For many and varied reasons I have not traditionally found myself getting along with the Call of Duty franchise, but to narrow it down to a quick summary; I’m a big fan of narrative and not the world’s biggest fan of online multiplayer, and so Call of Duty and I are on completely different ideologies.
This trend, by and large, continues with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. I can fully recognise why people would enjoy the game, but it’s a game that is most certainly not built with my demographic in mind.
I’ve played most of the series now, because I do believe it’s important that a critic is exposed to the most important games across the field that he or she follows, and Call of Duty is certainly important, but I’ve never really paid attention to them with the kind of critical eye that I turn to games I’m reviewing. Playing them that way I have found them to be true blockbuster games, with all of the context that that entails. And I’ve been able to appreciate them in the same way that I can switch off an enjoy a Michael Bay film (well, okay, some Michael Bay films) without caring too much about what’s actually going on.
But were I to review a Michael Bay film it’d be a very different matter, as it is here.
I want to start by making it clear that I don’t believe I’m the right person to analyse Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s multiplayer mode. I’ve messed around with it to ensure that it works before sitting down to write the review (and I can confirm that yes, it does work), but I don’t think I can provide any analysis beyond stating that it does play like a well-designed multiplayer shooter, with maps cleverly designed to maximise fast tactics and force people to stay on the move. I don’t really know how well these maps compare with previous Call of Duty games, or the maps on Battlefield games and other FPS rivals, because I’ve never been invested enough to really analyse what separates a great multiplayer map from a poor one. I did, however, enjoy earning drone strikes and other overpowered weapons, and I found the series’ new exoskeleton that allows for fast dodging and double jobs certainly added an additional dynamism to the combat and a verticality as people leap about the place. There’s a lot of energy to the multiplayer in this game, and I do suspect that it’s going to go down well with Activision’s target demographics, but that’s about all I can say about that side of things.
What I do understand intimately well as a critic is narrative – in fact, storytelling and all that entails is what matters to me most when I play games. I was actually interested in seeing how this game would turn out as a narrative exercise, because in recruiting Kevin Spacey at his acting prime Activision has demanded that people pay genuine attention to the single player campaign of a Call of Duty game for the first time in many years. Unfortunately, there are deep thematic flaws with the way that Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare tells its story. These flaws make it difficult as someone who enjoys a good yarn to get along with what Activision is offering.
The “press Square to pay respects” storytelling sequence (you can see the screencap below for what has already become a meme) is emblematic of everything that is wrong with Sledgehammer Games’ approach to storytelling. Lacking any understanding of subtlety, the scene is an incredibly awkward attempt to brute force emotional engagement into the player, but it instead achieves the opposite; it cheapens the gravity of a funeral and of the concept of death from war. Reducing such emotional weight to a single button press is a contrivance that fails on the most fundamental level to understand how interactivity should be used build an emotional connection between player and game narrative. I honestly struggle to think how a team of adult, creative people could have thought that this scene was a good idea.
But it’s not just that scene that’s an issue; Advanced Warfare raises all kinds of red flags throughout its entire story that tells players this isn’t just a poor narrative, but a relentlessly juvenile one. The rampant nationalism and chest-beating patriotism is blatant from the very first scene, with a running theme that insists that the ‘good guys’ from around the world would be completely at the mercy of the ‘bad guys’ were it not for their American saviours and liberators. Almost every soldier is a veritable G.I Joe, swooping in to save the day and displaying an unquestioning and infalliable commitment to righteousness and their fellow soldiers. Paladins in shining white armour they might be, but the one-note characterisation means that even after playing through the entire campaign I can’t remember a single character’s name. My allies are less memorable than the orange dot I need to follow to the next objective, and my own character was some dude that lost an arm. If I can’t remember the name of a major character, then it’s a clear sign that either the performance or writing was poor, and in this game’s case, it was both.
After the opening couple of missions that are fully draped in blue and red stripes, the plot begins twisting into something like a discarded Tom Clancy novel. It eases up on exporting patriotism to the rest of the world and instead falls back on another old favourite of Hollywood blockbuster entertainment: an attack on Americans from within. I suspect the intention here is to juxtapose with the earlier scenes to make it clear that the only real threat that America faces is from itself, or perhaps I’m giving it too much credit and it is another lazy attempt to pull emotion out of the player. Americans do have an emotional connection with their famous architecture (people of any nation in the world do, really), and just like generic action films like to reduce the Statue of Liberty to rubble to shock the audience at the destruction of New York, so too does Advanced Warfare want to make you angry that to see the Golden Gate Bridge fall to a terrorist plot.
