Call of Duty: Ghosts proved to be a success when it was released in 2013. However, particularly bad word-of-mouth ensured it was met with a poor fan response. Independent critics disliked it for the campaign’s litany of unfortunate implications whereas fans were unimpressed with its multiplayer capabilities – or lack thereof. Despite selling over nineteen-million copies, Call of Duty: Ghosts was considered by its creators to be a failure, thwarting any immediate attempts at creating a sequel. In order for the series to win back its wary fans, the creators realized they needed to shift gears.
Sledgehammer Games had co-developed the third and final entry in the Modern Warfare trilogy with Infinity Ward after much of the latter company’s key personnel was fired for what Activision CEO Bobby Kotick considered acts of insubordination. However, even before then, Sledgehammer had been working on an installment of their own entitled Call of Duty: Fog of War. Announced before the release of Modern Warfare 3, this game was to be set during the events of the Vietnam War. It would defy the series’ conventions by being an action-adventure game presented from a third-person perspective. The plans for this game were put on hold when Sledgehammer dedicated all of their efforts to seeing Modern Warfare 3 to completion.
Fog of War was then silently canceled when Sledgehammer began working on an entirely different project upon completing Modern Warfare 3. According to its director, Michael Condrey, the game’s engine had been built from scratch. On top of that, the game was to boast an advanced facial animation system using the same technology James Cameron sought to employ in his then-upcoming film Avatar 2. Even with a technological advancement other developers could only dream of possessing, Sledgehammer wasn’t done. In an attempt to capture the Hollywood sensibilities the AAA industry had been pursuing for some time, they recruited actor Kevin Spacey to portray a central character. With these enhancements, it seemed only natural that they would entitle the game Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. All of the steps Activision and Sledgehammer took in order to get people talking about their game paid off when it received fairly positive reviews upon its 2014 release. Many critics called it the breath of fresh air the series desperately needed after the annual releases rendered it stale. With no shortage of hype surrounding this installment, was Advanced Warfare able to maintain the Call of Duty franchise’s relevance going into the eighth console generation?
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: This review will contain unmarked spoilers.
The year is 2054, and the North Korean army has invaded the southern half of the peninsula. Private Jackson “Jack” Mitchell of the U.S. Marines takes part in an operation alongside his friend, Private William “Will” Irons, to repel the belligerents. Under the command of Sergeant Cormack, the Marines deploy into Seoul.
Advanced Warfare provides exactly what one would expect out of a Call of Duty installment. It is a first-person modern-military shooter with a heavy emphasis on squad tactics. It provides a more realistic take on warfare than classic first-person shooters in that it doesn’t expect Mitchell to fight the entire war on his own. If he takes damage, a red arc with an arrow pointing in the direction from which the hostile gunfire emanated appears onscreen. If he continues taking damage, a red, visceral border adorns the screen. This is a cue that you should find cover. If you elect not to heed this warning, Mitchell will be killed, sending you back to the last checkpoint.
Being a first-person shooter, firearms constitute your primary means of defense. You can carry two at a given time with an assault rifle and pistol being the standard. The idea is that switching to the sidearm takes less time than reloading. Despite this, your choices are generally not limited; you could just as easily carry two weapons that require both hands. Your character is also outfitted with a melee weapon that is even quicker than switching to the sidearm, though it’s obviously only useful if the enemy is close by.
Although Mitchell has no shortage of allies, the plot is usually triggered by event flags. They are typically activated once he fulfills a certain objective. These objectives can range anywhere from destroying specific targets to merely reaching a certain place on the map. There is usually only one objective at a given time, and his superiors make it crystal clear what it is by barking out the appropriate orders at the top of their lungs.
The campaign in the Korean Peninsula is but one small part of a conflict that has been going on for nearly a century. The reason for war, by and large, has not changed, but the means by which the soldiers fight it have. Mitchell and his fellow Marines have been outfitted with a state-of-the-art power armor called an EXO Suit. You make use of its features early on when you use the thrusters to slow Mitchell’s descent as he drops down the interior of a multistoried building. These thrusters also come in handy in normal gameplay, as you can have Mitchell perform a double jump or gain a temporary boost of speed. Naturally, this makes it difficult for enemies to hit Mitchell, but you shouldn’t rely on it as a substitute for cover.
