Call Of Duty and the dwindling single-player shooter

As it's reported that Call Of Duty: Ghosts' story can be finished in four hours, we wonder why single-player is being ignored in shooters..

Since the very beginning, videogames have been about competition. Whether you were physically playing against an opponent in early games like Pong, or merely beating their highscore in seminal shooters like Space Invaders, the human desire to compete – and win – has provided fuel for the ever-evolving videogame medium.

Yet at the same time, videogames have long been a solitary experience. From players who simply want to beat their own highscore rather than anyone else’s, to players who enjoyed battling their way through the earliest RPGs and text adventures, games have also fulfilled another human desire: to tell and be told stories.

Last month’s release of the latest Call Of Duty installment, Ghosts, is a timely reminder of how games are still tightly wound around the twin poles of competition and story. After all, a major part of the series’ enduring popularity is thanks to its multiplayer mode, which is tweaked and polished and refined with every update.

Then there’s the single-player campaign, which ever since the advent of Modern Warfare, has established a template of its own: a plot which takes in acts of global terrorism, multiple locations and high-tech guns and equipment. Just to ring the changes, this year’s Ghosts throws in a faithful canine companion named Riley. 

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For several years, publisher Activision has enjoyed massive success with this reliable mix of multiplayer competition and Hollywood blockbuster-style single-player action, with the occasional ripple of controversy over the latter’s content – the infamous No Russian sequence in Modern Warfare 2 being one prominent example – only adding to the sense of excitement over what has become an annual event.

This time, however, we may be beginning to see how the stresses of getting a Call Of Duty game into shops every year is affecting Activision’s franchise. Although reviews have been largely positive, some critics have suggested that Ghosts might see the franchise running out of creative steam, with a story that, Riley the dog aside, stirs familiar elements around rather than add anything particularly new or surprising. Then came thesuggestion that Ghosts‘ single-player campaign could be finished in a mere four hours. 

Call Of Duty: Ghosts isn’t the only recent shooter with a brief single-player mode, either. Ghosts‘ main rival, Battlefield 4, was said to have a similarly brief campaign, with one player claiming to have completed it within about four hours on a normal difficult setting.

Of course, both EA and Activision would probably argue that both Call Of Duty and Battlefield have always been sold on their multiplayer content, and that for the greater percentage of players, the single-player campaign is little more than a side attraction. And with the sheer amount of time, effort and money it takes to produce one of these games, it’s not difficult to see why developers like Infinity Ward or DICE would scale back their efforts on the less popular aspects of their games. 

But what about the small yet devoted army of players who enjoy the single-player campaigns rather than the reverse? For those of us who are either terrible at online shooters, or prefer to blast through a compelling story rather than compete in an online arena, these franchises are giving us less and less content to enjoy.

Although not without its flaws, BioShock Infinite was an example of how compelling a single-player shooter can be. With its intriguing characters and the kind of world you actively enjoyed exploring, BioShock Infinite was both challenging and engrossing. Interestingly, some players bemoaned the brevity of Infinite’s 15-hour campaign, but given the richness of its world-building, the range of weapons to play with, and its surprising conclusion, we’d argue that it’s the kind of game you could happily play through more than once – and when compared to Ghosts and Battlefield 4, BioShock Infinite begins to sound like a bit of a bargain, replay value or no replay value.

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BioShock Infinite wasn’t the only game to provide a decent single-player shooter experience in 2013, either. Crysis 3 was a typically beautiful-looking thrill ride through a future New York. Metro: Last Light was another gloomy post-apocalyptic nightmare from 4A Games.

So if studios like 2K, Crytek and 4A are flying the flag for single-player shooter experiences – while still dabbling in multiplayer, in the case of BioShock Infinite and Crysis 3 – then why are others letting the stories in their shooters gradually wither away with each release?

The publishers would no doubt cite plenty of reasons, ranging from the higher replay value of multiplayer over single-player, to the latter’s greater popularity. But for a great many players, it’s the single-player mode that is the main draw, with the multiplayer coming in at a distant second. Shouldn’t Call Of Duty continue to cater to those players, too? 

With each successive installment demanding ever greater graphical polish, and a better, more exciting multiplayer experience, it seems that the narrative aspect of these games is being pushed a little further into the background with every annual release. This is a genuine shame, because in its best moments, the Call Of Duty franchise has provided some great story moments. But could we see the single-player campaigns dropped from shooting behemoths altogether over the next couple of years or so?

It’s possible, but we hope they don’t. The solid sales of BioShock Infinite prove that there’s a market for single-player shooters out there. And while the Call Of Duty franchise has often been criticised for the design of its story mode – with players forced down ever narrow corridors, for example, or following a gruff soldier as he marches ahead through enemy fire – it’s also been a major part of the series for the best part of a decade.

With the release of Ghosts, some critics have been wondering whether it’s high time Call Of Duty got a creative shake-up, just as it did when Modern Warfare took the series from World War II and into the present. If Activision does go for something new and bold with the series, we hope it also gives the single-player campaign equal billing.

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