What’s this? A non-Halo post?
Yes, once upon a time, I did not write exclusively about Halo, which ended after September in 2014 – shortly following the one year anniversary of this blog. It’s been almost three and a half years for me now, a good two of those years have been solely focused on one particular franchise… so I thought that, with it being the new year ‘n’ all, now was the time to branch out again.
This doesn’t mean that my Halo content will be decreasing at all, but sometimes there will be something else that comes along that I want to talk about.
Today, it’s Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. And, oh boy, there’s a lot to talk about!
(As this is an analysis of the campaign, here’s your obvious spoiler warning – no detail is held back here.)I have a bit of an odd relationship with the Call of Duty franchise, in that my opinion of it has been all over the place since I first picked the series up in 2005 and couldn’t describe myself as anything other than ‘indifferent’ towards it – the first Modern Warfare and Black Ops came along as notable exceptions, the first Modern Warfare remains an incredible game with brilliant writing. While the games may have been kept relatively at arm’s length, I’ve kept Call of Duty somewhat in my peripheral vision over the years (but I just could not dredge up any interest in Ghosts or Advanced Warfare).
Since I’m making a post about Infinite Warfare now, you can probably infer that my opinion has been swayed.
While I didn’t exactly scoff, like many other people did, at the notion of Call of Duty going into space… I certainly didn’t think it would rank amongst one of the more unique entries of the genre.
And then the game came out and I watched a playthrough of it.
And then I felt the desire to buy this game.
And now I want nothing more than to replay it.
And here I am, writing a dissertation-length post about it.
Honestly, nobody was more taken aback by how profoundly I enjoyed this game than I was – and not just in a ‘popcorn’ kind of way, I genuinely feel that the writing and overall campaign design was excellent. I’m going to spend this post explaining why… and I do say that with a tinge of feeling like I have to justify myself considering the general reception to this franchise these days – especially since one of the Infinite Warfare trailers managed to somehow become the second worst-rated video on Youtube. Bit of an overreaction, that.From the top, then. According to Taylor Kurosaki, the game’s narrative director:
“We want to tell first and foremost a classic war story in the great tradition of the genre that Brian and I are both huge fans of. […] [The setting] afforded us a lot to do from a gameplay perspective. The setting was something we as a team were all united behind. Brian and I and Jacob Minkoff – the design director at Infinity Ward – the three of us set about looking to tell a classic story set against this more futuristic backdrop.” [Redesigning Call of Duty]
The intention was less to tell a science fiction story and more to tell a classic war story, which can be done in effectively any kind of setting. From a design perspective, you want to try to make the most interesting kind of experience to play, so choosing to go into space and take advantage of the things that affords you to do – and that absolutely paid off in the final product.
I was struck by the well-crafted variety of missions and how they played out as I was going through this. Similar to, say, Mass Effect, you have a ship and a crew and you choose what missions you want to do from a galaxy (or, in this game, solar system) map. You’ve got the main missions which advance the plot, but you’ve also got a host of optional side missions that are split into two categories – space combat missions and boarding operations.
In the former, I felt I was treated to some of the best, most approachable (yet not ‘dumbed down’) space flight combat I’ve ever experienced. I’ve tried my hand at stuff like Elite: Dangerous and I’m absolutely bloody awful at it, the controls and the way everything handles is overly fiddly and just was not meant to be translate to consoles in my opinion. In Infinite Warfare however, the principle of how space combat works is that your Jackal (the fighter you pilot) moves the same way you do when you’re doing a boots-on-the-ground mission, only with full 3D motion.
You’ve got a simple set of mechanics, you can customise the weapons and aesthetics of your vessel, and each mission takes place in visually interesting and distinct locations with a variety of objectives – all supported with some beautifully punchy sound design, ranging from the sound of your ship creaking and banging as it climbs through the atmosphere to the easily identifiable sounds that trigger when an enemy as locked on to you or launched missiles.
With the latter, the boarding operations, you have a variety of different kinds of missions. One that particularly resonated with me was a Deus Ex-type stealth mission in this huge cargo bay with multi-level catwalks, lots of room for cover, and lots of enemies to get past in order to rescue a group of engineers being held hostage. You weren’t punished for breaking stealth, which would result in the engineers being executed – that was a potential outcome for the mission. But the way in which the map was laid out with clear thought put into making this more of a playground than a shooting gallery demanded that I play the way that was intended and take out every enemy through stealth – which I did, and I loved it.Other such missions will have you in space, stealthily traversing through an asteroid field with your grappling hook – which you can use to launch yourself towards enemies for a series of brutal finishing moves that includes pulling off their helmet and leaving them to asphyxiate in vacuum, setting a detonator on their suits and kicking them away so they explode into a gory mess, and using your knife to puncture their suits to deliver the double-whammy of a stab and suit rupture.
This kind of focus on some of the more horrific fates that await us in the endless black ocean that is space was intentionally used to accentuate the hostility and grit of the setting.
“The setting of space puts even more pressure on our characters than even a traditional battlefield would allow for […] In space, there is no gravity. In a lot of cases, most cases have no breathable atmosphere.
Take the worst of the world wars and put that in an environment where you can’t breathe, and up is a relative to where you are floating.” [Redesigning Call of Duty]
This then has a knock-on effect regarding the logic of how the antagonistic faction – the SDF (Settlement Defence Front) – was formed. Already, there’s a sense of continuity emerging with the marriage of how decisions about expanding the gameplay feed into the setting, which then informs the narrative and the kind of people you end up fighting.
The SDF are a militaristic group of insurgents and terrorists who live a completely different way of life to the people on Earth, they view themselves as stronger because they have grown up having to struggle to survive the harshness of space – as humanity doesn’t have the technology to terraform planets in this setting. They began as martial law enforcers for off-world colonies and came to see the people of Earth as inferior, as they rely on resources that come from those off-world colonies and live in comfort while the SDF has had to struggle. Their ultimate goal is to gain total strategic control of the solar system, wiping out the UNSA (you don’t even want to know the number of times I’ve typed out ‘UNSC’ in this post) – that includes killing civilians.
Additionally, they have a ‘collective rather than individual’ perspective to the point where Salen Kotch (the antagonist) just straight-up shoots one of his own men and leaves him to asphyxiate at the start of the game in order to prove a point that “care clouds judgement”. This will be a recurring theme throughout the game because it’s all about the choices Reyes makes as a leader that affect other people – more on that when we get to the main character’s arc.
There’s some interesting worldbuilding done in environmental details throughout many of the missions regarding the SDF as well, such as propaganda posters like this one…It’s heavily hinted throughout the game that the SDF does not have civilians, from the frighteningly utilitarian, bare-minimum architecture (reflective of their even more frighteningly utilitarian philosophy) we see to many of the quotes brought up throughout the game which establish that military service to the SDF begins at the age of twelve and that they have “900% more soldiers than the UNSA” – because that’s all they are composed of.
One of the quotes you’ll hear in the game is that “the function of a citizen and soldier are one”, and those ‘citizens’ are ranked based on loyalty to the regime. Kotch likewise has a number of quotes that reflect the SDF philosophy:
“Those who want to live must wage war, and those who do not want war don’t deserve to live.”
“We do not mourn the dead, we arm the living.”
“Any regime without the intention to wage war is senseless and useless.”
But perhaps the most telling line is the SDF proverb:
“The days of individual happiness have passed away.”
