Case Study: Advanced Warfare Looks Promising

I’ve already said before that I’m not interested in doing straight game reviews. That goes for game previews too. So it’s pretty rare for me to be writing about my thoughts on Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Hell, I’m not even a Call of Duty player in the first place. And considering how much bad rep the CoD series gets from the design community, it’s really weird for me to be paying so much attention to this one. But I’m really excited about this game from a design perspective, and now I’m going to break down why.

The reason why I heard about CoD:AW in the first place was because I’m a big fan of Titanfall, and I was reading a lot of internet rage about how CoD:AW was just a copycat. And if you watch some of the preliminary trailers, it really seems that way. They both have jetpacks, they both have cloak abilities, they both have lateral dashes. They both even use the name “Atlas” as a major pivot point (in Titanfall it’s a well-rounded Titan model, and in CoD:AW it’s the name of a giant world-dominating PMC).

But as a game designer, I don’t think it’s good to criticize games for copying mechanics. A lot of industry people always say “ideas don’t matter, execution is everything,” so if a game steals a mechanic and executes it brilliantly, it’s better than a game with a radical idea that fails on execution. For me, I take a different approach: I think copying mechanics is fine as long as it connects to the game’s core theme. My whole crusade against mana has been about the overuse of resource systems in games where they don’t belong. So if another game has done something that really fits into the core theme of what you’re making, I say go for it.

With CoD specifically, that kind of philosophy gets really muddy, because CoD‘s problem has always been a lack of a core theme. I think it’s really important for a game to have a solid core theme that summarizes everything the game is trying to deliver in a short phrase. Once that’s done, as you continue through development you can check every element and see whether or not it helps your core theme. But CoD as a series has always been criticized for just haphazardly dumping random elements into their games for the sake of spectacle. Remember all the controversy about their airport level? If it was a significant, meaningful part of the game’s intended experience, that level could have been a Spec Ops kind of deal, and it would have reached out to gamers in a way they haven’t seen before. Considering all the public opinion backlash we see about it now, that obviously didn’t happen. The other CoD games are filled with similar spectacle moments that never consolidate into a solid takeaway.

On the other hand, Titanfall, the game everyone says CoD:AW is copying, actually has a really solid core theme. Their core theme is “scale, verticality, and story,” and every single Respawn developer interview always includes one or more of those words. Every mechanic in Titanfall plays a part in delivering scale, verticality, and/or story. The double jump gives pilots the ability to traverse terrain on a greater scale. The wallrunning and walljumping allows pilots to wield verticality in their combat engagements. The titans break up the flow of a match and introduce “oh shit!” moments to turn every battle into a dynamic story. Everything is about scale, verticality, and story.

So if CoD:AW was trying to mimic Titanfall exactly, their core theme would be “scale, verticality, and story” too, which would be cool but not interesting enough to get my attention. But CoD:AW is actually lifting game mechanics from Titanfall and applying them to a different core theme, which really got me paying attention. It’s risky because these games were developed with different experiences in mind, and it would be a lot easier for CoD:AW to just copy everything about Titanfall down to a T, including their core theme. Since they’re not doing that, it really seems like this is the first time in recent history that a CoD game gets designed around its own unique core theme.

For CoD:AW, their core theme is “power changes everything.” And it really feels like they’re intentionally orienting their game around this theme. One of their trailers opens up with a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “Nearly all men can handle adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” From the story to the mechanics to the aesthetics, everything is about what happens when you’re given more power than you can handle. A test of your character as a player, and as a person.

One thing I’m really interested in is CoD:AW‘s battery powered weapons. The idea is that they regenerate power over time, and power is essentially their version of ammunition. That means these guns can potentially have unlimited firepower, but you can’t expend too much at once. This is really exciting for me personally, because I’ve written about resource systems in my mana essays and it sounds like the battery weapons are a way of getting around that problem. But more importantly, the battery weapons are conceptually harmonious with the core theme. You have infinite power, and it changes the way you approach situations. Do you get drunk on power and overspend recklessly, or do you back down out of fear and undershoot your full potential? Power changes everything. In this case, power has changed the reload/ammunition system that every other FPS game was driven by. They embedded the theme into the mechanics.

It really reminds me of the Smart Pistol system in Titanfall. Not mechanically, but conceptually. In Titanfall, the Smart Pistol is a weapon that automatically locks onto targets that you’re looking at, but it takes time to lock on. That means it takes emphasis away from precision aiming, so instead you need to focus on parkour, mobility, and wallrunning, which is exactly what Titanfall is all about. The Smart Pistol got a lot of attention for being something new and innovative in the FPS genre, and it really works in Titanfall‘s context. Obviously, the Smart Pistol would never work in Sniper Elite or Gears of War or CoD:AW, but it’s a perfect fit for Titanfall. Likewise, the battery powered weapons sound like they align with CoD:AW‘s core theme.

But that leads me into a discussion about why I probably shouldn’t be so hopeful. In Titanfall, no one uses the Smart Pistol. It’s outclassed by pretty much every other weapon there is, and they’re all your standard rifle/SMG/sniper FPS guns. Titanfall tried to innovate, but it chickened out halfway through, and as a result it never became the groundbreaking trailblazer it was meant to be. Nowadays, Titanfall can be considered in the same category as CoD and Halo and Battlefield, which really isn’t a bad thing. Still, I wish Titanfall had delivered on its promise to revolutionize FPS gameplay.

Likewise, CoD:AW will probably not be the amazing revolutionary FPS it sounds like it will be, either. Energy weapons are cool, having a core theme is cool, but in the end it’s still a triple A game. That means they’ve got big wig higher-ups who want senseless spectacles because they think that’s what sells games. So in all likelihood, CoD:AW will not be as good as I’m imagining. But it’s still nice to see that big developers are starting to change up the monotony we’re used to seeing as consumers. I hope CoD:AW delivers.

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