Call of Duty: Advaned Warfighter, or, Hey Look! It’s Kevin Spacey

CODAW!

CODAW!

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Call of Duty is football. It’s a regularly scheduled bout between two rotating colors with just enough flexibility in its variables to differ from installment to installment. But there’s a reason people watch football. It’s familiar and somehow, someway it manages to evoke excitement in spite of that familiarity. You know what you’re getting with a Call of Duty game and depending on your taste that can be great or horrendous.

I don’t watch football. But man do I look forward to shooting my way through a six hour campaign one and a half times every year. Yeah, yeah, “Call of Duty sucks, it’s the same thing every year.” Well so are you so’s football ya nerd.

That being said, I wasn’t exactly sold on this year’s Call of Duty installment when it was announced, primarily because Call of Duty: Advanced Warfighter is being unapologetically promoted as Call of Duty: Kevin Spacey.

Cashing in on the actor’s recent critical praise from the Netflix series House of Cards, Advanced Warfighter somehow managed to get Kevin Spacey, and neither the promotional materials not the game itself will ever let you forget it. In pre-mission briefings, rather than showing you a snapshot of Kevin Spacey, you’ll get an entire collage of snapshots of Kevin Spacey, as if the game is bragging over having the rights to use the actor’s likeness.

Rollo Tomasi.

Rollo Tomasi.

It seemed really, really dumb. It seemed gimmicky. It seemed like a desperate attempt to feign relevance by plastering a recognizable face over tired gameplay. Like I said, I wasn’t exactly sold on Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. But as I do every year I quickly found an excuse to get it: I just got a PS4 and I wanted something to look pretty on it.

Graphically and conceptually Advanced Warfighter is not for this generation of gaming what Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was for the last. The cutscenes look nice but the graphics fall short under even minor scrutiny. The newly introduced exosuits let you hop around like a bunny, which is fun, but the set pieces and action movie tropes I hopped through were never exactly jaw-dropping.

For all intents and purposes Advanced Warfighter is just another football game. Maybe an arena football game, but even that would be a stretch. That’s not to say it was bad or that I didn’t like it, but this year’s Call of Duty is essentially more of the same.

Except this year’s Call of Duty has Kevin Spacey.

It seemed dumb. It seemed so, so dumb. I don’t even watch House of Cards. But hot damn, two-time Academy Award winning actor Kevin Spacey provides a compelling and thought-provoking performance in a video game in which I used magnet gloves to ride on the top of a bus like it was a skateboard while chasing a terrorist with an unironic Mohawk.

In the words of Kevin Spacey’s Christopher Walken impression, “Wow, that’s crazy.”

Some spoilers for the first act of Advanced Warfighter follow.

Spacey plays Jonathan Irons, the owner of Atlas, a private military that, by 2060 or so, has become the largest standing military force on the planet. Countries across the globe call upon Atlas to prop up (get it?) their governments and provide infrastructure, which is all well and good until Irons and Atlas go rogue.

Pretty by the numbers, yeah? I mean I put a spoiler warning above but I imagine few even considered Spacey wasn’t going to wind up the villain in this installment. But his performance in this Advanced Warfighter highlights a deficiency in all of the series’ previous entries: villainy.

The villain in the last game was, like, your dad’s friend or whatever? And before that it was a Russian guy? And there was another Russian guy? And an older guy? And Fidel Castro? And another other Russian guy?

Call of Duty villains suck.

Until now.

Not only does Kevin Spacey bring an undeniable gravitas to Irons, Irons is an inherently interesting villain.

Spacey Vader

Spacey Vader

Jonathan Irons is a villain who is legitimately relatable. He wants to get stuff done, to make a better world, and he sees the government as standing in the way of progress, going so far as to deem the very concept of the nation outdated.

It’s telling that while the protagonists in Advaced Warfighter obviously oppose Irons’ villainous plot, no one ever provides a counterpoint to his underlying argument. At no point does Irons have a moment of grand realization in which he grows to understand that his premise was flawed and misguided. Because it isn’t.

Jonathan Irons is a man infuriated by bureaucratic gridlock, and in the midst of fiscal cliffs and government shutdowns who among us can’t relate to that? But Irons isn’t just an infuriated citizen, he’s an infuriated citizen who commands an expansive private military which he utilizes to live out a power trip fantasy many of us have probably had while reading one news story or another.

Jonathan Irons is a man disgusted by the likes of Frank Underwood.

I had a jolly old time shooting his minions to death.

I suspect every football game has some little flourish that makes it distinctive and exciting for ball fans. Maybe someone kicks a three-pointer or grand slams into the touchdown. Call of Duty is no different. Last year there was a dog. The year before that there were divergent endings. One of them had an airplane level. Another one had Russian roulette. One had Jack Bauer. And who could forget the one that leaned in to our collective cultural phobia of a second 9/11?