Now… on the one hand, it’s evident that going all out on the SDF like this (making it so they don’t have any civilians) was done to make it so we don’t really question the enemy we’re fighting – they are straight-up just evil bastards. That’s the long and short of it, and perhaps there’s a discussion to be had there about simplifying the conflict to such an extent… but at the same time, the writers and designers did put a lot of thought into ensuring that this made sense for this setting.
What’s more, we see a number of really interesting mirrors and contrasts between the SDF and UNSA from the very beginning of the game – the whole opening sequence does a really great job of setting things up for the story and the characters.
At the start of the game (following on from the opening mission to Europa), Nick Reyes, the protagonist, has a conversation with Admiral Raines where they lament the fact that the warriors aren’t in-charge until there’s war – all the rest of the time, everything runs on politics.
Reyes: “This is a deliberate act of aggression, Admiral. We should be out there on patrol, not down here throwing confetti.”
Raines: “The rules of engagement prohibit definitive action under these circumstances.”
Reyes: “So we stand by with our barrels in the sand and watch a fleet week parade?”
Raines: “Lieutenant Reyes, make no mistake, my instincts, which are aligned indelibly with your own, are that we need to engage.”
Reyes: “Why don’t we, sir?”
Raines: “They’re politicians, Reyes. They’ll wipe hell’s ass with whatever flag keeps the smokestacks burning. To these men, the idea of mounting an offensive triggers a fresh and unplanned piss. Until there’s war, the warriors aren’t in charge.“
And that single line sets up the contrast with the SDF because they are a civilisation where the warriors are in-charge, where there are nothing but warriors. They exist without the baggage of struggling with internal politics and democracy because they’re committed to a single, destructive ideal. As Reyes’ opening monologue tells us, all they required was a leader to organise and unite them in order to mobilise and take the fight to Earth.
Likewise, the whole propaganda angle is interesting because we see plenty of things which are indicative of the UNSA doing it as well. The very start of the game in Geneva where everyone is celebrating Fleet Week is called out by Reyes and Salter as propaganda, and while you’re aboard the Retribution you can watch news broadcasts from Earth with members of your crew which present the situation in a way that makes it seem like the UNSA is getting ever-closer to victory.
The implications of the end of the game bookends this arc beautifully (by which I mean it has some terrifying implications for the future of this setting), which we’ll get to later…This is probably a good place to talk about Nick Reyes and his character arc.
Typically in the Call of Duty series you play as some kind of newcomer to serve the need in gameplay to ‘tutorialise’ the mechanics, but they deliberately changed the approach this time around and had you step into the boots of a more experienced soldier – who, in the first act of the game, becomes captain of the UNSA Retribution (one of Earth’s two remaining vessels after the inciting incident which we’ll get to in a bit).
Why did they break from the norm this way? Because they wanted to tell a different kind of story with this character:
The importance of leadership, the good and bad decisions you make as a leader, can only be driven home by the consequences typically felt by other characters in the game. That makes those characters and the way you feel about them all the more important in Infinite Warfare.
The story and the game are designed to pull out the intricacies of character through the deadly pressures of both war and leadership.
“This is not about double and triple crosses, and double and triple agents, and chips in your head, and being a zombie fighter.
This is a story about the burden of making choices.” [Redesigning Call of Duty]
Again, this is something that is set up from the game’s prologue and serves as a recurring theme throughout the story for Reyes. When discussing the opening mission to Europa, Reyes is immensely critical of the fact that only a four-man strike team was sent instead of a full strike force – frustrations he shares with his wingman and close friend Nora Salter upon leaving Raines’ office.
It comes up again as a source of disagreement when the SDF launches their assault on Earth’s fleet, decimating them to the point where there are only two ships left as the SDF supercarrier Olympus Mons arrives and steamrolls its way through the ships that made it away from the AATIS guns on Earth. The UNSA Retribution’s captain (Alder) makes a risky decision to ram the Olympus Mons, a desperate bid to do enough damage to force the SDF into retreat – a gambit which succeeds, but at the cost of Alder’s own life and the lives of many of his crew. (Keep this in mind because this is an immensely critical event which circles back around to haunt Reyes in the third act of the game.)
It is debatable as to whether Alder made the right decision here, particularly when you have to take into consideration the fact that it was a decision made in the moment. In the moment, where you have to respond, Alder didn’t exactly have the luxury of sitting back and weighing the alternatives the way we do by taking time to debate and consider – it was a do-or-die situation. Alder effectively had two options: keep on trying to conventionally take on the Olympus Mons, despite the fact that it had destroyed all the other ships in the fleet except two, or… do the unexpected and ram it.
Jumping away in that moment wasn’t an option because the Olympus Mons was there to take the fight to Earth’s shores and there were no other defences left, so we can see the pros of ramming it – it would do enough damage to either force a retreat, or even possibly destroy it.On the other hand, the Olympus Mons wasn’t the SDF’s last ship. Their fleet is still out there, so the gambit would be destroying one of our two remaining vessels in order to destroy one of theirs when many more are elsewhere in the system.
I think it was more than likely that the Olympus Mons would have destroyed Retribution and Tigris if Alder hadn’t made that tactical collision. In the moment, it was an understandable decision, but the characters themselves have a variety of different opinions which is discussed in the aftermath of this event.
Reyes and Salter adamantly disapprove of the action, both of them demanding to speak with Alder because, in Reyes words:
“We don’t sacrifice our crew when we’re overrun. Captain protects his men, Salt. He should’ve pulled back.”
(Another thing to keep in mind here. This single line defines the arc Reyes undergoes as he steps into Alder’s shoes and inherits the mantle of responsibility over the Retribution.)
This is where we meet Staff Sergeant Usef Omar, marvellously portrayed by David Harewood (the name ‘Martian Manhunter’ is definitely appropriate for his role in this setting). Omar assists Reyes and Salter in moving an obstacle that’s blocking entrance to the bridge, saying that Alder had a difficult call to make but ultimately did his duty.
Only Reyes and Omar have a different perspective on exactly what that duty is. Omar says that it’s to drive the enemy into retreat, whereas Reyes believes it’s to get your crew home alive – to which Omar simply responds “not always, Lieutenant”.
That line, again, is reflective of how well-plotted the writing is in the first act in setting up major events and character beats that play out across the rest of the game. It effectively encapsulates the shift in perspective that Reyes comes to have in the final act. But, as I say, more on that later…Before we move on, let’s briefly take a bit of a step back here because I’ve just gushed a whole lot about the character writing but skipped past the plot.
Fleet Week has all of Earth’s fleet present at Geneva for what basically amounts to a propaganda event. The politicians in charge don’t want to escalate the situation with the SDF, but still want to give the people of Earth the illusion of power. This meets an abrupt and explosive end as the AATIS cannons, Earth’s “iron shield”, are infiltrated by an SDF sleeper operative called Akeel Min Riah – a secondary antagonist in the game who posed as a mechanical engineer for several years in order to gain privileged access to Earth’s defences.
He killed the guards in the AATIS control room and use the cannons to fire on Earth’s fleet, but Reyes and his team manage to get to the control room and apprehend him – unknowingly preventing Riah from initiating the final part of the plan, which we find out later in the game.
Just keep that in mind for later because this whole thing is set-up for things that happen in the third act. I’ll be talking (read: gushing) about this later as well, but if you’re familiar with how the building blocks of a narrative are formed, you can pick out so many things in the first act that seem innocuous in their presentation but are actually setting up subtle cues and beats for the plot and characters in the third act.Back to talking about the characters: Perhaps the most prominent ‘foil’ for Reyes and the overarching theme of the burden of choices is Audrey MaCallum, the chief engineer of the Retribution.
