With Black Ops 4 coming up (and surprising us for numerous reasons this year, multiplayer focus only being one of them), I figured it’s as good a time as any to talk about both the series and its longevity as well as my own experiences with it. I’ll touch on all of my previous reviews and make notes as to how they hold up in relation to the games even now. I’ll touch on some of the places the series could go, especially after a year where many players seem neither very excited for Black Ops 4 nor Battlefield V in terms of colossal shooters, each for their own unique reasons. I’ll even talk about how Black Ops 4 seems to be primed to out-Black Ops 3 Black Ops 3- it’s a mouthful but it’s a thing.
First things first, let’s briefly touch on my personal involvement: the reviews side of the house.
I’ve either retroactively reviewed or reviewed each entry of the series to date (even the piss-poor ports and Declassified). Whether that has been in a feature-length review or in a blurb format on twitter, I’ve at the least made the highs and lows as well as where I numerically typically known. I’m not going to provide all the links to each specific review as the games themselves won’t all hold up to the test of time nor to the specific points I credit them with, however I will give the original ratings and a ballpark current one for added benefit.
Starting from the top…
Call of Duty 1, 2, and 3 (in all their various versions and ports) received an 8.0, 8.5, and 8.0 from me respectively. The original wasn’t perfect but it still holds up quite well in many ways and you can see the inspirations for the series down the road in little things from mechanics to gunplay. The sequel improved upon the first game in every perceivable way and was also the best game in the series until the first Modern Warfare rolled around. Call of Duty 3 will always be a step backwards to me but it also allowed Treyarch to get their ideas out there and to get some experience before their arguably better work on the series than the original creators themselves (through later arcs such as the World at War/Black Ops story).
Call of Duty 4, Modern Warfare 2, and Modern Warfare 3 although alternating off-years with Treyarch’s Cold War and Near-Future saga, were overall the pinnacle of the series in terms of multiplayer production and quality product. There were highs and lows here as well but few people argue the merit that the first two games of that trilogy arc especially had. Modern Warfare 1 (Call of Duty 4) as well as Modern Warfare 2 both received a 9.75 from me for stellar campaigns and multiplayer innovation. Modern Warfare 3 had its fair share of developmental issues and because of that fell off in overall quality, however it has remained one of my favorite games in the series ever since and still netted an 8.5 from me as well.
Call of Duty: World at War, Black Ops 1, and Black Ops 2 were Treyarch’s major push into Infinity Ward’s home territory and also established them as the creators with the best storytelling ability in the series. The continuation of stories just between the Black Ops titles (primarily one and two, not the latter additions) with the backstory of World at War made for excellent gameplay as well. Although World at War only received an 8.75 from me, it revisited the previously overdone WWII setting and delivered an epic story with memorable moments and characters. Black Ops 1 is perhaps the best story to date in the series and also some of the greatest multiplayer and zombies content with a 9.25 rating. Black Ops 2 and the rest of the series and its quality truly started to decline with 2011’s MW3 and then on, especially from Ghosts forward, however the 2012 gem still gets an 8.0 from me and is my favorite multiplayer experience to date.
Here’s where we get into some hit or miss storytelling and a darker time for the series. Year in and year out, the quality has become something of an unsteady stream as there will be plenty of good ideas yet flawed products. Call of Duty: Ghosts is perhaps the worst game in the series in terms of mechanics and fine-tuned gameplay, however it had an interesting story. I gave it a 7.5 in my original review. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare still boasts one of the most interesting and best-acted stories and yet is coupled with some of the worst multiplayer ideas in the entire series and also largely credited with the “future first” push towards things that are less Call of Duty in nature. I gave it a 9.0 for its many strengths despite the lack of overall quality and pacing of multiplayer.
We’ve begun a weird sort of tango that is the dance between three core studios now- what remains of Infinity Ward and their different ideas for each year now that the Modern Warfare arc has ended, Treyarch and their continued spiral for the futuristic Black Ops series, and Sledgehammer and their one-off’s in Advanced Warfare and WWII.
I never actually took the time to develop a full-length review for Black Ops 3 however I have spoken out on how odd if not interesting its story is and how frenetic and fast paced the multiplayer modes are. Black Ops 3 certainly does a lot right as a fun game but I’m not sure how good it has been overall for the series due to it pushing towards a new focus on “operators” and futuristic ideas and a lack of realism or grounded focus. If it were the first game to be multiplayer only, I have a feeling I would’ve felt a lot better about the overall product, however for all people want to complain about Infinite Warfare being the far cry from Call of Duty, it is Black Ops 3 that started to buck the trend after Advanced Warfare suggested it. Honestly, I could argue for Black Ops 3 falling anywhere between an 8.5 and 9.25, however it begs the question: just what does ‘Call of Duty’ mean anymore and is it okay for the game to evolve so far past its initial boundaries?
Infinite Warfare without a doubt did not do a lot right in the online realm as I find the multiplayer quite literally boring at times and a dumbed down version of what Black Ops 3 did with a few added gimmicks thrown into the mix. However, as far as stories and challenging singleplayer gameplay goes, I’d argue that Infinite Warfare is some of the best of the best. It’s much more open ended than even Black Ops 2 but it does not suffer for it. I gave the mixed back an 8.0 overall simply because it plays to its strengths and only suffers overall because it does not properly cater to the most important market of all: it’s online fanbase. It does do a great job of mixing longtime favorite modes such as zombies into a non-Treyarch product for the first time since Advanced Warfare attempted and failed to do so.