Arguably, the most notable advancement in technology comes into play the exact second you attempt to deploy a grenade. In broad strokes, grenades function as they did in previous installments. There are two varieties available – one intended to hinder the enemy in some way while the other is used to kill them outright. However, the grenades in Advanced Warfare are quite a bit more sophisticated than their older counterparts in that they can be programmed, so to speak.
The anti-personnel grenades can be programmed to fragment normally, home in on enemies, or explode upon contact. Obviously, these smart grenades are have an advantage in how quickly they deal damage, but you may find yourself in a situation in which the standard setting is optimal. They simply wouldn’t do for situations where you’re pinned down by multiple hostiles within close proximity. Conversely, the threat grenades can be programmed to release an EMP (electromagnetic pulse), blind enemies like a flashbang, or reveal enemy locations. The flashbangs’ purpose is the same as it always has been – to stun unsuspecting enemies in a room you’re about to breach. Many battles are fought in part by sophisticated drones capable of firing autonomously. They can be destroyed using regular bullets, but they often travel in swarms and are rather difficult to hit. One well-placed EMP can dispatch entire swaths of them, so it always pays to have at least a few tactical grenades. The final setting allows you to see enemy locations from behind walls. You can take advantage of this knowledge by firing into weak walls to hit them.
By 2014, it was generally concluded by fans and independent critics that the Call of Duty franchise’s best days were in the past. It’s not especially difficult to see why. After a trilogy of acclaimed games set during the Second World War, the franchise hit its pinnacle with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which is widely considered one of the greatest first-person shooters of all time. The subsequent two entries in the Modern Warfare trilogy saw Infinity Ward try, and largely fail, to recapture what made the original such a classic game. This could be seen in how the signature scenes of the original two games left an indelible impact on enthusiasts and journalists everywhere while that of Modern Warfare 3 slipped beneath their radar. Considering the subseries’ increasing reliance on shock value with each new installment, the scene, while still impactful, lacked the sheer staying power of its predecessors, which could be taken as a metaphor for the game itself. Although the series managed to regain a little momentum with the well-received World at War and Black Ops, the consensus still favored the original Modern Warfare.
If one were to solely examine the series’ gameplay, they could see how it fell out of favor with so many people in spite of the robust sales. While other long-running franchises such as Mario and The Legend of Zelda radically reinvented themselves with each new installment, Call of Duty became increasingly reliant on a formula. Due to the series having an annual release at the time, people going into Call of Duty knew exactly what to expect out of it. The games are first-person shooters in a militaristic setting detailing the trials and tribulations of an ordinary soldier who would eventually accomplish great things.
In the face of this perception, what Sledgehammer attempted to do with Advanced Warfare is obvious. They wanted to take a series largely considered stale and attempt to breathe new life into it. Clearly, there was a lot of effort put into giving this game an identity unique from its predecessors. The biggest problem with this game’s direct predecessor, Ghosts, concerned its arguably racist, incontestably jingoistic premise, which ironically, failed to deliver even on the latter front in the end. If one were to take that out of the equation, you would be left with an utterly generic modern military shooter. The gameplay’s biggest sin was that it barely stood out from any of its predecessors’. Even adding segments set in space did little to assuage this problem.
Conversely, the gameplay of Advanced Warfare does have more of an identity than that of Ghosts. This is primarily because of its setting. With technological developments such as EXO Suits, spider-tanks, programmable grenades, manned drop pods, hoverbikes, and drones, Advanced Warfare provided an educated guess as to how wars would be waged in the future. It’s not to the point where the characters are employing technology that gleefully breaks the laws of physics, but it’s not exactly hard science-fiction either.
After Ghosts utterly failed to forge an identity outside of its swath of unfortunate implications, I can admire Sledgehammer for wanting to make key changes to the formula. I’m especially fond of the programmable grenades. They cover a wide range of situations, and none of the features come across as outright useless. I also enjoy the presence of the EXO Suits because it goes a long way in justifying tropes the series had always used, yet we were conditioned to accept unconditionally. Characters in previous games would often perform feats of superhuman endurance. While they rarely stretched the suspension of disbelief too far, Advanced Warfare does provide a more tenable explanation for how the main characters can pull them off regularly. Most notably, the EXO Suit’s Overdrive attachment boosts Mitchell’s reflexes to superhuman levels, diegetically explaining how he can slow time down in key moments.
