A lot of people buy Call of Duty games every year, but hardly anyone buys Call of Duty for the story – it’s either the addictive multiplayer or the co-op fun of Zombies (which hardly anyone plays for the story either, because the Zombies story was written entirely on crack). But hey, it’s the campaign that gives the games their titles, cover art and fills up most of the early trailers – they have to mean something, right?
As an avowed Call of Duty fan (but one of the cool ones, not those 12 year olds nerds), I’ve made a habit of playing through the campaign with each of the recent games, suffering through the piss-poor stories and repetitive gunplay for the kernels of good stuff you occasionally find lurking about. But hardly anyone ever talks about them, so here is my comparison of the recent three campaigns, and how they tell their stories. I’ve picked the last three games because they’re all done by different studios, independently of one another, each displaying a different take on the Call of Duty formula. So, which is the strongest at each aspect – is is Infinity Ward’s Ghosts, Sledgehammer’s Advanced Warfare, or Treyarch’s Black Ops 3?
The Elevator Pitch
Ghosts: In the year 2017, the evil, ambiguously South American Federation hijack an American space weapon and fire it at the States, incinerating a handful of cities and allowing for a full occupation of America. Ten years later, a couple of intrepid burly white male soldier-types join a shadowy resistance organisation called the Ghosts to take on the Federation and drive them out of America.
Advanced Warfare: In the 2060s, a young private gets his arm lopped of in a botched foreign mission, and gets a cybernetic replacement. He then joins a private military organisation led by the seemingly nice and friendly Kevin Spacey to take on a Luddite-ish terrorist organisation led by a man called Hades. Along the way, he uncovers that the mission isn’t quite as simple as it seemed.
Black Ops 3: In 2065, a young private gets both his arms chopped off in a botched foreign mission, and not only gets cybernetic replacements, but also a special computer in his brain called a DNI. With his overly macho buddy Hendricks, the unnamed private investigates a terrorist attack on a Singapore facility, which their old mentors just happen to have been tied up in. Along the way, he uncovers that his old mentors have gone rogue, and can’t stop going on about ‘a Frozen Forest’.
Winner: Black Ops 3, despite its similarities to AW. Ghosts loses because the idea of a space weapon in 2017 is ridiculous, and there’s a disturbing undercurrent of racism in the premise. Advanced Warfare, meanwhile, is hopelessly bland despite the future setting, so it’s Black Ops 3 that wins it by virtue of being a little adventurous and daring to set up an actual mystery.
The Big Twist
Ghosts: Er… the main character’s father is a Ghost? The villain is a brainwashed former ally of his dad? Erm…
Advanced Warfare: IT WAS SPACEY ALL ALONG! Nice old Jonathan Irons in fact allowed terrorist attacks to happen so his company could profit, the two-faced bastard.
Black Ops 3: IT WAS AN AI ALL ALONG! John Taylor’s team didn’t go nuts on their own, they were infected by a rogue artificial intelligence with a need to reach a made-up Frozen Forest and a habit of infecting anyone it touches… oh, and you just touched it.
Winner: Black Ops 3, kind of by default. There is no big twist in Ghosts, and it was more of a twist that Kevin Spacey was presented as a good guy at all.
The Main Protagonist
Ghosts: Logan Walker, one of two brothers who was caught up in the MASSIVE SPACE LASER attack. Logan is completely mute throughout the game, with all of his personality transferred over to his brother, who has the ability of speech. It’s really hard to tell what Logan’s motivations are, but they’re generally just his brother’s.
Advanced Warfare: Jack Mitchell, a soldier who joins a PMC called Atlas after a mostly armless accident in the workplace. Mitchell sees Kevin Spacey as a father figure of sorts and wants to impress him, maybe? Mitchell (gasp!) speaks during cutscenes, but doesn’t during gameplay.
Black Ops 3: Unnamed player, a cyborg soldier who works for the Winslow Accord (future NATO) and attempts to uncover a convoluted and tangled conspiracy involving illegal experimentation and a terrorist organisation. The player can be either male or female, although the identical dialogue basically assumes you’re a guy, and actually gets tangled up in an implied romance with a female teammate alongside butting heads with the token overly macho burly white guy partner.
