Opinion: Why Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 and Advanced Warfare put newfound pressure on Infinity Ward

Sledgehammer Games and Treyarch have made a pair of distinctly different Call of Duty games, but they have one thing in common. They've both helped push the Call of Duty formula forward in some substantial ways. And given how Call of Duty: Ghosts was received in 2013, that means all eyes will be on Infinity Ward in 2016 to see if it can get some of its old mojo back.

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It's quite a challenge to keep a formula feeling fresh after almost a decade of annual releases. For Activision's part, it has hoped to keep the Call of Duty franchise from stagnation by spreading its development across three developers, each with its own distinct vision for the future. This year, Treyarch culminated its own sub-series of games with Black Ops 3, just a year after relative newcomer Sledgehammer Games offered its own reimagining with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Both games have their subset of diehard fans, while also managing to retain the main Call of Duty fanbase that picks these games up year after year. And both Treyarch and Sledgehammer have put their own stamp on their games, offering some of the best CoD games in recent memory.

That means there's going to be a lot of pressure on the original Call of Duty studio, Infinity Ward. And it's especially true given that it is coming off arguably one of the worst entries in the series.

To get an idea of why next year could prove very interesting, one only needs to take a look back at Call of Duty: Ghosts from 2013. Anything could be made to look worse with the benefit of hindsight, but the initial reveal of Ghosts falls particularly flat when looking back at it. The major reveals centered around Riley the dog, female soldiers in multiplayer, and brief glimpses into space. While Ghosts did include these concepts, they were ultimately inconsequential and, at the end of the day, the game wound up feeling too similar to previous IW efforts. While there were one or two new game modes and a few tweaks to multiplayer, there was nothing to really distinguish this effort from any of the Modern Warfare games.

The results spoke for themselves. Not only were reviews (including our own) lukewarm, but Ghosts underperformed on the sales charts. While some can attribute this to the uncertainty surrounding the transition to next-gen consoles, much of that can also be attributed to the overall quality of a subpar campaign and multiplayer that didn't particularly innovate from the Modern Warfare era.

Ghosts' shortcomings become all the more apparent when looking at the bold efforts of Advanced Warfare and Black Ops 3. Advanced Warfare drew interest for its use of Kevin Spacey for its campaign, as well as effectively taking a quartet of celebrities for a coherent, linear Zombies tale. More than that, multiplayer introduced futuristic, Exo-suit based warfare, introducing mech suits and robotics into a more cutting-edge CoD world. Black Ops 3 dared to go bolder, adding futuristic neural implants to the campaign that granted sci-fi abilities, while telling a story of what it means to be a soldier in the future. Its multiplayer updated the 'boots on the ground' philosophy, while adding a dash of class-based warfare that mixes up the formula without completely abandoning its foundation.

In fact, multiplayer evolution is where Advanced Warfare and Black Ops 3 have both managed to shine. It goes beyond the addition of Advanced Warfare's mechs and Black Ops' future tech. Multiplayer has largely been an improvement because of its changes in movement. Advanced Warfare focuses on verticality, mobility, and new EXO abilities that are suited to different play styles. Black Ops 3 removes almost all of the movement barriers entirely, offering unlimited sprint, wall runs, and full 360-degree combat at all times, even underwater.

By contrast, Infinity Ward has offered fewer of these innovations. While it's added a few minor tweaks, Ghosts still feels stylistically similar in many ways to older Modern Warfare games, right down to the unlocks, perks, leveling system, and even the visuals. It's not bad, but my original opinion of Ghosts still holds true today: It was Infinity Ward playing things safe. That's all well and good, but when Sledgehammer and Treyarch are stepping their game up the way they have, playing it safe is no longer an option.

It's also worth noting that there's been something of a contentious relationship between Infinity Ward and the PC gaming community, going all back to Modern Warfare 2 and its lack of dedicated servers. Infinity Ward would offer dedicated servers in its subsequent efforts, but it was thanks mainly to the folks at Sledgehammer, who opened that door for Modern Warfare 3. Treyarch, on the other hand, has often been more amicable to the PC community, to the point that it revealed Black Ops 3's PC specs all the way back in April. Treyarch was adamant about supporting high-end systems and 4K displays. And despite launching with issues, the goal with Black Ops 3 has been to give PC users an optimized experienced. While Infinity Ward has been better at reaching out to the PC fanbase, there's an inherent distrust that dates back to the early Modern Warfare games and that's not a reputation that's easily shed.