However, even if the technological demonstration is impressive, you’re still going through the exact same motions playing Advanced Warfare as you would playing any other Call of Duty installment. Throughout the course of the game, Mitchell performs many impressive feats such as climbing on walls, using thrusters to survive a long drop, and tearing off a plane wing with a powerful saw. The problem is that, with the exception of double jumping and the Overdrive mechanic, these gadgets barely have an impact on the overall experience. All they do is change the means by which you get from place to place. They do make for an interesting change of pace, but because your use of these gadgets is mandated by the plot, they lose all relevance when you return to normal gameplay.
In fact, when they do have an impact on the gameplay, it’s usually to reintroduce one of the most hated mechanics of its day: quick-time events. It is truly inexplicable why developers insisted on placing these sequences in their games because very few – if any – fans have admitted to enjoying them. Their implementation in Advanced Warfare isn’t as egregiously annoying as their presence in Ghosts, but it doesn’t change that forcing players to push buttons in what looks like a cinematic doesn’t make for a legitimate challenge. Then again, you can render many of them trivial by mashing every button on the controller. This is easy to do because there is no consequence for pushing the wrong buttons. This means, as per usual, these sequences are either insidious beginners’ traps or completely pointless.
Because the gameplay, despite its various enhancements, isn’t that much of an improvement over any of its predecessors’, one might wonder how its scenario fares. I will say it’s clear that the writers of Advanced Warfare put at least some thought into the narrative they crafted. This is evident in how the game lacks the racist undertones driving the plot of Ghosts. Sure, the opening mission involves repelling a North Korean invasion, but that country was an acceptable target at the time. Plus, even if the South Korean army isn’t shown that much, one does get the sense they’re holding up well given the circumstances.
What also helps is that despite their great efforts, Mitchell and his squadron don’t save the day singlehandedly. In fact, nearing the end of the operation when the duo plants an explosive charge on a North Korean superweapon, Will’s arm gets caught in a shutter panel. Realizing they will both die if they linger, Will sacrifices himself by pushing Mitchell out of the launcher. Mitchell doesn’t get out unscathed, however, for a large piece of shrapnel slices off his left arm just before Cormack saves him. Mitchell’s narration describing the loss of his friend and the cruel nature of war is surprisingly poignant, which is helped by Troy Baker’s good delivery. Even if the Marines repelled the North Korean attack, they lost 6,000 of their own.
Unfortunately, it is during this sequence that one of the biggest problems with the game’s storytelling manifests. Advanced Warfare differs from a majority of its predecessors in that the narrative is presented through cutscenes. Before this installment, it was standard for players to be in control of the protagonist the entire time. Like Half-Life, these plots were conveyed primarily through scripted events, allowing players to react to developments as they occurred. Even if the storylines weren’t always well-conceived, this was a highly effective method – especially for such a chaotic setting such as an active warzone. Telling the story through cutscenes would deprive the player of the direct interaction needed to sell them on the horrors of war.
One may ask why this minor change is a problem. By including these cutscenes, the narrative often forgoes showing in favor of telling. This is especially apparent when parsing the character of Mitchell himself. Because of the nature of the genre, a handful of protagonists didn’t even have character models. Advanced Warfare, on the other hand, gives its character both an identity and a voice whereas in previous titles, they tended to be stand-ins for the player. Having the protagonist speak in a Call of Duty title does have a handful of precedents. One mission late in Modern Warfare 3 finally let one of the player characters speak when controlled, but even after Black Ops retained this decision, it was still the exception rather than the rule.
What Advanced Warfare does with Mitchell is, to say the least, bizarre. He has no shortage of dialogue during these cinematic cutscenes, yet acts as a typical, silent protagonist when the player is in direct control of him. This makes his character surprisingly difficult to assess. One sequence has him run a training course, and at one point, the instructor, Gideon, asks him to enter the elevator adjacent to his. If you get in his elevator, he rebukes Mitchell. While this is an admittedly humorous moment, it’s something that only really works if the main character has no dialogue at all. Taken at face value, Mitchell seems to lose all of his character traits when the player is controlling him only to suddenly regain them for cutscenes. It’s impossible for developers to account for everything a player might do – even in a game as linear as this, but there has to be at least some internal consistency.