When speaking with Reyes and Salter at a number of points throughout the game (as well as reviewing her personnel file in the captain’s quarters which provides a lot of lore and backstory), we learn that she was once somebody who spent years working her way up the ranks to Commander and was on the way to getting her own ship. However, she discovered that she could not handle the burden of sending men to their deaths and resigned from her position to re-enlist as a tech officer.
As a side-note: Like the rest of the cast, Claudia Black’s performance as MaCallum is wonderful.
As another, perhaps more relevant side note: It comes with a sting of irony that even the machines are in the process of developing some kind of sentience, as we see with E3N, or ‘Ethan’ – programmed with a personality construct to make him integrate well into a military unit and ends up being treated like any other one of the human soldiers. He provides much of the lighthearted humour of the game, as well as some of the more emotional moments.
In MaCallum’s own words:
Reyes: “Good work, chief. We can use every edge.”
MaCallum: “Oh, I understand. I once stood in your shoes, Commander.”
Reyes: “You were a captain, Mac? Why’d you give up your commission?”
MaCallum: “I committed the mortal sin that can break a commander in two… I cared.”
Salter: “We all care, chief.”
MaCallum: “Ordering men into battle isn’t for everyone. So the machines are now in my hands and we’re all in yours, Captain.”
This exchange works its way into the meat of Reyes’ character arc as we see time and again that he is also unfit to be captain because he too, like MCallum, cares too much about his crew. He is not willing to spend their lives for the sake of the mission when the situation calls for it, we’ve seen this already at two major points in the story (his criticism of the mission to Europa not being dealt with by a full strike force and then Alder’s decision to ram the Olympus Mons).
To Reyes, the mission is to ensure everyone makes it back – an admirable and very relatable ideal that simply doesn’t have any place in this setting, the way in which it’s articulated.
And this character beat also goes back to one of Salen Kotch’s first lines when he appears during the opening mission on Europa.
Wolf: “My men need medical.”
Kotch: “You are about your men?”
*stands and unholsters gun to aim at Sipes, pauses, then shoots his own ally*
Kotch: “Care clouds judgement. That is why you cannot win.”
That is the same fatal flaw that defines Reyes. Caring.
It gives him something to lose, and because he cares so much about the people he leads he has everything to lose. They drive this point home especially well because the first and second act of the game have you constantly succeeding – the side missions and main missions have you winning each battle, but it’s not until a certain moment of immense loss where you realise that the path Reyes is on means he’s going to lose the war.
Kotch, on the other hand? He’s on the complete opposite extreme, he’s got nothing to lose – even the loss of his own life (but I get ahead of myself again).The tone in the progression of the story begins to shift at the half-way point of the game during the mission to Titan where you deploy to take out a critical SDF fuelling station.
It begins with a sense of impending triumph, as Reyes, Ethan, Omar, and the marines escort a huge mech to the fuelling tower to blow it up. However, mid-way through the mission, Reyes calls in for air support, only to be met with something else…
The ground begins to shake as Reyes looks up at the sky and sees the silhouette of the Olympus Mons descending upon their unit. It opens fire and wipes out a significant number of the marines you’re with, leaving only eight of you standing after you escape to continue pursuing the objective.
That’s the first moment. The second moment comes at the end of the mission where Salter arrives with air support. You get into your Jackal with Ethan, destroy the fuel tower, and head back to the Retribution, having seemingly shaken off the Olympus Mons in the cloud layer… only for it to reappear as you try to escape and severely damage your Jackal, forcing Ethan to eject the two of you out of the ship as it smashes into the side of Retribution.
With their objective accomplished but the battle turning against them, Reyes orders Salter to take Retribution and leave him behind – an order which Salter hesitates to follow because she cares about Reyes, saying that they’re coming back for him before the Retribution jumps away.
Floating in the vacuum of space with Ethan, Reyes is quickly running out of oxygen as his suit was breached in the cockpit. This is one of the stand-out moments of the game, as Ethan grows anxious over the fact that he can’t do anything to stop it. Reyes tells him to let it go, to which Ethan responds:
Ethan: “I can’t, sir. You’re my commanding officer, Captain. My mission is you.”
Reyes: “Who says?”
Ethan: “I’m hardware, sir. Ultimately expendable.”
Reyes: No no. You’re my brother, Ethan.”
Ethan: “Your talking robot brother?”
Ethan: “Yes, well, I am the handsome one, sir.”
Reyes: *chuckles* “No doubt. Looks like this is the end, partner.”
Ethan: “I think I’m scared, sir.”
Reyes: “Me too.”
We can’t help but come to value them as a friend or comrade-in-arms.
We can’t help but care for them.
Am I driving the point in enough?
This thematic motif is constantly coming up throughout the game to accentuate the bond between these characters, which is handled so well by the writing for a number of reasons – the most significant one for me being the face that the writers made the script malleable to the suggestions of the actors.
In an interview with Gamer Hub TV (from 4:25-5:50), David Harewood said:
Harewood: “You’re working with really good actors. It wasn’t just the tech and the game that was exciting, it was working with really good actors where you knew you were going to get something back – you had actors who were adlibbing, actors who were making things up on the spot. And even though it was a video game, you really felt that you were communicating with and giving-and-taking with these actors. It was a lot of fun.”
Interviewer: “Speaking of adlibbing, was there room for adlibbing and leeway for interpretation with the other actors on-set?”
Harewood: “Yeah, and a lot of humour. For me, Eric and Jeff – who plays Ethan, the kind of robot character – he was forever just throwing stuff in that just came up to him and he was always making us laugh. What’s great about Taylor and Brian, the writers… is that if it was good they’d say ‘yeah, go with it, let’s keep that’. They weren’t rigid with their scripts, they were always saying if you’ve got a better idea, or if you came up with something on the spot, they’d say ‘yeah, we like that, keep that, do that again, and let’s have another one of those’, and always giving you the option to add new material. That’s also really exciting because that stamps your individuality on your performance.”
This is really just fantastic to hear.
This is the kind of collaboration that sets good character writing apart from great character writing: Listening to the input of your actors as they add bits of dialogue and subtle motions into their performance to put their own stamp onto the characters – as opposed to just trying to inject life into a fixed script.
It’s exactly why the interactions between all of these characters feels so natural, why there’s so much energy in the dynamic between them. I’ve seen and heard from a number of people who either are in the military or have family in the military praise this game’s dialogue for that reason – it’s oftentimes laced with military jargon, but it’s a strongly grounded and spirited portrayal of camaraderie in the military.
Regardless of your opinion on the game or the story or the writing, I don’t think one can undervalue just how important this kind of collaborative process is.This is also, however, where we reach one of two major points of contention.
Reyes doesn’t die, he’s back within a matter of seconds.
There’s two sides to this argument that both have merit…
Reyes dying, and then having you play as Salter for the second half of the game (given that they share such similar perspectives, having Reyes’ arc transfer to her wouldn’t have been too much of a stretch) could have been a really interesting way to progress the story rather than having a fake-out death scene which really drove home the emotion in the dialogue between him and Ethan.
However… I can see why they didn’t do that.
For one, ever since the first Modern Warfare, Call of Duty has practically developed its own trope of killing off characters in situations like this. It’s been impactful before (the aftermath of the nuke scene in Modern Warfare particularly comes to mind), but if you just keep doing it over and over again then you end up becoming predictably formulaic in when you’re trying to make ‘the feels’ happen for the player.
