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Call of Duty: Black Ops is coming soon, and most everyone will buy it, complaining bitterly or otherwise. That’s just the kind of status that the Call of Duty series has reached. This wasn’t the case in the beginning, though. Call of Duty used to be the up and coming World War II shooter, competing against the then popular Medal of Honor. Infinity Ward, the creators of Call of Duty, had been newly developed from departing members of the Medal of Honor development team, and everyone thought that Medal of Honor would remain on top. This radical change from new kid on the block to multi-billion dollar franchise is remarkable, and something well worth looking at.
The first Call of Duty was produced by Infinity Ward and published by Activision. The main focus of the first Call of Duty was a sense of authenticity in a World War II environment, and a great amount of polish. There were no new gameplay mechanics or innovations to speak of, but the graphics, audio, level design, and intensity of singleplayer gameplay made the game hold up by 2003’s standards. It was made on the Quake 3: Team Arena game engine, and the story followed two perspectives; the British troops invading, and the Soviet troops defending their territory. Health was static, and could only be regenerated by health kits. Players could take control of turrets and stationary weapons from time to time, but most of the time they were on the ground in infantry combat. The multiplayer was not as significant as it was in the later games in the series, but it did have a key feature that would become a staple in the franchise; the killcam. After a player was killed, the last five seconds of their opponent’s gameplay was shown, allowing for campers to be repelled, and players to see where they were killed from. Call of Duty met critical acclaim, and won “Game of the Year” awards from several reviewers for 2003.
Call of Duty 2 was released 2 years later, in 2005, with the PC version being released in October, and the Xbox 360 version in November. It was again developed by Infinity Ward. There were three perspectives this time around, one being the British, one the Americans, and another being the Russians. The American campaign featured D-Day, a first for the series. The health system was changed from a static system to a regenerative system, allowing for more flexible tactics in battle. Call of Duty 2 was still a very linear game that was heavily scripted, Halo‘s open ended combat had no effect on Infinity Ward’s design. The multiplayer became more of a focus in this iteration, with mods, map packs, and brand new game modes. The PC version had a 64 player limit, whereas the Xbox had an 8 player count. Call of Duty 2 was generally well received, with the Xbox 360 version scoring higher than the PC version, mostly due to the previously released United Offensive expansion pack to Call of Duty for the PC.
That’s when Treyarch entered the scene, first with a console only expansion pack to Call of Duty 2. It was called Call of Duty 2: Big Red One, and it had new core gameplay, as well as two new perspectives. These perspectives focused on the the First Infantry Division, hence the title Big Red One. The multiplayer had drivable tanks, experience points, and classes for players to choose. Big Red One received mixed reviews, a telling sign of the titles to come from Treyarch.
Treyarch then designed Call of Duty 3 in 2006 for the Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PS2, and Xbox. It was the only Call of Duty game not to be released for the PC, and it was the first Call of Duty game to be a continued storyline, with no control over the order in which you played the country’s campaigns. Call of Duty 3 featured the Americans, the British, the Polish, the Canadians, and the French as playable nations in the the singleplayer, and there were 14 missions in total. Tanks were drivable, and there were gimmicky melee sections never repeated in later games in the series. Multiplayer allowed up to 24 players on Xbox 360 and PS3, 16 on PS2 and Xbox, and no multiplayer on the Wii. All the multiplayer modes had the Axis fighting the Allies, with all the staple game modes that Call of Duty players expected.Call of Duty 3 received less praise than other entries in the series, but it did receive better scores than Big Red One, so it was an overall improvement for Treyarch.
World War II was starting to look old, so Infinity Ward released Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in November of 2007 on the PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. It was a major departure for the series, with the setting being in present day. The singleplayer followed both the British SAS and the US Rangers as they combated Russian ultranationalists and a nuclear threat in the Middle East. The Middle Eastern nation was fictionalized, of course. The singleplayer was shorter than the campagins before it, but it didn’t lose any of it’s punch. In fact, it got even more impact with scenes like an execution from the first person perspective of the victim, and the player being caught in a nuclear explosion. Call of Duty 4‘s singleplayer was also the start of a continuous storyline between games in the series, a first for Call of Duty. The multiplayer had a new system, with custom classes including player modifying “perks”. Perks altered the player’s base stats and abilities, and while it wasn’t entirely realistic, it gave more control to the player, and reinvigorated the multiplayer. There were also killstreaks, and “hardcore”/”oldschool” versions of game modes. Call of Duty 4 received enormous critical appraise, with positive response to the darker singleplayer and innovative multiplayer. Call of Duty 4 is considered to be the best in the series to date by most fans, and with good reason. Treyarch had a tough act to follow, but they tried.
Call of Duty: World at War, released in 2008, was developed by Treyarch, and set in World War II, much to the fans’ dismay. After getting a taste of modern combat, they wanted more. The game was made on the Call of Duty 4 engine, to allow for more cinematic moments in the singleplayer, and an easy conversion of Modern Warfare‘s multiplayer to World at War. The singleplayer was played from the perspectives of the Russians pushing back to Berlin, and the Americans on the Pacific front invading Japan. These were battles not covered often in other World War II shooters, and World at War was a better shooter for it. The multiplayer was a carbon copy of Modern Warfare‘s multiplayer, but with World War II weapons and killstreaks. Call of Duty: World at War was well received, but everyone was feeling World War II fatigue, resulting in lower scores. World at War also reinforced the belief by some that Treyarch had no originality up their sleeve, and many were pining for the next modern Call of Duty.
Modern Warfare 2, developed by Infinity Ward, was released in November of 2009. It continued the storyline of Modern Warfare, with returning characters, a continued emphasis on intense scripted scenes, and shocking moments, like being burned alive after being shot, or the electronic shutdown of Washington DC. It’s emphasis actually hurt the singleplayer, as the story connecting all of these events together was cliched and convoluted. The multiplayer improved on Call of Duty 4, with custom killstreaks, Pro versions of Perks, emblems and callsigns, and a new co-operative game mode called Spec Ops. All of these improvements gave Modern Warfare 2 high review scores, though many agreed that the story was problematic. The sale numbers for Modern Warfare 2 were incredible, setting a new record in the entertainment industry. This led to some less than savory relations between Activision and Infinity Ward, resulting in the Infinity Ward exodus.
Now Treyarch is doing a modern shooter with Black Ops, and the multiplayer changes and apparent focus on singleplayer look to be a good fit for the game. Whether Black Ops is a good game or not is still up for question, but it’s hopefully another great entry in the franchise. Be sure to look for our review later this week.