The single-player campaign of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare felt off.
Everything that constitutes the Call of Duty experience was there: the rhythm of following another man's back and shooting non-Americans; the usual navigation through triggered explosions; your character's blurry vision after falling down, followed by your companion shouting. It's all there.
Advanced Warfare's single-player campaign genre revealed its genre to me during a mission called "Aftermath."
During the mission you are following your companion, Gideon, as you are in most missions. You follow different people throughout the game, in fact. They look back and shout instructions or exposition to the player.
You climb on a hoverbike and Gideon tells you to turn on autopilot, thus matching his direction and speed. This is followed by a glorified loading screen, as you trail — or rather, are forced to trail — Gideon to the next firefight.
You do absolutely nothing as you move into a post-apocalyptic Detroit except look around. You always look. Your character is silent; he doesn't respond or converse in the missions, even though he's voiced in cutscenes by one of the best voice actors in the business.
This sequence was different from other parts of Advanced Warfare only because I had no gun. It was this sudden vulnerability that struck me.
Later, when you're allowed to navigate the bike yourself as the game sighs and agrees you're a capable adult now, you are still following Gideon: When the ground explodes, he jerks to the left; when a structure collapses, he makes the leap. The character does the same job as a flashing arrow in a classic racing game; you merely watch and react.
You're always looking at what he's doing. You follow suit directly behind him as he carves a path through the carnage. To complete the stage, you need to know where he is and follow him, watch him, keep your focus on him.
Call of Duty isn't a first-person shooter — it's a third-person action game. You're not a character; you're a camera, chasing the hero of each mission, trying to get the best shot.
You're the camera person
Following behind the action and not dying isn't a challenge for first-person shooters; this is a challenge for one of Michael Bay's camera operators. The main character wasn't controlled by me — the only thing over which I had agency was the camera.
This explains how little I worried about health or damage, and how little my character seemed to matter inside the game. How he made almost no human noises during gameplay.
I considered "Mitchell" nothing but a dynamic camera in a game starring someone else, always trying to locate Gideon or his equivalent. This has always been the case, though; in previous games you could even finish missions without firing a gun at all.
Remember, Mitchell speaks during cutscenes but does almost nothing remarkable during gameplay. And I remind you: They got Troy bloody Baker to do his voice and likeness, but this makes no entry during gameplay. Indeed, you don't even have visible feet when you look down, nor hands when you climb a ladder.
Mitchell is not the one who beats up guards, sneaks up on enemies, frees other prisoners: that's all Gideon. He gets the cool action scenes, and you're the one who witnesses these moments. The game doesn't want to do interesting things; it wants to show you interesting things.
Now, of course, you do use various weaponry; you even get to control a mech suit. But you're always playing backup to the star of the show, and that star is whomever you're following.
Gideon takes point even in one of Advanced Warfare's most impressive action sequences, in which you're leaping across cars on a highway. Furthermore, this incredible sequence primarily consists of quick-time events.
When the game makes you do something of great importance, it takes away your control of the camera. Remember, what you see is the most important thing — if you can't be trusted to get the best shot, you can't be trusted to hold the camera.
Mitchell often seems like a hindrance, like a bumbling camera operator during wartime: falling down, getting trapped, bleeding out. And he has to be saved by Gideon or other characters. You don't seem to be a soldier helping in the fight as much as you feel like you're in the care of the more capable heroes of the story. Your job isn't to kill, but to get that perfect footage.
It doesn't matter
None of this negates the quality of the game. I still sat wide-eyed and enjoyed my time with it.
Recognizing this was a Transformers Cinematographer Simulator, not a challenging first-person shooter, enhanced the experience. I suddenly did care about what other characters were doing — as opposed to being asked to care.
I loathe the idea of "playing a game wrong," but I like the idea of playing a game differently, of viewing it in a way the developers did not intend, but for which they provided a foundation.
What you see is always given much more importance than what you do
That foundation is there — Call of Duty has always been the brainless summer blockbuster game, where you can detach your critical faculties and enjoy the gorgeous explosions. Here, we're given the camera and told to watch: Just as we feel exhilaration from suspenseful action films, we get the same from Call of Duty.
How badly does the game want you to be a camera operator? There's a part where you literally control a camera: You navigate a spy drone the size of a fly. Mitchell is apparently controlling this device. I was initially excited to move within this tiny perspective; I was going to relish being small and maybe bumping people in the head.
But no: Call of Duty's paternalistic nature reared its head, and the fly drone moved of its own accord. For some reason, you are only able to look up and down, not actually navigate it — the game itself dodges vent openings, people's heads and so on. You can only look, sometimes up and down.
Thus, even when you are explicitly given a camera, the game is fearful of you wandering too far left, too far right, too far up, and sticks you on invisible rails. Rails are more befitting camera operators than future soldiers in war. What you see is always given much more importance than what you do in the game.
A smarter colleague pointed out that BioShock Infinite did something similar. Aside from also starring Troy Baker, the game has you follow another invincible character, watching her survive brutal environments.
However, Irrational Games actually utilized Troy Baker in a richer way: He shouts, conveys wonder, yells for Elizabeth. The entire game is from his perspective — never leaping out in cutscenes to show a ghost with the same name who seems to disappear during gameplay, like Advanced Warfare's Mitchell.
Advanced Warfare isn't a bad game; quite the opposite. I found more enjoyment when I stopped viewing it as a challenging first-person shooter where you play a future soldier.
First, it's not a challenge, and almost no Call of Duty campaign is.
Second, you don't embody a future solider, since your character is a joke in terms of existing in any real way, never conveying pain, reaction, fear. When you start considering who really are the leads in the game, it's the people you see the most, doing all the saving, the planning, the fancy moves. That wasn't Mitchell, but Gideon.
I was there to watch them save the world — not do the saving myself. And that's fine with me.
Many players laugh at Call of Duty single-player campaigns as tacked-on afterthoughts for the games' multiplayer components. By changing the goals of the game, we can appreciate the actual shooter in the multiplayer but also appreciate the camera operator simulator in the single-player. There's nothing wrong with either.
What we should be squinting at isn't Call of Duty's single-player campaign, but at claims that the mode is a first-person shooter at all.