Since Infinite Warfare was conceived on the principle of doing things differently, it’s understandable why they decided not to go down that already well-travelled road. I can’t begrudge them for that.
Likewise, Reyes’ arc is not yet complete. Killing him off and then substituting him for Salter, who would pick up from the same spot with the same arc would be a bit of a stretch in terms being a believable decision to make for the characters. I guess Reyes’ death could trigger an exacerbation of her shared perspective with Reyes that “everyone gets home safe”, but Salter is more of a realist than Reyes so an argument could be made that her perspective would actually be pushed the other way instead.
At the same time, the actual terror that comes from that scene is not just that you’re out in space – it’s the fact that Retribution jumped away… and then the Olympus Mons did as well.
Reyes’ suit getting damaged comes across as a bit unnecessary because the situation as it was presented was worse than if the Olympus Mons had stuck around and picked you up. At least, in that situation, you’d know that they were just going to kill you. Instead, you are abandoned amidst the rings of Saturn. That’s the one thing I would criticise about that scene, otherwise its presentation was perfect.In any case, from the very next scene we’re servicing the whole ‘caring’ theme again, as Ferran (captain of the UNSA Tigris, the other ship that survived the massacre from Olympus Mons at the start of the game) reveals that she went out to recover him.
Reyes: “Who contacted you?”
Ferran: “Lieutenant Salter. She asked the Admiral for a retrieval team. Under the circumstances, he deemed the recovery too risky.”
Reyes: “Raines didn’t authorise the rescue?”
Ferran: “War has no friends, Reyes. Perhaps my motivations were selfish, but I have no intention of fighting out here alone.”
Reyes is quite evidently hurt to learn that Admiral Raines denied Salter’s request to retrieve him. It stings him because he’s on good terms with Raines, we see from their interaction at the start of the game that they’ve had a good relationship over the years – as teacher and student, and as soldiers – and are two individuals who are very much on the same page in terms of their mindset when it comes to action.
But Raines doesn’t share Reyes’ perspective that everyone gets home at all costs, that that is the mission. Raines is a little wiser to the notion of how lives sometimes have to be spent in the military.
Reyes just didn’t expect that he’d be on the receiving end of that.
It’s not a betrayal, it’s not something that Reyes takes as a stab in the back. Reyes may be idealistic, but he’s still a professional and has a job to do, so this serves as a minor beat in his overall arc of coming to be in a position where he understands why Raines made that call – because, at the end of the game, that is exactly the same call he has to make for himself and for various members of his crew.
As Raines said in his opening conversation with Reyes, “these are the rules of war”.
At the same time, this is nicely offset and contrasted by the characterisation of Ferran and Ethan here. Ferran ignored Raines’ decision not to go after Reyes because, and she says this to Reyes, she didn’t want to be the only captain around in this fight – “fifty percent attrition rate is unacceptable”. That is a very human perspective.
Likewise, we learn of Ethan’s display of loyalty and care towards Reyes. Ferran informs Reyes that Ethan was still holding him when she found them, his arms had actually frozen around Reyes.
Ferran: “We had to pry Ethan’s arms open. They’d frozen around you. Protecting his Captain to the end. Dauntless valour, Ethan.”
Ethan: “Boundless terror, Captain.”
Ferran: “You are a humble one.”
It’s interesting that Ferran talks to Ethan with the kind of respect she’d show towards any other soldier, him being a robot doesn’t affect her perspective of him at all. I point this out because Ethan is a one-of-a-kind creation, he’s the first robot the UNSA has created with a personality construct. The SDF would certainly never consider making such a thing – their robots are notably more terrifying, as we see highlighted at several points in the game, particularly in the opening sequence where Kotch has Wolf and his team executed, ordering them to spare the bullets, so the robot present with him just stamps on the UNSA soldier’s head…
Indeed, when Reyes orders Ethan to go to MaCallum for some R&R (another interesting order to give a robot), the exchange that follows between them is reflective of the warmth of their relationship.
Reyes: “Ethan, go to engineering, see Mac, get a clean bill.”
Ethan: “What about you, sir?”
Reyes: “Don’t you worry about me.”
Ethan: “Try and stop me, sir.”
They had every opportunity to force that typical kind of romance into the main story for Drama™ and Emotions™ as you’d expect something that has the reputation of being a brainless blockbuster to do… I literally counted over a dozen times throughout the game’s cutscenes where lesser writers would have pulled that move, but these ones didn’t. I like that a lot.
The relationship between these two is allowed to be complex and interesting and emotional as a wholly platonic bond, and they play that totally straight-faced from start-to-finish – both in the writing and in the performance.
They’ve served together, fought together, care about each other, openly talk to each other about how they feel because they trust each other.
I think it’s really important to depict long-running, close, healthy friendships between men and women without a hint of sexual or romantic interest (and there really is no indication whatsoever of romance between Reyes and Salter at any point in the game) because there’s just such a frustratingly typical tendency audiences have to expect that things are going to become romantic.
I’m not saying “don’t have any romance ever”, romance is evidently present in the story through some of the audio logs and death notes you listen to from a couple of characters (Yetide’s message to her girlfriend/wife, Omar’s message to his wife, Griff reminiscing with Reyes about a sixth grade teacher he had a crush on, Kashima showing interest in Salter), but it’s important to subvert that expectation and normalise this kind of platonic relationship.
That’s just another thing I wanted to praise this game’s writing for, it’s not something you’d expect from Call of Duty but it’s indicative that this game is on the right track to being ahead of the curve.
Salter hugs Reyes, having very nearly lost her closest friend, and the two of them get right back to work because they both know that they don’t have the luxury of stopping right now – they have their duty to Earth and that comes above all else.
The relationships between this multicultural crew are all portrayed in this rather positive and healthy fashion. All throughout the game, there’s small interactions which bring out the dynamic of these characters. Salter tells Gibson jokes when heading down to the hangar for a mission, Gator (as well as several other crew members) and Reyes get along well because Reyes makes the effort to fraternise with him and values his crew as individuals. A major character beat for Omar is how he is initially dismissive and abrasive towards Ethan, but over the course of serving together in battle he comes to respect him – he grows as a person. When setting out for a mission, he makes a point of telling Reyes not asking him) “let’s bring Ethan along”, because he values that Ethan has his back.
It’s quite refreshing to see actually – and it provides a really effective contrast to just how downbeat the ending is and its implications for the future of the setting. And it all ties back to those words spoken by Kotch in the opening.
“Care clouds judgement.”
This mission is another stand-out moment for the game, a triumph of design for the mechanics and how it just oozes atmosphere (we’re talking Alien: Isolation-tier). We begin with a simple reconnaissance mission to Vesta-3, a UNSA mining colony near Mercury which provides the raw materials needed to rebuild Earth’s fleet. The most recently scheduled shipment never left the port and the colony suddenly went dark, so Retribution is sent to investigate. What’s worse, the asteroid has been knocked off-course and is rotating at a significantly faster rate than normal.
On the way down to deployment, Salter and Reyes have a moment to talk about the events of the previous mission regarding casualties sustained from the Olympus Mons attack.
Salter: “How’re you felling, Raider?”
Reyes: “What was the official count, Salt?”
Salter: “On what?”
Reyes: “The Olympus attack. How many did we lose?”
