By now, if you follow the gaming industry at all, you’ve seen this trailer that “leaked” from Sledgehammer Games, the studio behind Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. It’s garnered quite the stir due to the fact that it’s showing Kevin Spacey doing what Kevin Spacey has been doing best, lately: being a sociopath playing makeshift American ruler. It’s really something that seems to fit him well as he goes on talking about how you can’t just invade a country and install a democracy as if it was as easy as the mainstream press would lead us to believe. There’s some cutscene footage showing some of the battlegrounds and equipment you’ll be using, I’m thinking, through the course of the game.
You might be thinking: “Well, buddy, you’ve been shit-talking Call of Duty for years. Ghosts barely even registered on your radar. What’s the big deal, here?” It’s for the same reason, mainly, as everyone else – Spacey steals the show in this trailer and gives way to the thought process that there may be a lot more put into presentation and single-player campaign on this game. For me, though, it’s a little bit different and actually has to do with things that I’ve held against the first-person-shooter genre for as long as I’ve mostly hated franchises like Call of Duty: for as long as I can remember, first-person-shooters, generally speaking, don’t have a lot of variety when it comes to gameplay and story. Every time a game in the genre succeeds, it’s because it’s a complete pile of derivative shit that succeeded before it. Thanks to that, we have just about as many World War II-themed shooters as we can handle and we’ve all become acquainted with running around in glorified hallways gunning down enemies with relatively crappy AI. Even cover-shooters are getting derivative, now, and it’s really just boring the ever-loving shit out of me. When one comes up and challenges my sense of what I thought a FPS could be, like Homefront, for example, it turns out it sucks big ones so I thought I would let everyone know what my ideal Call of Duty experience would be like, if ever there was one.
Building Anticipation on the Front Line
Let’s face it: unless you’re playing multiplayer, one can get pretty used to what single player campaigns offer. There’s two main reasons for that, I believe: bad level design and terrible AI. The former comes from limitations of technology from previous generations and can’t really be helped and making an AI too smart actually detracts from the playability of a game from a franchise like this one. I think people are craving a smarter shooter and fixing those two initial problems that, thanks to games in the past that are, relatively, unrelated to specialized shooters, this could be done relatively easily.
Most of the problems I have with shooters come from the fact that, as spacious as you make an area, you have a point A, a point B, and you have to move between them through a corridor that will be lined with enemies and other defenses. There’s almost no variety and what little variety there is relies heavily on enemy AI. I’m not saying to make a game totally open-concept or sandbox-like but give people a huge arena to play in, point them in a general direction and let them have their own fun without shoving them in the direction the narrative needs in order to keep context. Games that support this line of thinking are games like Grand Theft Auto V – for the simple reason that creative a thriving, living, albeit somewhat dumb, world is very much possible – and Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes – for the reason that it’s possible to give complete character control and impulse to the player and not have it take away from the main narrative.
I don’t have a lot to run with for Advanced Warfare but picture this, if you will: Kevin Spacey’s character has a lot of wealth but is kind of a tyrannical and sociopathic thinker, feeling that security is made through control of the citizenry. He employs his own personal private military company, who seeks to make a name for itself by disarming the National Guard and creating demilitarized city-states out of every capital city in the United States of America. The strike is so sudden, so well-planned, so without warning that the military of all branches gets stretched too thin and is wiped out without problem. That’s where you come in, a soldier from the Marines, the Army, the local police force, something along those lines. Your vehicle that took you into the city of choice is taken out and there aren’t many survivors. Your commander is down and won’t last long. He gives you your last orders, to rendezvous with a command post. The enemy is, literally, everywhere, and are practically indistinguishable from your own forces. Every combat situation can be turned into a hostage situation. There are a lot of constant moral choices to make and depending on your situation there would be great consequences for your decisions. You’re faced with tech that no one in any of the military’s forces are ready for and the tech that the military does have is untested and unreliable. Your trek from point A to point B should not be fought in a corridor and it could change greatly depending on whether or not there’s destructible environments – and if you can, always include destructible environments – and smart enemy AI. You could see a game that is played differently every time you attempt. This would also mean, though, that the game would be fought on fewer fronts and need to be painstakingly detailed for realism. This also doesn’t mean that the game won’t have its corridor moments, though: you could treat the command post like a mission hub and start all kinds of missions. Stuff like reconnaissance, stealth assassination, demolition, clearing for garrisons, holding the front line, all stuff that can take place indoors and outdoors.
