Announced this week to a frenzy of games media coverage, the latest title in the Call of Duty series is hitting stores in November. But if you don't play games – and have children who do – what should you make of this 100m-selling franchise? What's it about and is it completely, horribly violent ?
Here are a few pointers for those who are going to be asked to buy Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, but aren't sure what it is they'll be bringing home.
What is Call of Duty?
Call of Duty is a series of "first-person shooter" (or FPS) video games – so called because the action is portrayed from the perspective of the player. The series began in 2003, and the first three titles were set during the second world war. However, the fourth instalment, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, moved the narrative to a near-future setting and began to explore themes of global terrorism and armed revolution.
The games have sold more than 100m copies so far and there is a new title every year. However, they don't all feature the same scenarios and characters: Activision has introduced different sub-strands of the main series, produced by different development studios. Alongside the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series, there is also Call of Duty: Black Ops, which is set during the Cold War. Last year saw Call of Duty: Ghosts, set in a post-apocalyptic future.
Every game in the series features a single-player "Campaign" mode, which is a story split into a series of missions. There is also a multiplayer mode in which groups of participants meet online to compete in various types of competitive matches.
What does Advance Warfare add?
Not much is known about the latest title, but the game's publisher, Activision, is likely to update the teaser site soon. It seems the game is set in the near-future where a powerful private military contractor has decided to use its army against the US Government. In the trailer, soldiers are depicted wearing armoured exoskeletons, fighting alongside robotic vehicles and drones.
The lead anatgonist is being played by actor Kevin Spacey who has lent his voice and visual likeness to the game. Here is the official trailer:
When is the latest title coming out?
The next game, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, is out on 4 November and is expected to release on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. Versions for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are also likely. It will cost around £50, although you may find it cheaper online or in supermarkets which heavily discount the price of major game releases.
Will it have an 18 age certificate?
The last title in the series, Call of Duty: Ghosts, has a PEGI 16+ certificate, but previous titles carried an 18+ rating. PEGI is the European age rating system for Europe, it took over games certification from the BBFC a number of years ago. Every game released in Europe must carry a PEGI rating, and each rating comes with information about the content you are likely to see in a game. You can visit the PEGI website to find out more about the ratings system, or search for individual games – the site will tell you the sorts of things you can expect to see, including violent and sexual content.
How violent will it be?
This is a shooter, so there will be almost constant gunfire – and injuries from gunfire – which are realistically depicted. Like most modern action games, Call of Duty titles also features "cinematic" sequences – non-interactive scenes which work like short animated movies – showing vital plot points and moving the story along. These often include graphic violence. Previous Call of Duty titles have shown torture sequences, others have shown characters being stabbed in the neck, or shot from close range. Call of Duty is certainly not alone in this respect – other shooters like Battlefield and Killzone feature similar scenes. Essentially, anything you'll see in an adult-rated action movie you will see in adult-rated action games.
Why does my 14-year-old son like it so much?
Like all first-person shooter games, Call of Duty titles are built around very fast-paced action and highly choreographed armed combat. In a sense they combine the cinematic visuals and excitement of a Hollywood action film with our seemingly innate interest in violence and violent encounter. Call of Duty is really a digital extension of playground games like "cowboys and indians" or "cops and robbers" – they provide a safe space in which participants can role-play violent encounters. The games also allow players to "rank-up", unlocking new weapons and items as they get better, so there is a motivation to keep playing and keep improving. This "feedback loop" of action and reward is a staple element of video game design.
Should I be concerned about young children playing 18-certificate games?
Many parents make the mistake of thinking that age certificates on games are just a guide and that all games are suitable for children. This is not the case; just like movies, modern games depict scenes that are intended for adults only. When your child asks for a game, look at the box on Amazon or in the shop. If it has an 18 certificate it will contain graphic violence, drug use or sexual content – just like an 18 certificate film.
How do I stop my teenager playing an 18-rated game?
There's obviously a lot of pressure on teenagers to do the things their friends are doing, and Call of Duty has a huge fanbase in this age group. Of course, if your child isn't earning their own money, you can limit their exposure to 18-certificate games by not buying them (although they can always play at a friend's house – or if they have a PC, illegally download a pirated copy of the game).
