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