*Reyes exhales in frustration*
Salter: “You heard what Mac said. This shit ain’t easy. Let’s get to work, slick.”
This is another subtle-yet-telling character moment for Salter because she has the answer to Reyes’ question of how many people they lost immediately. There is no delay in her response because she already asked the same question before we got back to the Retribution – again, we are shown that these two people care and how they’re constantly on the same page.
And the source of Reyes’ frustration is not just because every person aboard the Retribution ‘counts’, as they’re one of only two ships left to stand against the SDF. This is another moment that is indicative of how he can’t save everyone, these were lives that were out of his hands to save, and he’s lucky that they only lost sixteen because if the Retribution had stuck around Saturn any longer it’s likely that the number of casualties would have been significantly higher.
Back on the mission, this is another instance where they really play well on the hostility and abject terror of the setting that comes with being in space. You’re on an asteroid that is rapidly spinning towards the sun (to the point that day-night cycles are now a matter of seconds), out of the shade the temperature is nine hundred degrees and that is used as a gameplay mechanic in some really creative ways. For one, you do actually have to use the shade to move around and there will be times you have to wait because if you’re out in the sun for about twenty-thirty seconds you will literally burn to death.
I’m reminded to sci-fi films like Sunshine which really did a great job of making a star terrifying because they are. They did a much better job with this than, say, Mass Effect 2‘s mission to Haestrom where the same effect cause by the system’s star, Dholen, is treated like a minor inconvenience. Here, we see a strong confluence of intent with the writing and the level and gameplay design.
Another thing I’ve got to praise is the way in which the asteroid’s rotation works because it’s not actually on a repetitive cycle, the asteroid isn’t just animated so it rotates one way and then back again in a consistent pattern. They actually made it so it oscillates its rotation. It’s a nice, subtle touch to the level design and it’s attention to details like that which I always appreciate.Discovering a distress beacon, we move inside a structure and suddenly the Alien: Isolation vibes kick in.
You enter the living quarters of one of the colony’s facilities, there’s creepy diegetic music playing, the whole place is littered with personal effects – pictures of families, drawings, notes on wall-mounted boards, clothing strewn across the floor (they deliberately showed the work uniform still being hung up so we get the implication that whatever happened to the facility’s inhabitants happened during their off-hours which is further indicative of thought going into subtle visual cues, supported by the fact that there is diegetic music playing which further implies they didn’t have time to turn it off), etc… it’s like something straight out of Alien.
But what makes this feel like it’s more than just an imitation of Alien is the use of solar power which runs the facility. As the day-night cycles are so short, every time the asteroid oscillates so you’re on the dark side, the power shuts off and leaves you in darkness, and then it turns on again when you’re facing the sun.
And I’ve got to praise the fact that they don’t try to go overboard with how the tone leans more towards horror here by throwing jump-scares at you because the writers and designers knew that that wasn’t the point of why they used this kind of atmosphere. There aren’t even any corpses in the area, you find them later on when you get closer to discovering what happened. The visual and sound design are all that’s used to set the player on-edge and it’s tremendously effective. It’s refreshing to have this new take on an old, oft-reused idea. That’s something this game has in spades, in that it’s been using a lot of clichés from media that has preceded it, but more often than not it is finding new and interesting ways to use those clichés and really focus on how it articulates their presentation.
Another great thing about this mission is the fact that there’s no quest objective either, which I picked up on a couple of times throughout this campaign. You’re given this living space oozing with atmosphere, but they don’t try to railroad you through it – it’s cramped and has lots of rooms to explore where (as I said) the devs put a lot of thought into subtle visual cues and details, and it lets you explore in your own way and at your own pace.
While I’m still gushing about this mission, another thing of note is that there’s actually objects with physics littered throughout this living space – they’re not just static objects attached to the furniture. I bring this up because whenever there’s a transition between the day-night cycle, the facility creaks and groans and shakes which knocks those objects around the room. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had my immersion ruined in various games because of totally static objects, and previous Call of Duty campaigns have been guilty of this as well. But this is an area where they really pulled out the stops to make this part of the mission as atmospherically substantial as possible.
And then we get the reveal that the facility’s security bots turned on the humans there, which was actually alluded to earlier in the game – by Ethan, no less, as he joked to the marines (that called the giant mech you are escorting is cooler than him) that some security bots are renowned for turning on its allies in battle. This is another thing that is significantly tied to the setting of this mission because the bots are solar-powered as well, so when the power is on they’re charging towards you, but when you hit the night cycle they stop in their tracks.
There’s a really tense standoff where you’ve got to perform a proximity hack on a door to get to the facility’s survivors while fighting off the bots who are constantly switching on and off. Again, this is a unique take on the heavily used “protect an area for X amount of time while facing a horde of enemies in order to progress”.
It also makes sense that there’s so many bots here in order for there to be a horde-type standoff because this is a place that is totally hostile to the humans who live and work here, mining raw materials for Earth. They’d need those bots in order to effectively do their jobs, so it’s not like the devs just created an area and said “put in some robots you have to fight”, they actually put thought into the why of the matter.We manage to track down the survivors and they show security footage of the Olympus Mons firing on the asteroid, this being what knocked it off-course, and then they hacked the facility’s bots. Because why waste bullets on the barely-armed miners present when you can get their own security mechs to do the work for you? It’s once again reflective of that opening scene with Kotch where he orders his men to carry out the execution of Wolf’s squad without wasting bullets, where the robot present just stamps on the head of one of the UNSA’s soldiers – so we’re seeing a good level of thought going into the consistency of the behaviour which characterises the SDF. There’s obvious shock value to it, but it’s not there just for shock value.
In guiding the civilians to the escape ship, the horde of bots seemingly never wavering in pursuing you, there’s an explosion in the hangar from the volatile materials that have been collected which knocks Reyes and a number of the civilians down.
Omar drags Reyes to the ship, then goes back out to rescue the last civilian…
And then the hangar erupts, the rapidly spreading flames cutting off Omar from the ship.
Salter and Reyes attempt to keep the ship behind so they can get him aboard, but Omar demands that they take off without him – citing the needs of the mission as the priority. Salter obliges because the reality of the situation hits her quicker than it could ever hit Reyes, who gives Salter a direct order that they keep the ship behind to get him aboard, which she disobeys because they would all have died from the final explosion of the hangar if they didn’t take off.
Obviously, this is a huge moment in Reyes’ arc and really shakes his perspective. This is the moment where the burden of command becomes real for him because unlike the previous situation at Saturn, he’s there boots-on-the-ground with Omar and therefore feels directly responsible for not being able to save him.
Salter: “I’m the pilot of this ship. It’s my job to make sure that we get back.”
Reyes: “We lift off on my order!”
Salter: “We shouldn’t have been down there in the first place.”
Reyes: “That’s not your call.”
Salter: “‘Mission comes first.’ Omar’s words, not mine.”
Reyes: “I bring my men home, Salt, we do both!”
Reyes’ idealism here ultimately makes things unfair for Salter because he demands to know whether she’d leave him behind if he were in Omar’s position. She responds that she doesn’t know what she’d to, to which Reyes counters “yes, you do”.
“Hesitation is a hole in the head,” Salter reminds him, a phrase Reyes echoed from Admiral Raines at the start of the game which doesn’t sound all that different from Kotch’s own statement.
“Care clouds judgement.”
