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What is Call of Duty in 2018?

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When your franchise has to fight for its identity

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 - Firebreak aiming a gun Treyarch/Activision

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 will not have a single-player campaign — but it will have a Battle Royale mode. This is an interesting turn of events for a few reasons, one being that it invites a simple question: What is Call of Duty in 2018?

What Call of Duty used to be

Call of Duty was once the game known by people who don’t play video games. The series had been filtered through gaming culture into the mainstream due to its massive popularity and near-ubiquity in gaming circles. Call of Duty was talked about by athletes and rappers, and featured surreal amounts of well-known faces in its commercials. If it wasn’t too big to fail, it was at least too big to ignore.

That marketing feels ridiculously tone deaf in 2018; I’m writing this article while also watching reports of yet another school shooting, and the images of virtual civilians turning arms on each other are almost hard to watch. Eminem’s Call of Duty-themed music video from 2013, which has over 144 million views on YouTube, also feels anachronistic.

The cultural cachet of a series advertised as making it easy for everyone to virtually pick up guns and kill people is a tricky subject now. We live in a world where the more cartoon-y Fortnite has taken over the mainstream imagination, and it has to be galling for Call of Duty’s publisher, Activision, to realize that Fortnite’s celebrity fans aren’t being paid by Epic Games to show up.

But Call of Duty didn’t fall out of the public imagination all at once, and that can’t be pinned down to one thing. Hero shooters like Overwatch made characters more important to the community, and battle royale games like PUBG and Fortnite proved to be more popular with streamers. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tied up the ultra-hardcore competitive audience. The biggest games in the world are now services that update continuously, a shift from Call of Duty’s annual schedule of $60 games.

Tastes changed, and Call of Duty’s weird split of casual and hardcore elements didn’t seem to change with them. Call of Duty games began to feel like a celebration of bro-culture and faceless, mostly male soldiers at a time when bigger games tried to be more inclusive while moving away from the sort of direct celebration of gun violence that Call of Duty leaned into. Call of Duty games didn’t die off in terms of sales, but their cultural importance certainly waned.

What Call of Duty could be

But Activision seems eager to turn that around. The publisher is now using Call of Duty to chase the battle royale trend that Fortnite has become the face of. That mode is called Blackout, and it’s a part of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, the next iteration of the franchise.

“For us to even consider this experience,” design director David Vonderhaar said during a hyped-up live reveal of Black Ops 4 this week, “it had to be unique and done in the way that only Black Ops can do it.”

The team isn’t hiding the fact that Call of Duty is now chasing trends instead of creating them. But what is the secret sauce that will help this mode stand out from all the other games in the Battle Royale genre? Does the franchise still have an identity that will help Blackout stand out against its entrenched competitors?

The good news is that, even without the same cultural ubiquity it once had, Call of Duty has always delivered some of the tightest gunplay in the business. If you’re tired of PUBG’s idiosyncratic weapons or turned off by Fortnite’s reliance on building mechanics, Blackout may give you an entry into the battle royale genre in a way that takes advantage of your existing skills in shooters instead of asking you to build new ones. That’s an opportunity that only a series this big can provide, and it’s a sizable advantage.

By excising a campaign and replacing it with a new game mode aimed at the audiences of two of the biggest games in the world, Black Ops 4 has a rare opportunity to help redefine what Call of Duty is. It doesn’t matter if you follow instead of lead if you execute well on your vision. That’s going to be the challenge of Black Ops 4especially now that Call of Duty has ditched the celebrity cameos or angry rappers.

So what is Call of Duty? I guess we’ll find out when Black Ops 4 launches on Oct. 12, 2018, on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.