Grand Theft Auto vs Call Of Duty: why one seems fresher than the other

With so many series resorting to annual releases, Rockstar still keeps things interesting with GTA, but how?

I know that you may have missed it, but guess what? GTA V is out. Okay, so you can hardly avoid this fact due to the huge hype, social media buzz, reports of $800 million first day sales and nearly everyone is talking about it, but there’s a good reason for this – the game is superb.

However, we’re not here to go over how good GTA V is (you can see our review for that), instead we’re going to look at one very important reason why the GTA series has always managed to do so well with every release, and that’s by its very absence.

Ship it, and ship it often

Rockstar has become synonymous with controversial, but hugely successful games, and almost every release the company puts out does massive numbers in retail. Chief amongst its many successes is, of course, Grand Theft Auto. Every iteration is hailed as a game of the year candidate before it even arrives, and usually, this isn’t too far from the truth. Each game always pleases gamers and critics alike, and although the core formula of the series hasn’t changed all that much over the years, people simply can’t wait to try it out, lining up up for hours at midnight launches just to get their hands on it as soon as they can.

Now, as a counterpoint, take another hugely popular franchise, Call Of Duty. This is another title that’s guaranteed to sell a bucket load, and is also another title that always delivers a solid, generally very good game. However, there’s also a large portion of the gaming public that often criticise the series for being the same old, same old. No matter how good the actual game may be, some simply can’t bring themselves to give the title a chance as they’re so turned-off by repeated content, that they yawn their way past it on the shelves.

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Why is this? Why do people easily discard a usually great game like Call Of Duty due to familiarity, but can’t wait to get their hands on the next GTA, which is arguably just as similar in many ways? The answer is simple – saturation.

Activision knew it was on to a very good thing when Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare became such a huge success. The series had exploded into a massively popular online shooter, and it was an enormous critical hit. Obviously, it made perfect business sense to follow up on that success with another release, and so it did, and then a little later, it did again, and again, and again. Call Of Duty was such a hit with the gaming public that the decision to make the series an annual thing was made very quickly. Every year a new Call Of Duty would be released, alternately developed by Infinity Ward and Treyarch.

Activision executives surely saw big, plump dollar signs before their eyes with this decision, and that’s certainly what they got, but the trade-off for this was a series that’s become a running joke to some. It’s been parodied many times (even in GTA V with the ‘Righteous Slaughter’ commercials), and even games critics sometimes, who would usually approach each and every review with a balanced, non-biased review can’t help but be a little dismissive at the premise of yet another outing in the series.

The games themselves may be great, solid examples of the genre, but we’ve seen them so often, so many times with little in the way of real innovation that the whole thing has become too much, and the public perception is no exception to this. Call Of Duty: Ghosts may still be anticipated by many, but it’s hardly the PR monster it once was. The E3 showing was fairly low-key for the series, and the focus on new technology felt a little like the developers were desperately saying “look, we’ve put new stuff in, we really have!”

Return to GTA, which didn’t even appear at E3, and you’ve got the polar opposite. Even without much in the way of PR work or media coverage, GTA V would have probably still broken sales records and set the gaming world on fire, even if it’s just as guilty as Call Of Duty in many ways when it comes to content.

Now, don’t hit the flame button just yet, I’m not directly comparing the two games, or even criticising the games themselves. Both are great at what they do. However, the simple fact is that GTA‘s core gameplay has changed very little over the years. Each iteration features the same core set up of on-foot and vehicular action, sandbox crime story and mission structure. Many missions are new paint jobs for ones that we’ve seen in previous games, the story is usually a pretty much a re-jigged version of the previous outing, and each title has felt very similar in many ways.

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New features have been added, of course, with GTA V‘s multiple protagonists being one of the major examples, but when you strip the game to the core mechanics, there’s no massive innovation, and that’s exactly the same as Call Of Duty. The major difference here is quantity, and this is where Rockstar nails it.

Keep ’em keen

Unlike Activision, which prefers to make quick, fast cash as often as possible, Rockstar chooses to make a lot more money every so often, and it does this by releasing its major franchises every four or five years, instead of annually.

The last GTA, GTA IV, came out in 2008, that’s five years ago. Red Dead Redemption came out in 2010, six years after its successor, Red Dead Revolver, and Max Payne 3 probably won’t see a sequel for another three or four years.

In many cases, Rockstar could still make a ton of cash by releasing new titles earlier, and Rockstar’s bank balance would be very healthy. Fan demand is clearly through the roof, so why is this not happening?

Well, practically speaking, development times for a game as massive and complex as GTA simply wouldn’t work in a yearly development cycle, and if it was attempted we’d get a far less polished and lower quality game. Rockstar is clearly aware of this, and instead prefers to release games with the ethos of quality, not quantity. Each GTA is worked on for years, and the dev team take as much time as needed to make sure the game is as good as it can be. Rushing to meet yearly deadlines would limit this kind of Q&A.

Of course, that’s not to say Call Of Duty titles are shoddy. Far from it, these are some of the most polished and accomplished FPS titles around, but they do have the advantage of being a little easier to make. Linear FPS titles are always going to be easier to produce than sprawling, open-world and open-ended games, but that’s not the main concern here. Originality is, and we’ve already established that both titles are guilty of rehashing content. Again, it’s the number of release that’s the key.

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Not including the original top-down titles, and beginning from the first 3D incarnation, GTA III, the series has, over 12 years from 2001 to the present, had five major releases. There have been add-ons like Lost And Damned and Ballad Of Gay Tony, and handheld-specific titles like GTA AdvanceChinatown Wars and the Stories games, but only five actual main entries. Yes, it’s true that GTA IIIvise City and San Andreas only had one or two year gaps, but many would argue that the latter two were more expansion than actual new games, and the regularity is also understandable with the transition from DMA to Rockstar North, and the huge push behind the series.

