In Call of Duty Advanced Soldier, war happens for the same reasons it always does: to exert power, to protect and expand territory. To make one’s mark on history. But the ways in which war is waged have changed beyond recognition.
Set 45 years into the future, soldiers wear exoskeletons which grant them superhuman strength, allowing them to carry great loads, to take lingering leaps into the air and to clamber up the side of buildings. Smart grenades hover in the air for a few seconds, pick out their targets before they launch toward them with a scream. Soldiers can switch between incendiary, flash and other types of grenade with a squeeze of the thumb. There are laser guns. Not only can soldiers flick a switch and become invisible: kilometre-wide digital canopies mask chemical warehouses from Google satellites’ prying lenses.
These visions are, according to Glen Schofield, one of the founders of Sledgehammer Games (the studio tasked with taking the Call of Duty series into the formula-freshening future) based in not in science fiction but reality. “Everything in the game is based on technology that we know will be out there,” he says. “It’s all based on research. The game is grounded in truth.”
It is, nevertheless, a speculative realism that is designed to make Call of Duty a more interesting, relevant game in 2014. Activision’s juggernaut series, released in annual instalments, boasts of being the highest grossing entertainment brand across all mediums. There is, however, a challenge for its wealthy custodians: how to maintain interest in a series that is becoming ever more familiar without alienating the gigantic fan-base (around 10 million players log in to play Call of Duty every day, more than six months after the most recent title’s release).
The futuristic setting is Sledgehammer’s answer to the problem; the accompanying scope for new technologies in the game brings with it more than just a fresh setting – it changes the way in which participants play the game. This is, according to Schofield, “the most radical change to Call of Duty you’ve ever felt on the controller.”
It starts with the exoskeleton (dubbed the "exo" in game) and the raft of new interactions that it brings. There’s the "exo climb", the "exo push", the boost jump, magnetic gloves, the ability to hover… all moves that transform Private Mitchell, the game’s protagonist whom players follow from green private across a decade-long storyline to hardened veteran.
With the suit Mitchell can pull the doors from cars and use them as impromptu shields. He can cloak himself to blend in with foliage and become invisible to enemy soldiers (but not, crucially, seeker drones, which can see through the electromagnetic fakery). He can push an upturned ice cream van down the street to provide cover for his allies. In Call of Duty the protagonists have always been one-man armies who triumph against overwhelming odds. Here, the subtext is made explicit: you play a superhero.
Taking a sledgehammer to Call of Duty
This is the first time that Sledgehammer has taken control of Activision’s flagship series – and the publisher’s investment is clear: the team has had a three year development cycle for what was once intended to be a revitalising reimagining of the series. The senior members of staff at are best known for their work on Dead Space, a Ridley Scott-esque space horror series.
Advanced Soldier bears some familial resemblance: there is almost no HUD on screen. Your ammunition count is displayed on the gun itself, removing screen clutter. You’re also awarded points for how you perform in a stage (although these are currently not displayed on screen) and you can allocate these points into upgrading different aspects of you suit – faster running, quicker reloads and so on – allowing for customisation that is entirely new to Call of Duty’s single player campaign. Schofield estimates that players will need to play through the game two and a half times in order to fully upgrade Mitchell’s abilities.
There’s a renewed focus on storyline too, as evidenced by Kevin Spacey’s involvement as one of the key characters. This will be, according to Schofield, a story about “life, hope, friendship, pain and loss,” even if it is one that’s told primarily down the scope of a gun.
Reality, fantasy and war
Call of Duty has never been a series to offer solemn commentary on the nature of war. It is, rather, a reality built for spectacle and play. But as young British jihadists reference the series as they head to Syria to join in the civil war there, the futuristic setting and the fact that the enemy in the game is paramilitary group, rather than a nation state moves Advanced Soldier yet farther away from the perilous present toward something more remote, removed and, at least for the game’s PR teams, less controversial.
That spectacle rivals, as ever, the loudest Michael Bay blockbusters (one of the game’s scenes sees your character tear through a dark, abandoned, rain-pitted city while pursued by an attack helicopter; another ends with the grim destruction of the Golden Gate bridge). These scenes still have a certain, fleeting power and effect – even if we are deadened and wearied by the pornographic thrill of spectacular screen violence. But it's in the hands of players where Advanced Soldier manages to convince of its urgency and relevance. It is very much a game about now.
• Simon Parkin attended E3 on a press trip with other journalists, in which travel and accommodation costs were met by Activision. For information on the Guardian's policy covering paid-for trips, please see the editorial code or this article on transparency and trust.
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