I’ve given Call of Duty a lot of shit, and for good reasons. The ideas that made CoD 4 special have been recycled so much that all the narrative tricks and killstreaks taste as fresh as the Mountain Dew and Doritos that give us XP boosts every year. The campaigns are so guided I only feel half-present, and the multiplayer audience is shrinking—never mind that each year I get less and less joy from running in tight circles, fighting opponents who jump and take a mid-air prone stance to meddle with their hitboxes.
But I still look forward to Call of Duty every year, and every year I drink some Mountain Dew and eat at least one large bag of Doritos. CoD isn’t the mark of a dying culture, or a garbage pit of game design, or an evil plot to accrue wealth. It’s a regular plot to accrue wealth, a classic heap of good and bad game design, and the mark of me having some fun with a dumb game.
A duty to shooty
Whatever changes—the setting, the size of the explosions, the glut of multiplayer unlocks—there’s a familiar, defining track to Call of Duty I always enjoy: constant forward progression and simple, satisfying shooting.
The reload animations are obnoxiously fast, so you’re nearly always shooting (unless someone’s talking at you or making you sneak), and the guns are tuned for easy, speedy clearing. Assault rifles, for instance, are all-purpose weapons. Long range, down the sights, they chug upward with a slow, steady recoil that paints enemies from chest to head. Close up, I remove enemies with a circular motion, as if scrubbing them away. It’s more like firing a pellet gun than what I imagine a real assault rifle feels like, more vibratey than Quake 2’s unmoving, hose-like chaingun but not so much that I ever feel encumbered or slow or helpless.
The transition into the sights is so smooth, you can spray from the hip and then rapidly squeeze your swarm of bullets into a stream as you bring the red dot up, then out again to find the next target—it’s like calibrating a flashlight from wide angle to focused beam and back, a pleasing, rhythmic level of control. Combine that with the generous feedback from hits—the reticle bursting outward, the thwap of lead against armor, the power chords when you level in multiplayer—and Call of Duty is like Peggle with bullets, exciting and generous with applause.
The campaigns are derided today for reliance on ‘set pieces,’ though that used to be cited as a positive and I still dig an arcade tank ride, or hoverbike chase, or space station shootout. It’s tourism with guns, and CoD’s environments deserve praise for looking as good as they do while running on mid-range hardware. That antarctica mission from Advanced Warfare, for instance, is so gorgeous I stopped and died several times to take screenshots.
And while I’m always critical of CoD’s squadmates, who tell you when to breathe and when to crouch and where to shoot (and never walk fast enough when leading you somewhere), there’s some fun in letting go and doing what I’m told. I recently started playing STALKER, which is a superior game to any CoD, but also a super stressful one. I can’t hit anything, I’m always out of ammo, I never know the best course of action. It’s comforting, sometimes, to be told who to shoot while an obscene budget collapses buildings and bridges all over the place.
In CoD, I feel like a guest on the set of the biggest action movie of the year, allowed to join in from behind a sparking computer console where I won’t get in the way of the crashing helicopters. It’s not stellar game design, but I feel well taken care of when I play, always pulled along by my soldier pals, given new guns and new vehicles to play with, never overwhelmed but always shooting at something. I enjoy accomplishing simple tasks (shoot the guys up there, and then go there) with accuracy and efficiency, hitting my targets so I can see the next wild set and find out which too nice person is actually the villain.
I’m more aware every year that Call of Duty is nearly the last of its kind. What other linear, rigorously performance-captured six hour campaign have you played recently? What other game still does multiplayer like CoD does multiplayer? It’s bizarre how it can be so successful, but has very quickly started to feel like a dying breed.
And it’s funny how new shooters are being marketed as throwbacks—Doom, Strafe, LawBreakers—while Call of Duty just never went away. It paws at new things, like the character-based classes added to Black Ops 3 multiplayer, but it hasn’t become an open world game or an RPG or a MOBA and it’s not procedurally generated with permadeath. Ironically, by not looking deeper into the past like other modern games, CoD is starting to feel more retro than the throwbacks. When I play Call of Duty, Linkin Park and Papa Roach are still topping the charts, and I have no idea what Zack Snyder is going to set upon us after 300.
For me, that yearly familiarity has associated CoD with Christmas: it’s less exciting as an adult, I know exactly how the mashed potatoes and green bean casserole are going to taste, and I'm required to do whatever my family is doing. But I get to be at home, and maybe there’s a surprise under the tree I didn’t expect, or a new dog to pet. Most series are criticized for having a yearly release schedule (and I’ve definitely criticized CoD for it), but I’ve started to think it’s a vital quality of the series. Alone, Call of Dutys are just some alright shooters, but together they’re a comforting winter tradition. What would I do on those long nights with no one telling me to stay frosty? (I might forget to be frosty, which would be a travesty.)
Call of Duty is so rooted and predictable that many fans are currently angry that Infinite Warfare is too futuristic for their tastes. A series that’s commonly mocked for never changing has now changed too much, apparently. I wouldn’t worry. The circle will complete soon and just like with Battlefield we’ll tumble back to the past. And there will still be Zombies. And the campaign will still be structured roughly like Modern Warfare’s.
To infinity and beyond
I’m happy Infinite Warfare takes place in a more distant future, because I’m hoping it gives CoD something to mull over besides war crimes and communist aggression. What bothers me most about CoD is how it gets more and more self-serious every year, combining sentimentality with bombastic giddiness for violence. It used to combine a lighter, action movie feel with some subversive themes of futility, and I miss that. In Modern Warfare 2, for instance, we went to space to feel helpless and alone, to establish that all we could hope to do was mitigate war’s destruction, and I can’t think of any moment like that from the recent games. I do recall some torture and respect paying, though.
Just like the setting, I suspect it’ll come back around. One of these years Call of Duty is going to hit on something surprising again, and maybe going full interplanetary sci-fi will help it loosen up and develop more interesting characters. Whether it’s in space or not, I always hope the year’s new CoD will surprise me just a little. It doesn't always manage to, but I still don’t ever want to dismiss it outright. CoD may not take a lot of game design risks, but it sure risks a lot of money to capture Kevin Spacey’s face so Kevin Spacey can talk to me in a videogame. That’s worth something, and at the least, CoD deserves respect for coming at us every year with the same blistering enthusiasm for shouting ‘move, move, move!’ while we shoot slightly different bad guys.
It’s popular to hate on what’s popular—perhaps a symptom of —and I’m guilty of . But as cynical as I am about CoD’s yearly marketing blitz and general lack of taste (see the (opens in new tab)), I'm always happy to have it around. The truth is, if CoD weren’t the most popular thing in the world and marketed with millions of dollars, I’d probably be clamoring to tell you about this weird, cool series that doesn’t give a crap about contemporary game design.
We'll continue to be critical of CoD in our reviews (and we'll definitely make fun of it), but it's not worthless or any of the other things it's called. If you want an example of worthless media, watch the movie Pixels. If you want to enjoy a probably pretty alright and increasingly unique shooter, Call of Duty is there for you, this year and every year.