Winner: Again, it’s Black Ops 3, where the character isn’t a bit flat or non-existent entirely. BO3 should count itself lucky, though, because the player is also a thoroughly weird character who doesn’t seem to possess motivations, and just does things by instinct.
Ghosts: Rorke, a former Ghost who was brainwashed by the evil South Americans into doing evil South American deeds. Rorke’s defining characteristics are: an ability to survive literally everything, and a fondness of The Dark Knight Rises, the opening of which he re-enacts midway through.
Advanced Warfare – Initially, it’s ‘Hades’, a technophobic terrorist who attacked nuclear power plants and killed thousands, but he dies midway through to be replaced by the real villain, Kevin Spacey, who has developed a biological weapon to make Atlas the dominant force of a dictatorial but peaceful new world. To achieve this, Kevin declares war on the entire planet.
Black Ops 3 – Initially, it’s John Taylor – former good guy who inexplicably snaps along with his team and partners up with terrorists, leaking information and killing a whole bunch of innocent people along the way. However, late on, Taylor is revealed to be doing the bidding of the real bad guy, Corvus, who is obsessed with reaching the Frozen Forest, which was initially cooked up as a calming exercise by a psychologist but then Corvus took it as gospel trying to reach it by infecting people with cybernetic enhancements and kind of creating a virtual version of it that isn’t real good lord what were the writers smoking
Winner: Advanced Warfare, for once. Like everything in Ghosts, Rorke is an appalling villain. And while Black Ops 3 gets points for trying, Corvus’ motivations and abilities are so ludicrously convoluted it’d be churlish to actually acclaim it as superior to the competent Bond villain Kevin Spacey from AW, who does his job as a pretty standard megalomaniac with a vaguely sympathetic motivation.
Ghosts: Logan and Hesh, the Bland Brothers, storm a train and finally take out Rorke with a point-blank shot to the chest, swimming out of the flooded train and escaping to a nearby beach to watch their allies advance on the Federation. Job done, and credits roll… but midway through, we cut back to the beach, where Rorke emerges completely unharmed to kidnap Logan for presumable brainwashing.
Advanced Warfare: Gideon and Mitchell storm the Atlas facility in mech suits and shoot their way through, shutting down the launch of the biological weapon and eventually killing Irons. A bit of sequel bait about the battle not being done, and roll credits.
Black Ops 3: Oh boy. The player and CIA ally Kane chase after their former friend Hendricks, who has been infected with the AI and is sending a whole bunch of enemies after them while tracking down the sole survivor of the explosion at the start of the game that created Corvus. Corvus gasses Kane, and the possessed Hendricks kills the sole survivor, and is killed in turn by the player, who in turn turns the gun on him/herself and fires. But instead of dying, they’re transported to the Frozen Forest where they speak to incarnations of Hendricks and Corvus, fighting their way through a nightmarish mash-up of previous missions while succumbing to Corvus themselves. With the help of spirit guide Taylor, however, the player seemingly triumphs and purges Corvus from their head, but when they meet a friendly soldier outside the facility, they claim their name is, drum roll, Taylor. Oh, and text briefings before missions reveal the entire campaign after mission one was a dream. What were the writers smoking?
Winner: Advanced Warfare, again. Ghosts‘ ending is nonsensical and completely invalidates the final mission, as well as ripping suspension of disbelief to shreds (we saw blood spray from Rorke’s chest! He was 20 feet underwater! In a train!) for a tease for a sequel no-one wants. Meanwhile, it’s another A* for effort for Black Ops 3, but someone needs to tell Treyarch that less is sometimes more, that while ambiguous endings are great, the best ones have a handful of explanations, rather than about 26, none of which make any sense, and that it’s cool to sometimes know what the hell is going on. That leaves AW, then, which ends exactly how you’d expect in predictable fashion, and therefore easily wins because it actually tells a satisfying and coherent ending despite being bland and unmemorable in the way it tells it.
So, despite Advanced Warfare scoring a couple of points, we have Black Ops 3 as our winner – and in every case, it’s because it’s by far more ambitious and daring than the other two in those aspects. However, it’s worth noting that none of the stories are actually ‘good’ by any means, with critical flaws that really drag them down and a universal lack of compelling drama. Let’s take a look at what each campaign does right, and wrong, overall then.
