It might be an understatement to say I’ve been critical of the Modern Warfare series. Between articles about how the series miscasts the War on Terror, misrepresents Muslims and, at its worst, amounts to a $60 game of follow-the-leader, I’ve written more than 10,000 not-especially nice words about Activision’s favorite child.
You’d think I hate the whole enterprise, but you’d be wrong. While I find some aspects troubling, I think the games do many things well. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was a smart, layered game that never sacrificed nuance for the sake of action. World at War was an underappreciated classic. And even though the plot looked like a yarn factory with a kitten infestation, when you look through the debris Black Ops II has some interesting points about drone warfare.
It might be more accurate to say that I think the post-Modern Warfare games are an archaeological excavation – full of intriguing things, but you have to dig a bit to unearth them. And of course, they rarely fail as spectacle entertainment.
I therefore look forward to each new Call of Duty with both excitement and wariness – but this time excitement is winning. Apart from Activision’s inexcusably deceptive documentary marketing, what I’ve seen from Advanced Warfare makes me hope – perhaps even against my better judgment – for the best this time around.
COD Is Best When It’s Nuts, And This Looks Batshit Crazy
The modern-set Call of Duty games tend to work best when they’re completely off their rocker. And I don’t mean the doomsday-prepping-in-the-basement crazy of Ghosts or the box-checking-modern-anxieties crazy of Black Ops II, I mean the Nazi-scientists-Soviet-mind-control-Bay-of-Pigs-CIA-MKUltra-Kennedy-Assassination-here’s-some-zombies-too psychedelic acid tablet that was Black Ops.
Black Ops was great for two reasons: first, even though they were name-dropping real incidents and government programs, the fact that it went so over the top meant that there was no danger of the audience confusing what was onscreen with real events. Second, it took place during the Cold War, which is perhaps the perfect setting for the Modern Warfare series.
The best thing about setting a game in the Cold War is you don’t have to make a big show of establishing the stakes – nuclear annihilation literally hung over humanity at all times in the form of circling bombers. Plus, it’s a time in history where defense and intelligence organizations let their imaginations run wild, exploring options and writing scenarios that sound incredible to modern ears: hypnosis and LSD as behavioral modification techniques, for example, and poisoning Castro’s cigars. The Soviets wanted to circumnavigate Mars on a space train. The U.S. Air Force considered nuking the moon to intimidate the Russians. You can make up literally anything about the Cold War, no matter how ludicrous, and its seems plausible – even CoD‘s plotlines don’t seem too wild.
Advanced Warfare may not be that level of crazy, but they’re finally breaking away from the “realism” angle that’s held the series back so long. Because it’s set 40 years into the future, Advanced Warfare is effectively a sci-fi game, a comfortable space where they can feel inspired by near-future military technology rather than beholden to it. Sure, the game’s still about real world issues – sci-fi always is – but the future setting lets it live in the world of allegory rather than “what if” thriller treatment. Exoskeletons? Railguns? A globally powerful PMC? Bring it. As far as I’m concerned the further CoD gets from the War on Terror, the better.
It Seems to Have One Theme Rather Than 20
You won’t win any awards pointing out that the CoD series tends to have a problem with plot. But I’d argue that CoD‘s storytelling issues have less to do with plot than they do theme – and Advanced Warfare‘s theme looks strong.
The best Call of Duty games are built around a main idea. CoD4 argued that the grinding, grey-area nastiness of invasions and black operations were preferable to nuclear annihilation. World at War had a hidden moral choice system that commented on the ease with which soldiers fall into war crimes. Black Ops coalesced around the idea that the Cold War was a contest between two equally sinister, unfeeling military machines using individuals as their puppets.
Black Ops II on the other hand, felt scattered. It never focused on one theme. Is it about dangers of drone warfare? The tyranny of the mob? How America’s interventionism during the Regan era spawned our current enemies? It had a lot of excellent ideas, but no central thesis. Ditto both MW2 and MW3. Let’s not talk about Ghosts overmuch.
Advanced Warfare hammers that dangers of PMCs nail pretty hard in all the trailers, so I’m hoping’s the story’s backbone rather than just the loudest firework in the display. While there’s been some eye-rolling at Kevin Spacey’s casting, at least it means he’ll play a large enough role to justify his cost, and hopefully be less than a pop-in, pop-out villain like Makarov or that mustache general from MW2. Sledgehammer knows it was a coup getting him in the recording booth, and I’m willing to bet they’ll make his character the center of the story – and I look forward to seeing him eating the scenery with a knife and fork.
It Runs As Far From Call of Duty: Ghosts As Possible
Barring some backstory connection, Advanced Warfare feels like a rebrand. With a new studio, new engine, and an after-the-colon subtitle that can easily have a 2 or 3 appended, it’s mirroring the transformation the series went through with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. This hopefully means the brand can cut off the last of the gangrene that was the underwhelming, under-selling Call of Duty: Ghosts and get on with being top dog in the shooter space. While it’s true that there will probably be a Ghosts 2 at some point (if you suppressed a shudder there, so did I) I doubt Sledgehammer will be hurrying to connect their new beginning with Infinity Ward’s senioritis-laden sendoff.
