Another year, another blockbuster hit for Activision’s Call of Duty franchise, with COD 2021 arriving in a few months. Few games can match the steam and hype each year’s COD game generates, as well as the cash flow that follows. It is a series that can survive virtually anything the industry throws at it, whether it be a drastic change in setting, gameplay loop, or style. Even in the face of terrible press, with a trailer amassing one of the most skewed dislike-to-like ratios on YouTube, COD always emerges victorious–and with a fatter wallet.
Although the series continues to be a cash cow, it has had its fair share of missteps amongst its releases. One of the rather apparent missteps can be identified as the franchise’s latest installment, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. A product of studio and developer mishap, time constraints, and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, Cold War is a game that shines brightly in certain areas and implodes in a myriad of others.
COD 2021, unlike its predecessor, is not facing the same developmental struggles and hurdles. Sledgehammer Games, who began and dropped development for Cold War, is in charge of 2021’s installment. Though its track record may give some fans pause for the studio’s preparedness for another Call of Duty game, it began production on COD 2021 back in 2019 right after it halted production for Cold War and handed the developmental reins over to Treyarch.
After witnessing the trials and tribulations Treyarch faced with their rushed development and release of Cold War, Sledgehammer has the opportunity to step back and observe exactly what went right and wrong during Cold War’s launch and life cycle. They should be prepared to avoid said missteps and repeat greatness for their own release. Here are five areas where COD 2021 can learn from Cold War.
Less Focus on Monetization Practices
Monetization within games never rubs players the right way. These practices can range from inoffensive with purely cosmetic alterations for players to downright scummy with certain features of a game being locked behind thousands of hours of play or a paywall. Though the former is certainly preferable to the latter, monetization within games is a dangerous slope to play on.
However, with games trying to monetize cosmetic changes due to immense backlash over practically any other form of monetization, gone are the days players could unlock cool outfits and customization options for their playstyle via in-game achievements or challenges. In their stead are the tons of microtransactions, deals, and bundles that plaster a player’s screen, screaming at them to buy this or buy that.
Though distracting, these non-stop ads can be easily avoided just by hopping into a game and playing a couple of rounds. Sure, you might see an enemy player wearing the exact skin you saw a bundle sale for a dozen times, but it makes it all the sweeter when you send the walking digital billboard to a quick grave. However, you can only play so many games before the inundation of “buy, buy, buy” starts to wear you down, especially in a game as shallow as Cold War upon release.
Where the game lacked proper content, patches, and updates, Cold War had skins and cosmetics in spades. Players who wanted a variety in maps would have a tough time because the variety Cold War seemed to be focusing on was the amount of skins it could put out and charge players for. It set a rather disingenuous atmosphere for the game, making it seem like the developers cared more about trying to get players to fork over their in-game currency, purchased with real-life currency than they did about actually fixing, balancing, and expanding the game. What is that? You want better servers to play on? Have another skin instead.
Rolling into the seventh month of Cold War’s lifespan and its third season of content, the game has thankfully started to expand into all the right areas. However, with COD 2021 slated to release within the next six months, some may consider these updates too little, too late.
COD 2021 can outshine its predecessor with a clearer focus on concrete game content rather than microtransactions, which will inevitably earn it more praise and reassurance from its eager fans.
Proper Quality Assurance in COD 2021
Patches and updates usually should be happy and exciting moments for players. They mean additional content for players to play with, expansions to existing good ideas within the game while curtailing some less than stellar ones, and an overall tune-up of a growing game.
Updates to Cold War were exactly that. The addition of new maps, weapons, and modes greatly increased the longevity of the game and player interest. When the updates were done properly, that is.
Throughout various patches and updates, Cold War suffered a great deal of problems from improperly executed patches. There have been several notorious instances where the patches caused the game more harm than good. One example was when a new operator character, Maxis, was added to the game for players to buy via microtransactions despite the character not being officially playable at the time. However, some players managed to get their hands on Maxis and use her in-game. It led to those players using her becoming invisible to others while maintaining full combat lethality. Have you ever tried fighting an enemy you couldn’t see?
Another instance was when the developers accidentally released the crossbow weapon earlier than intended. With the way weapon unlocks work in Cold War, players who managed to unlock it before it was patched out got to keep using it. Those who were grinding for it were no longer able to unlock it, though they were able to keep their progress. To add insult to injury, when the crossbow was officially released, all of its camo challenges were lazily copy-pasted over from the grenade launcher, making the grind for camos infinitely harder and earning the developers some well-deserved ire for their carelessness.
All of these incidents could have been completely avoided had the developers been more attentive to detail and quality assurance. Though many of these instances were fixed later in even more patches, that sort of mentality for video games, especially AAA blockbuster titles like Call of Duty is unacceptable. There should be a certain level of quality and professionalism in the handling and presentation of such games, where amateur-tier accidents like these shouldn’t be a possibility. Yes, mistakes can happen, but when they happen as frequently as they did in Cold War a paying patron has every right to be upset.
COD 2021 should take the time to make sure every feature within the game or to be added has fully been tested and deemed functional before releasing en masse. It would earn the developers a lot of goodwill and save them from the headache of a PR mess.
Free Content Updates for COD 2021
The free additional content Cold War promised and provided to its players can be interpreted in two ways.
If the player is an optimist, they could see updates as a sign of the developers’ willingness to go the extra mile and provide players with a fun, meaningful experience over a period of time until the next release. With the development history of Cold War in mind, said players could see what the developers are doing as a way to make up for how content-starved Cold War was at launch.