What's interesting about Activision's three-developer approach to Call of Duty is that there's a healthy sense of competition among the three of them. Sledgehammer wanted to pay homage to Treyarch's "Pick 10" system for multiplayer and use it to bolster its own efforts, feeling that it could improve the overall formula. Treyarch, in turn, focused on faster movement and a tighter focus on its own multiplayer features. In visiting with both studios in the past, they've taken good-natured jabs at one another, each committed to making their work the superior Call of Duty. But that competition was born out of the same goal: To take what Infinity Ward built and make it greater.

Next year is Infinity Ward's turn at Call of Duty and it'll take a much stronger effort than Ghosts to stand out from what Sledgehammer and Treyarch have created. Perhaps it can build on that Hunted game mode from Ghosts that felt so refreshing and different, adding some other new multiplayer modes that can engage players in new ways. Maybe it can build on the space sequences that were rough, but perhaps have seen improvements in the past three years. Regardless of what happens, it'll be fun to turn the calendar to 2016 and see if IW still has that genre-defining magic that made 2007 such a memorable year.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

From The Chatty
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      November 17, 2015 12:24 PM

      I dunno... There is nothing left of the original Infinity Ward. The lead dev's and all of their best people left when Activision... Activisioned them. Its basically a different company now.

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      November 17, 2015 4:59 PM

      Everybody says ghost is the worst, but I played ghost and its just like every other COD i have played.
      last one i played was advanced warfare and it didn't impress me. Sure I could double jump now, but
      I could do that in FPS 10 years ago. So I still don't get the hate for Ghost.

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        November 17, 2015 5:05 PM

        Ghost is easily the worst in a long time.

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          November 17, 2015 5:50 PM

          but it plays like very cod game, I mean is it the single player that is worst?
          cuz the mp plays exactly like the rest.

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            November 17, 2015 10:26 PM

            Ghosts had tons of technical problems on PC, that's why I hated it. The CoD games before it always ran very smoothly, but Ghosts already started being choppy in the menus, and when a level finally got loaded, it lagged like hell for the first 30 seconds because assets were still being loaded or something in the background.

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              November 18, 2015 5:23 AM

              How is this an argument against it's gameplay?

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            November 18, 2015 3:47 AM

            No way. The TTK was dreadfully short. It was to the point even on consoles where you could stand at a corner and pick people off and never move the entire game because it was literally impossible due to frame lag and general latency to get the drop on a guy who was camping.

            The scorestreaks were some of the worst in any CoD. Most were horribly boring and at best ineffective. Coming from Black Ops 2, it almost felt like we only got mid tier score streaks through the whole game. Good thing though, they had Support streaks which let you keep points after death. I liked that as I usually only run with UAV, care package, and one other anyway. Oh, and the UAV in Ghosts was garbage.

            There were SO. MANY. PERKS. I'm not sure if that was a good or bad thing but there were seriously like 60 perks or something. I get what they were trying to do but it made building a new class a real chore.

            Guns were boring. There were exactly two worth ever having. Pistols were a joke, launchers were almost never needed.

            Maps were just bad. Bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad. They were bad. Except one, the giant outdoor one at the castle. That was an abomination of terrible. Should giant, open maps be in CoD as it is? Short answer: No. Long answer: Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

            Extinction was fun though. We definitely played that the most once we learned how bad MP was. The different mutations you could add to games to make t more difficult were well done, and the monsters felt balanced pretty well.

            Campaign was a fun ride but God the story was awful, and the ending was just LOL. I really hope Ghosts 2 isn't happening. Let it die and move on.

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              November 18, 2015 5:27 AM

              I thought the Maniac killstreak was pretty pimping.

              It was the ultimate arrogance: I put on superarmour and run around with just a knife. Also health doesn't regen. How long can you survive?

              It really made the heart pump when you got it on.

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          November 17, 2015 7:09 PM

          It also suffered from being on next gen consoles but still being very last gen. Their attempt to add "levolution" type elements failed pretty bad, too.

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      November 18, 2015 2:57 AM

      "Company should try to improve on a largely disliked product."

      brilliant analysis

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      November 18, 2015 5:22 AM

      These comments are about MP. I don't play Campaign CoD.

      People hate on Ghosts. I don't really get it, it was more of the MW formula which I felt was pretty good. AW threw so much out the door inserting the evo stuff and screwed the formula up.

      It feels like BO3 is trying to wind back the AW overdone jumping playstyles. I'm starting to enjoy BO3 now, I really couldn't get into AW. AW was total unfun, triple underlined.

      I still long for a new MW or BO1 or BO2 game. Reviewers are all pushing for "what is the fresh thing that it brings?" What about "It's MW, bitches. It's already fun, no need to put more shit into it."

      Get back to yo roots, IW

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        November 21, 2015 4:16 AM

        Back to roots. Let's go ww2.

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