Another year, another Call of Duty game. You can practically set your calendar to their releases. Sunday's reveal of Black Ops 3 takes players further into the future, where cybernetic limb replacements and neural networks create the perfect soldier, which would be a more exciting step if we didn't already get a taste of the future looked like last year with the release of Advanced Warfare. I suppose it's inevitable that, even with three different Call of Duty series in rotation, there would eventually be some strong similarities and even overlaps. But the fact that we're starting to see it now may be indicative how the future of war could be running out of space.
The Call of Duty games have always had a few things in common, starting with the alternating annual releases of Black Ops and Modern Warfare. Someone out there wants to blow up the world, and players work to stop them. Or, in the case of Modern Warfare, at least get some payback if you don't stop them the first time. The main factor that kept the two storylines distinct from each other is that Modern Warfare focused on a special ops groups, while Black Ops told a mind and time bending story of historical off-book missions with a conspiracy twist.
That came to an end roughly around the time the Modern Warfare trilogy concluded and Black Ops 2 released the following year. Black Ops 2 took players into the year 2025, where cyber and drone warfare are at the forefront. Although its excellent sci-fi story is marked with flashback missions in the 1980s, the hand-off from Alex Mason (a CIA operative) to his son David Mason (a Seal Team Six Navy Seal) led to a perceivable shift in the story. It wasn't necessarily about running wildly overt covert operations anymore. It transitioned into a story about elite special forces taking on a big villain, which pretty much goes to show that even when Modern Warfare is over, you can't really get away from its roots.
The Call of Duty series faced a problem during its annual switch up. How were developers going to follow-up Modern Warfare? Infinity Ward's answer was Ghosts, which took place in an entirely different reality where a WMD leaves the United States fractured and devastated. Players join up with the last vestiges of an elite military force in an effort to defend what's left of the country. Both critics and fans generally wrote Ghosts off as being underwhelming, largely because it was seen as a rehash when players were promised something all-new.
Yet, it's hard to fault Infinity Ward for at least trying at something different. Ghosts was supposed to tell the story of an underdog, rising up from ruin to face impossible odds. Except, by the end of the campaign, it was difficult to figure out which side was still a military superpower. Thankfully, Advanced Warfare helped redeem the Call of Duty brand by throwing out the whole idea of superpowers altogether. All countries use Private Military Contractors, equipped with EXO-suits and other high-tech weaponry.
However, Advanced Warfare's EXO jump into the future potentially creates a new problem for Black Ops 3, in that both are now stories of elite, mechanically enhanced, soldiers fighting a megalomaniacal villain out to blow up the world in the future. Sure, Jonathan Irons threatens to use a targeted bioweapon, not a nuke, but that just means he's more selective in his genocidal practices.
What is the fundamental difference between a cybernetically enhanced soldier and one wearing an EXO suit? Both presumably have many of the same abilities: increased strength, which enables soldiers to jump higher and carry heavier weapons. Other systems, like active cloaking and an augmented display, will probably be featured too. Judging by the trailer, a cyber soldier would have some weapons built into his body, but those would be superficial gameplay differences when compared to an EXO suit's systems. Even Advanced Warfare's main character, Jack Mitchell, has a cybernetic prosthetic arm, which indicates that cyborgs are possible in that reality but the military decided on suits instead.
The line that separates Black Ops from Advanced Warfare blurs even more when you consider how the latter game has an EXO Zombie mode as part of a DLC add-on. Not even the much-loved zombies are exclusive to Black Ops anymore. Only the future will tell if the ones in Black Ops 3 will be cybernetically augmented. If they are, then it may be even more difficult for the game to stand out.
Black Ops 3 must avoid being seen as a rehash of Advanced Warfare, which is a great irony given how Sledgehammer drew a great deal of inspiration from Black Ops 2. The game has the benefit of supposedly being the last game in the Black Ops storyline. So, being that it is ending as Advanced Warfare is beginning could give it some latitude. Fans might not be as harsh to judge the conclusion (or continuation) of a story as they are the start of one. However, this too sets up an oddly familiar problem. Where does Call of Duty have left to go?
If the alternate world of Ghosts didn't work out, does this mean that the franchise will be relegated to the world of power suits, mechs and cyborgs? Will players be treading into Terminator territory next? There will come a time when even the future will seem like an old hat, and it seems like it's already starting to happen. It's possible that the franchise will return to a two-series system again, but that seems fairly unlikely. Whatever is in store for Call of Duty's future, it would probably be in its best interest to do away with the villain-blows-up-world formula and reach for something a little more unique. Otherwise, all future endeavors may end up looking like past ones, just dressed up differently, and cause the franchise to slip back into decline.
Steven Wong posted a new article, Opinion: Differences Among Call of Duty Games Are Skin Deep
The blurb has an error says could the call of duty series be running ideas instead of running out of ideas.
Granted I haven't finished AW I think if the series keeps it's villain and keeps the story "Micheal Bay" larger than life and keep Black Ops 3 (future Treyarch titles as well) as weird and as bizarre as possible I think the two won't step on each other's toes too much. Infinity Ward should continue Ghosts or things like Ghosts. A WWI title wouldn't kill the franchise either.