Stitching this plot together – which would be inoffensive albeit generic enough otherwise – is some of the weakest writing and dialogue that you’ll ever see in a game. Short of having a guy fall to his knees and scream “nooooooooooooo” the entire checklist of ‘dramatic’ and ‘profound’ scenes is covered off in Advanced Warfare. The whole reason you’re mashing the Square button at the funeral is because, when disarming a hostile drone-thing, your character’s best friend in the army gets his arm stuck in the drone’s door with a bomb inside it ticking down. Naturally he shoves you off the drone, saving your life, as he promises to “meet you on the other side.” It’s woefully melodramatic stuff, and even Kevin Spacey struggles to deliver his lines convincingly. On the plus side the visual guys did do a good job capturing and animating Spacey’s face, so it does in fact look like him, and in fairness the Raspberry for worst performance in a video game for the year is still going to Peter Dinklage.
Now with all that said, I do realise and appreciate that there are people that enjoy this kind of story. Furthermore, Call of Duty games are developed with the American audience in mind, and for obvious reasons stroking the flames of patriotism makes sense from a purely commercial level. But even then, if you are the target audience, there are films out there that have shown you can run with these kinds of themes in an interesting and engaging manner – Saving Private Ryan springs immediately to mind. For all the advancements in technology that we’ve seen, Advanced Warfare contines to demonstrate to the other arts communities in the world that the storytelling side of game development still has growing up to do.
The singular focus of the Call of Duty narrative plays reflected in the level design as well, which is as linear as the series has ever been known for. The basic loop is as follows; there’s a corridor to walk down, and group of enemies to shoot up, an explosion or two, and then the next corridor to follow. There’s the occasional bit of variety, such as an obligatory stealth section, and even, amusingly enough, what can only be described as a first person Frogger clone, but for the most part were you take the left thumb stick away from the player and turn on movement auto drive you would instantly have an on-rails shooter, with virtually no other changes to the gameplay. Sledgehammer Games tries hard to hide the extremely limited level design beneath big explosions and some QTE-heavy action sequences pulled straight from a blockbuster film, but it’s like a game designed by someone with Attention Deficit Disorder – it’s kinetic and energetic, but that comes at the expense of any genuinely interesting or creative level design.
The final disappointment is the exoskeletons, which were meant to be the game’s new gimmick, and which we’re meant to believe turn the soldiers (including your own) into superheroes capable of all kinds of impossible feats. A couple of these features work in the context of the firefights with enemies: the ability to double jump does add the same vertical mobility to your arsenal, as it does in multiplayer, and there are some neat grenades with a range of different effects (my favourite is the one that highlights where enemies are where visibility is otherwise limited). But outside of these relatively limited application, the exosuit only does its really cool stuff when the game’s design demands it. You can only climb walls when you’re told to climb a specific wall, for instance, and this is a big waste in opportunity, because the wall climbing ability is really cool and I would have loved to be able to use it to find creative ways to approach difficult firefights. Activision is going to want to be careful about how linear its games are going forwards, because I suspect with the next gen hardware enabling open worlds more easily than ever, and the likes of Far Cry ever growing in popularity, people are going to start feeling claustrophobic in narrow corridors and tightly scripted firefights.
More than anything else, though, what is most frustrating about Call of Duty is that, mechanically, it’s perfectly sound. The guns have a nice weight to them and there’s a cinematic quality to the way it’s all cobbled together that impresses, just as Michael Bay can impress when his narratives aren’t making my want to beat my head against a brick wall. And Activision did invest in the acting talents of Kevin Spacey and really did do a good job of bringing him into the game. However, I don’t think it was unreasonable to expect that a new developer to the franchise, coupled with a new generation of hardware and renewed effort on the single player mode, would also mean a maturing to the Call of Duty franchise, and that didn’t happen.
Once again I fully appreciate that Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s main selling point is its multiplayer modes and a host of things that don’t necessarily resonate with me on a personal level. That’s why I’m going to be generous with the score, as you’ll see below. I do think that Sledgehammer Games has nailed the brief that Activision set for it. And I do think that when it comes time to be as objective as possible and score a game, nailing the brief should count for something.
But as someone who deeply cares about narrative in game, it’s immensely frustrating to see the money that Activition is clearly throwing at the narrative not bearing fruit. People tell me that narrative isn’t important to Call of Duty, but if that’s the case then Activision should not be investing in Kevin Spacey, and should simply pull the plug on single player and invest solely in multiplayer gaming. More than anything else I do believe that if you’re going to do a story, you should do it properly. There’s the world of potential in Call of Duty franchise to be the games industry’s take on The Hurt Locker, so yes, is does annoy me that Activision seems to be more interested in generating endless clones of Black Hawk Down.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld