Call of Duty Campaigns – How Important Are They?

Great Narratives Are Essential to This Franchise

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For years the main pull factor of a Call of Duty game has been in its multiplayer modes. This could be its fast-paced competitive multiplayer or one of its various co-op modes. Single player Call of Duty campaigns are another series staple . Sometimes these are their own single stories or they can be much larger narratives stretching across multiple titles. Call of Duty stories are never ground breaking but are can be really engaging. This campaign mode is what I’d like to talk about in this article and more specifically the significance this mode plays in this gargantuan franchise since, as of late, the series seems to be forgetting the importance of a campaign.

The Golden Age: 2007-2012

To look at why Call of Duty campaigns are so important to the series we need only look back to the ‘golden age’ of COD. The ‘golden age’ are COD 4: Modern Warfare to Black Ops 2. All of these games had great campaigns, of course some were better than others, but all were really engaging. Now, there are many games here so I’m going to break it down into three separate sections these being:

Modern Warfare

Screentshot from Modern Warfare Remastered

Modern Warfare was a standout series. Its known for its controversial multiplayer, the fun Special Ops mode and great campaigns. The campaigns follow a fairly standard set up throughout each story. This means you could pick up any of the games without really having to know the backstory. However if you know the backstory and you invest in these characters then you are in for a ride. There is an incredible roster of characters. From good guys to bad guys to side characters, everyone has their part to play and they play it incredibly.

The two main protagonists throughout this series are Captain Price and John ‘Soap’ MacTavish. These are the types of characters that should always set the standard for the main characters in a COD campaign. The pair care about each other immensely. You play several missions where they rely upon each-other and by the third game you think the they will never fail. That if they are by each other’s side then both of them will always be okay. Unfortunately this is not the case. Soap dies in the third title. This leads to a massive drawn out sequence where Price is desperately trying to save Soap shouting and screaming at anyone trying to get in his way and stands by his side till his very final breath.

Many COD games after this golden age don’t really make you feel anything for the characters but this hurt when it happened. This is due to the build-up of these characters over three separate titles. No other series in the franchise has done this and it baffles me as to why. Activision must know that their player base will heavily invest themselves in these types of characters. In the first game the characters were introduced as an old threat rose up. The second saw a much larger scale in terms of the story and our characters backstory deepening. Then the third came full circle giving us an epic conclusion to these amazing characters. A kind of conclusion that we haven’t seen since.

Black Ops

Screenshot from Black Ops campaign

Black Ops similarly to the Modern Warfare series has strong characters like Alex Mason and Victor Reznov. However, unlike the Modern Warfare series this isn’t where this game primarily shines. In my opinion the strongest pull factor for these two campaigns are the settings and the almost movie like nature this sub-series brings to the table.

Firstly, the settings for these games are always perfect for the tone it is trying to set. Most of the time this is fairly gritty. This is seen throughout almost all of the first Black Ops. This is most notable in the Vorkuta prison break and Vietnamese prison camp in the first game. The second title is slightly less gritty but most scenes with Menendez replicate the feel of the first game. Having settings like these also work for the vastly more popular multiplayer mode. This is because you play in the same locations as the campaign. It adds an extra layer of depth to the maps as you know the events that took place here.

We can now move onto the movie like nature of these games. MW has a very grounded story. The second and third get bigger and more ridiculous as the series goes on. The first two Black Ops games take a different approach for their campaigns making them almost like a movie. The first title’s story is told from the perspective of Alex Mason and is told from an interrogation room. You relive the story he’s telling and are frequently followed by Victor Reznov. You later find out he’s a figment of your imagination as a result of brainwashing. Then you are released to go and save the world. You are also told multiple times that this is a ‘Black Op’ and that if you die you never will have existed. The game is dramatic and really tries to follow a gritty action movie style which could be seen as almost cliché but it honestly really works here.

World at War

World at War cover art

If you’re going to make a story about war whether it’s past, modern or future warfare it should be dark and gritty because that’s what war is. No COD game has portrayed war for what it is in the way World at War did and it shows. The other games in the series do have violence but they don’t do it like World at War.

In this game you play across two different sides of World War 2. Half as a Russian soldier and half as an American soldier. The game really tests a player’s moral compass giving you optional decisions throughout the game. For example, during the Russian campaign you’re given the choice to execute surrendering Nazi’s. The music also fits the dire situations you find yourself in perfectly. Orchestral soundtracks are used throughout which really add to the atmosphere. Most COD stories seem to forget how powerful a good soundtrack can be to a game like this.

Another reason why this story is the best is because of how graphic it is. If you kill someone with a grenade not only will you see an arm or a leg like you would in other titles but you will see the rest of their body splattered around too. This graphic nature shows us the real consequences of war and how these campaigns shouldn’t shy away from showing it. If you’re going to make a story about war you can make it grand and heroic but don’t turn away from how tragic and brutal it is too. World at War does this. That is why I believe it’s not only the best campaign but should be where every COD looks for inspiration when creating their stories.

