What Next for Activision’s Call of Duty Series?
Not a year goes by without Call of Duty attracting flak from some impassioned corner of the Internet — you know it, I know it, and, frankly, Activision knows it, too. More often than not, the publisher’s multi-million dollar juggernaut is able to shake off most, if not all of that criticism in its journey to becoming the best-selling game of 20XX. But 2016 dealt a heavy blow to Activision’s flagship shooter, and COD’s ability to bounce back — or lack thereof — will have a marked effect on the future of the franchise, for better or worse.
Cast your mind back to May of last year, when Activision and developer Infinity Ward — who took the reins from Treyarch following Black Ops 3 — lifted the lid on Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, a lavish sci-fi shooter that took the core COD formula and fired it into the distant future. Population growth has pushed Earth to the brink, leaving humanity with little choice but to expand into the inky blackness of space. It’s a compelling, frighteningly realistic pitch, though Infinite Warfare’s audacious, futuristic setting triggered a backlash of its own.
Familiarity Feeds Contempt
At the time, that knee-jerk criticism was largely funnelled through YouTube, where Infinite Warfare’s reveal trailer amassed a record number of dislikes (3.47 million, at the time of writing), a figure that nudged IW’s unveiling “well into Justin Bieber territory” on YouTube’s playlist for most disliked videos. A significant portion of that backlash can be traced back to the campaign staged by Battlefield 1’s rival community, while others were simply expressing their dissent toward Infinite Warfare’s space setting.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s all very trivial — the YT hullabaloo, not the criticism levelled at Infinity Ward’s direction — but couple this with the controversial decision to bundle Modern Warfare Remastered together with Infinite Warfare, thereby ensuring the HD revamp was exclusive to Special Editions of IW, and it’s little wonder why Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare ultimately missed the mark.
In a crowded fall corridor where Activision needed its FPS flagship to be firing on all cylinders to fend off competition from Titanfall 2 and the aforementioned Battlefield 1, Infinite Warfare failed to make much of a dent, critically or commercially. Indeed when reflecting on the shooter’s lowly sales, CEO Eric Hirshberg conceded that the “space setting just didn’t resonate” with the impassioned Call of Duty community.
“With any longstanding franchise like Call of Duty, there’s a balancing act we need to strike between staying true to the things that people love about the franchise and also the need to never become complacent and to keep pushing for innovations to keep the franchise fresh and vital. I would argue, over a period of many years now, we’ve managed that balance on Call of Duty better than just about any longstanding franchise in any medium.”
It’s hard to argue with Hirshberg’s logic, but even by the franchise’s lofty standards, 2016 will go down as a year to forget for Call of Duty. Without trying to invoke the trite “Call of Duty is dead!” argument, never has COD’s hold on the FPS throne looked so precarious as it does now. Overall launch sales of Infinite Warfare were down almost 50 percent compared to those of Black Ops 3, and though a dip in sales is to be expected when launching a new sub-series under the Call of Duty banner, Activision’s February financials drove home the point: despite fairly solid reviews, Infinite Warfare was a flop.
So, what next? As per Activision’s three-tier development cycle, Sledgehammer Games is taking point for Call of Duty 2017. If that name rings a bell, it should; three years ago, the studio introduced a new era of combat with Advanced Warfare, which even featured Kevin Spacey channelling a certain Frank Underwood in mo-cap. Despite its relative success, all signs point to Sledgehammer steering the franchise back to its roots this holiday season, and if Resident Evil 7 proved one thing, it’s that a genre icon can be realigned, no matter how far it strays from the beaten path.
CEO Eric Hirshberg continued:
“The good news is, is that I’m excited to say that in 2017 we think we have this balance in perfect harmony with a game that our teams are incredibly passionate about, with a lot of great innovations, but that also has the traditional combat that we know our fans are going to love.”
Circling back to “traditional combat” suggests a World War II setting for Call of Duty 2017. That being said, it’s worth remembering that Sledgehammer initially built a prototype for Fog of War, a third-person shooter set during the throes of the Vietnam War, when napalm was the weapon of choice and Creedence Clearwater Revival topped the charts. Alas, the developer shelved those plans to help shepherd Modern Warfare 3 to release, but it does give us an inkling of the creative possibilities when Call of Duty isn’t confined to a tried-and-tested format. And going into Call of Duty 2017, there’s certainly reason to be optimistic — cautiously optimistic, but optimistic nonetheless.
Indeed if 2016 wrote its name in the history books as a banner year for first-person shooters — think Doom, Overwatch, and the wildly successful Battlefield 1 — then 2017 is shaping up to be a defining 12 months for some of gaming’s biggest franchises. Already we’ve welcomed a back-to-basics horror masterclass in the form of Resident Evil 7, while EA and BioWare are currently putting the finishing touches to Mass Effect Andromeda, a new installment in the beloved sci-fi series set long after the Shepherd saga. Toss in the likes of Persona 5, Tekken 7, Battlefront 2, God of War (?), Metal Gear Survive (!) and Red Dead Redemption 2 and it’s almost a given that 2017 will leave backlogs full and wallets empty. You know how it is.
But make no mistake, Call of Duty is still one of the biggest names in entertainment. In light of Infinite Warfare‘s misfire, there is, of course, an added pressure weighing down on 2017’s entry. Tradition dictates that Activision will lift the curtain on its latest flagship shooter sometime in May, which means it shouldn’t be too long before we have a better sense of what to expect from the folks at Sledgehammer Games.
So, are you crossing your fingers in the hope that Call of Duty 2017 will steer the blockbuster series back to World War II? Or are you of the mindset that Activision’s juggernaut would be best taking a one-year hiatus a la Assassin’s Creed? Drop your thoughts, comments, and concerns in the usual spot below.