Opinion: Call of Duty still hasn’t gotten co-op completely right

Roughly a year ago to the day, I wrote a feature which focused on the woefully shallow way in which Sledgehammer Games approached co-op multiplayer in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. In the feature, I talked about how Advanced Warfare’s barebones Exo Survival mode lacked many of the more compelling aspects of its competitive multiplayer component, things like a progression system, unlockable rewards, customizable avatars and the game’s new Supply Drops feature.

Now, a year later, we have Treyarch’s Call of Duty: Black Ops III, a game which actually makes some nice strides for co-op multiplayer, but which still sadly puts competitive multiplayer on a much higher pedestal. Having looked back on the collective Call of Duty series as far back as the Modern Warfare trilogy, I came to a disheartening conclusion: Call of Duty developers have a woefully consistent lack of confidence in co-op multiplayer which is becoming harder to ignore.

Allow me to explain.

Playing Second Fiddle

If you’ve read some of my other features and opinion pieces, you probably know that I am not the biggest fan of competitive multiplayer. What many see as a fun, thrilling test of skill I see as a sometimes fun, yet mostly frustrating activity which I have to begrudgingly indulge in since it’s still the most common form of multiplayer seen in games. Not to say I never enjoy my time playing competitive multiplayer games, it’s just my ratio of enjoyment vs. frustration/exhaustion is definitely at least 30/70. Competitive multiplayer has been a part of the core Call of Duty formula pretty much since the series’ early beginnings, but the franchise has been a lot slower to embrace co-op, or, to put it more plainly, embrace co-op with any sense of commitment.

Let’s look at the series’ various implementations of co-op from the Modern Warfare trilogy onward:

  • Modern Warfare 2: the first Modern Warfare didn’t even have a cooperative element, just the standard competitive multiplayer. Modern Warfare 2 introduced a cooperative mode called Spec Ops in which players (playing either alone or with a friend) completed various missions based off of locations and objectives from the story campaign. While players could unlock additional missions by performing well in previous missions, Spec Ops lacked the XP-based progression/unlocks found in the competitive multiplayer
  • Modern Warfare 3: Spec Ops returned in Modern Warfare 3, this time with two separate components (standard linear missions and a wave-based horde mode call Survival). While MW3’s version of Spec Ops did have a progression system, it was far more limited than the competitive multiplayer component’s system, consisting of little else other than unlockable weapons and in-game support items. Meanwhile the competitive component’s progression featured unlockable weapons, attachments, grenades, perks, cosmetic items and custom classes.
  • Zombies: the off-shoot Zombies mode has been a staple of the Call of Duty Black Ops sub-series, first appearing in 2008’s World at War and showing up again in the three subsequent Black Ops games. While each game’s Zombies mode has featured interesting elements like zany over-the-top stories and celebrity guest appearances, only the most recent iteration, Black Ops III’s Shadows of Evil, has a permanent progression system, and said system, much like Modern Warfare 3’s Spec Ops, is woefully barebones when stacked up against the competitive component’s progression system.
  • Ghosts: Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty: Ghosts came closer than any other Call of Duty game to implementing a co-op experience which was equal in every way to its competitive component…yet it still ultimately failed. The game’s Squads component, a separate suite of modes which focused on battling AI enemies, put a cap on how much XP you could earn per match, and the new avatar customization items the game introduced could only be unlocked in the standard competitive modes. The game’s other co-op option, the sci-fi-themed Extinction mode, did have its own separate progression system, but, once again, it was a pale shadow of the competitive component’s progression, offering nothing more than shallow weapon/support item unlocks.
  • Advanced Warfare: As I mentioned before, Sledgehammer Games didn’t even try to make Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s Exo Survival mode as compelling as the competitive multiplayer. Exo Survival featured no progression system of any kind, and aside from a global leaderboard, there really wasn’t much incentive to play the mode more than once or twice. Having Exo Survival lead into the DLC Exo Zombies campaign via a hidden easter egg was a nice touch, but, like Exo Survival, Exo Zombies had no progression system, and it could only be played by those who bought each of the game’s pricey DLC packs.   
  • Black Ops III: Aside from the previously mentioned Shadows of Evil, Call of Duty: Black Ops III is the first Call of Duty game to feature a campaign which can be played cooperatively with up to four players at a time. The campaign even allows players to customize their characters and level up through a separate progression track. However, the ability to customize your character is very limited, as is the progression system. Unless you’re a die-hard fan who wants to beat the campaign on multiple difficulty levels, the progression system and character customization are definitely not enough to keep you hooked once you’ve beaten the campaign.

A Level Playing Field

Intentionally or not, the various developers who create Call of Duty games have shown a clear lack of interest in making their respective co-op modes feel as compelling as their competitive components. From a financial standpoint, this actually makes a fair amount of sense considering competitive multiplayer is hands down the most popular of the three central “pillars” (story campaign, competitive multiplayer, co-op/Zombies) that make up most modern Call of Duty games. However, we have long past reached a point where co-op multiplayer is becoming more than just a fun one-off novelty, which means Call of Duty developers need to stop treating it like the under-cooked appetizer leading to the competitive multiplayer full-course meal.

Give us more reasons to invest in the co-op. Give us progression systems which are as deep as those found in the competitive multiplayer. Or, better yet, make the three pillars found in each game more symbiotic and interconnected. Imagine how awesome it would be getting to earn XP and unlocks from a unified progression system no matter which mode you were playing. Heck, I’d be happy with bot-populated competitive matches that awarded half the XP as a standard competitive match (or maybe just took a page out of Ghosts’ Squads mode and put a cap on the amount of XP earned). That’s how desperate I am for a truly robust Call of Duty experience which didn’t force me to constantly go up against other players.

It is disheartening to get my hopes up year after year, praying for a Call of Duty game which will contain a truly robust cooperative experience, only to be let down time and again. I’m still keeping my fingers crossed however, and you never know, 2016 might be the year I get what I have been craving ever since I first booted up Modern Warfare 2.