Is Call of Duty Without Infinity Ward No Great Loss?

By: Stevie Smith

The unequivocal evolution attributed to the Call of Duty franchise since Infinity Ward’s virgin foray in 2003 has rightly defined the Encino-based outfit as one of gaming’s most recognizable and revered studios. High development standards, high-quality products, and astronomically high profit margins are all aspects readily associated with Infinity Ward’s portfolio; no argument there.

However, consider for a moment the ominous cracks that have recently appeared in the relationship between Infinity Ward and parent company Activision Blizzard – which is fast becoming the industry’s ‘evil empire’ after EA inexplicably decided to turn over a new leaf. Specifically, Activision had Infinity Ward president Jason West and CEO Vince Zampella unceremoniously frog-marched off the premises on March 1st for apparent “breach of contract and insubordination” after they were reportedly discovered peddling the studio’s wares to other third-party publishers.

Then, there’s the subsequent lawsuit launched by West and Zampella, who claim Activision is guilty of withholding substantial royalty payments in connection with Modern Warfare 2, which has already sold 10 million copies in the U.S. alone and made in excess of $1 billion USD globally. According to the legal filing lodged against Bobby Kotick & Co., the dismissed Infinity Ward executives are seeking unspecified monetary compensation while also attempting to secure the contractual rights to the Modern Warfare brand.

And let’s not forget Activision’s March 3rd introduction of fledgling studio Sledgehammer Games, welcomed into the Call of Duty fold alongside series stalwarts Infinity Ward and Treyarch in order to push the flagship property in interesting new directions. While hardly conclusive proof the end is nigh, and despite Activision’s insistence that Infinity Ward will remain an integral Call of Duty’s creative powerhouse, if these hairline cracks widen into gaping fissures and Activision dares sever Infinity Ward’s cash-flow umbilical, what then for everyone’s favorite military shooter?

First and foremost, in terms of allaying fears regarding the prospect of swiftly crumbling standards, Call of Duty would certainly be in safe hands without Infinity Ward. Activision’s increasingly dubious image aside, long-serving understudy Treyarch has carved itself a respectable reputation in the marketplace after helming three Call of Duty titles since 2005, while franchise newbie Sledgehammer isn’t without considerable promise.

Treyarch, in representing something of a dependable Obsidian to Infinity Ward’s BioWare, has enjoyed its fair share of critical and consumer success after 2008’s Call of Duty: World at War, which utilized an older version of Infinity Ward’s proprietary IW game engine and found its way into more than 11 million homes around the world. And, although Sledgehammer’s worth is as of yet unproven, the studio is powered by former Visceral Games heavyweights Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey, two of the creative forces behind acclaimed sci-fi shockfest Dead Space.

The interesting perspective for us humble gamers – and also for Infinity Ward as a creative force – is that breaking from Call of Duty would allow the studio to finally spread its wings and show us what it can really do. Granted, there’s no denying the heart-thumping intensity and technical accomplishments woven through the Modern Warfare series, but there’s only so far any given development team can push a first-person shooter before stagnancy takes hold.

Infinity Ward may well kick gameplay ass when it comes to white-knuckle gunfights and military authenticity, but the Modern Warfare titles are disappointingly linear and wholly lacking in terms of providing emotive experiences built around narrative depth. And don’t think for a moment that beautiful graphics, ear-shattering sound effects and generous multiplayer modes are sufficient to excuse such fundamental failings. Moreover, Valve’s Half-Life series (still) stands as the perfect example of how to deliver first-rate plot and compelling characters while cleverly papering over the linear structure synonymous with the FPS genre. It can be done, but not many studios bother to go that extra mile – Infinity Ward included.

Of course, personal pipe dreams of a bigger, better Infinity Ward splashing gaily in a sea of creative freedom amount to a whole lot of nothing when pausing to consider the more likely future Activision has in store. Modern Warfare’s staggering success has duly branded Infinity Ward as Activision’s leading cash cow, a development hub with a golden touch that’s all-but-guaranteed to rake in a bowel-loosening pile of dead presidents for as long as players will choke down tweaked versions of essentially the same game.

Factor in the recent creation of a specific Call of Duty business unit and the introduction of a third dedicated studio in Sledgehammer, and it seems clear what Activision is planning. And, if you should doubt the publishing giant’s intent – and are laboring under the misapprehension that it has the gamer’s best interests at heart – look no further than the rampant saturation of Guitar Hero, the inflated prices Activision slaps on its bundles (DJ Hero is blushing in the corner), and CEO Robert Kotick’s well documented disdain for the consumers that help fund his multimillion salary and compensation package.

Ultimately, a genre paradigm shift for Infinity Ward would enable a top-tier studio tied to Call of Duty for almost a decade to avoid being labeled as a one-trick pony – and, given the team’s credentials and experience, the prospect of seeing it tackle a brand new IP far removed from spitting hot lead in first-person is nothing short of tantalizing. Sadly, unless Call of Duty nosedives in popularity (unlikely) and Activision widens its business focus from merely churning sequels and exploiting multi-platform releases (highly unlikely), such progression isn’t going to happen and Infinity Ward’s future will remain distinctly bleak and blinkered. Talk about shackled by your own success.