Dark Days: 2013-2017

After Black Ops 2 we move into a grey area for COD games. Every game released between 2013 and 2017 got a mixed reception. All campaigns in this time aside from one are new stories. Black Ops 3 is so far gone from previous stories that it’s almost unrecognisable. This was a trial period for many things that never got past the initial game they were in. Usually, this was for a good reason as the community simply didn’t like it. There’s also nothing wrong with new campaigns but if you don’t make as compelling stories or characters as you have before then people will have no reason to play your new games when they could just go back to the older campaigns.

Since all the games here are separate stories I’m going to briefly take a look at each of them.  I will explain what I believe they did right and wrong and how overall they could have done better. This is in comparison to older games as on their own none of these titles are by any means horrific.

Ghosts

Call of Duty: Ghosts promotional art

COD Ghosts is the franchise’s first game to release on the current generation consoles and met with mixed reviews. The campaign looks amazing and gets praise for this however the story is a little mixed in terms of its reception. I kind of sit on the fence for this one as well. The story itself is fairly compelling playing as a group of ‘legendary’ spec ops soldiers called ‘ghosts’. The theme of family is explored throughout as your father leads the team. Your brother is also a part of said team and accompanies you for many missions. You don’t invest yourself in these characters so you never feel that bad whenever they are put in danger. They aren’t as effectively portrayed as say Price and Soap from Modern Warfare.

The ending of this game is what really confused me. You shoot the main antagonist Rourke in the chest and leave him to drown. Then literally 30 seconds later he’s back to drag you away to torture you. These games have never been that realistic but if you shoot someone in the chest they tend to die. Due to this I felt the ending was really cheap and unexplained. At least leave Rourke in a more survivable position instead of being shot in the chest and drowning. Also the fact that this game was left on a big cliff-hanger and was never explored or even mentioned in later titles grinds my gears as you’ll never know the end to this story.

Advanced Warfare

Advanced Warfare cover art

In all honesty this campaign was actually pretty fun. I just think it’s kind of confused with what it’s trying to do. In this game the character you play was in the Marines but loses his arm in a firefight, as well as his friend being killed. You then go to work for said friend’s dad who coincidentally owns one of the biggest and most technologically advanced private armies in the world (ATLAS) and gives you a new, shiny prosthetic arm. Then an anti-technology terrorist group starts attacking different countries all over the world. ATLAS helps because the rest of the world’s militaries aren’t enough for this one terrorist group.

The world’s militaries cripple after multiple more attacks and ATLAS swoops in to save the day. They do this and become the dominant military force for most of the planet…not weird at all. Eventually its discovered that your friends dad, i.e the CEO of ATLAS, actually let these attacks happen so that they could become the dominant military force across the planet and plan to take out the rest of the militaries of smaller countries so they can rule the world… or something? Eventually you kill the CEO and the game ends on a cliff-hanger that just like the last game will never be resolved.

This game just doesn’t make any sense to me from a narrative point of view. No single company, no matter how technologically advanced, in reality would just be able to take over. Therefore, the idea of this campaign to me is just completely unrealistic. I know not all COD games are set in the past but you can usually believe that what you’re playing isn’t too far off from something that could actually happen but this game truly is.

The game also got a celebrity to come in and play the main villain. I can only assume this was to boost series sales. I always get a little worried when something like this happens as it makes me think that the developers don’t trust that their own game is good enough to get great sales so instead shoves a celebrity in your face because this apparently makes the game better.

Black Ops 3

Black Ops 3 campaign art

This is an example of a game that simply gave up on its campaign and left it as an afterthought. This campaign forgets its past with only a couple of throwaway lines linking to previous titles. It also makes absolutely no sense from a standalone narrative. The game has a ton of AI robot enemies and dream sequences. The game also badly explains how the main antagonist ends up being some kind of AI infection and how it then turns out that you actually died in surgery you had at the start of the game but your consciousness survived and moved to someone else’s body. Then the game just abruptly ends. If you managed to read through and understand that mind boggling synopsis then fair play to you. Honestly, this campaigns story is just a confusing mess that no one even cared about, including the developers.

The character you take control of wasn’t even named. Instead Treyarch opted just to call him or her ‘player’. This is another big step in the wrong direction. The developers are taking away any chance of the character(s) you play as being memorable like Yuri, Soap or Mason. God forbid even if you do play this campaign from beginning to end then you won’t have any real memory of it as you won’t even be able to recall who you were playing as let alone the story itself. This game is easily the lowest point for Call of Duty campaigns. Like many others after this I didn’t actually end up buying the next two until way after release.

Infinite Warfare

Infinite Warfare campaign screenshot

In terms of campaigns alone this title was actually the diamond in the rough during this dark period. The campaign was genuinely good and exciting with the game taking us to the new and unfamiliar setting of space. Players worried that this campaign wouldn’t feel like a COD game. Fortunately, this time round Infinity Ward really managed to stick to the original formula whilst expanding into these cosmic locations. The game still suffers from throwing a celebrity in as the main villain. However Kit Harrington’s character was actually somewhat intriguing and definitely more memorable in comparison to Kevin Spacey’s charter in Advanced Warfare. It’s no Makorov or General Shephard but he still works.

