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VIDEO GAME REVIEW: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, where everyone wants to kill you

(Courtesy of Activision)
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Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
Developer: Sledgehammer Games, Raven Software, High Moon Studios
Publisher: Activision
Available On: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

The world always looks threatening when viewed through the crosshairs of a gun, and “The Call of Duty” series has earned a reputation for culling pleasure from this perspective, rendering the world as a permanently hostile landscape.

“Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare,” released earlier this week, moves into the future, following a young soldier’s journey from Marine Corps private to a private military contractor trying to prevent a catastrophic attack on the United States. “Advanced Warfare” is the eleventh “Call of Duty” game in as many years, and while its visuals are a technical marvel, its sense of scripted action and split second reactions have become a restricting and over-familiar formula that has never felt less satisfying.

Advanced Warfare roots both story and new gameplay ideas in powered exoskeletons — robotic braces for a soldier’s arms, legs, and torso – which give machine-like powers to human bodies. The ‘Exo suit’ allows players to jump 20 feet at a time, turn themselves invisible, scale walls with magnetic gloves, and use a grappling hook to reach distant ledges. The narrative explanation for these new tools comes from Atlas Corporation, which runs the largest private army in the world and manufactures marvelous machinery to keep its troops outfitted. Kevin Spacey assumes the role of Jonathan Irons, Atlas’s CEO, and developer Sledgehammer Games takes every opportunity to inject Spacey’s declarative barks and insidious sneers.

The game opens in 2054 with players assuming the role of Jack Mitchell fighting against an invading North Korean force in Seoul alongside Irons’s son. When the opening battle takes a turn for the worse, the younger Irons is killed and Mitchell loses his left arm, effectively ending his Marine career. At his son’s funeral, the elder Irons invites Mitchell to join Atlas, promising him both a new robotic arm and the chance to continue his fighting career. Four years later, Mitchell is a star with Atlas hunting a terrorist organization called the KVA, whose only discernible goal is the eradication of technology.

The game whisks players around the globe, from Nigeria to Greece to Antarctica to Iraq. There is some excitement in seeing each new location for the first time, sitting in a cafe in Santorini, tumbling through an ice crevasse in Antarctica, or walking through the streets of a modernized Lagos. But the exploration of this new territory always devolves into a familiar string of shootouts, safe space melting into a haze of bullet traces, shattering windows, and haphazard explosions. And for all the vaunted future technology, most of the game is surprisingly retrograde in its approach to shooting. Most of the game’s missions feel interchangeable with any number of recent “Call of Duty” games.

The first few games in the series celebrated audiovisual chaos, piercing the layer of historical distance and dryness of World War II with a rendering of war as an incoherent shock corridor that one survives more than wins. It was a concept unique to videogames in the early 2000s, using the game to brutalize its players through every technical trick it could manage, from obscuring one’s vision with blood to overloading the speakers with gunfire, sounds of buildings collapsing, and screams of panic and rage.

Cast 40 years into the future and attached to a facile parable about a corporation trying to take over the world, this reverential depiction of war trauma feels almost farcical, a boilerplate that can be used to learn the same lesson from any political circumstance or time period.

Beneath every unbelievable set piece—jumping from moving bus rooftops on a freeway while shooting at a helicopter, or creeping through a Bulgarian forest with a suit that allows you to become invisible—there is an undercurrent of masochism and self-loathing. Everything seems to hate you in “Advanced Warfare.” Even your fellow squad mates spend most of their time screaming at you. Take the shot! Breach the door! Launch the drone!

In the game’s quietest moments, such as the funeral for Irons’s son wherein players are prompted to press the X button to “pay respects,” there is a sense that actions are taken, not because you want to but because there is no alternative. “Advanced Warfare” comes to feel like a simulation what life would be if most of the world wanted you dead, while those claiming to be your allies tolerated your presence only so long as you do what they say.

“Advanced Warfare” is at its purest and most nihilistic in its multiplayer modes. Like other “Call of Duty” games, “Advanced Warfare’s” multiplayer feels like trying to play full-court basketball in a maze while armed with automatic weaponry. Uplink, one of the new match types, has players rushing for a satellite device which players palm in their hands, and attempt to throw it into a small target area on either side of the map in order to score points. Another new mode, Exo Survival, has up to three human players fighting sequential waves of computer-controlled enemies, both human, robotic, and canine. Even man’s best friend doesn’t much like you in “Advanced Warfare.”

These multiplayer modes are designed to be a another world to retreat into, while earning experience points to unlock new guns, Exo suit abilities, and other combat perks You can customize and save personal loadouts, manipulate your character’s appearance, and track clan activity through a separate mobile app and online account registered through the game’s website.

The game can be played at incredibly high skill levels, involving deep thought about tactics, timing, and team work, but for most, the multiplayer is an adrenal tug of war between success and failure, that doses you with game currency no matter what the final outcome. Even if you’re not especially good, the experience system, unlocks, and wide variety of match types make it feel like there’s always something meaningful you could be working toward. Yet the experience always revolves around running somewhere, shooting as many people as you can find in the narrow corridors before being taken down from behind.

As sensory entertainment, “Advanced Warfare” is about as pleasant as licking a battery for eight hours while a crowd of angry men surround you and chant your name. As a parable about the dangers of corporatizing the military in the 21st Century, it feels like a massive failure. The story’s caricature of revolutionary movements is likewise facile, rendering the KVA as thoughtless zealots with no historical or cultural context other than a knee-jerk dislike for “technology.” “Call of Duty” games rarely tell interesting or plausible stories, but “Advanced Warfare” feels like the least imaginative of them all.

There are no heroes here, only survivors cut off from any conception of life that would make enduring these abuses worthwhile. This is both the beauty and tragedy of “Advanced Warfare.” Even without anything worth fighting for, we’re still only too happy to fight.

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen

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