The disconnect manages to be jarring even before this moment, however. His dialogue after the campaign in Seoul would have you believe that he and Will were great friends, yet because they had all of one cutscene together before the latter’s untimely death, this aspect doesn’t come across so well. One could be forgiven for believing they just met. If they engaged in witty banter during the mission itself, it could have developed both characters. As it stands, we just have to accept they were close friends despite being presented with little evidence to support such a proposition.
This segues into what is undeniably the game’s most infamous moment, which involves Mitchell attending Will’s funeral. If this were part of a cutscene, it could have been an excellent supplement to Mitchell’s preceding speech. Instead, the writers inadvertently turned the entire thing into a complete joke by displaying five words on the screen.
Turning the concept of a quick-time event on its head, you must press the highlighted button in order for Mitchell to pay his respects. What the developers were going for was obvious. In a series that relied heavily on its pathos, they wanted players to go through the same emotional turmoil as Mitchell. Instead, the writers inadvertently provided a punchline for countless message board users for years to come. It’s to the point where those who had never played a Call of Duty game in their lives knew the reference. Considering that the writers of the original Modern Warfare accomplished similar feats without needing to do this demonstrates how much the series had lost its way by 2014.
The funeral is also attended by Jonathan Irons, the father of the deceased. He is the CEO of a private military company called Atlas Corporation. He gives Mitchell his card and with it, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join his ranks. With Mitchell having lost his left arm in the Seoul campaign, this proposition would appear to be a lost cause. Fortunately, Mitchell is in luck, as Atlas has developed an advanced prosthetic arm capable of replacing his lost one. After working out the bugs, Mitchell is thrown back into the fray – just in time to counter a new threat.
A terrorist group called the KVA, led by a technophobic man who calls himself Hades, has begun a series of terrorist attacks. Only Atlas and their extensive resources can stop him. Given the sheer amounts of technological advancements present in the narrative, it’s fitting that the game’s antagonist would be a certifiable Luddite. Hades proves within seconds of his introduction to be a scarily effective threat. His first attack involves kidnapping the prime minister of Nigeria. While Mitchell and company are able to rescue him, Hades adapts to his new enemies, and successfully triggers a series of nuclear meltdowns across the world, starting in Seattle, Washington. With the governments in shambles, the world turns to Atlas. The company then becomes the dominant military force as they aid civilians and counter the KVA’s attacks.
Four years later, Atlas is able to track Hades to, appropriately enough, Greece. Mitchell speaking in cutscenes, but not when in control of him creates a divide between the story and the gameplay, and this sequence makes it even more apparent. The team tracks down Hades to his headquarters, and Mitchell controls a drone. What you must do from here is protect the Atlas troops as they surround the enemy headquarters.
As far as escort missions go, this one isn’t too egregious, but it clashes with the narrative in that you’re disallowed from taking the most pragmatic option available. Mitchell has a clear shot at Hades, but if you take it, you fail the mission – the justification being that Atlas will miss out on valuable intel. Considering that the man and his cell have been responsible for the deaths of over 50,000 people, the best option would be to take the shot immediately and gather what intel they could from the compound once the leader is out of the way. With Atlas’s troops stationed outside of the compound, they can seize enough of the cell’s records before the terrorists have a chance to destroy it. Unfortunately, the writers didn’t see it this way, as they resort to railroading to prevent common sense from taking over. What’s worse is that this Hades turns out to be a body double rigged with a bomb to go off once his vital signs have ceased. One character dies needlessly because the game won’t let players cut to the chase. Considering that Black Ops II introduced branching paths, being unable to go off the rails at a critical moment is highly disappointing.