Compare this to Call Of Duty. Over 10 years, from 2003 to the present, there have been nine major releases, with another due soon in the form of Ghosts making 10. That number doesn’t take into account other spin-offs like Big Red One (a Call Of Duty 2 spin-off) and Finest Hour, the first console release of the franchise. Over the course of the series, it’s also had many different developers.

That’s a whole lot of Call Of Duty, and although the series did change quite a bit with the technological enhancements made earlier on in its life, since Call Of Duty 4 there’s been an increasing level of repetition, and it’s stated to become stale very quickly for some. An annual release schedule only highlights the samey and repetitive nature of each release, whilst the longer time before each iteration helps to keep GTA feel fresh, even when it sticks to much of the same blueprint with each outing.

Technological marvel

Another big reason GTA manages to keep things interesting via a several year gap is technology. As the main game instalments since San Andreas have only arrived every four or five years, there’s a noticeable improvement in visuals and game engine. Rockstar is able to greatly enhance the core game engine, and embellish the game world more, creating a title that’s even more lifelike and absorbing than the last.

Partly due to the restriction in the genre, Call Of Duty can’t do that. For one, a game that comes out every year isn’t going to impress as much as one that has a few years in-between releases. It’s like not noticing your best friend, who you see every day, get older, but being shocked when you see another friend you’ve not seen for years, and noticing how much they’ve changed. Call Of Duty is around so much and so often, you just don’t notice, even when there may be actual differences or technological improvements. Even Ghosts, the new boy in the series has already been attacked by gamers for looking last gen, and that’s from reportedly next gen footage.

Secondly, a linear FPS hasn’t got quite as much leeway when it comes to gameplay. GTA‘s vast, open world has much more flexibility with side missions, diversions and a rich, lifelike world full of AI citizens. An FPS is usually nothing more than a glorified shooting gallery. No deep, complex and lifelike world is required, just the action.

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It’s probably about now that you’re shouting, “what about Assassin’s Creed!?” So far I’ve focused on Call Of Duty, which isn’t a direct comparison to GTA gameplay-wise. Call Of Duty is, however, the most widely criticised title for yearly releases and samey features, hence my focus on it. It’s also the closest in commercial success to GTA.

Still, Assassin’s Creed is a very good comparison to make to GTA. Both are open world, and both are excellent games. Ubisoft has also made no bones about the fact that the series is an annual thing, with Black Flag due out soon on current and next gen. And, like GTA and Call Of Duty, it’s had several main entries. Much like Call Of Duty, the yearly release schedule has also damaged it a little.

The first Assassin’s Creed in 2007 was a flawed debut, but a promising one, and the premise and execution was undeniably impressive, despite a few blemishes. Two years later, Assassin’s Creed II arrived, and was a massive improvement over the original. Brotherhood followed in 2010, and Revelations in 2011. Unsurprisingly, Brotherhood, although still great, didn’t have the same impact as ACII, and Revelations wasn’t anywhere near as well received. People had grown weary, and the story had floundered a little. The yearly releases were eating away at the brand.

Assassin’s Creed III arrived in 2012 and was another hit, but this radically changed the setting and open world mechanics, yet the core game was the same. Black Flag looks to be much more like ACIII, but with big boats and a more fluid open world, and again it looks impressive. It remains to be seen how long Ubisoft can keep the series fresh with an annual release schedule. As I’ve said a couple of times, open world games do have an advantage, with more flexibility and room to innovate, and this once again switch to why Call Of Duty and others like it, including EA’s Battlefield, has such a problem, as the very genre limits what can be done.

Assassin’s Creed, for now, is retaining its interest levels, much like GTA, but the annual release plan will likely change this, and soon the series may well find itself burned out. GTA, on the other hand, with a longer period between releases, ensures it has a much better chance of staying fresh and desirable for gamers.

Long awaited

Of course, there’s another, very simple reason why GTA‘s more spread-out releases manages to keep fans coming for more, an that’s the wait. It works with everything, in almost every medium. Keep fans waiting and build up that desire more and more, and all you need to really do is stick a name on a box and you’re golden. It worked for Star WarsSuperman, valet and many, many more entertainment releases, and it often works if the actual product if crap (I repeat, it worked for Star Wars). TV series do the same, and so it makes perfect sense that games benefit from this too. Just look at the media explosion caused by teases and the eventual reveal of the Xbox One and PS4 for a more recent example.

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Releasing a game each and every year negates this excitement, and knowing there’ll be yet another version out in a few months hardly makes a release special, and people are more likely to respond with, “meh.”

Too much of a good thing?

So, essentially Rockstar manages to keep GTA fresh because it always produces high quality titles and leaves plenty of time between releases to keep gamer interest high and makes the most of technological advancements. Series like Call Of Duty instead saturate the market, leaving little room for innovation or interesting new content. Yearly releases also lose that technical wow factor, as little changes each time.

If the Call Of Duty series (and likely Assassin’s Creed, eventually) changed to a similar release schedule to GTA, it’s highly likely that the legions of haters would give the series another try, and it would give the developers more time to actually develop some new, groundbreaking content.

As long as Call Of Duty sells as well as it does, however, this isn’t likely to change, and series originality and innovation is going to suffer in the eyes of many as each yearly outing delivers more of the same.

Now, I leave the door open to the legions of Call Of Duty fans who will no doubt beg to differ. I’ll be sat in my cozy flame bunker…