What’s Up With Call of Duty?

You don’t need me to tell you about the Call of Duty slide. Whether you believe the series peaked with either of the first two Modern Warfare games, either of the first two Black Ops games, or even the very recent Advanced Warfare, the general consensus remains the same: people just don’t like Call of Duty as much as they once did.

I certainly feel no sympathy for Activision, but it’s hard to not at least feel a little bad for the current Infinity Ward team. If nothing else, Infinite Warfare feels like a statement of intent. Just look at the title of the damn game, or the in-game IW TV news channel, or the attached Modern Warfare remaster. “This is an Infinity Ward Joint, you jerks,” it seems to proclaim.

Why tie the latest release in this franchise to the legacy of a specific developer? Between Modern Warfare 3 and Ghosts, the Infinity Ward name doesn’t carry the prestige (ha ha ha) it once did. If you want to get really speculative with me for a second, look at Titanfall 2 — one of the many big multiplayer shooters released this year, developed by many former Infinity Ward staff members. For me, Infinite Warfare doesn’t feel like the developers set out to make their own mark on the series — it feels like the current version of Infinity Ward has something to prove.

Yes, it’s almost a certainty that November’s sales numbers will herald a relative victory for Infinite Warfare — Titanfall 2 has not sold well, to the point where a hypothetical Titanfall 3 seems unlikely, and there are still people out there buying “the new Call of Duty” on franchise goodwill alone. But the critical response to Titanfall 2 far eclipses the tepid reaction to Infinite Warfare. More people seem to have purchased Infinite Warfare, but more people seem happy with Titanfall 2.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Modern Warfare remaster seems to have gathered more positive coverage than the brand new full video game. Speaking anecdotally, I know people who have purchased the special $80 edition of the game just so they could play Modern Warfare Remastered and haven’t even touched the bonus sci-fi shooter. Hell, I bought the edition that includes Modern Warfare Remastered out of curiosity, and I ended up spending far more time with the remaster.

So you’ve got a game that was clearly designed to trade on the strength of the Infinity Ward name, only for players and critics to generally reject the brand-new offering in favor of an almost 10-year old game or a new video game from the people they actually liked all along. Again, we’re not using sales as a metric for success in this particular case. Call of Duty has a distinct brand advantage, regardless of quality (Although I suspect Infinite Warfare’s sales will be relatively weaker this year, people just seem done with this franchise).

Conceptually, it’s a bummer. Although, if we’re being honest, some of that disappointment absolutely falls on Infinity Ward’s shoulders. Yes, what I’ve played of the Infinite Warfare campaign is legitimately great. Not the best shooter campaign I’ve played all year, but certainly in the upper echelon of Call of Duty. But the core of the game, the competitive multiplayer, feels like hot trash. There’s something about it that feels innately frustrating, a lack of comprehension unique to this year’s offering.

It’s not just me; if you peruse the Infinite Warfare subreddit, you’ll see people mentioning a short “TTK” (Time [until] Kill) and “shoot first die first,” where players who should’ve won a gunfight end up dying. Keep in mind this is the Call of Duty community, not average video game players. Not only do these people have the experience necessary to know what they’re talking about, they’ve probably spent enough time playing Call of Duty to remove “lack of skill” from the equation. I was able to semi-regularly nab the top killstreaks in Modern Warfare, even going 2:1 in most games. But in Infinite Warfare, my deaths far outweighed my kills. The game’s overly busy industrial sci-fi design makes competitive matches an unsightly mess where your enemies are rarely distinguishable from the garbage littering the world.

Also, I realize the movement system is built off Black Ops III. I appreciate consistency between games! But Advanced Warfare did it so right two years ago, and even that doesn’t come close to Titanfall. The boosted movement featured in Infinite Warfare feels sluggish, and often got in the way of me getting from point A to point B as comfortably as possible.

Even discounting the obvious sibling rivalry angle you could take with Titanfall, 2016 also gave us Blizzard’s multiplayer juggernaut Overwatch, a critically beloved game almost destined for many year-end top 10 lists. Destiny got another expansion. Battlefield 1 wasn’t broken. Even The Division was a more interesting multiplayer title, especially as Ubisoft kept improving on the game as the year went on. Doom’s multiplayer may not have been all that great, but its campaign scratched an itch many players had been suffering from for years. Gears of War 4, uh, came out.

There have been a lot of great shooters released this year, but Infinite Warfare doesn’t quite bring the thunder in any respect, slipping out of the cultural consciousness as I write this sentence. At best, the campaign is a really fun sci-fi blockbuster and the Zombies mode seems fine. At worst, the multiplayer will cut its own legs off before the first DLC pack even hits.

I’ll be honest here, I didn’t finish the campaign and I didn’t make it that far up the multiplayer ladder. Although I’d like to come back to the campaign so I can inject those space dogfights straight into my veins, why bother with the multiplayer? All my friends play Overwatch, and I think Titanfall 2 is a better executed version of this particular style. Not to keep dropping names, but that is where my head’s at right now. I was fully on board the Call of Duty train after Black Ops 2. Now? I just want that game to become backwards compatible so I can sit out Call of Duty until they find a way to make that series relevant again.