WARNING: This aricle contains plot spoilers for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
In October 2003, a game shook up the video game world the way few others could. Its developer, Infinity Ward, was comprised of a team that had previously worked on Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. As almost a nod to those origins, the studio named its game Call of Duty, inspired by how a soldier is awarded the highest military honor for "personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty." Beyond that, Call of Duty represented World War II in a way that reminded gamers that the Allied forces were comprised of multiple nations by putting players in the roles of three different soldiers. Running into battle without a gun and picking one up from a dead comrade, or else you'd be shot by your own commanding officers, is still a scene with a strong sense of resonance.
The series went through a lot of changes over next few years, including a switch from a WWII setting to the modern era in 2007. Fighting the Axis forces became a battle against terrorist and insurgent forces. Despite those changes, and how the series increasingly leaned on movie-style action, it managed to hold on to on to the idea that its characters were still performing acts of valor that went beyond the call of duty for their country. However, that ideal steadily eroded over with each successive blockbuster hit, with Modern Warfare 3 essentially being a sort of revenge tale. Still, at least games tried to keep a sense of nationality. Even additions like the Black Ops trilogy has players in the role of covert op US soldiers, while Ghosts involves a military group fighting for a shattered nation. It might not always be pretty, but at there's always a cause or some sense of purpose that brings any given series back to the call of duty.
This year introduces Advanced Warfare, the start of a new Call of Duty series that we enjoyed and brings us in to the near future. One where soldiers use high-tech futuristic gear like smart grenades and Exoskeleton armor, while private military contractors (PMCs) are the main fighting force for most of the world. The story sticks to a single character's point of view, that of Private Jack Mitchell, further wearing away the idea that wars are won by armies, not individuals. More importantly, can any act of valor be honored if it's done as a mercenary for the sole profit of a private company? Especially one with the tagline, "We don't sell policy. We sell power. We're a superpower for hire."
Although Advanced Warfare's scope might be a bit farfetched, the idea might not be. Fighting two prolonged wars in the Middle East requires a lot of manpower, and even high-risk jobs like escorting US officials in Iraq were outsourced to mercenaries comprised of ex-military. PMCs were employed with such frequency that they were often regarded as America's second army. At about the same time, Veteran Services was completely overwhelmed, and the Navy Seal who shot Osama Bin Laden came forward to state that he was totally screwed. This, and a list of other reasons, are steadily making the US Military a less appealing career choice.
So, it seems entirely believable that a former US Marine who is injured in combat might find himself employed by a PMC, equipped with the best weaponry the private sector can afford, and hired to do high-risk jobs. However, once the game's main character has officially become a mercenary, offering his services to the highest bidder regardless of nationality, is there a such thing as a call of duty anymore? Perhaps a better title would be Call of Paycheck, or maybe just Payday, if the title weren't already taken. Keep in mind that PMCs technically don't have a nationality, they have contracts. Private soldiers are sent all over the world to protect whoever is paying them, even if it happens to be against the interests of the United Nations or the country where the PMC's headquarters is located. So, a scenario where a PMC comprised of ex-US military has to defend a ruthless warlord from active US forces is quite possible. It's might even be possible to have to PMCs, or branches of the same one with conflicting contracts, fight against each other.
Advanced Warfare attempts to sidestep the matter in two ways: First by trying to legitimatize Atlas as a quasi-nation by having the United Nations formally recognize it, and makes it part of the security council as the organization's first corporate entity. Although it would be incredibly unlikely for a multinational corporation, with no government structure to speak of, to be inducted into the United Nations (one would think that being a nation would be a prerequisite), at least the it creates a small sense of nationalism. In the scope of the story, it validates what Jonathan Irons (founder and president of Atlas Corporation) has to say about the UN--in that if the UN is so reliant on PMCs to supplement its peacekeeping forces that it inducts one as a member, then it truly is an obsolete organization. There's no greater evidence of this than when Irons announces during his induction speech that his company has developed, manufactured, and stockpiled a weapon of mass destruction called Manticore right under their noses.
Secondly, Mitchell is contacted by his former commanding officer, Sergeant Cormack, who offers him a position in the Sentinel Task Force, an international team established to oppose Atlas' power. But it's worth noting that Mitchell doesn't join the task force until after he discovers that Irons allowed terrorists to kill thousands of people in an effort to throw the world into chaos and increase his own power. By then, Mitchell is a wanted man, hunted by Atlas, and has nowhere to turn. So, no points for taking the only choice available to him or being forced to help clean up the mess he indirectly helped create, however unwittingly. But hey, at least we're back to some sense of nationalism or morality again.
