Whenever a military-themed shooter comes out, the first thing many people say is "oh great, here comes another Call of Duty clone". It's a term used as a slur against a game, saying that it's not just copying another game, it's copying another game that for many has long run out of ideas.
Why, then, is it so hard for people who are copying Call of Duty to actually pull it off and do just as good, if not better, than Call of Duty?
The series has been the world's biggest and most popular shooter for five years now, the release of the original Modern Warfare setting a bar that no other developer, no matter how much money they throw at the idea, can match.
I think I know why. They're not appreciating what actually makes Call of Duty so popular.
I mean, they get the superficial reasons. Manly men shooting guns at stereotypical enemies of the West, high production values, lots of explosions. But I don't think rival developers, particularly Electronic Arts, look any deeper than that.
The thing that drives Call of Duty's multiplayer - and indeed, a lot of its singleplayer appeal - isn't necessarily the acting, or setting, or story, or even level design. I don't think it's even the multiplayer structure of perks and killstreaks. It's the feel of the gun in your hands. That's a hard thing to quantify, like trying to describe Mario's jump, but it's just as important: Call of Duty's "tight" shooting, and the speed with which you can snap in and out of your iron sights, is what makes the action of pulling the trigger so responsive and enjoyable in that game.
Some of the series' developers have acknoweldged as much, with Sledgehammer Games' Glen Scofield (who worked on Modern Warfare 3) telling AusGamers last year that the fact CoD games run at 60 frames-per-second "is our competitive edge".
Shooting in a Call of Duty game is something you're doing constantly and instinctively, so it's not as easy or as noticeable to pin down as more obvious things like characters and the visuals, but again like Mario's jump, it's the source of much of the drip-fed pleasure many gamers get out of the series.
In short, there's no game on Earth that shoots as well as Call of Duty. And for a shooter, that's important.
The other thing I think most rival developers miss, and this one's related only to singleplayer, is that it's not Call of Duty's reliance on scripting that is the key to its success. It's the way it hides that scripting.
You want to know why so many critics, and let's be honest most consumers think so highly of Call of Duty singleplayer campaigns? Because the scripting is done so well you often don't notice it. I mean, yes, instinctively you know it, but the games often do such a good job of propelling you with their level design, sign-posting and pacing that you rarely stop to care.
That's why instances like the hilarious "SHOOT THE HINGES" stand out, I think: because they're exceptions. Rivals like Medal of honour are full of such moments, when the roller-coaster ride of scripting and pacing essentially breaks down, stranding you in a stage and pulling back the curtain on your immersion with a level. It's why those games are rightly criticised for being linear while Call of Duty is often (though not universally) lauded: simply being linear isn't always a fault if it's done well.
(Note: I've found Infinity Ward to be much better with this trick than Treyarch, who with tiring instances like the Vietnam hillside in Black Ops and the opening African level of Black Ops II show they're not quite as savvy).
So, developers, if you're making, or are planning to make a near-future military shooter, don't just copy Call of Duty's trimmings. All that macho bullshit and stereotypical action is the worst part of Activision's series, and should be the last thing you're copying. Instead, dig a little deeper and look at Call of Duty's bones. It's there you'll find the keys to the series' success, and the things you should really be trying to copy.