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Are Critics to blame for the Call of Duty Production Line?

November 5, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Tom Dann

There’s a funny phenomenon occurring in the games industry: it seems that game critics are forgetting the value of innovation. I am, of course, referring to the juggernaut that is the Call of Duty series, and its annual entries that provide little more than surface changes to a formula, yet break sales records. It’s no surprise that Modern Warfare 2 became the biggest selling game of all time: Modern Warfare was a shallow yet very fun game, and the online multiplayer is some of the best there is. All the pre-release hype showed Modern Warfare 2 to be the greatest thing since sliced bread. The problem here is that games journalists and critics, the ones who should challenge the lack of innovation and demand better, instead propagate the hype with endless wordage about all the important new features. Not only that, but post-release, Modern Warfare 2 holds one of the highest metacritic ratings of all games, a staggering 94. This is higher than many great games such as Mass Effect, Fallout 3 and Unreal Tournament.

The art of rinsing a successful franchise is not new. Look at the film industry, especially the horror genre. Most people have lost count of how many Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street movies there are. The best comparison point is the recently ended (supposedly) Saw franchise, a film series with annual instalments. The Saw movies, like the Call of Duty games, are diverting and fun, but ultimately shallow and meaningless. The difference between the two is that film critics are well aware of the Saw movies shortcomings. Most critics dismiss them as trash, some don’t review them at all. A few recognise them for what they are – cheap entertainment. Hopefully audiences enjoy them with a pinch of salt: they understand that these films are exploitative and far too extreme in their moralism. The alternative, that audiences truly empathise with these morals and take the films deadly seriously is too troubling to consider. Back on topic, the films are incredibly cheap to make (compared to most) and as such return an incredible amount of money.

Conversely, Call of Duty games represent a staggeringly high investment. The amount poured into advertising alone is probably more than I’ll make in my lifetime. And yet, the final result is the same: stylish, polished, and somehow vacuous. And the biggest difference: game critics love it. As mentioned, Modern Warfare 2 is one of the highest rated games ever, despite being essentially the same game as Modern Warfare, which is two years old. Like each consecutive Saw film, only incidental details change. Multiplayer perks, a few new weapons, perhaps. Sure, there’s a whole new storyline, but despite the high scores, practically all critics noted how bad the campaign was.

In an even stranger twist, Modern Warfare 2 currently holds a user rating of only 6 on metacritic. Which must mean thus: audiences were drawn into the Modern Warfare 2 hype by games journalists, only to be let down by the finished product. The typical cliché is that a piece of media, be it film, TV or game, designed for mass consumption, will be received badly by critics but still sell well and be popular among “the masses” (I deride this term and its elitist connotations, but it’ll do here). For example, the Twilight films, TransFormers 2, Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, etc. all scored poorly with critics, but are all amongst the top grossing films of all time. It’s incredibly unusual, then, for Modern Warfare 2, a game clearly designed for mass consumption, to be popular with critics but less with audiences.

Generally, game critics are right on the money. Just scrolling through metacritic’s all time highest scores, average critic scores match up surprisingly well with average user scores. So why not with Modern Warfare 2? One could argue that the critic’s score is set with the release, whereas many user scores will come later. In this case, many user scores will take into consideration the number of bugs and imbalances that presented themselves after post-release patches. I’d like to think this is the case, because the alternative is that either game critics greatly favour a polished turd over a rough gem, or they’re just trying to stay on Activision’s good side.

The seventh entry in the Call of Duty series, Black Ops, is nearly on our doorsteps. It has the potential to be even bigger than Modern Warfare 2. Everything that I’ve seen so far, however, is focused on new guns and new multiplayer perks. And you can fly helicopters. Is that really worth the cost of a new game? Not forgetting Activision sells Call of Duty games at a slight premium. The helicopter sequences look fun, however, but they remind me of the famous helicopter assault in Apocalypse, Now. That scene, read carefully and in context with other aspects of the film, shows just how much people really, really love war. They love the excitement, and they love the machinery of war. I guess that’s why Call of Duty sells so well.

Copyright Tom Dann 2010

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