Opinion: In the battle for relevance, Call of Duty and Battlefield are their own worst enemies

Regardless of whether you’re primarily a PC or console gamer, it’s hard to discuss the first-person shooter genre without at least acknowledging the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises in the same breath. Activision’s Call of Duty series and Electronic Arts’ Battlefield IP have both loomed large over the gaming industry for nearly two decades now, though as of late they feel less like the seemingly unstoppable juggernauts of old and more like antiquated albatrosses past their prime.

Over the past few years, both Call of Duty and Battlefield have struggled to remain relevant in an industry that has rapidly become crowded with contenders that can, if you’ll pardon the expression, seemingly out-shoot the two old guard mainstays at every turn. There’s no denying that Call of Duty and Battlefield are still iconic names, but they’re now joined by names like Fortnite, Overwatch, Destiny, Gears of War, Apex Legends, and Rainbow Six, names which are nearly (if not equally by this point) just as iconic.

Call of Duty and Battlefield have both tried to keep up with their competition, but they’ve also both routinely proved that their greatest enemy isn’t the slick new shooter game from another developer. No, their greatest enemy in the never-ending battle for relevance is themselves.

Cutting Corners

The Battlefield franchise started out pretty strong in the early 2000’s, but more recently it seems like there’s a new disaster to match every adjoining success. For every smooth (or at least semi-smooth) release like Battlefield 1 or Battlefield Hardline, there’s a game like Battlefield 4. In case you’ve forgotten, Battlefield 4 shipped with so many technical issues and game-breaking bugs that several class-action lawsuits were filed against EA over its seemingly willful attempts to mislead investors and the general public.

The most recent Battlefield game, 2018’s Battlefield V, didn’t have as bad a launch as Battlefield 4, but calling it a “successful” launch would be quite generous. While the game certainly looked impressive, it also suffered from a litany of graphical issues and UI bugs (some of which still persist to this day) which only exacerbated the soured feelings players already had over the thin amount of content (maps, weapons, customization options) it offered.

Major features that DICE had played up heavily in Battlefield V’s pre-release marketing like in-depth tank customization, the ‘Combined Arms’ co-op mode, and the ‘Firestorm’ battle royale mode were delayed beyond the initial launch. In most cases, such features didn’t end up arriving until several months after the game’s release (tank customization is only just now being added in the upcoming 6.2 update).

Despite the delays, both the Combined Arms and Firestorm modes arrived in an incredibly barebones state and have only received token amounts of attention from developer DICE since. In the case of Combined Arms, the mode’s short static scenarios are a far cry from the dynamic procedurally-generated missions DICE promised before launch, and Combined Arms as a total experience feels so disappointingly hollow that it prompted us to ask why DICE even bothers with co-op at all.

A more recent overhaul drastically lowered Battlefield V’s “time to kill” (or TTK), i.e. how quickly an enemy player can be killed with damage from firearms, and sparked major backlash from the player community at large. The backlash was so severe (and still persists to this day) that it essentially wiped out any goodwill DICE had built up from last October’s launch of the game’s War in the Pacific update. Ironically enough, many players accused DICE of trying to bring Battlefield V’s gameplay more in line with that of Call of Duty so that it’d look more appealing to Call of Duty fans during the Christmas shopping season (the TTK changes were implemented last December).

Meanwhile, Call of Duty’s two most recent games, 2018’s Black Ops 4 and 2019’s Modern Warfare, didn’t fare much better than Battlefield V. Black Ops 4 launched to favorable reviews, but it also had several dark clouds hanging over it, namely the noticeable backlash over the lack of a proper story campaign and the heavy-handed ways in which developer Treyarch attempted to monetize the game after launch. The game’s ‘Blackout’ battle royale mode fared a bit better than Battlefield V’s Firestorm, but Call of Duty’s strict annual release schedule (a schedule which we’ve also criticized) meant that Blackout’s days in the proverbial sun were numbered from the start.

That same annualized release schedule gave fans the Modern Warfare reboot a year later, but even the return of such a beloved Call of Duty setting couldn’t completely gloss over the game’s many shortcomings. As we noted in our review, Modern Warfare’s initial launch was plagued by online server issues and stability problems which made playing even the offline story campaign a dicey venture.

 Developer Infinity Ward was quick to address the most egregious issues, but despite now being several months old Modern Warfare still suffers from numerous graphical bugs which can range from annoying (UI errors, mis-labeled features) to game-breaking (map exploits, textures that fail to load). Even worse, every major update that Infinity Ward releases for Modern Warfare seems to break just as many things as it fixes. The most recent update, for example, temporarily wiped some players’ online stats and trapped many players in a sort of infinite DLC download loop that (depending on which DLC was affected) locked them out entirely from playing either the multiplayer component or the ‘Spec Ops’ co-op mode.

And speaking of Modern Warfare’s Spec Ops mode, it too wound up being a woefully disappointing experience, thought not for the same reasons as Battlefield V’s Combined Arms. Whereas Combined Arms scenarios could generously be described as brief, barebones, and ultimately boring, Spec Ops missions have the exact opposite problem. The default Spec Ops operations are so egregiously difficult and cheap that a matchmade squad of four random players has little hope of emerging victorious without a great deal of luck.