Ghosts: As you may have gathered, I hate Ghosts – even the multiplayer was insipid. The central flaw here is that it starts off with a big, exciting event that promises to upend the usual formula, and then uses that event to go back to the original formula. The premise invokes ideas of a shadowy force pluckily taking out enemies in darkness – a good old fashioned underdog story with a different, stealthier flavour to the typically bombastic previous games. What we get is just the same, reheated large scale war narrative where you frequently buddy up with the super-powerful military and pilot tanks – and to compound things, the stab at family drama is hopeless because the game never adds complexity and depth to any main character, and turns its central character into a hollow shell whose only purpose is to shoot things. It’s bland, generic despite its overpowering desire to be ‘different’ and ‘dramatic’, and fails to offer an engaging villainous counterpart.
Advanced Warfare: Aside from the future setting, Advanced Warfare plays it very safe – the first half is paint-by-numbers terrorist chasing, and the second is a paint-by-numbers Call of Duty fare. It’s competent, and there’s some fun bits along the way, but ultimately the story is a hopelessly bland series of greatest bits with barely an original idea in its head. There’s no real storytelling flourishes, no emotional gut-punches other than the mildly sad death of an undeveloped mentor figure, and it fails to deliver the social commentary on private military corporations that would have been so easy to sneak in. I had fun with this campaign, but by the time Irons had declared war on the world and the hero allied with the military to take back an aircraft carrier (a Call of Duty staple, done in every single one of the past five games in some capacity), you can guess exactly where the campaign is going. There’s precisely one vaguely surprising twist – the soldiers you’re with are gassed in front of your eyes – but other than that, this is little more than a shiny repackaging of older ideas.
Black Ops 3: As you may have gathered, this is easily my favourite campaign. It’s worth noting that it’s heavily flawed, even before the borderline incomprehensible wacko ending – the story consists of tracking down a rogue agent and his team while investigating a mysterious disaster at a company, and the campaign is never quite sure what story it wants to tell, flitting between both intermittently. It’s unlike any campaign this series has ever served up, but Black Ops 3 desperately wants to remind you that this is still Call of Duty, with misinformed storytelling detours into far more conventional territory such as a terrorist hunt and a revolution in Egypt. These detours are relatively dull and detract from the relatively compelling core, taking away from the uniqueness and making this story, which could function as a lean two-hour movie, flabby and bloated in places. Furthermore, the Corvus twist comes far too late in the game – it’s actually quite a good twist, combining surprise with a genuine payoff for all the mysterious build-up before, but its placing just a few missions before the end means that the game never truly reconciles the mind-screwy final portion of the game where your character is constantly hallucinating and losing their mind with the slightly more conventional material that came beforehand. But I’ll give BO3 a pat on the back for trying to do something different, because, ultimately, Treyarch seem to give a shit about story. On paper at least, this is a boldly unusual and stylistically inventive campaign that mixes trad-Call of Duty with heavy duty science-fiction, and I can’t really fault the commitment to delivering a story that’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen from this franchise. The problem here is that the ambition and stylistic innovation comes squashed into the traditional six-hour format, forced to share room with formulaic material to the point. Black Ops 3 has big things to say, but the big things are drowned out by the tick-box of military shooter tropes, to the point where the ‘big things’ come out more as garbled and incoherent nonsense. It’s no surprise, then, when BO3 finally ditches the military aspect in the final mission and really commits to the mind-screwy stuff, the campaign disappears inside itself – with not that much build-up, the ending just comes across as jarring and incoherent, because the game has been forced to hold its big reveals in its pocket for so long that they just come across as weird when the mystery finally unspools.
And then there’s the ending. Look, Treyarch, I did eventually come up with a theory. It took way longer than it should have, and the theory sucks. Make your ending make sense on some level.
So, at the end of the day, we have three campaigns that tell stories in horribly flawed manners. One aims high and falls short, one aims low and mostly hits the easy mark, and one aims straight up in the air and dies when the arrow comes back down and skewers them (hi, Ghosts!). There’s good things within these campaigns (except in Ghosts, which is a horrible piece of garbage), but Call of Duty still hasn’t worked out to truly commit to innovation, always eventually going back to that tired old formula. Maybe this year’s game by Infinity Ward will improve.
That game is probably Ghosts 2.