Exploits Feature

Is it Alt to Like Call of Duty These Days?

This is a reprint of the feature essay from Issue #71 of Exploits, our collaborative cultural diary in magazine form. If you like what you see, buy it now for $2, or subscribe to never miss an issue (note: Exploits is always free for subscribers of Unwinnable Monthly). 


What was in vogue one minute becomes passé or retro in the blink of an eye. No matter how such brands and ideas remain steady in the halls of capitalism, their cultural role can shift in a heartbeat. The bold becomes mundane. The mundane becomes obscure and niche. And I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve reached the point where even a financial juggernaut like Call of Duty, with its intensely divided fanbase, never-ending vitriol and splintering creative focus . . . can be considered alternative.

It sounded like madness when I first considered it. Then I considered the entries in the series that have resonated with not only myself, but friends of mine who otherwise weren’t huge on the franchise during its purported heyday on the Xbox 360. Black Ops 3, Infinite Warfare, Cold War, Vanguard and now Sledgehammer’s Modern Warfare 3 (2023) are all fascinating games – but if you ask most of the Call of Duty fandom, they regard them as the red-headed stepchildren of the franchise. It doesn’t matter that they came from studios beloved for past titles, or how they build upon the foundations of what was enjoyed before. The fact they dared to push the creative needle at all in the AAA space is something to be . . . disparaged? Why not, instead, encourage it and appreciate what’s been accomplished?

Black Ops 3 is effectively the best Ghost in the Shell game we’ve ever received. Infinite Warfare easily has the meatiest campaign in years. Cold War is a choose-your-own-adventure spy thriller. Vanguard offers an anthology of meaningfully distinct microcampaigns. Now Modern Warfare 3 offers an unparalleled amount of player agency in a franchise often derided for de-prioritizing agency for spectacle. Most missions, even the more scripted ones, take more after Dishonored or Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts rather than Uncharted.

Most of these could easily be standalone IPs if brand recognition alone wasn’t used to sell them. If anything, the Call of Duty name is beginning to feel like an albatross around their necks, restraining their true potential under the weight of conflicting fan expectations. Call of Duty is just so damn big that it’s literally impossible to please everyone. Modern Warfare 3 is sitting at “Very Negative” on Steam, yet I can find a match in any mode fully populated. I’ve had heady conversations about Black Ops 3 and Cold War years after the fact. Infinite Warfare has reached the point in its cultural bell curve where it’s finally getting loving retrospectives from the sort of people you didn’t even think played, much less cared about Call of Duty.

And as such, I cannot avoid pondering the unexpected reality that perhaps, despite selling gangbusters as always, and being under the menacing grip of Activision’s infinitely greedy executives . . . has the mere act of liking Call of Duty, especially when it bothers to try something new, become alternative? Is it punkish to enjoy this now?

While others obsess over minutia like whether their pretend soldier men can run on walls or jump from a slide like a baby seal, is it bolder to just appreciate that someone is still trying to have an ounce of creativity in a monolith – especially one that realistically doesn’t need, let alone deserve, that energy? In a world that’s already so angry? Maybe.

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