Hits and Misses: How Real Is the Science of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare?
Video games are full of insincere visions of the future of warfare. From the Halo franchise's WWII-like alien invasions and galaxy-burning WMDs to the wrathful robot deities of the Mass Effect series, gaming should never be looked to for sober predictions of tomorrow's conflicts. Even the wildly successful Call of Duty series of military-inspired shooters, despite their less fantastic settings, are only seasoned with realism, featuring protagonists that routinely soak up bullets and bombs. War, in these games, is existentially hellish, even if the waging of it is necessarily fun.
With Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (out now for PC and current and last-generation PlayStation and Xbox consoles), the franchise leaps ahead 40 years into the decidedly sci-fi setting of war circa 2054. Elite troops wear superhuman exoskeletons. There are man-portable laser guns that actually fry their targets rather than merely dazzling or designating them. And the worst enemy in the game's campaign isn't a hostile nation. It's Kevin Spacey. Or his corporation, rather—a wealthy private military company (PMC) with sufficient paramilitary might to challenge first-world nations.
Despite the sci-fi dystopian elements, the game's creators claim that the setting isn't intended to be pure fantasy.
'Everything in the game is based on current research, or a research paper,' says Glen Schofield, chief creative officer and co-founder of Sledgehammer Games. The developers worked with military consultants and at least one futurist to determine the feasibility of various threats and themes within the next 25 years. 'We had a grenade, and when you threw it, where it landed, you beamed over that spot,' Schofield says. 'It was a lot of fun. But there's nothing to base that on, except for Star Trek. Call of Duty is still, to us, based on believability.'
Most CoD players probably don't care what the newest game is or isn't trying to say about where warfare is headed. But military sci-fi, like most sci-fi, is about what's happening today. So let's dive into the present-day research behind Advanced Warfare. How much fact is there in Call of Duty's science fiction?
Your protagonist is outfitted with an incredibly powerful combat-ready exoskeleton. It lets you tear car doors off their hinges, leap very small buildings in a single bound, and punch guys super hard. In the pantheon of powersuit sci-fi, consider it more capable than Matt Damon's exo in Elysium but well below Tony Stark's anthropomorphic fighter jet in a suit. It's a powerhouse that far surpasses the suits of today. Yet its depiction of an exoskeleton's prowess may surpass even what people of 2054 can build.
The easiest comparison to current research would be to the TALOS suit being developed by the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Among the many vague goals of the TALOS program is a specific one—boosting the effective strength and endurance of special forces personnel, in order to offset the increased weight of additional body armor.
That's not what the exos do in Advanced Warfare. The game reflects the fantasy of military exoskeletons eventually bounding across the war zone, with built-in jump jets that provide a midair boost. It's a cool game mechanic (which cynical types might claim is a rehash of the popular competing shooter, , even though Advanced Warfare has been in development for years) that circumvents physical laws like only a video game can. It also has nothing to do with actual exosuit development.
But Advanced Warfare's real sin is buying into the hype about combat exos. Companies like Raytheon, with its SARCOS suit, have been bragging about super-strong exos for years, and the page devoted to Lockheed Martin's own exo suit features a seemingly augmented soldier hopping across rough terrain.
If the going assumption is that rehabilitative systems are already here, and therefore superhuman systems are only a handful of years away, then surely the exo of 2054 will turn infantry into superheroes. But to believe in this timeline, you have to assume that engineers will surmount considerable challenges of powering exoskeletons for any length of time—today's rehab suits run for about three hours, while moving at sub-walking speeds. You also assume that roboticists will figure out how to build exoskeletons that bounce around like fleas, without turning their wearer's skeletons and organs into a slurry. That many assumptions add up to pure sci-fi.
Augmented Reality's Killer App: Killing People
Augmented reality (AR) technology, which involves displaying or projecting graphics over the user's view of the real world, never transformed smartphones the way that many futurists predicted, and Google Glass is more of a tragic fashion statement than a must-have tool. So is it wishful thinking that Advanced Warfare includes so much tactical AR?
In the real world, the Pentagon has experimented with AR—or at least AR-like technologies—in the past, most notably in the Future Force Warrior program, which aimed to provide an unprecedented amount of tactical data to ground forces by way of tiny eye-level screens. But more than a decade after they were first tested by infantry, these devices are nowhere near deployment. Ground troops are already bogged down with equipment, and adding batteries and various electronics only made things worse. Future Force Warrior has since vanished as a comprehensive initiative. In 2014, in other words, AR for infantry is effectively DOA.
And yet, batteries are guaranteed to get smaller and lighter by 2054. Note that Google Glass already gets the job done with a negligible amount of weight. Perhaps the biggest problem with the current use model for AR is that it's geared towards non-essential human activities like traveling around the Bay Area. Accessing sensor feeds or ammo counts without taking your eyes off of your surroundings are far more compelling reasons to push AR out of its current, awkward phase.