The sequences wherein Mitchell teams up with ex-Spetsnaz agent Ilona to track down Hades aren’t handled any better. As is typical for a Hollywood-influenced AAA production, taking down Hades is a needlessly convoluted, drawn-out process that suspends the rules of the game for the sake of preserving drama. Even after getting in a severe car crash, he manages to overpower Ilona despite the latter being in much better condition and outfitted with an EXO Suit. He even manages to kill Mitchell should you fail the obligatory quick-time event when he makes his last stand. Although the actions scenes certainly look good, they were conceived by people who don’t understand the subtle intricacies of the medium. The techniques one uses to keep theatergoers on the edge of their seat don’t always translate to good gameplay, after all. Obviously, Mitchell being killed by Hades is not canonical. In reality, Mitchell successfully subdues Hades by slashing his throat. However, just before he succumbs to his wounds, he gives Mitchell a data chip, uttering the words “He knows… Irons… knows…” with his dying breath.
Having rid the world of the KVA, Atlas is now more popular than ever. Mitchell and Gideon accompany Irons to Atlas’s headquarters in the now-thriving New Baghdad. Shortly upon arriving there, Ilona shows Mitchell and Gideon the recording embedded in the storage device. Irons had interrogated a technologist about the KVA attacks on the nuclear reactors four years ago. Irons knew that they intended to cause widespread destruction, and killed the technologist in order to prevent the truth from surfacing. By allowing the KVA to continue their campaign, Irons propelled his company into becoming the single most dominant military force in the world.
The writers foreshadow this twist as early as the first mission wherein Will admitted to joining the Marines in order to get away from his father. It could also provide a serviceable explanation as to why the Atlas operatives fell for such an obvious ploy in Greece with the body double despite having been fighting them for over four years. It is a shame, then, that all of these developments are entirely redundant. While I’m sure this was meant to be a shocking twist that successfully turned everything you thought you knew on its head, it is, in practice, extremely underwhelming. Just the fact that Jonathan Irons is portrayed by Kevin Spacey alone would set off entire swaths of red flags. The veteran actor’s most famous roles involved playing characters the audience initially believed to be on the level only for them to turn out to be evil all along. In a majority of his other roles, his character didn’t even try to hide his malevolence. Therefore, casting him in a non-protagonist role in a video game would immediately signpost to savvy – and not-so-savvy – players that his character is the real antagonist.
Indeed, when critics analyzed Advanced Warfare, they drew many comparisons to Kevin Spacey’s performance as Frank Underwood in the hit Netflix series House of Cards. In broad strokes, the characters are highly similar, being unfettered villains who will stop at nothing to bring their visions into reality. The key difference between the two characters is that Jonathan Irons has an actual long-term plan towards which he is working. He wants to bring a permanent end to war by establishing Atlas as the world’s only superpower.
Although it’s a fairly basic motivation, I do like the moral ambiguity surrounding his character. Having lost his son to conflict, he wants to live in a world where nobody else has to experience that pain. He observed the United States’ ineffectual attempts to bring peace and democracy to Third World nations following the Second World War. In the process, they perpetuated an endless cycle of meaningless wars. The problem is that, at the end of the day, he is very much the kind of person who believes the ends justifies the means. The game toys around with the old adage that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, but in reality, Irons had ulterior motives even before the KVA’s nuclear attack. In becoming the head of the world’s sole superpower, he had the resources to do whatever he wanted.
It’s eventually revealed that he seeks to launch ICBMs containing a biological agent called Manticore, which targets those not registered in the Atlas database. He only intends to target military instillations with his attack, but even if he doesn’t specifically intend to kill any innocents, his tactic would clearly result in countless civilian casualties. The man distraught over losing his son would expose several other families to the very same pain he felt. Even if it succeeded in bringing peace to the world, he would still have to deal with the fact that the human consciousness can’t handle a loss of such a magnitude. Mass riots would ensue as soon as they learned the truth behind Atlas. In his attempts to liberate the world from superpowers, he would become the very thing he despises.
Indeed, after gaining this knowledge, Mitchell, Gideon, and Ilona turn on Atlas, joining the Sentinel Task Force. One of the members of this multinational team happens to be Mitchell’s old sergeant, Cormack. The second half of the game involves fighting against Mitchell’s former comrades. Considering how much better equipped they are than the KVA, this goes a long way in justifying the game’s spike in difficulty.