Call of Duty WWII is a beautiful game. I mean that quite literally because Sledgehammer has proved themselves the most capable in the graphics department. However, I wish their gameplay and quality were as good. The story in WWII is great although I still think Call of Duty should look to other past conflicts besides the World Wars or future ones. It has some gimmicky mechanics that I can’t say excite me for how they will be further implemented in the future (see: Black Ops 4’s health packs). It also sports possibly the least creativity in multiplayer maps since Ghosts. Overall, I suppose it gets an 8.5 from me for many of the same reasons Advanced Warfare fared as well as it did in my eyes.
For my next trick, I’m going to discuss some ideas the series should do more than just toss around. Only a couple in particular really.
Instead of continuing to push into the futuristic shooter category, which is ultimately going the way of the former WWII shooter category, I’m of the opinion we are long overdue a true Vietnam era Call of Duty game that builds upon elements of the Cold War genre introduced in both original Black Ops titles. Give us an ‘Apocalypse Now’ style narrative and give us the harsh reality of guerrilla warfare in the jungle again. That was where the series was strongest in black ops tactics so instead of being a simple retread, give us the grunt’s viewpoint like we’ve held in several of the WWII games from the eyes of a recruit entering the foray. Who wouldn’t want to play what is essentially Forrest Gump?
Another idea and one that is arguably much harder to pull off but has also been hinted at in the past would be a Middle Eastern setting or perhaps even limited to the Iraq/Afghanistan warzones we’ve witnessed in the early 2000s. We saw some of this in Modern Warfare 1’s memorable missions and first few acts, however we haven’t seen a lot of it since Shock and Awe. It doesn’t have to be in any way a retread and we could get some great moments again from films such as The Hurt Locker or Lone Survivor depending upon whether we are following a group of covert operatives or mere marines.
What I’m really trying to say is maybe the series could use yet another quality and grounded experience after all. I don’t want a future where Killzone, Battlefield, Call of Duty, Halo, and all the other shooters out there with popular followings and good ideas look the exact same in some future/near-future setting. Quality is all well and fine but continuing to pique the interest of gamers and consumers with new ideas or refreshing takes on similar ones is key as well. If Call of Duty is going to continue being an annual release and not run itself wholly into the ground as Activision seems fine with doing inevitably, it will at some point need a different overhaul to avoid going the way Assassin’s Creed almost did. Adding a battle royale mode to cash in on new gimmicks isn’t going to cut it no matter how entertaining it is. Make your money, but make your art too.
It’s the final stretch. Here’s why I think Black Ops 4 will be such a mixed bag despite also being undeniably fun content.
Black Ops 4 is drawing plenty of comparison to Black Ops 3 for more than just looking like pretty much the same game. So 2014’s Advanced Warfare introduced us to a further future setting than 2025 in Black Ops 2 and to more mobility than 2013’s Ghosts and its slide mechanics. WE got double jumps and side-hopping, grenade avoiding slides. For many people that was an interesting mechanic at first but then a noticeable shift in how games could be played. Black Ops 3 introduced a ridiculous amount of verticality and traversal with what essentially equates to a triple jump and ensured that all operators could boost around the small maps at an insane pace in order to keep the gameplay as frantic as possible. In 2016, Infinity Ward slowed things back down a little with Infinite Warfare despite also pushing even further into the future- a combination that both puzzled and disappointed many fans who now had an odd amount of mobility in comparison to previous titles but also a setting closer to Halo than Call of Duty.
WWII of course cut out a lot of these mobile mechanics and went for an entirely grounded approach which in many ways now makes the game feel old and out of place when you look at the fact that it’s been pushing mobility for five years. It also took away automatically replenishing health which has been a staple of the series for quite a long time. Now Black Ops 4 is making some weird hybrid scenario combining all of these things into one package. The mobility looks like something Call of Duty: Ghosts could’ve gotten by with or perhaps even Infinite Warfare, but there’s less focus on all that boost-jumping madness. The operators are largely the same or similar to Black Ops 3’s classes and characters. Player selected health stimulants or whatever you want to call their equivalent are a strategic-use item (so continuing what WWII started). And last but not least, there’s no single-player campaign.
Single-player has never been the focus of Call of Duty since Modern Warfare 1 exploded onto the scene, that much is obvious. However a good Call of Duty game has also always had an excellent or at least well-done narrative campaign as well. All the best ones: Black Ops 1 included, had excellent single-player to accompany the multiplayer content. Not having it included does mean they should theoretically be able to focus more on a refined multiplayer experience however it also feels like a copout for them to produce the game faster and in a more haphazard manner. Essentially they’re also raising expectations that MP must be perfect because after all it’s what they’ve spent all their time on. And don’t get me started with why they’re retconning the original Zombies timeline and backstory in favor of…whatever the new version is here.
I’m not saying Black Ops 4 adding a wealth of multiplayer content such as Blackout (Royale) won’t be a fun and even great experience, I just don’t think it’ll ever be a better experience than better games before it such as Black Ops 1 or Modern Warfare 2. I’m always interested to see the evolution of a series and how it deals with doing things in new and inventive ways but to be honest, Call of Duty has been on its way out for quite some time despite still making a ton of money each year. All good things must come to an end and I hope Activision realizes that some day and is able to do it on their own terms rather than suffer through several down titles with no really effort put into differentiating them from others previously released and then shutting the series down.