And we see that reflected very clearly here. Reyes cares for his crew beyond the point of reason, he is a good leader but a bad captain because his judgement is based on getting his people home rather than recognising when a life has to be spent in order to complete the mission. Reyes’ vision of war has nobody on his side die, a sentiment which is (as I’ve mentioned before) very clearly something we want to relate to, but it’s not the reality of war. As the person who is in-command, sending people to their deaths is something he has to do.
“There’s always another way,” Reyes states, more like he’s assuring himself of this as fact.
“Not always,” says Salter.
“Since you became captain.”
And that’s it. That’s the point Reyes is finally hit with the cold, hard reality of the situation and starts to realise that he’s wrong. It’s understandable and we sympathise with Reyes because his perspective is one we wish we could share, but Salter is the one who is approaching this with a clear and logical mind, and she’s got absolutely no hesitation in telling her commanding officer that he is being unreasonable.
To admit his mistake and mend the divide between him and Salter, Reyes says:
“This day’s not ending any time soon, Let’s keep the barrel side out, fight the enemy, not each other. You got the green light to do whatever it takes.”
The latter part of this dialogue is interesting because it seems indicative of Reyes thinking that he’s going to make the same mistake again, that his care will cloud his judgement in another situation like this. So he tells Salter to do what needs to be done if he’s compromised (emotionally or otherwise), which is a step in the right direction but still hasn’t quite brought him to accept the responsibility he has to uphold.
That next step will come up again later, but this scene was a moment of confluence for Reyes’ arc building off of a lot of things that were established earlier in the game – right back to his adamant disapproval of the previous Captain Alder’s tactical collision manoeuvre against the Olympus Mons in the first act because Reyes’ belief in what the captain’s job entails is that the needs of the individual and getting everyone home alive comes above all else. Reyes wants to put himself in danger rather than his own crew (tying all the way back to the first act of the game where Omar questions the notion of Reyes coming on missions rather than remaining on the ship)…
And he’s wrong.
And the writers portray him as wrong.
And he’s called out by his closest friend for being wrong.
Going down there for the civilians in the first place actually wasn’t the right call. That sounds horrible to say, but… two ships. There are two ships left to defend Earth, and Reyes’ life has already sat on the edge of a knife in the previous mission on Saturn.
Reyes is not a good captain. And he suffers consequences for that, for the decision to go down to Vestra-3. He’s not just told off and given a slap on the wrist for making a bad tactical decision, oh no. We learn in the very next scene that Kotch played Reyes like a fiddle, exploiting the fact that he knows the UNSA will go out of their way to save civilians because they care. They value the lives of the individual, so they will go down to a hostile world if the possibility of saving even half a dozen civilians exists.
Kotch used that to send Retribution on a mission that would mean he could isolate and hunt down Tigris. Reyes manage to save maybe half a dozen civilians, while Kotch obliterated one of only two remaining ships left to stand against the SDF.As we jump towards Captain Ferran’s distress beacon – Ferran, who saved Reyes because she didn’t want to be in this fight alone and declared a fifty percent attrition rate unacceptable – we find that that’s exactly what has happened.
Tigris made its last stand alone because we went down to save a couple of civilians – a decision which, from a military perspective, was wrong. We’ve been ‘winning’ battles, but this is where we really see the point driven home that we are losing the war because the SDF has been playing us by using the fact that they know we care.
This is just… damn good writing. The way in which Reyes is written, the kind of arc he has, the kind of person he is… it’s so unexpected, I genuinely can’t remember the last game I played that had you play as a captain who makes all the wrong calls like this with the intent of it actually being a flaw in his character.
Kotch makes a transmission to Retribution affirming that this is why the SDF will not fail, and Reyes, to his credit, demonstrates that while he may not be a good captain he is a good strategist.
Reyes: “STRATCOM sends us out, we get hit. This time it was Tigris, next time it’s Ret. All respect to the Admiral, the desk is not the deck. It’s time to raise the black flag and start cutting throats.”
MaCallum: “Good on you, Captain.”
Reyes: “SDF is guarding targets of opportunity, out here. We’re gonna turn the tables. Set up an ambush of our own back home.”
Ethan: “Earth, sir?”
Reyes: “We lure the Olympus to Geneva, and take it out.”
Salter: “I love this plan.”
MaCallum: “May I ask how, Captain?”
Reyes: “We have access to an SDF transponder. It was planted in the operative who took out the AATIS in Geneva. It was a suicide mission. It would have stopped transmitting when the operative was killed.”
MaCallum: “So we would have lost our guns, they would have lost their transponder signal.”
Brooks: “That would relay an all-clear.”
Gator: “The fleet would invade immediately.”
Ethan: “Interrogative: the guns won’t be down, sir.”
Salter: “We just need SDF to think they are. They’ll be caught off-guard, AATIS will engage their fleet.”
Reyes: “Counter-deception. We set the table and they come to eat.”
I quoted most of the dialogue there because something I really like about it is that every major crewmember on the bridge contributes to the plan. There’s more dialogue where other characters, like Yetide, further contribute to fine-tuning the plan’s logic (which is significantly utilise later). It’s not just Reyes coming up with the plan alone to try to redeem his failure in the previous mission – it’s written to bring out the dynamic of the group, how they are a stronger force when united like this.
The result is a plan that could potentially turn the tide of the war and it’s all based on things that were established way back in the first act. Remember much earlier in the post when I told you to keep the plot point about Riah in-mind? Well, before we jump to Tigris’ final destination, Raines sends a briefing to Reyes revealing that Riah has a transponder implanted inside his abdomen. He was to destroy Earth’s fleet, then destroy the AATIS guns with him still inside so his death would cut off the transponder signal to indicate to the SDF fleet that now was the time to move in and assault Earth.
If you were to ask me to use a word to describe the overall writing of the plot in this game, the one that comes to mind is ‘functional’. The writers very deliberately sowed these seeds for beats of the plot and characterisation in the first act which come to have new relevance in the third act… that sounds like a “well, duh!” kind of thing to say, but that’s just how good writing works. You use what you establish rather than just toss it aside and forget about it.Now, having gushed about all that… this is where we get to what I would consider the one major negative in the story. The death fake-out with Reyes earlier in the game is something that’s got different arguments you could make in favour and against it, but this is the one moment where I felt the writing was genuinely contrived.
The mission itself starts out really well. We see that Geneva is still on fire from the attack, the wrecks of warships are sprawled all over the city and sunk in the water. While Riah is being transported by the UNSA in order to have the transponder remove from him, he’s intercepted by SDF forces who help him escape. This is another interesting point because Salter actually asks Reyes on the elevator ride down to the ship as they go to Earth whether they’ll just kill Riah, which is a valid question. Reyes responds that Article 3 of the Geneva Convention prevents that from happening, which is another great contrast to the SDF who have absolutely no misgivings about just straight-up shooting people (soldiers, civilians, allies) on the spot.
Anyway, Riah escapes and the mission takes the form of a chase through Geneva, culminating in Reyes climbing up a bell tower to get to him.
Reyes is heavily armed, in full armour, has numerous gadgets at his disposal, and knows where Riah is. We’re fighting through hordes of hostile bots and power armour-assisted SDF forces…
And yet, an unarmed and unarmoured Riah somehow gets the drop on Reyes and knocks him down with only his fists and a headbutt. Reyes doesn’t even get a swing in, he’s just knocked down.
This is the one major negative for me, it sticks out because the rest of the game’s writing has been grounded pretty well in a logical series of events, but this was a contrivance too far. This is a moment where the game falls prey to a cliché rather than doing something to subvert it.