All modern game consoles, smartphones and Windows PCs also come with parental controls which allow you to block your children from playing age-restricted titles. "There are lots of elements you can control," says Andy Robertson, a freelance family gaming expert. "It's not just about being Draconian over what children can play, it's about controlling who they can talk to online, when they spend money, if they can watch videos and how long they play. It's a good idea to sit down as a family and have a conversation about setting up the controls, deciding on the limits together; if kids are given a say in the process they'll feel more involved and it's not just about Mum and Dad stopping them playing."
When you buy a new machine it is advisable to set yourself up as the main account and to configure parental controls for all other users. The set-up process can be complicated, but Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony all have information on parental controls on their websites. It's also worth checking out the AskAboutGames website, a resource for parents interested in, or concerned about, games. This has a section which explains how the parental control systems work on most major platforms.
Are games like Call of Duty antisocial?
Not necessarily. The popular image is of teenagers sitting alone in their bedrooms playing for hours, and although that no doubt happens, most first-person shooters encourage players to meet up online and play together. It's possible to set-up teams and compete in leagues against other sides from all over the world, and players often use online games as a social venue, chatting to each other on headphone mics while playing. Indeed, games like Call of Duty have provided a social lifeline to isolated youngsters.
Are the games actually any good?
That is the source of much debate among gamers. The titles have usually reviewed reasonably well, with the first two Call of Duty: Modern Warfare titles scoring highest – I would argue the first Modern Warfare is a genuine classic, which introduced key new features to the genre. However, the reviews aggregation site Metacritic has shown that critical opinion is turning against the series – Call of Duty: Ghosts has a Metacritic score average of around 70%, which is pretty poor for a major release.
There's no doubt the titles have mass appeal – the series has sold well over 100m copies worldwide, and the latest instalments usually all reach the 20m sales mark. The games are enjoyable in the same way as a Michael Bay movie; easy to get into, slick and compelling.
However, there are plenty of players who despise the series – who feel that it rigidly adheres to a recipe that never changes and is out of date. Others despair at the online community, which seems to be dominated by teenage boys, who often shout abuse at each other during games. However, this is the same with many multiplayer shooters, and can be avoided if you chose to play only against close friends on a private server.
Call of Duty is very much seen as a mainstream franchise – the popcorn movie of the gaming world. Some players are happy with that, some aren't.
Does Call of Duty teach my child anything?
Well, the first three titles in the series featured genuine WW2 weapons, military divisions and battles, and were, to some extent, historically accurate. The games included combat on various fronts throughout Europe and provided information on military tactics, geography and the different roles of various military forces. The Modern Warfare titles have been influenced by global terrorism and ultra-nationalist movements, but are no more or less accurate than most big budget action movies. The Black Ops series is interesting in its analysis of the Cold War, Vietnam and the Kennedy assassination.
The newest titles are all reasonably accurate in their depiction of current military hardware – although much of this has come through the controversial licensing of real-life weapons. They often use current affairs to form the under-pinning of their stories. Indeed, the games' developers have often sought to highlight the authenticity of their narratives, sometimes with short online documentaries. For Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which is about a rogue private military contractor, Activision has commissioned a mini-documentary about real-life PMCs.
But let's be honest, this is not a piece of educational software.
Are there any decent female characters in it?
There have been no playable female characters in the series until Call of Duty: Ghosts. This has been a major criticism, not just of Call of Duty, but of the shooter genre in general. Others have highlighted the negative depiction of middle eastern, Asian and eastern European characters.
Has there been any research into the effect of games on teenage brains?
There have been hundreds of studies into the effects of video game violence on children and teenagers. Many of these show a short-term rise in aggressive behaviour after playing for extended periods, but so far no major study has shown significant long-term links between playing violent games and participating in real-life violence. It would be very hard to prove such a link as so many other psychological, social and emotional factors play a role in violent crimes.
The US gaming site Kotaku has a handy collection of video game violence studies with a brief guide to their conclusions.
Should I limit the number of hours my child plays each day?
It is advisable to limit the time your teenage child spends playing games – if only because gaming can get in the way of other activities like school work – and sleeping. Moving the games console from the bedroom into the living room or another communal area of the house is an effective way to monitor the time your children spend playing. This will also allow you to see and experience the games for yourself. In fact, it's a good idea to spend half an hour playing the latest game that your children are interested in – preferably with them.
"Parents don't often appreciate that kids actually want to talk to them about games - particular younger children," says Robertson. "On our FamilyGamerTV YouTube channel, I post a lot of 'Let's Play' videos where I play with my kids, and loads of the comments are along the lines of, 'I wish my parents would play with me like this'. It's heartbreaking in a way."
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