As the American Marines deploy to Seoul, the bright lights of the city obscure their vision. Fire, smoke and ash mask the skyline. The jarheads push through the streets, a tank crawling over trenches to provide covering fire.
“We’re tracking a drone swarm coming your way,” a voice squawks over the radio. The ’bots appear on the horizon, a hundred of them buzzing in an eerie, synchronized swarm.
Exoskeletons boost the Marines into the sky. Bullets deflect off of armored helmets—bullets fired by the invading North Korean army.
It’s the mid-21st century, and America is fighting yet another war on foreign soil.
This is the opening mission of the newest installment in Activision’s multi-billion-dollar video game franchise Call of Duty. It’s more than a game. It’s a political statement about the consequences of endless war.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is the 11th game in a series that has become an annual entertainment juggernaut. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2—the ninth game in the series—raked in more than a billion dollars the first day of its release.
By comparison, the entire Batman movie franchise—from Tim Burton’s 1989 film to Christopher Nolan’s recent Dark Knight Rises—has earned a combined $1.8 billion.
Advanced Warfare casts the player as Pvt. Mitchell—a young Marine who joined up with his best friend Will. The defense of South Korea is the pair’s first combat mission. Mitchell loses his left arm. Will loses his life.
At the funeral for his fallen friend, Will’s father approaches Mitchell. It’s Kevin Spacey, playing billionaire Jonathan Irons, head of military company ATLAS. He offers Mitchell a second chance to fight … and a fancy prosthetic arm.
So begins the player’s service to the man who will become the story’s villain. That’s not a spoiler. It’s clear early on that Spacey’s character is an evil megalomaniac.
“ATLAS has the single largest military in the world, but we answer to no country,” Irons says. “Unlike the government, we don’t make a secret of our capability. We don’t sell policy, we sell power. We are a super-power for hire.”
The early Call of Duty games were set during World War II. Call of Duty 2’s rendering of the Battle of Stalingrad is particularly affecting.
But somewhere along the way, Call of Duty lost its way. The last half dozen or so titles have been blatant power fantasies. Blatant American power fantasies. Flags ripple in the air while bombs explode before American heroes save the day.
‘Advanced Warfare’ is different. It’s subversive—a game about corruption, the limits of power and the ultimate powerlessness of the player.
Only the first chunk of the game seems like the same old Call of Duty power fantasy.
Things change when Mitchell and his ATLAS buddies are unable to stop a Luddite terrorist organization from triggering a nuclear meltdown in Seattle. The screen fades, the next level loads and four years have passed.
ATLAS soldiers—of who the player is one—all wear black and red uniforms. The mercenaries have herded countless citizens into prison camps, the kind conspiracy theorists often accuse FEMA of establishing.
An ATLAS representative entreats citizens to sign up for work detail and “get chipped.”
Is the player still the good guy at this point? No. A point driven home when the game reveals that Irons’ knew about the terrorists’ nuclear plot and waited to deploy his mercenaries just long enough so that the terrorists would succeed.
In the wake of the disaster, he sold America and the world on the need for a large, stateless military. It’s just another step to a one-world government Irons think will solve all the planet’s problems. A government he will control.
At this point—of course—Mitchell and friends change sides. They hook up with the American military and start to fight ATLAS. Yet Mitchell spends much of the second half of the game completely powerless.
I lost track of the number of times Mitchell crashed his car, plane or powersuit. After these moments, he wakes up pinned under debris or strapped to a post so he may bear witness to some villainous bit of exposition from Irons.
The last act of the games begins with Mitchell in chains, being led down a corridor of horrors.
From here, his left arm is useless. Unable to reload, the player sneaks from gun to gun, just barely able to aim and fire.
This is a far cry from the elaborate promises of unlimited futuristic power the game advertised. That’s a good thing. It sets Advanced Warfare apart. Spacey is the other big selling point.
The famed actor’s turn as the evil private military contractor Irons is a master stroke. Spacey delivers every line of his dialogue with cruel intensity. Whatever Activision paid him to do this, it was worth the money.
What makes Irons an effective villain is his plausibility. His motivations make a dreadful kind of sense.
The game opens in 2054. Irons describes his earliest memories of war as watching the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He’s sick of the fighting. His aim is not more devastation, but an end to all wars. Whatever the cost.
“America has been trying to install democracies across the world for a century,” Irons says. “And it hasn’t worked one time.”
The people don’t want democracy, Irons reason. They want rules, comfort, safety. He’ll give it to them.
Remember, this is 2054 and Irons is middle-aged. He’s a millennial. He’s us. He’s the target demographic for Call of Duty games all grown up and sick to death of war and destruction.
Is it any wonder Irons tortures to gain intel? That he detains prisoners indefinitely? That he believes power is the ultimate path to peace? “My son died as a direct result of the failed policies of the United States’ military,” Irons says late in the game.
“Your son died fighting for what he believed in,” a side character rebuts.
“Dying for what you believe in doesn’t make it true,” Irons says, voicing the cynical sentiment of a generation weary of conflict.