Tag Archives: Call of Duty

When Music Makes the Game

Yesterday I started playing Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. I’ve never played a Far Cry game, but heard good things about this one so I wanted to give it a go. I get through the cinematic intro and the gameplay starts. I’m in a helicopter, with a laser gun, and Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally is playing. Boom, I’m instantly hooked. And I’ve never even seen Predator. A good song automatically gets me excited to play.

It got me thinking about how a good licensed soundtrack can really enhance a game. One series that uses music exceptionally well is Saints Row. Popular music is used enhance set pieces – in SR3, Kanye’s Power plays as you take over a rival gang’s penthouse apartment, and Holding Out for a Hero is the track when you race to rescue your crew near the end of the game; in SR4 Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing plays as you’re selflessly risking life and limb to diffuse a nuke and save the United States from an attack.

Music is also used to help you bond with your homies on their loyalty missions. Pierce’s mission is always a highlight in the games for me, with SR3 having him and The Boss sing along to What I Got, while it’s Opposites Attract that offers a bonding moment in SR4. It’s the music that gets me into the game, and performances of the voice actors that make the characters come to life.

Another game that uses licensed music in a spectacular way is Spec Ops: The Line. Vietnam era rock is a mainstay of the war shooter, even those set in present or future days. While The Line does deliver a few of these classics, such as songs by Hendrix, Deep Purple, or the lyrically relevant Nowhere to Run by Martha & the Vandellas, it also delivers some more diverse, though ultimately very fitting songs. Rather than stick to the 60s and 70s catalogues for the soundtrack, it ventures into more recent music that plays homage to the sounds and messages of the era, such as the Canadian rock band Black Mountain’s Stormy High, or The Black Angels’ The First Vietnamese War. More unexpected are the addition of Mogwai’s quiet RU Still In 2 It or Björk’s Storm. However, though they are unexpected, they fit the tone of the game perfectly. Spec Ops: The Line is a game that subverts expectations in many ways, not just musically but narratively. I highly recommend listening to the soundtrack, preferably as you play the game.

Good music can also be used to great effect in trailers, often making me interested in a game that would otherwise fly right under my radar. My feelings on the Call of Duty franchise are quite ambivalent. Advanced Warfare was the first game I played (and reviewed) in the series, and while I thought it was a solid shooter, it didn’t send me running out to pick up any of the other 700 games in the franchise. When the Black Ops III trailer released a few weeks ago, I thought it looked great. However, after thinking about it for a while, it occurred to me that the use of The Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black was responsible for 99% of my excitement. The actual gameplay doesn’t look much different than AW. This is not the first CoD trailer to make use The Rolling Stones either.

Original soundtracks also often make a game for me, with Bastion being the soundtrack I always think of first, but that’s a topic for another post.


Is there any particular use of licensed music in a game that sticks out for you?

Violence Against Video Game Characters

With the news that GTA V has been pulled from Target and Walmart in Australia because of how violence against female sex workers is portrayed, I’ve been hearing a very familiar cry on Twitter and in comment sections. “What about men?!” “Why is it okay to kill hundreds of men but as soon as you add a woman it’s a problem?”

First of all, people have complained about violence in video games in general. Many, many, many, times. Protests have been launched, petitions have been written. While Canada doesn’t tend to ban games, a number of games have been banned or refused classification in Australia because of violence. The majority of those were banned for general graphic violence, not specifically violence against women (50 Cent Bulletproof, Dark Sector, The Getaway, Manhunt, Postal 1/2, Reservoir Dogs, Soldier of Fortune). Australia has also banned games due to sexual content or depictions of drug use.

But let’s ignore the above and pretend that only games with violence against women are subject to criticism and bans. Why would this be?

In the latest Call of Duty, you’re at war and you mow down hundreds of enemy forces. It’s hard to tell for sure with full body armor on, but they’re most likely all men.

Tomb Raider - Lara killing a man who is on fire

In the reboot of the Tomb Raider series, Lara goes around an island killing hundreds of men. Only men. There are no women. If you paid attention to the game you’d know that there are no women on the island because they’ve all already been killed (by the men). But again, ignore that, not relevant to how terribly video games treat dudes.

In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (excuse the somewhat dated reference, but it’s the only GTA I’ve played all the way through), Tommy murders hundreds, maybe thousands of people, mostly men, in his quest to become the crime boss of the city. Running over pedestrians (of either sex) and beating up hookers (always female) is not a requirement to taking over the city, but sometimes he enjoys doing it in his free time.

These poor men have it tough in video games. They’re always getting tortured, shot, run over, killed. Why is this okay, but as soon as you murder a woman in a video game, people start crying foul?