Where this game falls is in its marketing and all round failure to listen to fans. After Black Ops 3 fans practically pleaded for a return to the classic boots-on-the-ground combat style. Players looked to Infinity Ward to deliver something similar to Modern Warfare. Infinite Warfare met with drastically negative reception. The campaign trailer became one of the most dislike videos in YouTube history. This impacted sales significantly and even more so when they announced you could only get COD 4 remastered as a special bundle with Infinite Warfare.

Overall, I honestly don’t believe this was a bad game or campaign, but the game simply has always looked bad as a result of poor marketing and sales. This game arguably deserved better but Infinity Ward got greedy at a time when the series really couldn’t afford them to do so.

WW2

WW2 trailer screenshot

Similarly to Infinite Warfare I don’t actually have much of an issue with this games campaign. Unlike Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer actually listened to their community and went back to the old boots-on-the-ground combat. They returned to their World War 2 origins. The campaign also brings back a couple of updated mechanics from the original COD games like needing health packs to regain health. This wasn’t a mechanic that was necessary but was entirely welcome.

The main trouble with this campaign is that it’s a bit bland and for a WW2 shooter doesn’t really show the atrocities of that war in its gameplay. The squad you battle alongside is also completely forgettable. The reason for this is that WW2 games are a really saturated market. If you’ve played a lot of WW2 titles before this is going to be very samey.

The main issue I have with this campaign isn’t the campaign itself. To all intents and purposes it does a fine job with its story, setting and its links to other game modes. However, the problem I have is that there’s a much better WW2 COD game to play with more memorable charters, better stories and in my opinion better gameplay. So, why would I choose to play WW2 when I could play World at War? The answer is I truly wouldn’t. Upon hearing COD was going back to WW2 I was really excited. WW2 could be as good as or even better than World at War but I was left disappointed and still waiting for a campaign that I could really enjoy from this series. Little did I know that for the next game I wouldn’t even have a chance of this.

Nothing: 2018

Black Ops 4: Blackout screenshot

Black Ops 4’s production was a pretty horrific cycle from what I’ve researched. With developers wanting this game to evolve into an ‘entirely social experience’ and scrapping any campaign ideas around half way into development to focus completely on multiplayer modes. In my opinion this is an insanely large step backwards in the Call of Duty formula. Call of Duty is a series that builds of its campaigns. OG titles like COD 4 and World at War build their multiplayer and zombies modes from locations in the campaign. I am completely on the side of evolving a game from a stale or repetitive formula and I do agree at this point in the franchise’s life a change was needed. However, to not include a story or at least some form of narrative single player is wrong and especially for this game.

Black Ops 4’s multiplayer is set between the events of Black Ops 2 and 3. I believe that a campaign in this time zone is perfect as you can properly link Black Ops 2 to 3 making an overarching narrative that takes place across all 4 games. This will show us why the world goes from human soldiers to a lot of robot AI’s by the time Black Ops 3’s story begins and maybe even can rectify some of the mistakes Black Ops 3 made.

I suppose overall what I’m saying here is that there was a lot of missed potential for this game, even more so when you consider they chose not to have a campaign and instead only multiplayer modes and even opted to jump on the battle royale bandwagon. Treyarch really missed the opportunity to bring campaign back to this series and define themselves as the company that could write great Call of Duty titles again. It’s sad to see that the company the made the best Call of Duty campaign has fallen so far to the point where they didn’t even want to include a campaign this time around.

Hope: 2019

Modern Warfare 2019 campaign screenshot

In 2019 a reboot for the Modern Warfare series released. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare brings back fan favourite characters like Captain Price, Gaz and Nikolai as well as teasing characters like Soap and General Shepherd by the end of the game.

The reason I call this section ‘hope’ is because after a very long time we finally have a return to the classic Call of Duty formula. It was still different enough that it was refreshing but felt like those classic games. The main villain is threatening and you really feel for the characters as you play through the game and learn their stories. You also get right back down to the gritty nature of war. There are many examples of this throughout the campaign such as the terrorist attack taking place in central London at the end of which you have to decide to let one innocent man die so that others may live.

This title honestly gets back to what a COD campaign should be and doesn’t sacrifice any other modes in doing so. There is still a fun co-op mode, a competitive multiplayer and even a massive battle royale mode. This game delivered in every possible way and I honestly feel like Infinity Ward have rejuvenated the series with this title and can create even bigger and better stories as this new Modern Warfare reboot goes on over the coming years and into the next generation of consoles.

Above and Beyond: 2020 Onwards

Black Ops cover art

Call of Duty campaigns are back on the up. Black Ops 5 really has the chance to boost this even further as this will be the first Call of Duty game to release on the next generation of consoles. Treyarch have free reign to do whatever they want with this new hardware. I have no reason to believe that the next instalment in the rebooted Modern Warfare series will fail. The sequel for Modern Warfare has been set up beautifully. However, this next Treyarch game has to be just as good to keep the player base interested and for more brilliant narratives to be created.

Campaigns in Call of Duty are important. The campaigns pave the way for the multiplayer experiences that these games are known for are. Overlooking them is a mistake. They are simple but if written correctly can really weave interesting and beautiful narratives that will keep people playing for years to come.


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