Spec Ops does technically offer two alternate modes of play: Survival and Classic Spec Ops missions. However, Survival doesn’t allow for custom gear loadouts and will remain a PS4 exclusive over the coming year (just in time for Modern Warfare to cede its relevance to this year’s new Call of Duty game). As for Classic Spec Ops, it uses an archaic three stars rating format which, combined with the aforementioned harsh difficulty spikes, ensures that none but the most skilled teams will come away from them with any meaningful reward. All this to say it’s painfully evident that Infinity Ward put next to no effort into properly playtesting Spec Ops to ensure it was balanced or, you know, fun.

A Pale Imitation

Whereas the Battlefield and Call of Duty franchises were once considered trend setters of the gaming industry, now it just feels like they’re treading water by cribbing features from other popular shooter games. The above mentioned Firestorm and Blackout battle royale modes are good examples, but they’re just the tip of that particular iceberg.

Many other gameplay and cosmetic features that debuted in other games have since made their way into both Call of Duty and Battlefield. And whereas such features feel novel and fresh in their respective games, their Call of Duty/Battlefield implementations often feel rushed in their implementation and/or designed in such a way that their full benefits can only be appreciated by players who fork over extra cash.

Examples of such features include the following:

  • Battlefield V’s in-game store has a disappointingly small and obtusely-priced rotation of items available for both earned and premium currency, making it obvious that getting the store up and running (and getting people buying) was a higher priority than making sure it offers a good value to players. Naturally the most coveted items (Epic quality outfits, Elite multiplayer skins, bundle items) can only be purchased with real money.
  • Modern Warfare’s new multiplayer executions feel like Infinity Ward’s response to Destiny 2’s finishing moves, though the multiplayer executions are far less appealing both in how players obtain and utilize them. Additional executions can only be bought via pricey in-game store bundles (which have an average price range of $16 to $24 per bundle). Also, unlike Destiny 2’s finishing moves, executions can only be performed in PvP multiplayer, a tough sell given the game’s insanely fast kill times.
  • Battlefield V’s Elite multiplayer skins help to inject some personality into the game’s massive multiplayer skirmishes, but it’s hard to justify paying $15 to $20 per skin when more established and stable games like Rainbow Six Siege and Overwatch offer the same functionality at similar (and sometimes cheaper) prices.
  • Battlefield V, Black Ops 4, and Modern Warfare have all hopped onto the battle pass bandwagon, but the rewards that each respective game’s battle pass offers are woefully unexciting when compared to the battle passes found in games like Fortnite. To their credit, however, Battlefield V’s battle pass is entirely free for all players and Modern Warfare’s pass allows players to earn the game’s premium CoD Points currency (though that means the pass’s true value is only realized after many hours of grinding).

It’s obvious that Call of Duty and Battlefield are both in need of a rest period where their respective developers can catch their breath. But of course the odds of either Activision or EA allowing such a deep cut into their profits (even though it would ultimately benefit players and thus themselves in the long run) are pretty darn slim. For the time being, it looks as if both franchises will remain locked in this vicious cycle where they keep struggling to remain on pace with the competition and in so doing accomplish little else other than shooting themselves in the foot.

Hope on the Horizon

Given how recognizable and iconic they both are, it’s extremely unlikely that Call of Duty or Battlefield will ever go away for good. We’ll likely keep getting a new Call of Duty game every year and DICE will likely keep doing its best to wrangle the unwieldy Frostbite Engine into a new Battlefield experience whenever it feels the time is right. The silver lining to the gloomy picture this article has painted is that neither franchise is totally incapable of positive change.

Both Call of Duty and Battlefield once relied on extremely anti-consumer tactics such as random loot boxes and locking additional content behind expensive season passes, but now neither of them do. To be clear, Activision and EA didn’t abandon such practices out of the kindness of their hearts but because they knew that if they didn’t their players would just migrate to a cheaper (or even F2P in some cases) alternative. Still, positive change is positive change, even if it comes slowly and way later than it should have.

If Activision and EA want to regain relevance for their associated shooter IP’s, however, they need to do much more than make marginal improvements on games that still launch in noticeably unfinished states. Both companies need to acknowledge that they’re not the only game in town anymore and, more importantly, reflect that acknowledgement in their games going forward. In case it wasn’t clear, we’re saying they need to give future Call of Duty and Battlefield games the time and care they deserve.

There’s no arguing that, under ideal circumstances, Call of Duty and Battlefield games can still be incredibly fun, but as of late those ideal circumstances are getting harder and harder to find. It’s hard to say at this point what exactly will happen to the two mega-franchises if there isn’t any sort of course correction within their respective publishers. However, there is at least one bet we feel pretty safe making about the future of both Call of Duty and Battlefield: if Activision and EA refuse to change their ways, there are plenty of other shooter franchises that will be all too happy to take their place.