Riah then destroys the AATIS guns and cuts through his own abdomen with a knife to remove the transponder and destroys it. Worse, the Olympus Mons itself jumps to Earth, setting its sights on the military headquarters where Admiral Raines (and the majority of Earth’s military leadership) is stationed. It fires its main weapon on the building (a weapon that is literally made to one-shot destroyer-class vessels) and kills everyone inside as the SDF fleet converges on Geneva.
Now, Reyes does actually respond to this well. When they were formulating the plan earlier, he, Yetide, and MaCallum decided that Retribution would stay out of the combat and out of orbit. Gator points out that if anything were to go wrong then the Retribution would have to jump in-atmosphere in order to render aid in a timely fashion which, as Yetide points out, could be catastrophic as it would cause a blast wave. While this is looked at as a danger at the time, it now becomes an advantage as that blast wave is used to disable the Olympus Mons – just as that same jump tactic has been use on a couple of occasions to disable Reyes’ Jackal.
In fact, it’s exactly what happens here – the shockwave from the jump causes Reyes’ Jackal to lose control so he and Ethan have to eject in order to jump into the Olympus Mons’ cargo bay.What follows is a race against time to get to the bridge, as Admiral Kotch is preparing to scuttle the ship – destroying Olympus Mons would destroy Geneva, the seat of the UNSA. Kotch is willing to sacrifice himself and his men for that – remember that, as Reyes is thrown into exactly the same position later on. There’s also a rather subtle irony in how we hack a bot in order to take out Kotch, following on from the previous mission where Reyes was deceived by Kotch into investigating the Vesta-3 colony where the SDF hacked the bots there to turn on the miners.
I’ve held off talking about Kotch’s character to an extent… and I’m going to continue holding off on it because I want to bring him up at the very end for my final point.
All I’ll say for now is that his dialogue here very much foreshadows the future of this setting and leaves us to question exactly what it is we accomplish by the time the credits roll.
Kotch: “You lack what it takes to win this war.”
Reyes: “I had what it took to beat you, Kotch.”
Kotch: “Killing me isn’t winning.”
Kotch dies from his injuries (which include having his arm twisted and probably broken by a bot, his face smashed into a console, and then the bot self-destructed on him), he slumps out of the chair as Reyes assumes captaincy of the vessel.
What follows is one of the best sequences of the entire game. The SDF doesn’t know that we control the Olympus, the most powerful vessel in the setting, so Reyes charts a course for Mars – the home of the SDF – in order to target their orbital shipyard. The SDF destroyed Earth’s fleet, so that’s exactly what Reyes intends to do to them (again echoing the first act of the game).
And you get to do it by controlling the main weapon of the Olympus Mons.
I cannot even put into words the catharsis of one-shotting about half a dozen capital ships, so I won’t even try. Forget everything else I’ve said, the campaign was worth playing just for this moment…
Unfortunately, the main weapon’s power runs dry so Reyes and his crew have to go on the defensive now. Even more unfortunately, we can’t power up the weapon again because the place to do that is… kind of no longer part of the ship, as a result of the SDF’s scrambling counterattack. Reyes and Salter are almost pulled into space when they open the blast door to the ordinance room, so they turn to the one option they have.
Can you guess what that is? Have you been paying attention to the way this story has been echoing events from the first act to serve the development of its main character?
Ramming the shipyard.Out of options, Reyes also has to call the Retribution in to defend the Olympus as it heads on its collision course with the station, but Gator informs him that Retribution’s guidance systems are impaired so there’s no guarantee of jump accuracy. I haven’t actually spoken about this yet, but it’s consistently said whenever the Retribution jumps across the system earlier in the game that it was a ‘good’ jump.
With the amount of damage Retribution sustains from the SDF here, along with the tug from Mars’ gravity well… Retribution is dragged in the way of the Olympus Mons’ collision path which sends them both crashing to the surface of Mars.
The next part of the mission is focused on the fallout of this situation. Reyes can pretty much do nothing but walk among the survivors, many of whom are injured or dying. You come across Kashima, one of Omar’s marines, who has had a bulkhead collapse on him with one of its jagged ends pierced through his chest. Brooks has you put pressure on the wound while he tries to find a medical kit in order to seal the wound, but Kashima dies from blood loss. In the next area, we see a group of marines standing over one of their lost comrades – one of them is reciting an Old Irish blessing from memory (which is a nice touch in characterising even one of the crew members that isn’t one of the main or supporting characters).
May the road rise up to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
the rains fall soft upon your fields
and until we meet again,
Semper Fi, marine
If you hadn’t caught it already, this is the most pivotal moment for Reyes’ arc. He and four surviving marines head off to reunite with other members of the crew, including Salter and MaCallum where the following exchange occurs:
Reyes: “I’ll do whatever it takes to keep us secure.”
MaCallum: “You’re our leader, sir. Not our saviour.”
Reyes: “I hold myself accountable, Chief.”
MaCallum: “As you should. You aborted the mission, Captain.”
Salter: “He saved his ship and crew, Chief.”
MaCallum: “And that’s noble, but the shipyard remains intact. Look, the strength of the pack is in all the wolves, Captain. All in, no matter the cost. They were ready. Now, if you don’t have the will to make that kind of choice, then like me, you have no place being in command.”
Reyes: “I couldn’t ram my own ship. I would have killed them.”
MaCallum: “They came to win. This doesn’t look like victory.”
Reyes still thinks that he can win here and get his people home safe (despite the fact that we’ve effectively fought the SDF to a standstill by taking out each others’ fleets), he doesn’t quite grasp the reality that this is a one-way trip.
This momentum of this game’s story got started when Captain Alder decide to use Retribution to ram the Olympus back in the first act. And now Reyes, who vehemently disagreed with that decision, who we have established is not a good captain, refused to make that call when he was standing in Alder’s position. And here they are now.
What MaCallum says to Reyes effectively drives home that nobody standing with Reyes on the red planet’s surface is here with the expectation of going home in one piece. They came here to win this fight for the people they’re defending back on Earth, but their commander is not on the same page as them because he’s still in a position where he’s going to prioritise their lives over completing the mission.
This is the moment of revelation for Reyes and drives him to now have what it takes to win the fight, which he articulates in his final speech prior to deploying the remaining forces to the space elevator that leads up to the SDF orbital shipyard.
“Ladies and gentlemen. We do not fight here to win. Our battle is so that those we fight for do not lose. There are billions of people back home who don’t know what we’re doing… but they will know exactly what we’ve done.”
From there, Reyes takes the burden of his position upon himself and starts making the tough choices.
We see this when he orders Brooks and his men to stay behind at the space elevator’s entrance to hold the SDF off in order to buy them time – effectively a suicide mission as more and more SDF troops converge on their position.
We see it when MaCallum saves Reyes from being pulled into one of the pods containing bots that’s being launched down to Mars, telling him to let her go before the prime charge goes off because the mission comes before her.
We see it when the remaining crew identify the destroyer-class vessel they intend to hijack, when Salter asks if this is to fight their way out, to which Reyes responds: “No. To level this place.”
Salter suggests simply stealing the ship and leaving, living to regroup and fight another day, as the weapons systems for the vessel are locked down. Reyes instead asks where they can enable the payload, volunteering himself for his own suicide mission to firing control so Salter and the others can launch their final assault.
Ethan: “Captain, how will you get home?”
Reyes: “No one’s going home. You board that ship and you terminate this place, Salt. Do as much damage as you can before SDF takes you out.”