Where Advanced Warfare's plot really falls apart is when Irons talks about how the private sector is stronger, more advanced, and more efficient than any government because it doesn't rely on things like democracy or beholden to tax payer dollars, when in fact it is. Atlas makes its money through government contracts, funded by tax dollars. Its employees don't stick around out of some misguided sense of loyalty, but because they get nice paychecks. I'm guessing nothing would make those contracts go away, drying up whatever stockpiles of money Atlas might have, quite like effectively holding the world at gunpoint with an insane plan to remove all politicians by attacking every military base in the world.
Are Atlas soldiers really so cold that they'd be willing to stay with a corporation that's attacking their home countries and killing their friends and former brothers in arms? Even if money is their only motivation, there's still the fact that Atlas is destroying its only source of revenue, and keeping the peace after wrecking the world's governments is a incomprehensibly costly venture. How did Irons get the board of directors to agree to this? Not to mention Atlas' funds are presumably kept in banks, and not some giant Scrooge McDuck style money bin, so its assets can be traced and frozen by the nations it threatens.
Lastly, Mitchell decides to let Irons die instead of capturing him alive, which would have been the preferable outcome. They could have grilled him for intelligence and tried him for crimes against humanity to make an example out of him. Instead, players are given a setup for the inevitable sequel.
But where are the "personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty"? Can there be a call of duty when there is no nation to call for it? Is there any valor in being a soldier-for-hire working for a corporation that later turns out to be the biggest terrorist organization the world has ever seen? Even fighting against your former employer is more of an act atonement, which meets the minimum requirements for the call of duty, but does not go beyond it.
Perhaps the only real honorable moment is at the beginning of the game, when Private Will Irons (Jonathan Irons' son) gives his life to defend South Korea from a North Korea attack. In that act, he defends both a democracy and a United States ally from an invading dictatorship. The rest of the game is just everyone else trying to deal with that sacrifice. In that specific moment, and with a character who dies almost immediately, maybe Advanced Warfare does go beyond the call of duty.
Steven Wong posted a new article, Opinion: Does Advanced Warfare Answer the Call of Duty?
I like the idea of this article, but I think it needed more time in the oven.
The part about the logistics of Atlas's actions really holds no bearing on your main thesis about this nebulous "call of duty" that seems to be the focus. To that end you can also better define it by giving context seen in past titles that get it right (or don't) or in other video games completely.
Call of Duty seems like an odd choice for this kind of exploration too. I mean... Doritos.
BUT SINCE WE HAVE... I felt like Irons actions were driven by the fact that his son died as a US Marine, and saw himself in a position to "end all wars" and thus took the drastic measures he did. Kind of like when moms of kids who died in drunk driving accidents rally behind a cause to pass intense legislation against that very act. Power didn't really seem to be on his mind, but just the dissolution of a system that caused endless fighting. The same one that killed his son.
Thanks for your comment. The section about Atlas's logistics is meant to further highlight how the company is not a nation in its own right, despite how it is portrayed. It's not even trans-national. It is beholden to other nations for revenue, banking, and personnel. If one were charismatic enough to convince an entire multinational army to turn against their respective homelands, that would go greatly against the theme of "going beyond the call of duty." Even if your observations about Irons is true, I and believe they might be, it still takes an army to conquer the world and maintain peace afterwards, and an army (especially Atlas's) needs to be paid.
I also felt that the Call of Duty series made for an interesting study since it started off as a Medal of Honor competitor that illustrated the many facets of WWII, then transformed into a fight to almost single-handedly save the world.
It started when games were aping a the movie industry obsession with the "Greatest Generation." Call of Duty hearkens to the idea of many fighting beyond themselves.
The concept of duty is lost on many millennial. It is a concept that barely survived in Baby Boomers and was pretty much gone by Gen X.
The article is interesting, but I feel like the focus is on nationalism.
You could even go beyond on the plot there. We once played FPS games with factions. You got German or Allied weapons...not both during a round. Perks, scrambled up weapons, killstreaks and everything became focused on customization and individuality.
Duty is about serving something bigger than yourself (nation, family, ideals), the games became in plot about the individual awesomeness, as you so rightly point out, and reinforced that with in game mechanics.
Well said, TraptNSuit.
Yeah good call. Definitely a fun thing to discuss, and yeah especially when bringing up when it was a WW2 shooter when the title made more sense. I hope you try to make more content like this.
I actually thought the part where all Atlas troops just followed along wasn't at all fleshed out. Would've been a great opportunity to do the series staple of shifting viewpoints as another Atlas dude, but that also might've stuck out too much.
It's answered, they finally answered the call, time to put the franchise to bed.