The second could go one of two ways, when regarding enemy AI: either find a way to do it smartly or remove it entirely. You’re fighting your own countrymen in the scenario I’ve planted in front of you and, when you’re considering urban warfare, you’re going to be considering a many different personalities on the battlefield: you’re going to see soldiers who are cocky, cowardly, strategic, aggressive, dumb, smart, and so on. Let’s not forget, though, the civilians: you’re going to see the same personalities but also those who might take up arms for or against you depending on their moral compass. This would take a lot of work in the programming end of things but if it’s done in a pristine way this could be the bar for which all AI conflict is compared to. If you’re unwilling to do that, you’re better off eliminating it entirely, creating a kind of hybrid multiplayer situation where you have three main camps to play for – civilian, military, or PMC: in this, you would get an innately human response because you would be playing against other humans. Would you get the same kind of adrenaline rush? No, probably not, because a good majority of people who play games online are predictable, but it would be better than shitty AI.
Dropping someone in the middle of a metropolitan center with no real idea or plan or how to do something and things are always changing and different, you have tension, anticipation, and constant excitement: you have a game that doesn’t need to focus purely on multiplayer in order to keep the game relevant and profitable. Turn that person into an avatar of yourself with general dialogue and customization would make the experience feel even deeper. Make that character have a skill tree and you would bring multiplayer character development into the single player field and actually have a purpose and context.
Creating Wonder in Normalcy
This is a hard one and this is where the single player campaign really gets to shine. Hell, you don’t even have to look outside of the franchise to see a moment that played its cards right in that one scene from Modern Warfare where a nuke is dropped right before your very eyes and yet you still find a way to survive the initial blast. That is a great lesson in how to create wonder in something everyone has heard about and seen something of. Battlefield 4 did this well, too, when one saw the building in Singapore topple down.
The point, here, is to create the same kind of “oh, wow” reaction that makes someone speechless, be it because they’re disturbed, they’re amazed, they’re shocked, or they’re utterly defeated. Not that I’m calling these movies awesome, mind you, but movies like Battle: Los Angeles, District 9, and Skyline, if you can picture them without aliens and rather a more human threat, pose good examples of that shock coming from an unknown and overwhelming enemy with obvious weaknesses tearing down what sense of security we thought we had, exposing that we weren’t that secured to begin with. I’d hate to bring this up but look how shocking the attack on the World Trade Center was for everyone in the country, even those not directly affected by it; you start shaking up peoples ideals and false sense of security and people just start going crazy. If you take a moment like that where not just the characters but the players step back and go “whoa” and you start creating more and more of those because, well, it is a war on home soil after all, you end up with a situation, inherently, that’s more dire just by existing.
Create a Sense of Freedom
For a game whose battles seem to take place on American soil and seems to be a battle of freedom via democracy versus freedom via control, one should create a greater sense of moral and contextual freedom. This kind of thing goes all the way from mission structure to gameplay to weapon choices to resourcefulness: I’m looking at a kind of The Last of Us thing but with more initial resources: you’re shipwrecked or in an accident and that might mean that you’re out of most supplies but that doesn’t mean you’re out of all of your supplies. Of course, when you’re in the middle of the city, looking for your command post with little to no sense of direction, you will likely find that you’ll run out quickly, meaning your search for command or your mission will likely turn into a search-and-gather mission. Let the characters have the ability to take over any working vehicle with gas in it and use just about any weapon they can pick up. If you want to pick up a rocket launcher or grenade launcher, topple a building on top of a tank to see if it stops the damn thing – and the tank turns into some kind of bipedal war machine… that’s one of those “wow” moments I was talking about. Another would be finding out you could mount the thing, kill its driver, and drive the damn thing yourself. This goes for just about anything, giving you the versatile freedom to play the game any way you damn well choose.
It doesn’t stop there – since this is a war of ideals where the populace decide the future of the country, your role is to choose a side and not only make moral choices but ethical ones as well. Good versus evil and PMC vs Patriotism. It would seem easy at first but the game and the story should do well to actually spark a fire inside the player to see the pros and cons of each side, also offering the option to go entirely pacifist or go completely rogue, deciding that your way has leverage over both sides.
Let’s Be Realistic
Yeah, I know this probably won’t ever happen because of the resources necessary to make something like this happen and make it work well but one can dream. I’ve had people ask me what I would be looking for from a Call of Duty game that impresses even me and this article, be it realistic or not, is my answer. They can’t just drop Kevin Spacey inside a Modern Warfare 2 clone and think this is going to change the gaming world. Come on.