Warning: This post contains spoilers for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
Kevin Spacey doesn’t come cheap. In Call of Duty’s latest action tentpole Advanced Warfare. Spacey is billed as the star and for good reason. More so than Jack Mitchell (even though Troy Baker tries his hardest), Spacey’s character, CEO and military dictator Jonathan Irons, is the focal point of the conflict in Advanced Warfare. Every Call of Duty game since Modern Warfare in some way has incorporated the political issues of our time in its narrative, and this time the unsettling protagonist represents the fear of an easily exploitable political landscape.
That isn’t to say Advanced Warfare has a clear and consistent political message — quite the opposite in fact. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is easily one of the most thematically inconsistent stories in the franchise, generally bungling any attempt at addressing the state of affairs on the global stage with tact. However, I do commend it for trying — on occasion — to elevate a narrative that too easily falls into the “bro-shooter” category of storytelling.
Let’s take a look at the campaign’s first supposed threat to the safety of American citizens, the KVA. Advanced Warfare describes this as a Chechen-birthed global terrorist organization led by a man who calls himself “Hades”. Nevermind the comically evil nom de plume or the fact the game never bothers to explain the KVA acronym. The KVA purports to stand against humanity’s increasing dependency on technology by blowing up nuclear power plants and, uh, using the most high-tech weaponry they can find. Their rhetoric fails to match reality.
Additionally, the motivation for joining the KVA is still entirely unclear. While the Cordis Die movement in Black Ops 2 is more of a loose social collective than a terrorist organization, KVA appears as a powerful standing military that is able to execute simultaneous strikes around the globe. Who does the KVA recruit? What motivates these individuals to agree to their techno-phobic message? Considering the KVA meets in a luxurious tower in beautiful Santorini, Greece, I find it hard to believe that they accurately represent an underground fear of technological progress.
Advanced Warfare revels in its own depiction of our technological future. The new weapon tech is a fundamental part of the game’s selling point. Jetpacks and grappling hooks amp up the traditional shooter and at least in the marketing campaign make war more fun than it’s ever been, which is fine, really. But this glorification of its own technological candy undermines any attempt to address its larger narrative themes. During our recent podcast debrief on the game, my PopMatters colleague Scott Juster rightly pointed out what a disappointment it was when Irons, the ultimate villain in the game, chooses to break the protagonist’s biotic arm instead of turning it against him.
Even so, Irons is the closest that Advanced Warfare gets to addressing real world politics as well as its predecessors. The President of Atlas, the mega-corporation and private military contractor becomes a fascist regime with Irons as its leader, and it’s not hard to connect the state of corporations globally to the story of Advanced Warfare.
Irons is a war profiteer, but more than that, he is one created and even lauded by the countries that rely too heavily on corporate power to exist. During one overwrought announcement at the United Nations (an organization Call of Duty has never treated positively) he states, ““The United Nations is a relic from a different time when nations were unique in their ability to solve the world’s problems. That just isn’t the case anymore. Primarily because you have outsourced the job to me.”
This mistrust of outsourcing and America’s dependency on corporations is by far the game’s most interesting theme. Recovering from a devastating economic crisis, and with numerous critics calling Citizens United a travesty that gives even more rights to corporations with no interest in communities let alone countries, the idea of a company like Atlas with the power to exploit our own international political landscape is an understandable fear.
Irons is an extreme realization of a real fear of “corpocratic” control over governmental rule. Our villains have changed from fascists to terrorists to ourselves. It is telling that the ruins of Detroit feature prominently in one of the campaign’s settings. Many parts of the city, once bolstered by an automotive industry that many believed a permanent fixture, literally sit abandoned. The belief that corporations have the nation’s best interest at heart has increasingly eroded. Advanced Warfare tries, at times, to tap into these concerns by creating an extreme case in Atlas, a company that eagerly exploits our international landscape politically and economically.
Advanced Warfare stops shy of embracing its own themes. Despite Iron’s “evil” rhetoric and demeanor, he is not actually wrong about much. Politics as usual has set the stage for wars across the country. After the devastation of KVA’s attacks, Atlas really does provide a safety net for thousands of suffering citizens. Even New Baghdad, a city we associate with the ruins of war, is built gloriously anew through Atlas funding. If it weren’t for the forces of good (or so the game seems to say), we might actually be better off with a little more corporate rule and a little less political fanaticism. The game mixes its message. It expresses fear towards an over reliance on technological and international corporations, yet glorifies them both as well. By addressing real world themes too cautiously, Advanced Warfare wastes an opportunity and subverts one of the few positive narrative trends established in the Call of Duty franchise as a whole.