The Call of Duty franchise is expected to follow in the footsteps of Battlefield with its early 20th century focus on the World Wars. This most likely comes as a sigh of relief to many who are tired of what seems to be the inevitable march towards futurism. While sci-fi is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance in other media with the revamp of Star Wars and other releases such as Life and a selection of Marvel entries, the theme seems rather worn out for shooters. The reasoning might seem somewhat contrary to expectation; new weapons, fancy tech and star-ships would seem a sure-fire way to generate interest without many gameplay adaptations. However the cause is a bit more simple: futuristic game environments struggle to generate the grit and intensity that war shooters often require to be engaging.
While future warfare settings offer a much more diverse range of environments and potential combat scenarios, the new tech also comes with the price of removing any sense of mortality and tension from the field in favor of dramatic special effects. With more precise and refined weaponry, combat is reduced mostly to simple shooting with the enemy falling down covered in cauterized blast wounds. In other words, there is a distinct lack of realism to the combat, even in regard to the fictional setting. Compare, for example, Infinite Warfare to World at War, the last WWII outing for the Call of Duty franchise, and the lack of what made classic Call of Duty games so intense is even more marked.
World at War was notable for its violent and visceral take on some of the most brutal battles of the Second World War, from the massacres at Stalingrad to the brutal jungle battles in the Pacific. It wasn’t unusual to see soldiers engaging in bloody melee or seeing limbs blown off by explosives leaving soldiers to bleed out and squirm in front of the players eyes. It is difficult to replicate the brutal realities of war when energy weapons have taken the place of shrapnel and bullets. The future-setting also necessitates a focus on special forces-esque tactics rather than mass offensives of past conflicts. This usually reduces the sense of scale and player immersion, and as such the games become more an exercise in story-telling rather than the ‘regular soldier’ narrative of earlier Call of Duty releases. These tended to focus more on dropping players into a uncontrollable battles rather than allowing them to drive the entire conflict narrative and act as a hero.
In older iterations, the franchise would often create a narrative that was based on more organic relationships like squad bonding. It provided a more fertile environment to build connection between the player and the NPCs that would ultimately accompany them through the game’s journey. In most instances, the conflict was merely used as a framing device for the emotional toll and loss that wars exact on their participants. In other words, you played with your heart as well as your head. The objectives were defined but often contributed to specific, low scale goals of the war effort rather than commanding the entire conflict from start to finish. While these often did not make for movie-like moments they did generate a sense of achievement in addition to a sense of realism due to the historical context. It seems that this emotional investment has been neglected in favor of the easier route to just blind the player with visuals without real substance.
Although, some would argue that in the age of online multiplayer it just isn’t worth expending energy on a compelling single-player experience that hardly anyone will look at. Hopefully the return of the Call of Duty franchise to its historical roots will also signal a return to the low-scale, immersion focused nature of previous shooters. However, with the release of Battlefield 1 less than a year ago, the prevailing trend is one of aesthetic catch-up which will probably amount to nothing more than an opportunistic re-skin of repetitive themes and gameplay.
Since it supplanted Medal of Honor as the most recognizable war shooter franchise on the market, Call of Duty has always served as somewhat of a standard bearer for what the AAA shooter market will evolve into across release cycles. It should reclaim this title again because this theme shift will not only serve as a refreshing return to the brutal conflicts of the past, but also as a chance to bring back emotional narratives that use war as a framing device rather than serving as the interactive equivalent of Michael Bay directing a sci-fi movie.