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The Call Of Duty series is in a rut. I really like these games, I tend to buy them every year, and yet Activision and the various development studios that make them can’t seem to settle on a direction to take Call Of Duty in. Every year is another desperate attempt to either buck or follow trends, resulting in an annualized series that always seems to be stuck in a loop of reacting to itself, rather than trying to move forward and do new things. Even when a Call Of Duty does try something new, the expectations for the series are so impossibly high that anything short of a record-breaking worldwide super-hit is doomed to be treated as a disappointment.
Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare, the latest entry in the series—and an attempt to reboot the hugely successful Modern Warfare sub-brand—is a fine video game. The ever-popular multiplayer modes are all stripped down for a simplified thing that’s all about using (reasonably) realistic modern military weapons to shoot other players and calling in airstrikes and attack helicopters when you’ve shot enough players to get a good score. It does exactly what a new game called Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare needs to do. But the campaign really feels like a missed opportunity.
The original Modern Warfare, released in 2007, is a classic. Its multiplayer was strong, but it was the campaign that made that game into the kind of record-breaking worldwide super-hit that Activision has been chasing ever since. That game featured a handful of immediately iconic story beats, but the new Modern Warfare doesn’t even try to live up to those moments. That’s smart on the one hand, because it’s hard to top dying in the shadow of a mushroom cloud. But at the same time, it’s hard not to notice when a game with Modern Warfare on the box doesn’t feature the kind of absurdly bombastic military action that even Michael Bay would never dream of. It all feels disappointingly safe.
To make this gap in courage even more noticeable, Modern Warfare includes overt references to the fact that some of the big events from the original Modern Warfare trilogy have already happened in this rebooted timeline, laying the groundwork for a hypothetical sequel to dig into flashbacks or remixes of familiar moments. It’s not too different from a Marvel movie having some exciting new character show up just for the post-credits stinger, but the Call Of Duty series has spent the last few years teasing sequels that never come to fruition. So this feels less like an exciting glimpse of the future, and more of a promise from the developers that they’ll do more of the things they know fans will like if they just buy the hell out of this game (and maybe throw some money at the upcoming Fortnite-style battle pass, and maybe buy some premium weapon skins, and maybe tell your friends to do the same).
Here’s a quick history lesson: Infinity Ward’s old Modern Warfare trilogy made Call Of Duty one of the biggest game brands in the world, but its third game ended that story fairly definitively. And while Activision had a secondary (and similarly successful) Call Of Duty series running in parallel to pick up the narrative slack—Treyarch’s Black Ops—this is an annual series in a medium that demands multi-year development arcs. And so more sub-series were cooked up: Infinity Ward came back right away with Ghosts in 2013, an attempt to tell a Modern Warfare-style semi-realistic story but set in a near-future America that had been devastated by military invasions and terrorist attacks. Then, support studio Sledgehammer got a chance in the spotlight for the also near-future Advanced Warfare. Then Blacks Ops III… went near-future.
The series was suffering from near-future fatigue (especially when the games were becoming ever more indistinguishable because of their similar settings), so Infinity Ward made a big play to shake things up for 2016’s Infinite Warfare, which went to the far-future for a full-on sci-fi conflict between Martian fascists (led by Kit Harington!) and square-jawed Earth heroes. It was fantastic, and easily the best and most confident Call Of Duty campaign since Modern Warfare in 2007. But for fans who had followed the series every year it was really just another futuristic thing in a line that had become nothing but futuristic things. It takes longer than a year or two to make a Call Of Duty, but it was hard to deny that the next entry—Call Of Duty: WWII—was anything but an intense reaction to all of that future warfare.
It was as back-to-basics as possible, since every Call Of Duty before Modern Warfare (the first one) had also been a World War II game. But that urge to look back probably went too far. The ostensible realism of the game hamstrung the multiplayer options, and the campaign was the most obvious, straightforward World War II story that has ever been told (almost as if the series went back to WWII just because it seemed like the most marketable idea, not because it had any particularly exciting ideas for how to do a new WWII game). After that came last year’s Black Ops 4, which included the big gimmick of a battle royale mode in place of a single-player campaign. It was pretty good, but a full-priced Call Of Duty game simply cannot compete against existing battle royale heavyweights like Fortnite and PUBG, especially once Apex Legends (from Respawn, the studio founded by the original Modern Warfare creators) came out and ate its lunch—as noted in the battle royale round-up we wrote up earlier this year.
The Call Of Duty series has had good ideas in these last few years. But it no longer has the confidence to really push them and let them breathe, ensuring that nothing will ever feel as seismic or revolutionary as Modern Warfare did. This new one has a chance, but only because it explicitly asks for one by using that name, and by referencing the cool stuff from the original series that people would want to see again. This could be COD’s chance to get back on track, but it’s doing it in the safest way possible, because Activision is afraid of taking another big swing like Infinite Warfare or, well, the first Modern Warfare.