Salter says that she can do both – destroying the shipyard and jumping the ship away from Mars – to which Reyes echoes what he said to her after Omar’s death. But with an addendum at the end which perfectly encapsulates his shift in perspective.
“You’ve got the green light to do whatever it takes. Just finish the mission.”
The mission comes first.
Salter: “This is suicide, Reyes!”
Reyes: “I gave my order, Salt.”
Salter: “Captain doesn’t always bring his men home.”
Reyes: “Not always.”
Once more, we see Omar’s words to Reyes from the first act when they meet on the Retribution echoed here.
Reyes effectively faces his final ‘test’ when he has to destroy Ethan, having taken control of him to get to the core in order to release the moorings on the vessel Salter and the remaining crew intend to commandeer. Ethan manages to damage the core, but it requires a charge to ignite it and set off the chain reaction that will blow the ship’s moorings.
They succeed in releasing the ship and enabling its weapon systems. And then Reyes orders Salter to fire on the command centre – his position.
Reyes is blasted into space as Salter opens fire on the shipyard and what follows is a harrowing first-person spectacle of the battle that ensues, Reyes is powerless to do anything – he almost succeeds in getting a grip on Salter’s ship, but a nearby blast sends him off-course away from the station.
And then flying shrapnel hits his visor…
The fake-out scene from the second act is echoed, but this time without Ethan alongside him.
Nick Reyes dies gasping, exposed to the vacuum of space as his visor shatters.
There were only four survivors: Nora Salter, Evelyn Sotomura (Boats), Sean Brooks (who replace Omar as leader of the marines), and Erwin Kloos (the deck handler for the Jackals).
That’s it. Everyone else died.
The closing scene has Salter standing before the memorial wall in Geneva that we walked past at the start of the game, honouring the fallen. During the credits, you can listen to the death notes of the major characters who died – Omar, Ethan, Gator, Kashima, Yetide, Griff, Gibson, and MaCallum.
It’s a great emotional send-off to tie up the perspectives of these characters, to really drive home not just what they fought for but who they fought for.
So, let’s talk about this ending…
Some may call it abrupt, or unsatisfying, and that was… really the point. But it was beautifully in-tune with the spirit of the first two Modern Warfare games in terms of the general theme of what they tried to convey: a critique of war.
For a series that is so often perceived as a glorification of violence, the Modern Warfare series and this game literally could not be further from that.
War happens because of people – stupid, hateful, greedy, violent, selfish, people. All the death and suffering it causes doesn’t add to the substance of living. Somebody is always fighting to try and take away culture, society, resources, the lives of others, and so on.
I was so surprised by the fact that the battle at Earth, upon returning there at the start of the third act, wasn’t actually the climax of the game. It so easily could have been – you take down Admiral Kotch and save the day from the SDF…
But that’s not what happens. That’s not how this works.
Because Kotch didn’t matter.
It’s such a brilliant reversal of expectations to have the star power of Kit Harrington put into a character – the main villain – who ultimately did not matter at all.
We beat him, and then we launched a suicide mission to Mars in order to take down the SDF’s shipyard, to ensure that they couldn’t recover faster than Earth in order to just come back again and wipe it out.
This wasn’t a victory. In fact, and this is the part I’ve been building up to all throughout this post… the odds of a renewed conflict between the UNSA and the SDF are pretty much inevitable.
It’s just going to take time because the only thing that is ensuring neither side can continue to attack each other is because we’ve wiped out each others’ resources to do so. The UNSA lost the entirety of their fleet and the AATIS cannons; the SDF lost their shipyard, their fleet, their capital ship, etc. Even the side missions are all about tearing down infrastructure across our solar system – y’know, where all the resources that Earth relies on to sustain its continued existence are.
We didn’t overthrow a corrupt government or take down the leader of some cult of personality. The SDF is composed of hideous, violent individuals, which humanity regrettably has no shortage of.And, worse still, logically speaking, Earth is probably going to become a lot more militarised in response to how easily the SDF curbstomped them at the start of the game. The war isn’t over, so the warriors are going to be in-charge and there’s a line we see between this being a productive means of threat response and full-on extremism.
The UNSA is potentially that much closer to becoming the very thing they were fighting. Earth’s military HQ was destroyed and everyone inside the building was killed, so there’s a huge power vacuum there. The ending’s ambiguous note leaves us with an impending sense of dread that things are only going to get worse from here.
In lore, too, it’s stated that Earth’s atmosphere has been geoengineered in order to sustain the planet. None of the other worlds in our solar system have been rendered habitable, there’s small bases with a breathable atmosphere but none of these worlds can actually viably sustain a large population. We see in flavour text on the solar system map that Jupiter is the source of the majority of Earth’s fuel and if the UNSA lost access to the resources there then Earth’s geoengineered atmosphere would collapse – leading to mass crop failure and worldwide starvation…
The presentation of Earth here is of a doomed world. With its own resources run dry, if anything were to go wrong on a large enough scale out in the solar system (we’re talking unpredictable solar events, difficulties with shipping resources, that sort of thing) then Earth would be done for. The SDF is made a credible threat by just how fragile Earth’s situation is, and even more credible by the fact that the way of life for the people of Earth now is going to be just what it was for the SDF.
It’s about as bleak and depressing an ending as you can get, but you experience it through the sacrifice of good servicemen and women who fought and died doing the right thing, struggling to bear up to the enormity of what they had to fight against. Because sometimes that’s all you can do.
I almost don’t want a sequel to this because it stands as a pretty unique, downbeat take on the future and this game in itself drives home that theme perfectly. It’s like the opposite of Star Trek‘s vision of the future. But, at the same time, I am extremely curious to see what happens next with Salter and the other survivors, and how they live in the new status quo of the setting.
There’s certainly things I haven’t manage to fit in – be they a deeper look at certain characters, the likes of which would require a full level-by-level analysis.
I didn’t mention much about the gameplay, like how you can choose your loadout at the start of each mission and customise it (while also having a recommended loadout for the mission), which adds a lot to the replay value, particularly since there’s a wealth of difficulty modes which actually change the way the game is played by adding in additional mechanics (I refer to the Specialist mode which aims to make the gameplay more realistic).
I didn’t talk about all of the flavour text and the worldbuilding and specific characterisation beats in the audio logs. I didn’t talk about the SDF leaderboard where each mission you do has you take out various members of the SDF’s command chain, and then you get lore about each individual’s background in your cabin aboard Retribution…
There’s just so much in the way of detail that the devs went out of their way to put in the game. I really appreciate the level of thought that went into this campaign – sure, there were issues as well, which I pointed out, but this experience was such an overwhelming net-positive that I can’t wait to go through this campaign again to experience it.
This post started with the approach of “oh, I’m just going to type up my thoughts on the game”, as that’s how I normally approach these pieces. I don’t necessarily aim to change anyone’s mind or tell people they’re wrong, but I find myself at the end of this article really hoping that you’ve reached the end with some added appreciation.
If you had the fatigued expectation that this was just going to be another factory-assembled COD game, maybe you want to try it out. If you played it and maybe didn’t pick up on the subtleties with its writing, maybe you want to replay it to see if you experience the game with fresh eyes. I hope this has done something to add to the substance of your perspective.
Long story short, I love this game. I’ve not even touched the multiplayer or zombies modes, the campaign alone makes me feel like I’ve got my money’s worth.
Until the next time…
Peace to the fallen.