News came out recently that Black Ops 4 is ditching a single-player campaign to focus entirely on multiplayer and cooperative zombie modes. The head honchos have said campaign was never part of the plan. Others are saying the creators couldn’t have a story put together for the release date, so it was scrapped. Regardless of reasons, I’m torn on this.
To call the campaigns of the Call of Duty series aggressive is an understatement. They’re inspired by the broadest military and action genre films imaginable, all intertwined with action that would make Michael Bay holler with approval. Sometimes it’s all a little too incomprehensible for its own good. Other times, the action is accurately reflective of its situation. Situations in which the perspective of the protagonists becomes muddled, and we just watch them try to survive the experience through a hail of bullets and debris. More often than not, the framing of the explosions and story is so nonsensical that we just tag along for the ride and see where we end up. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. There’s a comfort in knowing exactly what you’ve paid for. But as for the Call of Duty series, the best the series had to offer for its stories satisfied a broader need than just a fun time with explosions.
On the one hand, Call of Duty campaigns are neat little blockbuster action movies that allow the player to experience first hand what it would be like to live in a trashy 90’s action movie with a modern budget. With the territory comes some seriously problematic elements regarding racial caricatures, jingoistic narratives and downright imperial themes of American might. But every once in a while, you get something containing even borderline nuance. The first Modern Warfare wasn’t just a massive overhaul of the World War 2 environments. It structured a campaign around the fallout of the Cold War, the impact of more espionage influenced warfare. But most importantly, it uses its (at the time) higher quality engine to capture a more thematically rich approach to war. Levels in the Middle-East and a flashback mission to Pripyat in particular, utilize light and shadows to somber effect. War is either devastating regions first-hand or has already steamrolled over it, enveloping the players with melancholy. It remains one of the few experiences that actually forces players to confront the harsh reality of what they are part of, and what they intend to stop in terms of where the story missions are headed. We’ve seen countless action adventure stories climax in an attempt to stop nuclear armageddon but few so eloquently plant the seeds of that eventual showdown to such effect.
Modern Warfare gives an all-timer one-two punch of campaign missions involving a twist that decimates the entire U.S. Military campaign we’ve been following – minus a single gunner who tags along for the remainder of the joint operation campaign – as well as dwelling on the immediate aftermath of a nuclear detonation. It’s not just that nobody saw this twist coming, it’s that Infinity Ward’s creative team was actually interested in how this event would reconstruct an entire story. We play firsthand as the American soldier we’ve been following succumbs to radiation sickness, his last view of a mushroom cloud and buildings so damaged a gust of wind could knock them over. These are the stakes. War takes everything from everyone, no quarter. Clear, simple, straight to the horrifying point.
The final mission is essentially a giant clusterfuck with characters merely trying to survive a prolonged chase sequence that ends in a brutal bridge explosion and shootout, culminating with a final action movie badass moment of Captain Price sliding you a pistol to take out the Big Bad – One Imran Zakhaev. It’s insanity that is earned, as the rest of the game had already parsed out the details of the conflict, given you backstory, built up nuclear armageddon and canceled it. This final sequence is about escaping a single man’s vengeance, Zakhaev’s, extended by his numerous forces from automobiles to the bullets on the bridge. It’s tossing everything and the kitchen sink at the player because it’s representative of the antagonistic relationship between your squad and the maniac’s reign of terror. You’ve taken everything from Zakhaev’s arm, his son and his nuclear endgame. That hatred is earned. You never come face to face with Zakhaev, you only disarm him from a distance via flashback, and plug him full of bullets in the final moments of the campaign. But the conflict is so well structured, so well-realized that there is a legitimate villainy to him and finally defeating him has a genuine catharsis that has never been fully replicated in contemporary shooters. Even after you gun him down, the game takes a moment to linger on him and his henchman. The fight is over. Zakhaev and his Four Horseman are defeated, but so are your allies. Only Captain Price makes it to the sequel in a supporting role. There’s a brief newscast mention of the ship from the first mission, “In other news,” telling us the events we’ve participated in will also make headlines in a much more minor manner, and we fade to white. Most live-action thrillers could learn a lot from how this story was structured.
