Last night I watched in horror as high-tech commandos blew up the Golden Gate Bridge, sending huge chunks of my city's signature landmark showering down onto a fleet of Navy vessels. Burst-jumping down the bike lane I've personally used many times, I did my best to stop the atrocity. Alongside my comrades—each of us armed with sophisticated machine guns and encased in exoskeletons that allowed us to hurdle through the air, tear off car doors for use as shields, and send sonic shockwaves at charging enemies—we battled through the pileup of crashed cars in the hopes of making our way to the renegade van that had blown through our checkpoint
But we were too late. As soon as we reached the van, a hive of drones exploded out of the back, attaching themselves to the cables of the bridge like horseflies, then exploding, bringing cars, cops, civilians, and jarheads like me down with it. It was the opening salvo of evil genius Frank Underwo—er, Jonathan Irons, a megalomaniac hellbent on using his private army to bring the world's nations to their knees, and I was the only one who could stop him. He is, of course, played by Kevin Spacey.
This is Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, the 11th game in the multi-billion-dollar franchise, which had supposedly been flagging after the critical and commercial disappointments of the last two annual installments. Well, reinforcements have arrived. Over the course of completing the six- to eight-hour single-player campaign, I've invaded a compound in Bangkok, chased a terrorist through Santorini, liberated the prime minister of Nigeria, and battled my way through the middle of a glacier, all in the service of a plot that's more outlandish and therefore more awesome than most Bond movies. In a year that's seen a cloud of mass confusion descend over triple-A game design, with developers haplessly clutching at straws as they attempt to push their medium into that seemingly mythical Next Generation, a game this rock-solid and unpretentious feels very hard to complain about.
Advanced Warfare takes place 50 years in the future, in a world where Atlas, a sort of Google/Blackwater hybrid, has grown into a corporate superpower with the world's largest private army, an entity so dominant that CEO Irons has a seat on the U.N. Security Council. As Mitchell, you play the BFF of Irons's son. At the outset, you're both Marines, but your buddy gets killed, and you get your arm blown off, which leads to Irons, in that grand tradition of Cool Dads everywhere, giving you a new arm and conscripting you into his super-army, where you learn all the tricks of "advanced warfare": the perks of the exo suit, how to use homing "smart grenades," the benefits of an EMP when fending off a swarm of drones. Initially, Irons/Spacey is hailed as a hero for pacifying formerly intractable hotspots, the representative example being New Baghdad, a thriving metropolis that now resembles Dubai, thanks to Atlas. But there's something sinister to the company's slow accretion of power and influence, and soon the Golden Gate Bridge gets blown the fuck up.
Now, Advanced Warfare isn't perfect. With the addition of the exo suit, the developers have added new mechanics to the franchise's foundational run-jump-shoot array: burst-jumping, bullet time (aka slow motion), jet packs, grappling, cloaking, etc. However, these perks are shuffled for each mission, as opposed to being skills you accumulate and use at will. The jetpack, in fact, which was heavily touted in the game's early ads, shows up in the first level and then disappears forever. How lame is that?
Also, as if to exemplify the storytelling limitations of the medium/franchise, COD's classic press-these-buttons-during-slow-moving-narrative-sequences device returns, with comical, meme-worthy results. While present in pretty much every installment (most notably during climactic boss battles, where for narrative reasons your nemesis has the fighting chops of Montgomery Burns and therefore typically poisons or paralyzes you in some way), this mechanic—call it "perfunctory button pushing"—has received special criticism this go-around thanks to the now-infamous "Hold X to Pay Respects" funeral sequence, in which you mourn your comrade's death by, yes, holding X.
What's interesting is that developers have resorted to this clumsy mechanic in game after game, which tells me it's either some arch joke they enjoy playing or, for the majority of players who aren't Conan O'Brien, it just works. Taken out of context, it seems absurd, but when absorbed alongside every other aspect of Advanced Warfare, I'm not nearly as distracted by it as some people seem to be. Likewise, Spacey's presence in the game—and the fact that he's sort of unapologetically reprising his Frank Underwood character from House of Cards—actually contributes to, rather than detracts from, what makes this game such a blast.
Because in the end, the most cherished design tenant of all COD games is its verisimilitude, and Advanced Warfare is the franchise's highest achievement yet. We're talking full motion capture, meticulously detailed landscapes, and characters rendered in such detail you can see the blackheads on their noses (no joke—Spacey needs to get himself some Neutrogena). Having ridden my bike across the Golden Gate Bridge dozens of times, I can tell you that the perspective there—the distance of the city from the bridge at that specific point in the above screencap—is perfect. The game developers prize such innovations of semi-realism over innovations of character development, and always have, which is why it's more important that Kevin Spacey deliver a recognizable performance rather than an original one. And verisimilitude goes a long way. Just ask Christopher Nolan, whose Interstellar is a phenomenon largely because of its strict adherence to science, not because of the novel development of its characters.
So while the dialogue here may not be much of a revelation, the fact that as a player I get to interact with Frank Underwood absolutely is. Knowing I'm fighting for Kevin Spacey's private army makes it that much more badass, and knowing I'm infiltrating Kevin Spacey's fortified compound is that much more thrilling.
And again, it's a verisimilitude thing. Advanced Warfare does so much right in that regard that I find myself nitpicking the few things it gets wrong. For example: The developers are canny enough to include a fixed-gear bike leaning against the guard rail of the aforementioned Golden Gate, which is perfect, because we're the city that invented that dumbass trend. Only problem: The bike lane is actually on the west side, not the east. Gotcha!
It's odd to me that COD's single-player campaigns have been so consistently criticized over the years, when in fact they're among the most ambitious (and expensive) productions not just in games, but in any media format. I get that it's easy to complain about hollow characters and the occasional bit of perfunctory button-pushing, but to me, that stuff is small potatoes compared to everything else the game allows you to do, such as, I dunno, pilot a high-speed submersible through the canals of New Baghdad. That people would prefer multiplayer—would in effect choose to trade racial slurs with distant fellow cave-dwellers over being in the driver's seat of an epic blockbuster action movie—is puzzling to me. To each his own I guess. Me, I'm happy to pay my respects.
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