How the Latest 'Call of Duty' is Competing With Itself

How the Latest 'Call of Duty' is Competing With Itself

In this year's 'Call of Duty' release, the bonus content might have ended up stealing the show. Glixel

A remastered classic upstaged the main event during this year's 'Infinite Warfare' launch

A remastered classic upstaged the main event during this year's 'Infinite Warfare' launch

It feels a little odd that Call of Duty has been around long enough to earn its own "Legacy Edition," but those who plunked down the $80 entry free earlier in November were welcomed with a copy of the brand new Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare bundled with Modern Warfare Remastered – an updated, beautified version of 2007's legendary Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Usually a "legacy edition" would imply a return to the roots of a franchise, but the earliest Call of Duty games are effectively scrubbed from history. For all intents and purposes, the industry's biggest franchise begins with British special forces officer "Soap" MacTavish on that sinking battleship somewhere near the Bering Strait.

On the Grim Fandango-to-God of War III scale of rerelease justification, Modern Warfare Remastered sits right in the middle. It's one of the greatest games of all time, but it's still a year away from being a decade old. Though Infinity Ward could've easily waited a year to reintroduce the game on a proper round number (like Microsoft did with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary in 2011), it makes total sense that it didn't. Modern Warfare Remastered not only helped sell copies of Infinite Warfare, but it also serves as a kind of mea culpa for the fans that don't quite love the direction the franchise has taken.

For years, first-person shooters all basically worked the same way. You queued into a match, blew up your friends, and forgot about the results as soon as it was over. Infinity Ward was the first developer to reenvision competitive multiplayer as a persistent, ongoing campaign. The basic language – kill-streaks, experience points, progressive gun and accessory unlocks – were all introduced in Modern Warfare. You've undoubtedly seen those features recast in Halo, Battlefield, and adjacent sports franchises like Madden and NBA 2K. It's hard to think of any game, regardless of genre or medium, with a longer shadow.

Call of Duty is still pretty healthy. The series can claim a number of successes since Modern Warfare Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops 2, Advanced Warfare – but it's safe to say that public opinion hasn't been kind to the franchise this year. Earlier in November, Infinity Ward released Infinite Warfare, the ninth Call of Duty game since Modern Warfare, which takes the formula to outer-space with wall-runs, double-jumps, and robots with built-in automatic machine guns. You may be reminded of Titanfall, another shooter that toyed with acrobatic player movement, and one that was created by much of CoD's original development team. It's clearer than ever in 2016 that Call of Duty is now following and not leading.

'Modern Warfare Remastered's subreddit packs the usual salvo of highlights and posse searches, but there's an undercurrent of genuine, sectarian anger. 

The pre-release cycle hyping Infinite Warfare was famously caustic. The game's launch trailer currently has the second most dislikes ever recorded on a YouTube video (right before Justin Bieber's "Baby.") Those social statistics rarely hold weight, but launch week sales did dip nearly 50 percent from last year's Black Ops III. Call of Duty always seemed like a truly invulnerable industry titan, but there does seem to be some real anger with its recent direction.

At least the unsatisfied still have the remaster. A splinter group of Call of Duty fans have rejected Infinite Warfare and have built their own separatist community. Modern Warfare Remastered's subreddit packs the usual salvo of highlights and posse searches, but there's an undercurrent of genuine, sectarian anger. One of the most upvoted posts is a video of a user proudly tossing Infinite Warfare disc in the trash after retrieving his Modern Warfare code. These people feel betrayed, and they're not quiet about it.

"I am hardly a Modern Warfare veteran. The remaster isn't perfect, but it's close enough to the original," says a 21-year old named Marten who regulars the subreddit. "The first few games on the remaster, I got destroyed because I was in the habit of sprinting around the map expecting to win most engagements, as has been my experience in recent games. Call of Duty 4 requires a slower, more tactical playstyle, predicting enemies' positions, and using cover to your advantage. It's much more rewarding to master a game by learning the ins and outs of the way each map plays then just by learning to aim well."