Take your average military shooter. You’re likely playing as a male, and you’re most likely shooting other men. If you’re not also shooting women, it’s because there aren’t any in the game. This makes me question why there aren’t any women. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’d have no problem with seeing women on the battlefield (maybe I could even play as one in the campaign sometimes?) and having to mow them down along with the men. Equal opportunity senseless killing, that’s all I ask.

In Tomb Raider, the reason Lara kills hundreds of men is because they’re trying to kill her. They’ve kidnapped her friends and if Lara doesn’t kill them, her and her friends will all die. This is how action games work – the player kills aggressors who are trying to kill them.

In GTA and other open world games, you can generally kill anyone you want. However the aggressors in the game, the ones you have to kill, do tend to be males. Would people be upset if the aggressors were females instead? I certainly wouldn’t. I was pleasantly surprised when I played Saint’s Row: The Third and found that the members of my rival gangs were made of both men and women. Women can be bad guys too. It’s okay. Even better, female antagonists can be created that are actual characters with motivations beyond ‘shoot the player’. Rival gang leaders, mercenaries, corrupt law enforcement officers – put a female in one of these roles and I have no problem with having to kill them to progress in the game. The joy I get from having women in these games outside of strip clubs and street corners greatly outweighs any other issues I’d have.

GTA V - sex workers on the corner

The problem with the portrayal of violence against women, and sex workers in particular, in video games is that these characters, scratch that they aren’t characters and that’s part of the problem. These women are not your enemy. They don’t stand in your way to progress, they are no threat to you. They exist, wear skimpy clothing, and flirt to stimulate the player. That’s their purpose. They don’t impact the story. The player has the option to use them and then kill them. They aren’t necessarily rewarded for this behavior, but they probably aren’t punished either. If in Tomb Raider Lara stumbled upon a man on the beach who was offering pony rides and shot him in the face then I’d have a problem. I’d question why the developers put this scenario in the game. Likewise, I’d have an issue if the next GTA portrayed male sex workers who were completely unrelated to the story that a player could use and then kill.

I’m not a proponent of censorship. While Australia banning video games constitutes actual censorship, retail chains in Australia choosing to pull GTAV off their shelves is not. They can choose to sell or not sell whatever they like. What I am an advocate of is developers and consumers being critical of the media they produce and consume. When female sex workers are added to a game to be ogled, groped, or fucked then thrown away, what is it adding to the game? Is it taking away more than it adds? Is it more trouble than it’s worth just to make your game seem gritty?

Many video games are violent, and that’s not ever going to change. While the gender of the people you shoot or fight in games shouldn’t be an issue, it is because males tend to be the aggressors where it’s a matter of kill or be killed, while females are generally not a threat to the player. They get killed to move the story or a quest forward, give a male character a reason to seek revenge, or just because the player feels like killing them. While a couple of the examples aren’t perfect, if you haven’t watched them yet I’d recommend Anita Sarkeesian’s videos on Women as Background directions (part 1, part 2), as they really show how prevalent this issue is in games, especially in AAA titles.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (Review)

It’s 2054. You are Jack Mitchell, a stoic, well-muscled, permanently scruffy, United States Marine. Your advanced weaponry lets you jump over tall buildings in a double bound, paint enemies with threat grenades, and control remote operated drones. You are the manliest of men. You’re sent to Seoul to battle North Koreans along with your brother in arms, Will Irons. Will is a stoic, well-muscled, permanently scruffy, United States Marine. When you first met him you were a little jealous that he had an even better sounding all-American manly man name than you, but you got over it and now you’re best buds. The mission in Korea ends in tragedy and you are honorably discharged from your military duties because of injuries sustained. But your story is not over. The Illusive Man Kevin Spacey can rebuild you. He has the technology. Jonathan Irons is the CEO of Atlus, the most powerful private military force in the world, and there’s no way that can end badly. On your first mission you’re paired up with Gideon, a stoic, well-muscled, permanently scruffy…

Snark aside, I actually quite enjoyed the game. The fact that I’d never played any CoD game before likely increased my enjoyment. Advanced Warfare is the 12th Call of Duty game (14th if you count the ones released on handheld/mobile) released since 2003. The fact that increasingly shiny versions of the game are pumped out every single year never inspired a whole lot of confidence, and I’m sure that if I had been a fan of the series all along I’d be getting burnt out on the whole concept by now. But for a first time player, it was a lot of fun.