If the player is a cynic and also aware of Cold War’s troubled development, they know the content they’re being drip-fed over the course of the next several months should have all been aspects the game should have come with at the start and should not be passed off as some act of goodwill by the developers. It’s easy to make the comparison of Modern Warfare to Cold War when looking at the staggering differences in content at launch.
Both interpretations are valid but no one can deny that Cold War is in a better place because the developers continue to expand and polish the game for no extra charge on the player’s side. COD 2021 would do well by replicating the precedent Cold War–and by some extent, Modern Warfare, set. Albeit, it is now done with battle passes rather than by paid DLC maps and expansions. With how well these passes tend to do in sales, and how these passes are linked across multiple games (Cold War, Modern Warfare, Warzone), Activision doesn’t seem to be in any position or interest to discontinue its practices.
So while free content updates seem to be all but a guarantee at this point, what isn’t is what is being provided to players per season. Cold War received a lot of praise for its innovation and expansion on the series’ signature Zombies formula, with new maps and modes to play as well as an overhaul of how the Zombies game mode works, courtesy of Aetherium crystals. However, players who preferred the classic, frantic 6v6 action Call of Duty was renowned for were left feeling neglected.
Weapon balance patches were a hit or miss for the playerbase and new maps were being added at a snail’s pace. Among the 17 new multiplayer maps that were added by the time of this article’s writing, three are rehashes of maps from CODs prior, five are usable only in 2v2 gunfight modes, three are reserved for the massive Fireteam games, and one is a smaller rearranging of a map already in the game (Miami Strike). Though these additions are a step up from the measly nine Cold War offered at launch, nearly half of them are reserved for modes outside of 6v6, arguably the most popular playstyle in COD.
It is our hope that COD 2021 strikes a fine balance in appealing to all corners of its fanbase, one that doesn’t come at the expense of one particular subset of players for another.
Branching Story in Campaign
Though not in the same vein as Call of Duty: Black Ops II, which arguably has the best Call of Duty campaign of all time, Cold War did a magnificent job with its branching narrative campaign. With dialogue options, multiple ways to accomplish missions, and divergent endings, Cold War’s campaign all but ensured multiple playthroughs to see every detail it could muster. The heightened stakes, tension, and eerie feeling of things not being what they seemed helped in setting the tone and kept players on the edge of their seats. The only downside was that it was too short.
Details about COD 2021’s story are sparse at the time of writing, though the rumor mill claims that the game will be a return to the familiar World War II setting, albeit with a twist. It is to be a WWII game taking place in the 1950s. It doesn’t take a history buff to know that the years purported by the game and actual history don’t match up. Whether this means exploring the waters of alternate history, clandestine operations, or conflicts that took place during those years is not clear. It also doesn’t make clear if COD 2021 will be a continuation of COD: WWII, which developer Sledgehammer also worked on.
If the game is indeed venturing into alternate history, it would be a series’ first and spell interesting implications for the game’s campaign. Regardless of what direction the game decides to go in, it has a tough act to follow with Cold War’s campaign. However, if it plays its cards right and expands upon the ideas and mechanics Cold War established, like branching paths to objective, alternate story pathways, and differing endings, which all promote player freedom and agency, it could become a worthy successor and maybe even surpass Black Ops II’s story. It’s an uphill battle but COD 2021 has the chance to make it happen.
Skill-Based Matchmaking Re-Work
Among the many things yet unconfirmed for COD 2021, sadly, skill-based matchmaking will be making its unfortunate return. It will most likely come back in the same way it performs in Cold War, which is far from ideal.
Though not explicitly detailed or explained by developers, Cold War’s multiplayer matchmaking operates on certain calculations based on player performance (K/D ratio; overall score). Depending on player performance in-game, they are matched up with players who performed similarly, unable to stay in a single lobby for more than a match or two. On paper, this concept seems like a great way to promote competitively healthy matches and prevent lopsided slaughterfests. However, in practice, it fails on both fronts.
Competitive games are a good indicator of refined matchmaking, as it proves that players are being matched appropriately. However, in a game like Call of Duty, all it means is a promotion of competitively toxic playstyles like constant corner camping. No one wants to be on the receiving end of a campfest but because it is a viable strategy with little to no loss for the camper, it’s either do or die.
Matchmaking woes don’t end there. Because of the undefined variable by which the game deems a player’s skill level, it doesn’t always match a player with people of similar skill level. Rather, it seems to match up players who perform statistically similar in matches, regardless of actual skill. Many players have experienced being put into absolute sweatfest matches after performing decently in previous games, fighting against players that greatly exceed their own ability.
This process creates a negatively repeating feedback loop where players perform poorly and are thrown into matches with other poorly performing players. Upon doing well again, they are put into games against players above their level and proceed to get stomped, thus repeating the cycle.
This style of play doesn’t foster any player skill growth or tangible improvement because of the back-and-forth nature of every game. Because players cannot stay in the same lobby and face off against the same players consistently, they cannot attain consistency in-game.
The return of this dreaded feature doesn’t bode well for the multiplayer landscape of COD 2021. The solution is not incredibly hard either. Just like how Cold War added a Call of Duty League mode for players who seek higher levels of competitive play, a similar function can be added for casual multiplayer as well. Players who want classic designated lobbies can opt for that sort of matchmaking whereas players who want more challenging opponents can select the option that dictates their opponent based on their skill-level or performance, thus appealing to both demographics.
What would also be nice is if the developers, Treyarch and Sledgehammer both, were transparent with what exactly COD matchmaking uses to pit players against each other. The fact that they still haven’t said anything specific, other than stating that it exists, still rubs us the wrong way.
COD 2021 will be released later this year in November. Hopefully, it will shape up to be a more complete experience than Cold War was at launch but also utilize aspects that made its predecessor great.