The scene is exciting but implausible.
It’s a shoot out on the Golden Gate bridge, taking place 45 years in the future. Soldiers wearing bionic exoskeletons leap over trucks, firing bizarre “directed energy” weapons that send out fatal force waves. Drones patrol above, identifying and shooting at targets, one combatant throws a smart grenade that momentarily hovers in the air before locking onto an enemy and scorching in.
It is a sequence typical of the Call of Duty series, Activision’s billion-dollar shoot-’em-up cash cow. Since its arrival in 2003, the titles have relied on flashy hyper-violence, Michael Bay explosions and ludicrous plotlines. The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare titles reveled in post-9/11 paranoia, inventing eastern European ultra nationalist groups and super weapons of mega destruction. The series has shifted 140m units.
Advanced Warfare looks like more of the same. It’s 2060 and a terrorist organisation named KVA has pulled off a global atrocity, detonating a series of nuclear power plants, and plunging the world into chaos. With nation states unable to re-build their armed forces, private military contractors are managing the fight back. But they have their own agendas. The founder of the largest, Atlas, is Jonathan Irons, played with obvious relish by Kevin Spacey. He thinks he has a better plan for the future. He thinks of war as a marketplace and countries as corporations. He wants to launch a hostile takeover of the USA.
Rocket boosted exoskeletons? Private military organisations with imperialist leanings? It’s all nonsense right? Not according to Michael Condrey, co-founder of Sledgehammer Games, the studio behind Advanced Warfare.
The next threat to the USA
“Three years ago, right after we finished Modern Warfare 3, we started thinking about how to change Call of Duty,” he says. “We brought in a lot of outside help – military advisers, futurologists - we got together with a scenario planner from the department of defense, who is active in the Pentagon. His job is to think about future threats and prepare ‘what if’ scenarios for the US government. So we asked him, what do you think will be the conflict of tomorrow?”
Apparently, the source quickly ruled out China (“he said it’s too big, it’ll eventually collapse under its own economic weight”), a resurgence of the Cold War with Russia, and a consolidation of emergent Islamic extremist states. Instead, the adviser predicted that the next threat to the security of the United States would come from a private military company. It may be some billion-dollar contract gone bad or a sudden tipping point in the ratio between national military and contracted forces.
“We thought that was fascinating and provocative,” says Condrey. “What happens when an organisation that’s built for profit has access to all the latest weapons and technology – an organisation that can operate outside of the Geneva Convention, that can be purchased by the highest bidder? What if that got out of control?
“This was around the time that Greece was collapsing economically, there were riots – and there was an understanding that, the reason PMCs have had such an opportunity to grow, is that funding a standing army is very expensive for a modern nation state. Why not outsource war? It’s better for PR – you don’t have to explain to parents why their kids are dying in battles on foreign soil.”
The team read up on modern PMCs. It studied the most well-known example, Blackwater, the controversial US company that won millions of dollars worth of contracts to provide security in post-war Iraq. The charismatic founder, Erik Prince, is surely a model for Jonathan Irons, especially after a series of congressional hearings over the activities of the company, and other wrangles with the US government.
Directed energy and other weapons of the “future”
As for the weaponry, Sledgehammer has used military advisors to ensure its authenticity. These people aren’t difficult to find or employ – primarily because many of them play Call of Duty. “We’ve been fortunate that the series has a lot of fans across military organisations, and within the entertainment industry,” says Condrey. “This draws a lot of interest, and a great deal of desire to help Call of Duty.
“Often, we are able to extend our network through existing relationships within the Call of Duty franchise. For example, we worked with Mark Bohl, writer of Hurt Locker, and were put in contact with his retired Navy Seal Team 6 adviser through shared contacts. Other times, we research experts in the field and reach out directly. Retired Delta Commander, Dalton Furty, is an example. We read his book, Kill Bin Laden, and made an inquiry on his interest and availability.”
The result is that every gun, vehicle and aircraft in the game has a basis in current weapons research – whether that’s the Breacher pump action directed energy shotgun or the XS1 Vulcan, effectively an airborne laser blaster.
“We wanted the game to be grounded and believable, but how do we do that if it’s set 50 years in the future?” says Condrey. “So we agreed with the designers, if you can’t point to R&D or a prototype, it can’t go in the game. At one point we had this concept for a teleportation grenade – you throw it, and where it lands, you teleport there. But it’s not in the game because it’s science fiction.”
However, pulsed energy, microwave, laser and sonic weapons have been in development for decades, and research is ongoing. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and other major manufacturers are all building systems. The North American market alone will be worth $10bn by 2020 according to MicroMarket Monitor.
Meanwhile, the exoskeletons worn by soldiers in the game, which players are able to upgrade with a range of performance-enhancing features, come from a more benign source. “We looked at how Daewoo, one of the biggest tech firms in Korea, has developed exoskeletons that are used in the ship yards – they allow dock workers to lift 500lbs. That blew my mind. OK, we don’t think that, in the near future, soldiers will be doing 20ft boost jumps like our exo does, but we do feel that 50 years from now … we’ve probably been conservative.”
The war on story
For some, this is a difficult and troubling concept. Call of Duty is a big, bloody spectacle of a game series; a gung-ho celebration of military might. For all its millions of fans, it has detractors that see it as all that’s wrong with the mainstream games industry – the obsession with gunfire and power. Should developers be mining real-world expertise for narrative authenticity? Is it right to draw on real-life conflicts and experiences so that players can shoot each other online with realistic assault rifles?
But then of course, Hollywood has been doing the same thing for years, employing military advisers like Dale Dye and Harry Humphries to add legitimacy, not just to worthy dramas, but to popcorn shootfests. The difference is that video games are still a young medium; they are viewed with suspicion. People worry about the effects they have, people worry about the suitability of an interactive medium to tell stories of war and tragedy.
Can Advanced Warfare shake up the series in narrative terms? Many of the Sledgehammer team came from making the respected and atmospheric sci-fi horror title Dead Space – they know how to tell an interactive story. They say they want to tell a good one here.
“We really looked at the narrative execution,” says Condrey. “Not just Kevin Spacey’s performance, but the whole story arc. I think there are moments that will be challenging.
“Right now, we’re all talking about this third golden age of television in the US – that inspires us. Games have long way to go to deliver on the emotional narratives we see in, say, Game of Thrones. We have to learn lessons there, we have to learn about emotional attachment to characters, provocative situations, loss. We need to make those a big part of video games.”
In the end, that would be a more impressive achievement than recreating any weapons system that military science has to offer.
- Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare multiplayer – the five most important new features
- Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare – a non-gamer’s guide
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