This piece contains spoilers for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
I played Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare the other week, mostly because I’ve not touched a Call of Duty game since long before we started this website, which was the catalyst for my approach to games expanding significantly. It was an interesting experience, to revisit something that was important to someone who isn’t me anymore, and catch up with how it’s doing these days first hand.
For all intents and purposes, Advanced Warfare is competent, if not legitimately great by its own standards. It hits all the beats a Call of Duty is meant to hit, the levels flow from setpiece to setpiece with a sense of purpose, and there’s very rarely a drag in the pacing. These are ebbs and flows that have long since been calculated, refined within an inch of their lives and executed upon with a deft and considered touch. There’s nothing as impactful as Call of Duty 4, but there’s nothing as embarrassingly dull as Modern Warfare 3; the game is a constant pleasant buzzing in the ear, a way to occupy my hands as I sit in a skype call.
There is a but – of course there is a but – and it’s the obvious one. It’s a Call of Duty game, it is what it is, jingoistic and cruel yet persistently inoffensive. Seemingly designed not to elicit but to placate, all the while delivering ideology that veers from the questionable to the inexcusably repugnant from year to year. If Advanced Warfare was just that, it would be gross and awful, but in a manner barely worth commenting on. What makes Advanced Warfare interesting, and indeed frustrating, is for at least its opening act, it appeared to be the opposite.
When I say the opposite, I don’t just mean that it’s another franchise entry in which the seeds of promising and interesting ideas are drowned out by the status quo. I mean that the politics and themes the game conveys through its opening are directly in contrast with the eventual climax as to render the entire work thoroughly incoherent.
This is the game’s opening monologue:
“We come into this world with our eyes closed. And most of us choose to live our whole lives that way. We blindly follow anyone who will lead us… giving ourselves over to anything that provides us with a sense of purpose. For me, it was the Marines.”
Mitchell (our resident Troy Baker gruff boy protagonist), delivers this monologue not over footage of briefing screens and maps, but over shots of thousands of Marines in a ship, getting ready to deploy. We are given no context for the war we are about to fight, and are placed in the shoes of a soldier as disconnected from these wars as I am. It’s honestly a fantastic opening, one that stands in direct opposition to the obsession with information that had once defined Call of Duty’s storytelling. Maybe there is someone watching a briefing screen, getting technological breakdowns of the weapons that will be used, flying around a digitized map of the world from exposition point to exposition point – but that someone is not you. The soldier is shown as exploited and dispensable, and you fight through the streets of a war that has nothing to do with you, sacrificing your arm and your friend for a cause that wasn’t yours.
As mocked as it was on release, the infamous “press F to pay respects” interaction is perhaps the most effective interaction in the game, serving as the emotional release of Mitchell’s (and by association, the player’s) disillusionment with the US Military. The American flag is draped over the coffin, important men whom you have never met sit viewing along the side. This is a hero’s funeral for a man who died a hero’s death, sacrificing himself for a cause he believed in, but a cause the game has up until this point presented as hollow.
Five or so hours later, the game ends with a jingoistic and cruel revenge tale, bafflingly played as a redemption narrative. Kevin Spacey dies begging you to save his life, as you ignore his pleas and cut of your own prosthetic arm to send him hurtling to a fiery grave. Not two minutes earlier, he held a gun to your head and refused to fire, saying directly to camera: “I’m not a monster.”
What happens to tie point A to point B is tedious and disappointing, as the game not only disregards its earlier nods to nuance, but invokes its most interesting elements as mere setup for the payoff of upholding the status quo. It is Mitchell’s lack of faith in the Marines that lead him to being exploited by the clearly evil Kevin Spacey, reframing the entire systemic critique instead as an indictment of Mitchell’s audacity to ever doubt his nationalism. A nationalism that the game’s opening goes out of its way to portray as hollow. In the end, the world burns around you but you killed the man who burnt it in cold blood, now 0% Technology and 100% Marine. Hoo-Rah.
What’s interesting to me isn’t the journey within Advanced Warfare, the conflict within the work itself, but rather the fact that point A and point B can and do exist within the same work. The most valuable takeaway of Call of Duty isn’t an examination of the ways it functions as a repellent work of military propaganda, but the ways it reflects the realities of game development in the hellscape that is the modern AAA space. For an example, watch Ian Danskin’s video on the way the game’s advertising and reviews create a narrative that runs counter to the game’s purpose as a multiplayer shooter. Or look at Cameron Kunzelman’s video on Homefront, laying out the skilful craft that went into the game’s thematic arguments, and the strange moment that craft seems to completely disappear.
When viewed in this wider context, a game such as this ceases to be a baffling combination of incompetent and competent, but the inevitable output of an exploitative industrial system: Questions have to be raised skillfully and deftly to justify the fervour, but they can never be answered lest they burst this whole bubble. Advanced Warfare may refuse to acknowledge the systemic critique that it already articulated, but when considering the Call of Duty series, we shouldn’t make the same mistake.