Starting Screen: Call of Duty: WW2 Needs More Than a New Setting to Refresh the Series

Strong sales belie the franchise's creative rot.

Starting Screen is the USgamer staff's weekly column. Check back every Monday as we share our thoughts on the news as well as our favorite obscure RPGs, game music, and racing games.

If there was ever going to be a time when Call of Duty finally tailed off, last year was it.

In 2016, reports that the series would go sci-fi were met with derision, especially with Battlefield going the opposite direction and taking on World War I. Initial reports showed sales for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare being down 50 percent year-over-year.

And yet, when the ten bestselling games in the US were revealed in January, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare was right there at the top. And just for good measure, 2015's Call of Duty: Black Ops III was in the top ten as well. As usual, nothing can stop the Call of Duty train.

Nevertheless, there are signs that not all is well in CoD Land. A decent portion of Infinite Warfare's sales could be attributed to it being bundled together with the remastered version of Modern Warfare, which is now considered a beloved classic among CoD fans. When it came time to discuss the best shooters of the year, Overwatch and Battlefield 1 received the bulk of the attention, while Infinite Warfare fell by the wayside.

A sense of rot has pervaded the series for some time now—a feeling that Call of Duty's best days are behind it. Long gone are the days when the series was scoring better than 90 on Metacritic and garnering Game of the Year awards. In recent years, Call of Duty has felt increasingly perfunctory, its campaigns better-known for memes and celebrity appearances than for any actual merit. Levels like No Russian, whatever its actual storytelling merits, represented the series at its most daring and experimental. It's been a long time since we've seen anything even remotely like it in Call of Duty.

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare sold well, but...

Call of Duty: WW2 is unlikely to change that, but it is a tacit admission by Activision that modern and near-future warfare has run its course, as well as a concession to fans nostalgic for the franchise's historical roots. It's funny to realize that there's a whole generation of fans who fondly remember Call of Duty: World at War, which was sneered at by critics in the months leading up to its release in 2008. World War II used to be the most cliché subject possible for a shooter. Now it almost feels fresh.

But a return to World War II isn't exactly a cure-all for Call of Duty. For one thing, Battlefield 1 kind of has the historical shooter genre on lock right now, having won praise for its creative single-player campaign and excellent gameplay modes. For another, World War II has already been mined pretty heavily for material. Call of Duty itself has already depicted most of the best-known fronts from the war, including Stalingrad, Africa, Normandy, and the Pacific. If Sledgehammer decides to go full Saving Private Ryan and open with D-Day, it risks looking dated. Maybe they can take a page from Battlefield 1 and show some of the less famous fronts, like Greece, but that doesn't really seem to be Call of Duty's MO.

Here we go again.

At a guess, Sledgehammer will lean heavily on nostalgia for World War and Call of Duty 2 while delivering all of the usual flourishes, which will sell plenty of copies. For now, Activision can rest easy knowing that Call of Duty has no real competition. Battlefield 1 and Overwatch both have their own identities, and Halo is... well... Halo. It closest competitor is Titanfall, which has mostly suffered in obscurity since its big push at the beginning of the console generation. Call of Duty, for its part, is a known quantity with its own distinct flavor of multiplayer action, which has helped it retain a vast following that returns to the series year after year.

So long as it retains that basic level of competency, Call of Duty is in little danger of falling from its perch at the top of the bestsellers list. Nevertheless, the fan discontent is real, and one need only look toward Medal of Honor, Call of Duty's predecessor, to see what it looks like when the bottom falls out from under a shooter. In that light, Sledgehammer would be well-advised to use Call of Duty: WW2 as more than an opportunity to hearken back to the franchise's golden era.

Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale.

Kat's Obscure RPG of the Week

This week's obscure RPG is Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale, a charming little Japanese indie that puts you in charge of a RPG item shop. It's part-sendup, part-affectionate ode to the item shops that have dominated RPGs ranging from Dragon Quest to Persona 5, bringing with it a little bit of a Rune Factory vibe.

In Recettear, your goal is to, you guessed it, sell as much stuff as possible. You'll need to customize your shop in such a way that it appeals to customers, as well as bring in stock that they find appealing. The items are found by diving into the randomized dungeons with the help of the Adventurer's Guild, with better loot fetching higher prices.

Both the dialogue and the art lean heavily on anime tropes, so it really appeals to particular tastes, but there's no denying the charm of running an item shop. A nice little find on Steam.

Nadia's Note Block Beat Box: Bram Stoker's Dracula Title Music (SNES)

"Well, this is out of left field." You bet! Though my tastes suggest otherwise, my repertoire of cool game music goes beyond Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Undertale.

I'm not highlighting the title screen for Bram Stoker's Dracula to feed my hipster cred, though. It's a surprisingly moody opener for what's admittedly an average licensed game. I don't even know why I played Dracula; I've never been a huge fan of the movie (Lord only knows why the '90s kept shoving Keanu Reeves into dramatic roles; I suspect a demon pact was involved somehow, somewhere), and by 1993 I was savvy enough to know licensed games usually mean trouble. It's likely one of my brothers rented it for the weekend—we had to take turns with our game rentals—and I plugged away at it because I'd folded all my other SNES games inside-out by that point.

Bram Stoker's Dracula certainly isn't the worst licensed game the SNES has to offer. At least that title screen dirge gets you in the mood to start playing. The Genesis version of the same tune is ... uh, it's interesting. Where's my "YOU TRIED" star graphic...?

