Call of Duty and Battlefield are at a bit of a crossroads in their lifespans. After spending the last several years as head-to-head competitors — albeit with EA and DICE never quite hitting the same output as Activision’s yearly offerings — 2016’s latest entries are separated by a wide gulf as thematically centered as it is based in nuts and bolts design.
That much is clear just by looking at them. Infinite Warfare goes whole hog on the sci-fi trappings that have been building since 2014’s Kevin Spacey-led Advanced Warfare, bringing the series outright into outer space. Battlefield 1 dials things back all the way to World War I. They couldn’t be more different on the surface.
Perhaps more surprising is that, in a year that many are viewing as a minor renaissance for triple-A FPS through games like DOOM and Titanfall 2, neither IW nor BF1 simply stay the course that’s more or less auto-piloted either series through its recent sequels. Both opt for relatively new approaches, with IW taking on a near-RPG approach to world presentation and Battlefield shedding most of its Hollywood skin.
For the unwieldy machinery of Activision and EA, it’s not an expected outcome, and neither game feels exactly like what you would expect from a mass-market shooter built on explosive foundations. Much has already written been written about Battlefield’s opening, for example, which drops you into the shoes of the expendable privates of the western front’s trenches. There’s no way to win; instead, death becomes the point in and of itself. The campaign’s moment-to-moment triumphs, when they occur, are usually tempered with a war film’s sense of grim resignation, putting history into the broader context of the war’s futility.
The gameplay follows this line well, surprisingly drawing from the rulebook that Battlefield Hardline started to break away from, not altogether successfully. More often than not, BF1 is situated more like a stealth game in the vein of Metal Gear Solid V. You’re outgunned or on your own, and yes, all hell can break loose if you want, but this isn’t a scripted player-corridor-enemy affair.
Lacking the relentless pacing of Battlefield 4 completely changes the tone into something more earnestly sober. Considering how badly the game might have disrespected history had it been made even a few years ago, it almost feels like a miracle that it turned out so well.
While IW is less overt in its change of direction, pacing is once again a deciding factor. Unlike past Call of Duty titles, the campaign this time is, for the most part, continuous; when cuts occur, they’re made for reasons of narrative scene changes, not simply because a level ends. In fact, IW does away with levels entirely. They’re replaced by a mission structure that is even more reminiscent of MGSV: Get in your aircraft (your Jackal fighter, basically an actual space harrier), tackle your mission objectives, return to your hub — the battleship Retribution.
It’s strange how much of a difference this makes. Rather than playing a totally pre-set movie, you’re inside a Call of Duty RPG. You can come and go as you please, within limits, taking on side-missions or just choosing to focus on the campaign missions themselves. Whatever you choose, getting there is a matter of blasting off in your Jackal, whether you’re going into the field and returning to homebase.
It isn’t so important that you’re not actually navigating the stars to get to your destination. Leaving the Retribution requires taking off in your craft (manually), transitioning to a cutscene and — almost instantly — jump-cutting forward to your objective; the difference is almost as vital as a standard-issue assault rifle.
A good chunk of IW’s time in space is devoted to explosive, arcade-y dogfights, whether your ultimate destination is an infantry POV mission in an enemy ship or an aerial assignment taking out trade supplies. Using your ship is immediately satisfying on the level of gut adrenaline that only the highest degree of polish can deliver. The fact that you’re actually using it as a transition to and from rather than bookended between loading screens just makes it feel like a real space — something Call of Duty’s film-set levels have never really had.
With all this in mind, where might Battlefield and Call of Duty go? If this year’s offerings are any indication, probably even further in their respective directions. Though the industry tends to be cyclical, I don’t think a return to WWII’s mainland Europe is all that likely for any proposed Battlefront sequel, and with sci-fi covered heavily already by Star Wars, I doubt a BF2* (again, because naming conventions are dumb) would go that route, either. Something much less covered in the pantheon of WWII FPS — perhaps the Pacific or African theaters seems like a plausible next step, at least if they plan on continuing with history. (Side note: DICE, maybe consider the Revolutionary War.)
What may be more important is tone. If BF1 starts to play with ideas about heroism, or even the justification of war, that will probably remain a theme in whatever comes next. Diversity, too, will probably play a bigger role. BF1 is told through a number of perspectives from many different cultural and racial backgrounds. It’s a heartening move.
Call of Duty will probably keep on moving away from the real world. With the three-studio ship that steers the future, staggered development would mean any direct creative response to BF1 won’t be felt for a few years, if it happens at all. In the meantime, we can likely expect a greater push towards player choice and more of an open skeleton around which a blockbuster campaign is created.
The two seem poised to continue on opposite tracks, building fanbases for whatever preferred setting and approach any given player may have. In any case, that’s a good sign for players growing tired of the fatigue of simulated contemporary war. Bring on the changes.