“Mitchell, [insert command here].”
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s single player campaign can be summed up in combinations of that single sentence. “Mitchell, open the door. Mitchell, grab that rocket launcher. Mitchell, advance the story.” These constant directives are actually quite fitting. Military themed games are perfect for the linear side of the medium because blindly following orders makes sense in this scheme. Especially in one that so heavily relies on, frankly, lazy direction to get you from point A to B. Unlike franchises that perfected moving the player through linear narratives, I’m thinking Half-life 2 in particular, Advanced Warfare relies on yellow markers telling you exactly where to go. The silky and responsive gunfire is hampered as a result. Another consequence of this insular design is that there’s an unexpected resonance between the story and the gameplay.
The way Advanced Warfare is built reinforces what the game has to say about war, heroism, nationalism, and in particular geopolitics: there’s only one answer. And this is where Advanced Warfare really fails to innovate. For all the knocks on derivative play, which isn’t completely accurate for this installment, the true act of treason is failing to push its narrative’s approach to war into sophisticated and adult realms. I do realize the irony in attributing the words “adult” and “sophisticated” to CoD. The problem is that the game occasionally shows it is fully aware of its shallowness, possibly hinting that it would like to grow up. Maybe the writers are bound by publisher politics and an adherence to what the marketers understand the consumers’ ideology to be. Regardless, for all of Advanced Warfare’s cutting edge technology, its geopolitics remains stuck in the age of the Roman Empire.
The story is what you would expect: patriotic, pompous, and predictable. The arc follows Jake Mitchell, a 20 something year old, that looks exactly like you would stereotype the target market for CoD to look like. This stereotyped appearance I would wager isn’t incidental. But besides the focus group character design, there are some strong moments of commentary pointing at the complex machinations of war. Mainly these scenes occur when Kevin Spacey’s character is involved. His private military corporation, Atlas, allows Sledgehammer Games to comment on the nature of propaganda and privatized militaries.
The irony is that although America is ultimately positioned as the hero, the “right” in a world of corrupt corporations, the U.S. military industry in reality very much resembles Atlas. It is the largest military in the world, the most advance, the most well-funded, the powerhouse that the U.N. expects to get involved, and always acting with an entitled sense of administering “justice.” If the writers at Sledgehammer were attempting to make this connection, the “us vs. them” split undermines any attempt at adding a multidimensional representation of America’s military power.
The most provocative and impressive literary device we see utilized are the Atlas ads that frame certain missions. These are done in a style not unlike those used by the different U.S. military branches. Swap out “Army Strong” for “Atlas Strong.” The merger of marketing and propaganda that are these videos offer up a view of these recruitment tools as the arm of a privatized corporation. Besides the obvious, how systemically different are PMCs and the US military industry? Atlas’s rhetoric of “hope, security, progress” is a weird sort of satire. At once being an obvious play on American political speak, and the very real verbal packaging that the call-to-war uses. These “commercials” are so well done that they straddle this line of being realistic (“Serve your nation, protect your family”), but in their sincerity expose the absurdity of the vision military recruitment propaganda propagates.
The interactive component of this game doesn’t fare as well. It’s an 8 hour tutorial that will introduce you to throw away mechanics you’ll never see again or some you will see in multiplayer. The play is 1.5 dimensional with an occasionally inspired set piece that adds some depth to this puddle. The biggest problem here is one of agency. The player gets dragged by the game itself. Advance Warfare feels more like Transformers the ride than it does interactive medium. And in being a spectacle it does succeed. It’s simply not that engaging.
There are moments near the end of game where it hints at the possibility of an open world war experience. One that is dynamic, slightly self-directed, and vastly more interesting in the possibilities that it could the give the player. This opportunity is thrown away, likely because the resources to create these systems are smartly spent on the component of the game with ROI, multiplayer. One positive that does come from this campaign is that it reinforces and makes me appreciate the greatness of Half-Life 2’s design. In that game you are funneled, but it never feels like it and the pace is solely the player’s. Advanced Warfare is totalitarian in comparison. You’d think that a game drenched in American ideals of freedom and independence would allow its players those same liberties.
Advanced Warfare’s campaign is still another story about (basically) white men saving the country from foreign evils, albeit this time in the shape of a corporation, not a country full of brown people. When discussing my thoughts on the game’s first grade level geopolitics, a colleague astutely replied with, “so you want Metal Gear Solid?” And he’s right. Although I’ve heavily criticized MGS4 in the past, Kojima’s outlandish and fantastical vision of war is much truer to the complexities of these issues. It’s a bit sad when a franchise that has a recurring peeing pants gag has more to say about violent geopolitics than the biggest war franchise in the world. And maybe that’s expecting too much. His pee jokes aside, what Kojima does manage to say is that war is not about good and evil. It’s often much more complicated.
The Manichean model of black and white doesn’t do justice to the sophisticated nature of ideology, politics, beliefs, economics, lives, and death that make up all armed conflicts. For CoD then to innovate and provoke, it simply has to answer the questions it has mostly avoided: What about the victims, the collateral horror, the PTSD, the ethical compromises, the other sides of these stories?