Cool Weapons and Vehicles, And Yes, That Matters A Lot
You can talk all you want about story and character and depicting real-world events (and I do, frequently) but at some point you have to acknowledge that CoD is about the guns. Guns take up real estate on the screen throughout the game, and they’re the primary method of interacting with the world.
So it’s a big development that CoD can break out of the shotgun/SMG/assault rifle/sniper rifle/rocket launcher holding pattern that it’s maintained for so long. There have been developments over that time, of course, but after all that time the guns all just act like guns, with nothing so brilliant as Titanfall‘s smart pistol or magnetic grenade launchers for variety.
But not anymore. Game trailers point toward a directed energy weapon, homing grenades that seek out enemies, and an exoskeleton that can rip off pieces of the environment as a shield. There are other mobility and defensive devices as well, including ballistic shields that mirror you and gloves that climb up walls. It’s stuff that looks really exciting – provided they’re gameplay tools and not disposable one-time gadgets like the wingsuits and grappling hooks in Ghosts.
And then there are the hovercycles. Hovercycles. While I suspect there will be little functional difference between these and the snowmobiles in Modern Warfare, there’s a potential to do something new and different here, eve if it’s just looser controls and the potential to go over and under obstacles.
They’re Stealing, And That’s A Good Thing
Advanced Warfare‘s rocket-powered jump sure looks a lot like the jetpacks in Titanfall – and as far as I’m concerned that’s great. The lack of free movement strangled all the life out of Ghosts, and hopefully a little verticality, preferably married with larger environments, will give the series a little more momentum. Add in the tsunami-pounded multiplayer map that looks a bit like Battlefield 4‘s Levolution feature and it seems like Sledgehammer’s at least altering the formula enough to play catch-up. I’m all for it.
Innovation’s great and keeps genres fresh over multiple installments, but it’s not the only way to differentiate a game. Look at Dishonored. That game stole mechanics and ideas from a half-dozen other games and put its own thematic stamp on them, and as a result it was amazing. If Sledgehammer proves even half as shameless at pillaging the best parts of other games, it could give the series the blood transfusion it desperately needs.
Female Soldiers In the Campaign
If you put CoD’s not-great treatment of Middle Easterners to the side, the series has a pretty good history of representation. Back in the World War II days you’d play as Russians, Brits, and even Polish soldiers. The American Missions in MW2 centered around a black Sergeant Foley and the hilariously put-upon player character, Private Ramirez. Black Ops II had you play as a Middle Eastern undercover agent and tech expert. But apart from multiplayer and a jet pilot, CoD has generally stuck with the (now ended) U.S. military policy of not putting women in combat roles.
But what’s that at 2:04 of the gameplay trailer? It looks like an exoskeleton-wearing woman knife fighting an enemy. It’s a minor detail, but I liked seeing it – it’s another symbol that the series is evolving and taking risks.
They’re Talking to the Right People
Peter Singer is a political scientist, international relations scholar, and basically the go-to guy for anything involving emerging trends in 21st century warfare. He has a Ph.D. from Harvard, served on the Balkans Task Force at the Department of Defense, at the International Peace Academy, and on the Obama campaign’s Defense Policy Task Force. Currently a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Singer heads the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence.
And he’s a consultant on Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, a role he also took on for Black Ops II and MGS4.
Singer’s research interests make him the perfect consultant for CoD:AW. His book, Corporate Warriors was the first to study the increasing use of military contractors in modern conflict. He’s also written books on child soldiers, a New York Times bestseller on drone warfare, and most recently co-authored Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know with Allan Friedman.
So what will Singer’s contribution be like?
Singer’s theory is that the new battlefields of the 21st century will be filled with technological threats such as drones and cyberwarfare – a marriage of counterinsurgency, high technology and information warfare wielded by both state and non-state actors. Since Advanced Warfare begins with the world’s first simultaneous international terror attack and the trailers include “drone swarms,” it’s safe to say Sledgehammer’s been listening to him – and that bodes well for the game.
Another safe bet is that Advanced Warfare will draw on questions the Pentagon’s been kicking around for the last year – namely how to fight wars in mega-cities of 10-20 million people. Operating in such an environment could pose digital challenges beyond the traditional meat grinder nature of urban warfare. Consider a future where hostile locals post troop movements to Twitter or even manufacture suicide drones via 3D printing. The possibility concerns the U.S. Army and Marine Corps enough that several think tanks are puzzling out the details and this month the Army War College hosted a “deep future wargame” set in a coastal megacity.
One of the hotspots cropping up on the Pentagon’s list of possible battlefields is Lagos, Nigeria, a city of 21 million people. Lagos is also riven by conflict with the Islamist terror group Boko Haram, which tried to bomb the city’s international airport last week.
Lagos, incidentally, appears as a mission location in Advanced Warfare.
So the question is, will these predictions turn out to be true? And even if they do, will they break up the flagging Modern Warfare formula and give us something different enough to hold our interest?
We can only wait and see, and hope that in this instance, having is better than wanting.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in The Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.