AR for consumers is looking more and more like a dead-end fad. But AR that makes use of the military's love affair with amounts of data and intel is more than feasible. Plus, it wouldn't require any major technological breakthroughs, other than defense contractors hiring competent user interface designers (which might be a first).
Also, the Call of Duty developers deserve credit for ditching holograms in the game. DARPA has pursued holographic technology for a long while, particularly for the accurate display of topographically-complex maps. Real-world applications have never appeared, though and Sledgehammer smartly abandoned the tech for being too sci-fi, and too reminiscent of Star Wars.
Handheld Ray Guns
Stormtroopers might be terrible shots, but at least they never have to reload. In real life, however, directed energy weapons (DEW) burn through rechargeable batteries, or non-rechargeable supplies of chemicals, at a rate that has made them useless on the battlefield. Even developing systems that make sense as vehicle-mounted weapons would be a triumph. Downscaling those weapons into something that can be slung across an exo-enhanced soldier's back is roughly as feasible as building a sword made out of coherent light.
Unfortunately, Advanced Warfare is home to at least two guns that go pew-pew all day long, and that are highly portable. One fires a laser (the EM1 Quantum Directed Energy Weapon) and the other shoots plasma (the EPM3). They're supposedly based on current DEW such as the Avenger vehicle-mounted laser, which is intended to shoot down drones with more accuracy than bullets and cost less than missiles. The Navy is working on a ship-mounted railgun, powered largely by the vessel's onboard reactor.
That the Pentagon will eventually field large DEW systems seems inevitable. But the emphasis, again, is on large. DEW demand a staggering, and presently deal-breaking amount of weight and space, while in sci-fi, energy weapons often appear to tap into the same near-infinite energy supply that allows starships to break the speed of light. Call of Duty's EM1 and EPM3 are just as silly, with an unlimited supply of ammunition (though they can overheat).
Yes, it's true that someone, somewhere is working on combat-ready DEW, but Advanced Warfare's in-game weapons play by the logic of science fiction. These guns seem completely out of place in Advanced Warfare, and they directly recall Star Wars, Star Trek, and any other sci-fi properties that the developers were hoping to distance themselves from.
The Private Military Threat
Finally, there are the game's primary villains, who are scarier than usual for a military shooter. Very minor spoilers here: Atlas is a private military company (PMC) that aids the West against a force of Eastern European extremists, before it turns its considerable skill set and assets against the United States. Never mind the fancy guns and mechs. Atlas is Advanced Warfare at its most cyberpunk, imagining a power-hungry corporation becoming the well-armed enemy of the state. It's also this Call of Duty installment at its most exciting. Playing through the campaign on the PlayStation 4, there's something fresh, and even unsettling about shooting it out not with hordes of masked insurgents, but against heartless company men whose only cause is cash.
The timing is interesting, too—the game is releasing just weeks after four Blackwater personnel were convicted of murdering civilians in Iraq. However, Sledgehammer modeled the PMC threat on companies that many Westerners have never heard of, such as the Africa-based Executive Outcomes, a mercenary group that's been involved in conflicts across that continent and that regularly absorbs smaller outfits into its ever-growing rolls. Blackwater has (rightly) attracted much of the attention, but as countries like the U.S. field fewer and fewer troops, the total number of PMCs constitutes a colossal standing army. 'At one point in the design of the game, we had about 20,000 troops in Iraq, and 60,000 PMCs,' Schofield says. 'Those are big numbers. We said, What if you turned that situation on its head?'
The result of that thought experiment is Atlas, a company that's scooped up personnel, many of whom are former soldiers and special operators from the U.S. and its allies. They are an army of unofficial traitors, who aren't beholden to political concerns or the Geneva conventions. And according to one of Sledgehammer's military futurists, enemy PMCs rank among the top 5 potential threats facing the U.S. over the next 25 years.
Whether that PMC will have as charismatic a public face as Kevin Spacey (he plays the founder of Atlas), or would be willing to risk losing America as a customer remains to be seen. But the implication in Advanced Warfare is chilling: that Blackwater's atrocities are just the beginning.
Verdict: On Target
By claiming to be inspired by specific, present-day research, Sledgehammer Games opened up Advance Warfare to criticism from professional killjoys like us. And yet, as a work of science fiction, and especially as a science fiction video game, it's trying harder than anyone should reasonably expect to imagine how warfare might evolve. There are no combat androids or bioengineered supersoldiers, and the storyline doesn't revolve around some futuristic doomsday weapon. As much as we wish the exos and ray guns had been more restrained, they're also important toys for the multiplayer experience, which is still the backbone of this series.