The problem with Call of Duty's single player is that it doesn't trust you. As I've written in the past, the franchise's patented "rollercoaster" campaign design ethos is prey to a deeply counterproductive anxiety - that terror of the player losing interest unless treated to a nuclear explosion, airplane crash or first-person strangling match at 30 second intervals.
The franchise's obsession with pace flies in the face of the care and expense lavished on many of its environments, such as the introductory space level in Call of Duty: Ghosts. Allowing for the elderliness of the game's id Tech-based engine, it's quite the spectacle - flecks of asteroid dust and bits of astronaut gear drift past your helmet as you explore serene white cylindrical habitats. The level actually manages to provoke comparison with Gravity, last year's special effects extravaganza. And yet, you're barely allowed to spend 10 minutes in orbit before plot machinations bring matters to an apocalyptic head. It seems a waste of time and effort on both your part and that of the creators.
If this anxiety about pace has any basis in Activision's data-mining of player behaviour, it may be too little, too late. The Call of Duty campaign style is arguably well past the point of no return. It's the uninvited guest at a party hosted (badumtish) by Call of Duty's multiplayer - a procession of QTEs, shooting galleries and cutscenes smashed together for the sake of TV adverts. But does it have to be this way? And more importantly, what might Activision gain from changing the tune?
More than any other game, Call of Duty needs to hit the ground running in 2014. While a strong seller and a decent-enough shooter, Ghosts has left even the franchise's most ardent fans clamouring for an overhaul. In a dangerous turn of events, this applies as much to the multiplayer as the single player. The online component's biggest new features? A sprinkling of map destruction, the ability to customise and fight against your own 'bots, and an alien-flavoured take on Zombies Mode from World at War.
The game's success probably owes as much to a lack of real competition as anything else - had Battlefield 4's launch been a little less disastrous (or well-documented), Ghosts might have had a real fight on its hands. This November, the franchise must reckon with a new Halo for Xbox One, Ubisoft's swoon-inducing post-apocalyptic shooter The Division, Turtle Rock's Evolve and sci-fi stablemate Destiny, among other hot Q4 releases. It must also deal with the fallout from this spring's Titanfall, justifiably cast as the heir to Call of Duty's throne, which should attract heavy promotion in the run-up to Christmas.
How can Call of Duty break free of the cycle of diminishing returns? Redoubling the emphasis on the already-popular multiplayer is the obvious approach, but I'm not sure it's the right one. Call of Duty multiplayer is now a cultural institution, an experience that's scooped up year on year by millions of consumers who otherwise have no real interest in gaming; it's also an e-Sports tentpole, which imposes considerable inertia. The best the franchise's developers can do at this point is rearrange the pieces on the board, concocting modes that allow players to engage with the established rules, weapon types and abilities in different ways.
But single player? There's definitely room to grow there. If nobody cares about Call of Duty's campaign these days, Activision has little to lose by tearing up the rulebook and starting afresh. The team for such a rescue operation is already in place: Sledgehammer Games, confirmed last night to be developing this year's Call of Duty, is run by the two men responsible for the original Dead Space, which may be well of the Xbox 360's finest solo endeavours, despite its dependency on tired horror conventions and find-X-shoot-Y objective design.
Aversion to player choice and hyperactive pacing aside, there are some very obvious issues that need addressing. The biggest of the lot, perhaps, is that the franchise lacks a compelling narrative universe. Given the current competition in triple-A circles, it's not enough to just pick a timeframe and trot out some appropriate weapons technology - the backdrop needs to be inspire genuine curiosity, like that of Tomb Raider or even Bioshock. Characters who amount to more than gravelly-throated callsigns would be nice, too: the Modern Warfare and Black Ops cast are well over the hill, though Captain Price is still oddly lovable, and the only character I can remember from Call of Duty: Ghosts is Riley, the nice doggy who has that altercation with the helicopter.
Call of Duty needs to learn to let go. Execs may object that the formula continues to sell, but that's utterly disingenuous - the time to evolve is when you're at your peak, not after you've begun your decline into irrelevance. The multiplayer may have earned itself an indefinite reprieve, but the campaign mode is just dead weight at this point. It needs to be reinvigorated - or cast aside.