Call of Duty - what a monster. With clockwork precision a new edition pops up every year and sells millions without fail. It's doing perfectly well, but in spite of an audacious shift to a far future setting in Black Ops 2, it's becoming increasingly repetitive. It's become a slapstick dose of noisy annual nonsense with an arcade multiplayer mode attached. It's a game about gun-lovin' superheroes who are 90% bicep and 10% stubble shooting hundreds of enemies, shouting and occasionally getting into knife fights.
Activision have found a golden formula for mainstream success that has changed the genre. Call of Duty perfected iron sights aiming and ushered action movie set pieces into shooter environments, but those set pieces have gradually subsumed the challenge and tension of the series' rolling street battles. The series' ballooning love for noise and bombast masks a dearth of substance, and its ability to deliver those famed set-pieces is increasingly hindered by an engine that's starting to fall behind the pack.
Activision and their army of CoD developers are surely plotting a next-gen leap right now, so let's pip them to the post with a few ideas. Changing CoD is a monolithic endeavour, influential as it is, so perhaps it's better to think of this as a wish list for war games. What do we like? What do we hate? What would we love to see from gaming's glorious future?
Let's consider the process of playing a game purely as a series of player decisions. In a good shooter you're making dozens, perhaps hundreds of decisions per minute. You're choosing targets, acquiring them, pulling the trigger, seeking cover, adapting to incoming fire, grenades and enemy movement. Decisions vary in quality depending on the challenge of the task and narrative context. If you're embroiled in a story and you're attached to a character, a decision that alters their fate can matter hugely.
When you're given an objective marker and told to follow it, you have made just one decision - to follow or turn off the game and go away. The longer you're following, the longer you're spending not making any decisions at all. You're no longer playing a game.
I went back to Half-Life 2 recently and rediscovered the simple pleasure of navigating an environment designed to coax rather than control. There is only one path, of course, but there's a sense of discovery to uncovering it that's more motivating than any quest arrow. CoD has done this before, it can do it again. An early mission in Call of Duty 2's Soviet campaign leads you into a block, and then gives you enemy emplacements to clear. You can advance on each position in any order, from an angle of your choose, using smoke grenades to mask your advance. There's no instruction beyond the objective markers on your map. The most satisfying form of progress is that which seems to flow from the will of the player, not the tug of a leash.
Call of Duty is very fond of throwing in a pithy war quote every time you die, so why don't we add this one?
"There seemed to be a loud bang and a blinding flash of light all around me, and I felt a tremendous shock - no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shriveled up to nothing."
That's George Orwell describing what it feels like to get shot in the neck by a sniper. Note, he did not write this:
"There seemed to be loud bang and then there was JAM ON MY EYEBALLS SO I CRAWLED BEHIND A BOX UNTIL IT WENT AWAY."
I have nothing against regenerating health as a concept. It's perfect for Halo's attritional, tactical exchanges, but if you're trying to capture the tension of a war scenario the threat of instant and terrible death is important. Red Orchestra did this very well (check out this video). Near misses make a terrifying "zzswhinng" noise. The physical force of the projectile is represented by momentary screen blur and when you're shot, you're down. Sometimes you're left bleeding and shouting for a medic. Sometimes you're done for. The threat of sudden death enhances the tension of every near miss.
It's easy to suggest that shooters are limited because a gun is your primary way of interacting with the world. In fact, the ability to fling 100 projectiles a minute at twice the speed of sound is a pretty meaningful way to influence an environment, it just doesn't always feel like it. The motion of bringing up sights and rattling off a few shots already feels snappy and satisfying in CoD, but it'd be good to incorporate some of the terrific sound design that DICE have worked into Battlefield 3. Good physics can really sell the impact of a bullet, whether it's tearing chunks out of masonry or throwing a foe into a convincing ragdoll tumble. Destructible environments also do a lot to create reactive combat zones that truly sell the destructive force of your weapons. Battlefield 3's Close Quarters maps show what an advanced physics system can do.
When I imagine the moment of Call of Duty's conception, I see Jason West and Vince Zampella sitting on a couch having a moment. Their beers stand untouched on the coffee table as they watch Saving Private Ryan for the first time. Halfway through the scene where Tom Hanks freaks out on Omaha beach they sit up suddenly, their eyes meet and they say in unison: "LET'S MAKE THIS: THE GAME."
They did, and it was good. Call of Duty has always worked hard to make its narrow battlefields feel as though they're part of a wider war. Somewhere along the way, it went wrong. Very wrong. Call of Duty started playing itself. Observe MrBungle as he plays through the Cuba mission in Black Ops without firing a shot, on the second-hardest difficulty setting. It's a sad moment for the series. The signature fury of those shuddering war scenarios were exposed as little more than a dismal facade.
Technology has come a long way. Why not drop the smoke and mirrors altogether? We have engines that can handle huge maps and PCs powerful enough to juggle many AI routines. Imagine participating in a working battlefield as one pawn among dozens and of troops, initiating and joining assaults on key targets in scenes that resemble the dramatic troop charges of former CoD games, but with a sense of purpose that reaches beyond the need to reach another objective marker.