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfighter is still a football game, but Kevin Spacey is one hell of a quarterback.

Pony Tricks Comic Cast Episode 50, or, I Can Admit When I’m Wrong

Here I grapple with the hardship of having a Wednesday for a Monday.

This week: Amazing Spider-Man, Avengers vs X-Men: Axis, Detective Comics, Superman Unchained, Swamp Thing

Ghosts, or, Why Do I Play Call of Duty Anymore?

LOGO ATTACK

LOGO ATTACK

First off, for as long as I’ve been playing them I’ve consistently enjoyed the Call of Duty games.

I bought Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare because word on the street was it was going to be, like, a whole “thing.”

I bought Call of Duty: World at War years after its release because it was $10 at Target.

I bought Modern Warfare 2 because, hell yeah, Modern Warfare bro.

I bought Call of Duty: Black Ops because I was in college and when you’re in college that’s what you do.

I bought Modern Warfare 3 because I’m a trilogy kind of guy.

When Black Ops II came out near the end of 2012, complete with cryptic “the future is black” tagline, I had very little intention of buying it. The night before its release I told a friend I’d only get it if IGN gave it a 9 or above, convinced it there was no way it would rank above an 8.5.

Whoops.

It got a 9, Trent Reznor did the soundtrack and I was out of college and going on three months without a job. And you know what? That game was great.

But I still had reservations when Call of Duty: Ghosts came out a few months ago. None of the old excuses were there, and I’m very busy running a wildly successful cultural phenomenon of a blog.

But I got a GameStop gift card for Christmas. So here we are.

In Ghosts your boss is named your dad. Not a Bill Cosby dad, mind you. Just your regular dad. Your one squad mate is your brother Hesh and your other squad mate is your robot-backpack wielding dog Riley. Who takes down a helicopter. What? Don’t worry about it.

"Hero" by Chad Kroeger ft. Josey Scott

“Hero” by Chad Kroeger ft. Josey Scott

Maybe it’s because of their massive monetary success, or because I want to find any reason playing Call of Duty doesn’t make me a bro, or because as I get older my time is more valuable to me and I find the things I spend it on have to justify themselves to me for more competently.

Whatever the reason, I’ve placed the Call of Duty games under an increasingly stringent microscope with each entry.

A few missions in to the campaign of Ghosts you find yourself repelling down a skyscraper en route to intercept a business associate of this guy your dad dropped in a river. Classic dad. As you descend step by step down massive windows it’s explained to you that the people inside the building can’t see you because of the light pollution inside the building or because your ghosts or whatever.

Cool. Understood. Stealth required.

Not a minute later I’m peering through one such window at a guy on a computer screen with his back to me. My squad mate tells me to take him out, so I blow his brains out all over what is presumably a doomed game of solitaire.

Wait – what?

Soon after that two dudes appear on a balcony below me, looking out at the fireworks lighting up the night sky.

“Take ’em out.”

So, with the push of a button, a swoop down from on high and stab him to death.

Knock knock! Who's there? MURDER!

Knock knock! Who’s there? MURDER!

There was a time when these orders made sense to me – after all, I got no idea what the hell I’m doing. Who gave me a loaded gun? They now feel like the creeping fingers of military propaganda, training me in yearly installments to blindly do as my elders tell me.

I mention these thoughts to me commanding officer, who promptly orders me to “take him out.”

“You’re not my dad!” I tell him. He corrects me.

Ghosts is aptly titled. After all the entire campaign is haunted by the franchise’s predecessors. Where once big, jaw-dropping set pieces and quick time events sent your heart racing, they’re now expected. Where once the members of your squad were a selection of world-weary badasses they’re now archetypes. Even Riley.

More than anything else, Call of Duty: Ghosts is familiar.

And that’s why I’ll probably end up finding a reason to play the next one.

Call of Duty is football. Call of Duty is a cold beer. Call of Duty is the Sunday funny papers. It’s a formula with variables that offer just enough wiggle room for a change in number and title. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but you can depend on an old dog. You know what you’re getting with an old dog.

KISS KISS PEW PEW

KISS KISS PEW PEW

I’m never going to compare a Call of Duty game to The Last of Us or Bioshock. I’m never going to cite it in an argument for video games as art or literature. But when a dog with a robot-backpack takes down a helicopter while I gun down nameless, faceless bad guys in the ruins of an abandoned sports arena I’m going to have a chuckle. I might even pump my fist.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. Is Call of Duty a bad franchise, or simply a repetitive one?

2. Do you play Call of Duty for the story or the multiplayer?

3. Are you a bro?

 

For more on recent video game releases:

Arkham Origins

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Grand Theft Auto V

LEGO Marvel Superheroes

Pony Tricks 2013 Game of the Year