Editor's pick

Old Game Magazines' "Letters to the Editor" Give Us a Glimpse Back at Ancient Gaming Discourse

Editor's pick

The SNES Classic Won't Get Nearly as Much Hype as the NES Classic

Mike's Media Minute

Marvel Comics continues to erode the goodwill it has. One creator hid anti-semitic commentary in the art for X-Men: Gold #1, kneecapping that book's relaunch, despite the book's Jewish writer and lead character. Then there's the ongoing controversy over a current Captain America storyline, where Steve Rogers has been altered in a Hydra secret agent via the Cosmic Cube. That storyline came to a head in Secret Empire #0.

Some have taken offense to the storyline, which is completely understandable. Captain America was created by two Jewish creators specifically to punch Nazis and those folks have noted that Hydra has been a rough approximation of Nazi for most of its career. Writer Nick Spencer contends that Hydra aren't Nazis, a statement which is technically correct and incorrect at the same time.

Spencer is drawing on the SHIELD/Hydra origin created by writer Jonathan Hickman over in the SHIELD mini-series and Secret Warriors. In that, the Brotherhood of the Shield is an ancient organization founded in Ancient Egypt to protect the Earth. A splinter faction called the Brotherhood of the Spear, was co-opted by the Marvel Universe version of Isaac Newton and eventually become Hydra. The organization's original goal was the worship and return of Cthulhu-style elder gods called the Sickly Ones, with the corrupted Newton becoming known as Father. Another classical figure, Nostradamus, joined him as the Catalyst.

Spencer is playing with the Father and the Catalyst in the opening of Secret Empire #0, so it's clear he's working with this interpretation of the organization as the version that the corrupted Steve Rogers is working for. There is however the Nazi side of things, the organization led by Baron Strucker and the Red Skull, who are pretty much Nazis. The latter of whom was also a part of Captain America.

The storyline represents the culmination of Spencer's time on two Captain America books. He's a notably left-leaning writer, but I think this got away from him and Marvel. He pitched this back in 2015, but it comes across as a bad look for Marvel, especially given the current political climate. And the twist in Secret Empire #0 isn't doing them any favors, given that it's something that will inevitably be retconned, probably by the end of the miniseries. The story was always going to end with Steve Rogers as the right and true Captain America, but now Marvel is trapped in months of Secret Empire, a storyline which isn't working out for them.

Planetone for the painfully alone.

Caty's AltGame Corner

Another week, another game jam. This week's is Ludum Dare 38, the 15th anniversary for the seasonal worldwide game jam. With the theme "A Small World," the jam is well underway, wrapping up Monday evening. But some finished projects are already popping up all across the world (er, on itch.io and the Ludum Dare site), showing a world of laughter, tears, hopes, fears, and whatever else that Disneyland ride bemoans.

Planetone, from developer Michael Shillingburg, is a "planetary music sequencer." The player scrolls an Earth-like planet round and round, sprouting plants all around it. With each addition (whether a green sprout or a yellow cacti), a new melody chimes in. The player can also alternate between the sun and the shade, to halt certain plants from growing and throwing a particular tune they're composing out of whack. Despite sprouting from a weekend-bound game jam, Planetone was built with a vast amount of creative tools for players to craft their own sunny songs.

Depth Gun: Journey Through the Intestine, from itch.io creator Leaf Corcoran, is the most chaotic looking entry in the "A Small World"-themed jam. Where most entries err more on the end of peaceful globe-driven play, Depth Gun races the player through a frenetic (and difficult) shooter that zips around a pixelated world. I couldn't get far in it (probably by its intense design), but at least the gif I can oggle looks good.

Developer torcado's Bunosphere works a lot like the Blue Sphere levels in Sonic the Hedgehog. But instead of collecting literal blue spheres while skipping across a giant globe, the player hops around a circular world as a cute little rabbit. The bunny can hop into rabbit holes (Alice in Wonderland-style) and pop up in new areas across the heavily forested map. The short browser-living game is an exercise in exploration, with carrots and more to discover.

Quick Thoughts

  • I put Nadia up to this editorial, which sparked quite a bit of discussion over the weekend; not because I hate the Super NES, but because the 16-bit era was so different from the 8-bit days. Where the NES was a ubiquitous part of the culture, Nintendo spent most of the generation being the overbearing parent while the Genesis embodied early '90s grade school cool. The SNES is better remembered now, but not among the thirty and forty-something parents who flocked to the NES Classic. Regardless, I know I'll be buying one.
  • Following on from Bayonetta, Platinum appears to be teasing a PC release of Vanquish. I only played it briefly when it first came out on Xbox 360, but I appreciated how different it felt from the third-person shooter fare of the time, which was frequently drab and unattractive. Like so many other Platinum games, it sold poorly, so it'll be nice to have it on PC.
  • Legitimate question: Which game is more popular in the Mario Kart community, Mario Kart 7 or Mario Kart 8? There's some disagreement on this among the USgamer staff. I want to hear your thoughts.
  • My hockey team was eliminated from the playoffs over the weekend, so I've shifted to baseball now. I'm so sick of trying to rebuild the Twins that I've decided to just have some fun with the roster, which has left me with this.
  • For just a moment, I thought Axiom Verge was confirmed for Switch. Then it wasn't. Life is cruel sometimes.
  • Remember that Breath of the Wild prototype that Nintendo talked about? It's totally a thing you can play now, and it looks great.
  • Reminder: StarCraft is now free, which means you should play the excellent single-player campaign.
  • I got a chuckle out of this little feature from Nadia, which is a reminder that things really haven't changed much from the days of game magazines.
  • As always, we'd love to hear what you're playing this week. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe? Dawn of War 3? Share in the comments and start the week out right!

Tagged with Activision Blizzard, Feature, FPS, infinite warfare, Nintendo, PlayStation 4, Starting Screen, Switch, USgamer, Xbox One.

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