Nonetheless, from this point onward, the game is content to go through the motions until Mitchell finally confronts Irons personally. In a way, I liken the structure of this game to BioShock inasmuch that it has what is meant to be a shocking twist around the halfway point, but doesn’t have much in the way of material with which to follow it up. There are a few sequences that involve commandeering vehicles such as a tank and an aircraft to reduce the monotony, but they don’t work. The tank sequence is over before you know it while the aircraft has truly abysmal controls. It’s clear that Sledgehammer wanted to recreate a similar sequence from the acclaimed Halo: Reach, but they clearly didn’t understand grasp what made it so memorable.
Mitchell getting captured by Atlas does make for a memorable sequence wherein Irons cripples his prosthetic arm, and we get a glimpse into the horrifying experiments they perform on their prisoners. It even leads to an interesting gimmick for the obligatory escape scene wherein Mitchell is limited to using only his right hand to fight. This means he can’t reload any firearms he finds. Although it is slightly inconvenient, it manages to be tense without overstaying its welcome.
What dulls the impact, however, is that, once again, Advanced Warfare ultimately conforms to the very predictable 2010s AAA story structure. You’re free to experience the game as a game, but the exact second the protagonist and antagonist occupy the same general area, myriad plot contrivances conspire to take the former’s weapons away. There is a bit more of a contextual reason for this decision than in most games because despite being fairly intimidating, Irons is no match for Mitchell or his teammates. A direct confrontation between the two of them would end in ten seconds. Even so, it is highly counterproductive to knock players back to square one every time the plot runs the risk of resolving itself too quickly.
Things get especially ridiculous when Irons has Mitchell at his mercy at multiple points and abjectly refuses to kill him. Irons demonstrably had no problems resorting to murder as long as it fulfilled his goals, yet when the opportune moment to extract an especially persistent thorn in his side presents itself, he finds he can’t do it. He reasons that he isn’t a monster, which I could see working as a commentary on the famous adage “the death of one million is a statistic”. Although he has directly killed off people, he prefers to let his soldiers handle the dirty work. Meanwhile, he has much fewer qualms launching Manticore despite countless innocent lives hanging in the balance because of his actions.
However, even if this angle is what the writers were going for, it still doesn’t explain why such an allegedly intelligent villain insists on making his goals much harder to achieve. One expects such a person to temporarily suspend his moral code for the sake of his mission. If he is that afraid of sliding down the proverbial slippery slope, he has no shortage of lackeys who would be up for the task. As it stands, his inability to make the pragmatic choice eventually – and unsurprisingly – costs him his life when Mitchell pushes him off a burning building. It’s usually not a good sign when a video-game protagonist is helped this much by the person they’re trying to stop. It makes one wonder what the point is in playing the game at all if the universe is just going to guide the protagonist to success.
Drawing a Conclusion
When all is said and done, Advanced Warfare is a product of its time through and through. The early-to-mid-2010s was a time in which the medium’s self-confidence reached an all-time low. This may have been partially brought about due to Roger Ebert’s infamous, incorrect proclamation in 2010 that video games can never be art. Artists had tried to elevate the medium long before then, but the Western AAA industry’s response was to follow in Hollywood’s footsteps. On a fundamental level, this makes a degree of sense. Films were undeniably art; therefore, by substitution, the only way for games to become art was for them to become films. The results of this design ethos were mixed, to say the least. Although there were a few quality games that used this approach, in most instances, it just left the medium with a crippling inferiority complex. The most appealing, unique aspects of the medium began gradually disappearing to the point where the preconceived notions that fantasy and science-fiction stories were inferior to realistic ones pervasive among particularly snobbish, close-minded cinephiles began taking root in gaming. This was especially bad given that said genres played a significant role in forming the very foundation of the medium. To reject them would be to reject the medium’s identity.
To be completely fair, Advanced Warfare is hardly the worst game to spawn from this line of thinking, but it is clear the hype surrounding its marketing campaign belied a toothless, bland experience that brought no real innovation to a scene absolutely starving for it. Recruiting the then-respected Kevin Spacey and rendering his face sounds impressive until you realize that this achievement, in no way, contributes to the gameplay’s quality. It is, at its core, a run-of-the-mill Call of Duty game. Unlike Ghosts, it is one I actually recommend to fans of the series, but anyone seeking out a substantive experience should look elsewhere. After all, substance always triumphs over style – especially in an interactive medium such as gaming.
Final Score: 4/10