Good AI is hard to market. As soon as someone starts talking about neural nets, or a new algorithm NPCs can use to map their routes through a 3D environment most people switch off completely. It's easier to talk about polygons and texture resolution and lensflare because you can show it in a single screenshot, but AI is vitally important. It affects the decisions you're making from moment to moment. It's responsible for challenging the player in interesting ways. Good AI makes games better.
Call of Duty's AI is ... not good. At points it's nonexistent. You'll shoot a man behind a box. then an identical man will run out of a nearby door and take his place. Then you shoot him, and another one pops out. Sometimes they respawn endlessly until you've passed through the invisible trigger screen that'll initiate [DRAMATIC SCRIPTED HELICOPTER CRASH 24b], at which point they'll stop so you can take new orders over the radio.
Imagine enemies that actively seek out new positions to get an angle on you. Imagine enemies that can switch weapons and adapt to your position, picking out sensible sniper spots or taking covered routes to close with a sub machinegun. How about enemies that breach and clear a building you're trying to hole up in? What if AI squads worked as fire teams, with individual roles within a well organised group? A pipe dream, perhaps. But consider how much more meaningful victory would be with foes like these.
Now how can we incorporate these points into a single idea. Hmmm, let's see...
Welcome to the dreamspace - a place to throw ideas into each other and perhaps imagine games that are better, faster, stronger than ever before. Here we deal only in the hypothetical, but thought experiments are fun, so let's try and sketch out a Call of Duty that stays true to the series strengths and jolts it out of the rut it's been entrenched in for the last few years. Introducing Call of Duty: Stalingrad.
You are a soldier in an open battlefield. You begin in command HQ - a reinforced ruin bristling with machine gun emplacements and AT weapons. Beyond, a battle line snakes through the city ruins where Soviet and German forces exchange fire. You're told to grab a gun, get to the line and make yourself useful. How? It's up to you. You can grab a sniper rifle, recruit a small squad and set up a sniper nest in best spot you can stealthily acquire. Grab a machine gun and join the line, assaulting buildings and moving between cover as your comrades advance. Or head into the sewers with a special forces team and harass supply teams behind enemy lines.
The enemy will launch assaults of their own. Occasionally, tanks will attack, bombing runs will come in, enemy snipers will turn town squares into death zones. Radio messages and distant flares alert you to hot spots. You can ignore them, or rush over to help. Your efforts will speed up the rate at which friendly troops push forward in each area until you're finally close enough to launch an all-out assault on the enemy bunker.
And then it all ends with a quick-time knife fight. Only joking.
The Red Army missions in Call of Duty and Call of Duty 2 took on Moscow and Stalingrad, of course. They were great. The movement of your comrades as they vaulted over walls and advanced the line created a feeling of growing momentum that would be especially powerful in a dynamic scenario. Broad battlefields offered variety, mixing exposed cover-to-cover sections and trench routes. Depending on your position, you'd juggle between your machine gun and a pleasingly accurate bolt-action rifle. It's also a fine example of one of the central tenants of Infinity Ward's Call of Duty games - you are a fragile cog in the war machine . Occasionally an important job will fall in your lap, but you're just another member of the soldiery, fighting for your life in chaotic scenarios.
To enhance that tension, death will be final. Bullets are deadly - one or two well placed sniper shots can take you down. If you die, it's over for that soldier, but you will return to command HQ in control of a fresh recruit. You'll find the name and cause of death of your former soldier on a list of the fallen in HQ's admin room. You'll hear officers reading his name from a list of the fallen in radio calls to Soviet High Command. His name will appear on a final list of all the soldiers you've played throughout the campaign. You'll still encounter lively characters as you move along Soviet lines, but you won't be treated with greater respect than any other trooper until you've earned it. Make it through a couple of battles and you'll get a reputation among COs and ground troops. You might even get a nickname. You'll earn an achievement if you can take one soldier through the entire war.
The idea would be to offer the variety of Call of Duty's best set-pieces in an environment that you can meaningfully influence. Setting up a sniper nest will feel channel Modern Warfare 4's terrific "All Ghillied Up" mission. You'll perform tank takedowns when repelling German assaults. Fighting on the line will be every bit as furious as CoD's most spectacular army assaults. Looking for a shot of one of CoD's maudlin moments? Snatch up some bandages and become a battlefield medic. Drag the wounded out of open streets, treat them, and get them back to the front line. The more men you save, the more guns the enemy has to face and the faster your line advances.
The setting doesn't have to be Stalingrad, but it's a well documented example of close combat in an besieged modern urban environment. The scope of those building-to-basement battles make infantry actions essential for taking territory, which gives a player more power to affect the battle. You can transpose the structure anywhere - into a different modern conflict, or a post-apocalyptic scenario, if you wanted.
A multiplayer version of the same scenario? I would pitch that, but Red Orchestra 2 already exists. There's certainly room for a version of the above with a few free slots for co-op buddies though. Working together, you could launch co-ordinated assaults on enemy strongholds or set up a network of sniper positions that stop all enemy movement in wide areas of the map.
But those are just a few ideas, easier said than done, of course. But if you held the power of a god in the palm of your hand, and for some reason decided to use it to reboot Call of Duty, what would you do? Don't say "fire it into a black hole so hard it never existed," there's already enough hate on the internet, and you'll only become another tick on a Commenter Bingo card. Ideas at the ready. Aim. FIRE!