraction as you murder your way through people that are, for some reason, your enemy. But for Infinity Ward, it’s a waste of time, money, and resources.

The COD multiplayer is the king of multiplayers, whether you love it or hate it. Now that Activision has the game on an annual cycle, which means both Treyarch and Infinity Ward are locked into a two-year development cycle, the time spent working on the campaign is a waste. Players may play the single player mode once, and five hours later after beating it, they will likely never look back. There isn’t even a co-op mode. But those five hours require a huge investment for the devs. Designing the campaign requires programming for the AI. It requires hiring voice actors (in this case, Brandon Routh and Stephen Lang, neither of whom are likely inexpensive). It requires art design, sound effects, and gameplay that is only used in the campaign. All of this requires dedicated development, and much of it can’t even be applied to the far more popular online modes.

Call-of-Duty-Ghosts-Extinction-mode-03-11-2013-22Compare the possible investment in the campaign to the new co-op Extinction mode. That mode is one static level. The enemies are the same, and completing it may take you an hour, tops. Yet it will be played repeatedly by countless scores of gamers for hours on end, while huge numbers of people that bought Ghosts won’t even bother with the campaign. 

On a purely business level, it makes fiscal sense to stop making campaign modes for Call of Duty, especially if the developers are going to half-ass them. Both Extinction and the multiplayer will have people playing for a year or more; and, more importantly, the modes will generate more money through DLC that adds new maps and possibly game modes. The campaign will not.

COD Ghosts_Federation Day Rappel Next GenI personally enjoyed the changes to the multiplayer. I liked the tweaks to the maps, killstreaks, and new modes, and I think the game is much better for it. These are minor changes, but they have a big effect. Imagine if Infinity Ward had two full years to dedicate everything on just the multiplayer. Instead of giving us neat looking single player levels where we are running down the side of a building, shooting AI cannon fodder on the way, let us try that against other humans in a new game mode.

Call of Duty is a billion dollar franchise, and Activision is unlikely to mess with that formula, at least not until it begins to significantly lose followers. The publisher is a business. And whether you like it or not, it makes total sense to keep the COD franchise the way it is. Just look at how the publisher handled rhythm game franchises like Guitar Hero; it turned a budding new genre into a bubble, then overwhelmed it with too many titles until it popped. Losing the campaign would allow Activision to keep the formula as a multiplayer-focused shooter, and allow it to reallocate resources off of a feature that is becoming less important – and sillier – with each iteration.

I mean, seriously, the story has the bad guys sneaking up on people in space. That’s just sad.

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