With a number of sources and reports pointing to Activision dropping a traditional single player campaign from this year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, there’s been an understandably mixed reaction to the news. For some the series has been all about multiplayer for the last decade, for others single player has been their main reason to buy, or a fun romp to get back into the swing of things. Not all COD campaigns are great, and some pundits have quietly expected this move to happen for quite some time, so why now?
Just two years ago in 2016 we were celebrating what was by far the best year for first person shooter campaigns in a long, long time. Doom was slick and fast, Titanfall 2 simply outstanding, Infinite Warfare shook up the Call of Duty campaign structure, and Battlefield 1’s more episodic structure allowed them to experiment with different styles of storytelling in an engaging manner.
Having a single player story is expected of blockbuster shooters, and we don’t have to look too far to find another first person shooter series that has struggled with this exact same problem. Star Wars Battlefront had never really been about single player, outside of being able to string together bot matches into a Galactic Campaign, and yet the 2015 reboot got a lot of flak for not having a story mode. It was expected, it was something people wanted, and EA’s efforts to sate that desire for 2017’s sequel arguably derailed other Star Wars games they had in the works.
However, it’s also fair to say that the shooter market today is quite a bit different compared to just a few years ago. The traditional rivalry between Call of Duty and Battlefield has been put to one side as the major publishers and established series eye up the huge amounts of money being raked in by the Battle Royale boom. That’s its own two horse race, with PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds the military themed diamond in the rough, and the fun and quirky Fortnite overcoming its copycat status to eclipse its inspiration.
It’s easy to label Call of Duty as always being more of the same, but while there’s always a certain familiarity, the trio of lead developers are still more than happy to experiment, grow and evolve their collective game series. Advanced Warfare brought jetpacks and augmented movement, WWII shook up the multiplayer with the new War game mode and a communal area, Treyarch’s Zombies quickly went from a fun little bonus to one of the franchise’s core pillars, and now there’s word of a Battle Royale mode in Black Ops 4. You could say they’re following in the footsteps of others, but it helps to keep the series fresh and always evolving.
As for the reason for dropping single player, we obviously don’t have access to Activision’s internal metrics and data, but we do have trophies and achievements that we can look at, and the results are basically all over the place. This generation saw Ghosts, Advanced Warfare and WWII with 20-25% of players completing the single player on PS4, while the roundly lambasted Infinite Warfare drops to just 16%. Most surprising, to me at least, is that Black Ops 3 has just 10% single player completion.
Personally, I wasn’t all that put off the messiness of Black Ops 3’s story, with its mind control overtones a hallmark of Treyarch’s series, and I actually really enjoyed being able to blaze through it in four player co-op. Seemingly just one in ten actually played it through to completion though, which when we’re talking about millions upon millions of dollars of investment and hundreds of thousands of man hours is a very low return.
While you can’t rule out mismanagement, especially when the reports suggest that quite a bit of work had already been done on a campaign and that it simply wasn’t going to be ready in time, Activision could have been looking for an excuse to drop an expensive part of development. The public reaction to the Black Ops 3 and Infinite Warfare campaigns were such that they might have reconsidered the resources being put into their games.
WWII would already have been deep in development at the end of 2016, but the three year development cycles give Activision and their studios plenty of time to pivot and react. That, it seems, is what’s happening here as they play to expand the more popular sides of the game – 22% of Black Ops 3 Zombies players performed all the rituals in the mode’s launch map – and taking a stab at the Battle Royale genre wouldn’t exactly be that surprising given its current popularity.
Challenging these games on their home turf feels like a risk that Call of Duty isn’t exactly well geared to take on. There will need to be something to make it distinctly COD, especially when they’ve never tried a game mode with more than 20 players, let alone something approaching triple figures and the scale of maps they require. More importantly, there’s the perception that people will have of this that’s not far off a certain Steve Buscemi meme. Battle Royale is popular right now, but for Activision to latch onto this craze while sacrificing single player will feel like they’re selling part of the series’ identity.
Of course, we won’t truly know what Activision have in mind until the game’s public reveal on 17th May, and the answer as always is to vote with your wallets and make yourself heard. As we saw with Infinite Warfare, Titanfall and Battlefront, major developers and publishers are eager to keep their customers happy. With enough public pushback and a hit to their bottom line, it would be no surprise to see Infinity Ward’s effort in 2019 sporting another big, brash and distinctively Call of Duty single player campaign.