There is room for Call of Duty in the gaming world -- I assure you. I don't know about milking it every damn year, but there is plenty of room for those of us who enjoy mindless first-person fun with our friends, occasionally in a military based fashion.
But the milk's gone bad, and Activision needs to step up to the plate and fix it. Here's how they can do it, and avoid the next Guitar Hero crash.
Call of Duty 4 set the world on fire at release. It not only redefined what a console shooter could do with a campaign, but it also popularized the "perks" system -- a mechanic now prevalent in pretty much every shooter in the modern era. It certainly wasn't the first game to use this system, but it was the first to make it standard issue; and since so many games followed suit in such a massive way, it's safe to call Call of Duty 4 a trend-setter in its own right.
Contrary to popular belief, Call of Duty was not always stale. In fact, the original working title for the first game was "The Medal of Honor Killer" -- a moniker predicated on rising above the competition, and in this case, EA. Said game was made by Infinity Ward -- the flagship developer for the franchise that was founded in 2002 as a subsidiary of Activision. But in 2005, along came a modest developer named Treyarch, who handled the console version of Call of Duty 2. This development crew had been around the block, creating smaller games and ports as far back as 1996, until it was acquired by Activision in 2001.
It was Treyarch, not Infinity Ward, that would continue to innovate the franchise. Just as Call of Duty was getting stale, they introduced a "Zombies" mode in World at War, which lit the gaming world on fire once again. The first Black Ops even had a top-down shooter (that could have easily been sold piecemeal for $10 as a downloadable), and real life cheat codes that you (gasp) didn't have to pay for. Their most recent contribution to the series, Black Ops II, innovated in new ways, with a "choose your own adventure" style campaign that felt distinctly different from the pack. It was still very much a Call of Duty joint for sure, and more of it wouldn't change any staunch hater's mind -- but for fans, it was an improvement.
So what went wrong with Ghosts? Complacency. The campaign is, in every sense of the word, predictable. Not only is the "American Invasion" tale rehashed, but the characters feel generic and forgettable, especially compared to Treyarch's particularly over-the-top style. Hell, there's even accusations of Infinity Ward copying their own ending. Multiplayer is still fun at times, but it's literally nothing new, instead opting to hold the "Squads" gametype on a pedestal -- when it's actually just a pared down version of the same thing we've played many times over.
Infinity Ward even blew it with Extinction, a mode that attempted to ape Treyarch's masterful Zombie mode. To put things into perspective, there's a huge community strictly centered around Zombies, and some fans even buy Treyarch's games just to play it. There's an entire story behind the mode, filled to the brim with easter eggs and goofy weapons like toy monkey grenades. But the Alien injected Extinction in Ghosts by proxy feels like a soulless rendition of Treyarch's work -- almost like it was a check box to say "we can do it too."
The crux of the problem is Infinity Ward's lack of innovation, among other issues. If the Call of Duty franchise weren't annual and were fine tuned every other year, it would not only have a better reputation, but a longer overall life span. Despite what executives may think, grinding blood out of a stone for a few years is not effective.
With lower pre-orders for Ghosts (partially due to generational fragmentation) and lower review scores, is Call of Duty down for the count? Well, it's far too early to tell. I think this is a great opportunity for Activision to sit down with both of their studios, and remember what made the series so successful in the first place. Do what should have been done long ago: give Treyarch the reigns, encourage growth and innovation, and stop making it an annual series with a $50 Season Pass.
Or, keep milking it until the well runs dry. Your move, Activision.