Call of Duty Advanced Warfare Kevin Spacey as Jonathon Irons

First of all, it looks absolutely gorgeous on my XBox One. Close-ups of people look almost photo-realistic. There are often dozens of enemies on-screen, along with allies, civilians, and vehicles. The environments look equally great and there is so much variation in the 15 mission campaign that nothing ever feels stale or reused. AW takes you from the high rises and neon lights of Seoul, to icy arctic crevasses, to blue skies and traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Likewise, your combat specialization changes from mission to mission, giving you access to novel abilities so gameplay changes and evolves throughout as well. In some missions you can grapple up to rooftops, or climb walls. In others you can send out a remote-controlled drone to deal with enemies, and block incoming attacks with your exo shield. Some levels require stealth, so you’re given a cloaking ability and mute charges for silent kills. It says a lot that I found the stealth parts of the game very enjoyable, because I’m generally far too impatient for subtlety in action games. Gameplay is fast, fun, and the controls are responsive and smooth.

The highlights of the game are the action setpieces. One of the standouts had me running through traffic, then jumping on the tops of buses as they sped down the highway to get to an enemy vehicle. Another had me crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on foot, weaving through abandoned cars, taking out enemies with sonic pulses, and ended with a rather spectacular explosion.

However, the reliance on setpieces also brought about the game’s biggest weakness, as it made many levels feel very much on the rails. There was a definite feeling that I should just be going from point A to point B as fast as possible and, though the game does have collectible Intel that is slightly off the path, exploration was discouraged. I often saw a huge message “You are leaving the mission area” message displayed across my screen, which was jarring considering how clean and HUDless the UI was. Likewise, AI squadmates do everything they can to keep you moving forward quickly, which often involves repeating an order over and over if you don’t carry it out fast enough. “Mitchell, set the charge,” “Mitchell, take him out,” “Mitchell, open the door,” “Mitchell, change your socks.” That got annoying fast. This is where I really felt that CoD was catering to the lowest common denominator. As a player I couldn’t be trusted to pay attention to the mission details at the start and carry out the objectives on my own, or figure anything out myself. The game felt it needed to tell me to run here, duck, put up my shield, open the door, use the grappling hook, shoot, press X to pay respects.

Call of Duty Advanced Warfare Gideon shooter bro

The story and characters of AW are rather trite but, even as someone who has never played the series before, I knew this is not a game you play for the story. Twists can be seen a mile away. Characters are not memorable. At the beginning of the game I was dismayed that I couldn’t tell any of the characters, including my own, apart because all the white male soldiers (90% of the characters) have the exact same facial hair. Does military regulation enforce permanent 5 o’clock shadow? Eventually I realized that not knowing who anyone was didn’t really detract from the experience and I stopped worrying about it.

There is a dearth of women in the game. I went through a full 1/3 of the campaign before I saw a woman up close and talked to her. A very important scene that fleshed out Mitchell as a character was unfortunately deleted at this point, but here’s how it was supposed to go:

Mitchell tensed up as he saw Ilona. He didn’t know what to do. It had been six years since he’d seen a woman up close and that had been his mother. “Oh my god, a girl. Don’t fuck this up,” he said to himself as she approached. He tried complimenting her boots because had heard that chicks dig that. She looked at him sideways and told him they were standard issue. He made an excuse and ran back to his bunk as fast as he could without betraying his cool exterior. “Stupid, stupid Mitchell” he chastised, slapping himself on the forehead repeatedly. Maybe once he proved his prowess in battle she would learn to love him.
/scene

Call of Duty Advanced Warfare - Ilona, the lone woman soldier

Thankfully, Ilona does become an actual character and is with you for a number of missions but as far as female representation, she’s pretty much it. Considering 15% of military forces are female now, and AW takes place 40 years in the future, I hoped to see more than one woman (especially in Atlus which is presumably not beholden to US policy). Disappointing, but sadly not unexpected. You can play as a female in multiplayer. Apparently, CoD:Ghosts was the first entry in the series that had this option. Ghosts was released in 2013. Is this real life? Of course, since multiplayer is completely first-person, your gender doesn’t matter a whole lot as you can only tell the difference when you get shot and start breathing audibly. But it’s nice the option was added after 10 years.

I did play a few hours of multiplayer, and while I prefer the campaign, it’s quite fun too. I haven’t had a chance to try all the different modes, I mainly stick to team deathmatch or confirmed kill. The mode I really like is Survival. This is a co-op mode with up to 4 players and the goal is to survive waves of bots. There are also some objective based waves thrown in to mix things up a bit. As someone who does not have much experience playing FPSs online against other people, Survival mode offers a bit more leeway and I found it much easier to get into. It’s good practice before jumping into real matches where people who have been playing online CoD for the last 10 years will frag you repeatedly until you give up.

 Rating: 8/10 – Advanced Warfare is not a game you play for the story or to inspire deep thoughts, but it delivers what it promises – a slick, fast-paced, first-person shooter with outstanding setpieces. The amount of hand-holding the game gives starts getting tedious around 2/3 of the way through but the campaign ends at the right time, before this gets too annoying. Overall an enjoyable single-player experience, with good multiplayer content that will stretch out the game time as long as you want it to.