It's becoming increasingly clear that Activision may be shipping Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 this year without a full single-player campaign. This would be ending one of the series' core features since the first Call of Duty launched back in 2003. It would be an interesting move on the publisher's part, given the competition in front of the game.
Reports from two different sites yesterday stated that Black Ops 4 is not going to have a single-player campaign because it couldn't be completed in time. Raven Software is working on a Battle Royale mode for the title, with a focus on expanding the game's multiplayer and Zombies mode. This was confirmed later in the evening by Kotaku and Eurogamer this morning, each with their own sources.
I understand the business logic: the single-player campaign is played once and then forgotten for long-term multiplayer action. Zombies has gotten bigger and bigger every year, with something resembling its own narrative campaign. If Raven Software can deliver, Call of Duty would have the first Battle Royale game coming from a AAA publisher. That's a big moment for the genre and the industry. I still think it's a mistake.
Context is Key For Call of Duty
Every year, Call of Duty heads to a brand-new era. A fresh coat of paint with new maps, new weapons, and a different aesthetic. The series was originally rooted in World War 2, but since then it's headed to the Vietnam War, anchored itself in the Cold War, moved to present day conflict, and then gone to the future. Every year is the same core with some gameplay changes and a new look that Activision sells as a new game.
Single-player campaigns provided context to the changes in Call of Duty over the last decade. They're tiny playable action movies that say to the player, "This is why the rest of the game looks and feels like it does." The multiplayer in the original Call of Duty: Black Ops used weapons from the 1960s because the campaign was rooted firmly in the Cold War. Modern Warfare's story introduced players to the fan-favorite Sergeant "Soap" MacTavish, with the worldwide adventure giving players a feel for the urban combat.
Campaigns also provided water cooler moments and cultural touchstones for players to talk about. Modern Warfare featured a nuclear explosion experienced by the player close up, in a surprising opening volley from Infinity Ward. It also offered the mission All Ghillied Up, with players sneaking around Pripyat to assassinate their target. Modern Warfare 2 was the talk of the community for the the No Russian mission. The original Black Ops turned its entire single-player story on its head with the reveal of protagonist Alex Mason's mind-bending true situation. Even Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, which didn't really set fire to the community, offered a great campaign with highlights like the Offensive on OIympus Mons.
A Call of Duty campaign is the training wheels. It's meant to get you excited for the multiplayer side of the endeavor. It places the entire game in the proper context. Otherwise, Activision is just charging players $60 for a new aesthetic and new weapons each year. Which is frankly true, but the campaign makes that slightly easier to swallow.
That's before you get to folks who actually prefer the single-player to multiplayer. I mentioned that the campaigns are tiny playable action movies and that's what some players really enjoy. It's one thing to watch a film like Black Hawk Down or Saving Private Ryan. It's another thing for a game like Call of Duty to make you feel like you're those soldiers. I honestly think part of the reason Modern Warfare did as well as it did is because there were a great deal of soft military buffs who just wanted the feel of being a modern soldier without all the potential death. Multiplayer doesn't provide that experience, single-player does.
Call of Duty needs that context. It needs a reason for the game to be set in the modern era or the Cold War, or whenever Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 takes place, instead of back in World War II again.
The Competition is Doing The Same
Battlefield 1 was close behind Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare when it came to sales and was the more critically-acclaimed of the two major shooters in 2016. Call of Duty has always competed with EA's offerings and usually won the fight, but a Call of Duty without a single-player campaign vs. Battlefield 2018 could have a different outcome. Rumors point to Battlefield 2018 sharing a multi-character campaign concept with Battlefield 1, showing player various sides and situations in its conflict. More importantly, some rumors also mention Battlefield 2018 potentially having its own Battle Royale-themed mode, especially after comments by EA CEO Andrew Wilson.
"What the team with PUBG have done is really delivered a new level of innovation that changed the way people were playing first-person shooter games. It's clearly a mode of play that the global FPS population is interested in," Wilson told investors and analysts in an earnings call this February.
"And given that we have some of the best shooters in the marketplace, you might expect that we're also thinking about new and innovative ways to play," he added. "And that doesn't mean just kind of [making] PUBG replicas inside the Battlefield universe, but it does mean that our Battlefield teams--and I talked a little about this in the prepared remarks--are looking at how they innovate in every aspect of the game, including core gameplay and map design."
A full featured Battlefield with a single-player campaign, extensive multiplayer, and a Battle Royale mode would look a bit more enticing than a multiplayer-centric Call of Duty. Just looking down the potential bullet points, one feels like a full-featured product, while the other looks like its cutting corners. Perhaps Activision could really blow out the multiplayer to make up for it, but Call of Duty: WW2 felt a bit lean at launch.
The Competition is Already Here
More importantly, if you're adding Battle Royale to your game, you're competing with PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG) and Fortnite Battle Royale. Battle Royale adding value to your big AAA shooter is logical, but going toe-to-toe is courting trouble.
For one, Fortnite Battle Royale wins over anything else on the market because it's completely free. You can't beat free and there's nothing else that has a lower barrier to entry. Even PUBG is only $29.99, instead of the full $59.99 Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 will likely retail for. Both games have millions of players already enjoying their experiences and sizable younger playerbases because of the recently-released mobile editions.
A bigger problem is continuity. If I'm paying Fortnite Battle Royale or PUBG, I know that in two to three years, every skin I earn or purchase will still work in the current game I'm playing. Both games are service titles, meaning Epic Games and PUBG Corp will keep adding new features, weapons, costumes, and maps on top of the existing game. I might purchase new microtransaction here and there, but the game remains the same.
Activision can't say the same for Call of Duty. Maybe this year is the turning point and owners of Call of Duty: WW2 will be playing in the same multiplayer lobbies as owners of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, but I doubt it. When Call of Duty 2019 releases, nothing I've gained in WW2 or Black Ops 4 will matter. There's no continuity across multiplayer and you have to start over each year.
Where's the incentive to choose of Black Ops 4 Battle Royale over Fortnite Battle Royale, outside of the fact that I might be one of those players that buys Call of Duty each year sight unseen? At least with Fortnite Battle Royale, I could still be jamming with my John Wick skin in 2020. Call of Duty offers nothing in that regard, other than another $60 entry fee and wonderful chance to start from square one again.
Multiplayer, zombies, and Battle Royale is not going to be enough. Without single-player, I think Call of Duty might lose ground to Battlefield, while also not offering much for current Battle Royale fans. It feels like a lose-lose situation.
I don't think Call of Duty will die with Black Ops 4 or any similar doomsaying. I'm sure the series can probably weather a misstep like this for a year or two, but it's ceding territory where it doesn't need to. That's more of a problem for Activision and its studio than anyone else. Call of Duty's single-player campaigns serve a purpose. They provide context and meaning. They're a strong tradition in the series. And if you don't care about tradition, why should players care about you?