Marten, like many players, has grown fatigued of Infinity Ward's insistence on making Call of Duty resemble chaotic arena shooters like Quake and Unreal Tournament. This franchise used to be a boots-on-the-ground experience sharing a lineage with the more realistic Day of Defeat and Band of Brothers franchises. Now you fly around the map like superheroes. As Justin Groot noted in his review for Glixel, Infinite Warfare is a garish slaughterhouse that has more in common with a slot-machine pull than the muddy, fraught tension that made its multiplayer so invigorating back in 2007. That's not to say the game isn't fun, but it just doesn't scratch the same itch.

"Jet packs in Call of Duty were a misguided idea," says Marten. "Developers like to think that advanced movement exists mainly to have more interesting maps and routes, but it consistently devolves into players double jumping during every other gunfight. Call of Duty, like Counter-Strike, has traditionally been more about positioning and map control than gun skill. Especially in Advanced Warfare, if you learned to aim while jumping you were practically invincible, so you didn't have to put much thought into positioning and controlling the map. You could just run around challenging every engagement."

You can find some minor bellyaching about Infinite Warfare’s lack of a theater mode, or the leaderboards that were missing at launch, but generally the antipathy towards Infinite Warfare centers around the Z-axis. In Call of Duty 4, you're not constantly looking up and fearing split-second assaults from cybernetic robot ninjas. Kills are rarer, which makes the average team deathmatch slog more anxious, and that makes Modern Warfare fans feel superior.

It's easy to see the remaster as a pilgrimage for players who associate the game with a moment in their lives where they had the time and youth to be truly dazzled and engrossed.

“Everyone who ran around with swords and bats [popular melee weapons in the latter-day Call of Duty games] are like ‘this game sucks the M16 is OP and I can't run up on anyone,’” writes a user named hwy3y in one of the most popular posts on the subreddit. “Yep it's like oh no you actually have to use strategy and sneak tactics to get a kill you can't just run around knifing people.”

Still, it's important to be clear-eyed.

"I have fond memories of Call of Duty 4, but a ton of people look at it with nostalgia-goggles," says James "Clayster" Eubanks, a longtime Call of Duty pro who won the world championship back in 2015. "Nobody remembers the Brett Favre-esque distance you could put on grenades or [the overpowered health-boosting perk] 'Juggernaut.' There's a ton of things wrong with Call of Duty 4 and Modern Warfare Remastered in general, but people tend to only remember the good parts."

It's easy to see the remaster as a pilgrimage for players who associate the game with a moment in their lives where they had the time and youth to be truly dazzled and engrossed. But spend time enough time playing and you notice plenty of annoyances that justify Infinity Ward's recent innovations. Camping was so easy in Call of Duty 4, and getting iced from the corner of a room with absolutely no real ability to react isn't great gameplay. Infinity Ward solved that problem by giving everyone extra mobility, which sped up the action.

"I'm a really twitchy player, what that means is I rely on 'snap-shots' more than looking down the sights holding my L-trigger. I've had my issues with it, but for the most, part I enjoy the faster pace of the 'advanced movement' games," says Clayster.

Clayster tells me he still has a lot of love for the slower Call of Duty approach, and wouldn't be personally opposed to a return to that. It's a vicious cycle, and in some ways Infinity Ward did the most logical thing possible by releasing both Infinite Warfare and the remaster in the same package. They're two different experiences for two different groups of players. But it doesn't have to be that way. Advanced Warfare, Black Ops III, and Infinite Warfare all feel similar. In the past, the franchise would jump through eras and styles every year. There's clearly a sense of fatigue with the entries made in the mold of Infinite Warfare that perhaps has more to do with Activision putting a strict definition on what a Call of Duty game can be. This is a series that has passed through so many different developers during its run that it shouldn't ever feel predictable.

"I honestly think they should have each developer have a different era – have Sledgehammer make 'advanced movement' games, have Infinity Ward make your modern-classic era games, and have Treyarch maybe go back to the World War II days or something," says Clayster. "I think variety is good and having the same 'type' of game every year just isn't fun anymore. Black Ops, Modern Warfare, and World at War were all vastly different than each other, I think we need to bring that back!"