Maybe it's time for Call of Duty to drop the campaign

I love Call of Duty campaigns. Even at their worst, they're still worth a playthrough, as the series tries to explore complex themes while simultaneously offering up mindless Michael Bay-hem spectacle. As profoundly stupid as these games can be, I get the sense that they're often trying to be more than what they are. In between the poor plotting and hamfisted dialog, the recent Black Ops 3 makes an earnest attempt at telling a Phillip K. Dick-inspired nightmare where the the line between man and machine is practically nonexistent. It's not 'art' in the highfalutin sense, and it's not particularly subtle, but it's a lot more than most people give Call of Duty credit for.

But here's the thing: I'm clearly in the minority here. Because as of this writing, only 5.9% of all PS4 players have earned the trophy for finishing Black Ops 3's eight-hour-long story - and that's a significant decline from the 26.3% who completed last year's Advanced Warfare. I'm not sure why the numbers have dipped that low; it could be that more people ended up bailing on its lackluster campaign, or it could be that its co-op nature and lack of level selection restrictions means players are hopping from set-piece to set-piece, without actually 'completing' the game. But even taking Advanced Warfare's numbers into consideration, that's a little under three-quarters of its total players never finishing its six-hour-long campaign. It's enough to make me wonder if the series even needs a campaign anymore.

Activision clearly doesn't seem to think too much of these campaigns, as it's offering a last-gen version of Black Ops 3 for $50, which only includes the multiplayer and a co-op zombies mode. I don't want to be reductive and say that the Black Ops' story is only worth $10, but that's the message the difference in price is sending - that the campaign is the bonus, not the multiplayer. The season passes that Activision offers at an additional $50 a pop don't add anything significant to the single-player experience either, instead filling its already bursting multiplayer option with more maps, modes, and weapons to tide players over until the next yearly release.

There was a time when bundling a campaign along with multiplayer made sense for the series, back when Call of Duty was the young upstart on the block. It had something to prove, and its multiplayer wasn't the guaranteed sell it now is. But with Modern Warfare, the series finally figured out the hook it needed to keep people coming back, combining some of the tightest controls in the first-person shooter genre with a progression system that rewards constant play with a steady stream of unlocks.

The series continues to do exceptionally well, selling millions with each new entry, but as of January 2015, overall sales have been declining since Black Ops 2's release three years ago. And yet, Activision continues to pour money into three different studios, with games featuring three different storylines, all starring big-name Hollywood actors, for campaigns that a fraction of players will ever actually play. I'm all for getting to see some shit blow up in an expertly crafted action set-piece while a dead-eyed Kevin Spacey yells at me, but the quality between campaigns is scattershot - the stellar Advanced Warfare is sandwiched in between the underwhelming Ghosts and Black Ops 3, for instance - and its continued presence feels like a relic of a bygone era, like the only reason Activision continues to make them is because they've always been there.

Unfortunately, people just aren't coming to Call of Duty for that experience. While Larry Hryb (aka Microsoft's Major Nelson) hasn't provided Xbox Live activity data for anything after the week of November 25th, 2013, the stats for that week show four different Call of Duty games in the top ten most played Live titles on Xbox 360. Black Ops 2 is currently the most requested title for Xbox One backwards compatibility. It's clear that people are still playing these games, even years after their release. Considering that the completion percentages haven't really budged all that much, I highly doubt it's to run through the campaign again on a harder difficulty.

I've remarked how fully-priced multiplayer-only titles are a hard sell, but games like Evolve or even Titanfall don't have anywhere near the brand name recognition that Call of Duty does. And sure, they might lose a few sales from people who are only interested in the campaign, but the statistics show that most of the people who play it don't really care about the story - they just want to get to the part where they can mow down their friends as quickly as possible.

There's nothing quite like a hand-crafted Call of Duty roller coaster ride, and I'd certainly miss the campaigns if they weren't there. But I also know that I represent the tiniest fraction of Call of Duty's overall player base, and that the series' yearly schedule helmed by three different studios all but ensures an unpredictable level of quality year after year. Perhaps it's time to drop the pretense that anyone actually cares about these campaigns, and treat the series like what it really is: one hell of a multiplayer shooter.

David Roberts
David Roberts lives in Everett, WA with his wife and two kids. He once had to sell his full copy of EarthBound (complete with box and guide) to some dude in Austria for rent money. And no, he doesn't have an amiibo 'problem', thank you very much.