On the other hand, Treyarch campaigns – the company responsible for the Black Ops arcs of the series – have been the worst of the bunch by a pretty major margin. Treyarch campaigns contain generally thrilling set-pieces on a case by case basis, but also every single complaint lobbed at the series in regards to embracing militaristic fascism and nihilistic sensibilities regarding their worldview is all painstakingly on display. As much as I love to see these games littered with familiar iconography from major motion pictures (i.e, stolen, but entertaining regardless) it takes some serious cojones to open a level with a Deer Hunter reference and paint it as an emotional lynchpin for a campaign that forces the player to pal around with soldiers that spout lines like “This is ‘Nam, baby!” before calling in napalm strikes. A campaign where the American invaders decimate an entire valley in Vietnam as an act of vengeance. Apocalypse Now this is not. Or lest we forget, the ending of the game just casually tosses in that your character was brainwashed into assassinating JFK. There’s almost an idea there, having the Americans reach a blockbuster action crescendo only to get slapped in the face with harsh reality. However, this is a Treyarch campaign so that remains an idea at best. And that’s just the first of the Black Ops series! Though I’ll shout out the run/gun mechanics. Pretty fluid stuff. Flashing back even further, World at War heavily falters just as heavily in regards to how it treats the war in the Pacific during World War 2, where enemy AI aren’t so much Japanese soldiers as much as they are treated like rabid animals. It’s uncomfortable as hell and downright irresponsible. I love you, Kiefer Sutherland, but even your soothing all-american-hero voice acting couldn’t save that monstrosity of a campaign.
It’s not like the Modern Warfare series fared much better by Modern Warfare 2 but it started so damn strong. By Modern Warfare 2, it’s less “methodical time to escalate our protagonist’s and conflict” and more “Here is a massive city assault sequence before transferring your character into an undercover CIA black ops mission to investigate a terror ring, while Soap (surviving character of the first game) goes on a Bond-style espionage chase sequence, before going back to your undercover mission where you have to participate in a massacre at an airport but also the terrorists know you’re undercover”. Those are the actual opening four levels of the game. The undercover mission has already been written about extensively but it should be noted how it has only aged worse. As public shootings remain one of the United States’s greatest societal ills, it is downright irresponsible to have a mission take place with the player actively participating in such a monstrous act. The game doesn’t force you to directly shoot anyone until the second half of the level when police units arrive, but to carelessly toss this into a campaign that had staked claim in an already heightened reality is just awful. The difference between this and the original “Shock and Awe” experience of Modern Warfare is that game’s engagement of the events. It’s early enough in the game that it hypothetically could have been treated as a footnote; instead, it’s the driving force and deliberate commentary. The airport massacre in MW2 means nothing. It is an attempt at faux-shock, faux-awe. Naturally, these events spawn Call of Duty: Red Dawn in subsequent U.S. missions. Tonal dissonance doesn’t even cover it.
While the MW games weren’t Treyarch productions, they are emblematic of issues that would eventually engulf the entire franchise. More, more and more. More bad guys. More shooting. More shock value. More everything. But eventually, Call of Duty changed things up. They began a three-year cycle for their developers to allow more production space. Not all of them are winners, of course. But there’s a renewed energy to the campaigns, which I believe started with Advanced Warfare.
2014’s Advanced Warfare is a game that was made into a legendary meme (rightfully so) for the ridiculous “Press X to pay respects” moment in the game, but it’s also got something more on its mind than “Only a good ultimate badass can stop a bad ultimate badass” that desecrated Call of Duty: Ghosts. It’s too bad they make players physically play through the funeral, as that opening mission is genuinely strong and the story is actually far more thematically rich than any game in the series since the first MW. After losing your arm and best friend, literal villain Kevin Spacey takes you under his wing to sport a new arm and thank you for being a part of his son’s life. Throughout in-game years, we slowly witness as money create new engines of war, many of which are direct extensions of the characters. It builds up the player with fancy tech, rooting the player into this dark web of deceit and corporate nightmares. With this corporation, Atlas, is embedded so deeply within the confines of warfare, there is only one logical solution: burn it all down. Advanced Warfare is about a perceptive future warfare that is not bound by nations or people, but by corporations. Modern Warfare showed the fictional extent of fascism across the globe. Advanced Warfare shows the world being engulfed by maw of capitalism. Not a perfect game, by any means. Only extremely my kind of game. One that clearly had more refined focus on the elongated production cycle that was allowed by the rotating productions of Infinity Ward, Treyarch and Advanced Warfare‘s Sledgehammer Games.
Campaigns aren’t mandatory for games with as big a player-base as Call of Duty. When they work, holy cow, do they work. There’s a reason they’re the most popular in the business. Modern Warfare‘s campaign might never be topped in quality, but history has proved it was hardly a fluke. If this new development cycle is what it takes for these games to step up their campaigns, I’ll gladly welcome the occasional entry without a campaign.