Call of Duty is a first-person-shooter franchise that has hooked in millions of people since its inception 11 years ago. Through the many iterations, as the franchise bounced between developers Infinity Ward and Treyarch, the series has traveled through World War 2, the Vietnam war and hit a high point with 2007’s Infinity Ward entry, Call of duty: Modern Warfare.
Sadly, since 2007, many critics have felt the series has been on a decline (though sales, we should mention, have been stellar). Infinity Ward’s efforts seemed to get steadily worse (especially after the departure of some of their key team members) and though Treyarch’s games actually improved through 2010’s Black Ops and the 2012 sequel, nothing reached the same heights of Modern Warfare.
What do you do when your franchise seems to be sinking? Shake things up a bit, that’s what!
Enter Sledgehammer, a rookie CoD developer, and Call of Duty Advanced Warfare. Sledgehammer had the unenviable task of trying to revitalise a tired franchise, whilst simultaneously retaining a lot of what made the series so awesome in the first place. The double edged sword: stakes heightened, expectations lowered. How do you put your own stamp on a series that people love to hate? How do you attract a new audience and critical acclaim without losing the core audience that have shown loyalty even when the games have been lackluster?
Well, the first thing Sledgehammer have done is, quite wisely, adopted their own timeline. With Infinity Ward handling the present and Treyarch making their home in the past, the logical solution was for Sledgehammer to adopt the future as their landscape of destruction.
Advanced Warfare is set roughly 40 years into the future, which gives it the recognisable realism that the series is known for, but also allows for some creativity when it comes to weapons, technology, vehicles and missions that previous installments wouldn’t have really been able to play with.
The most striking thing about this entry is that it’s the first CoD game since Modern Warfare in which I’ve been remotely interested in trying out the single player element. As a hardcore fan of the multiplayer, I was loathe to give the story more than a cursory glance. Advanced Warfare however, has rather a lot more to offer in this department. Over a relatively short (6 hour) campaign, we are given a narrative that is varied, exciting and actually makes sense.
You play as Mitchell, a US Marine who is injured in combat and subsequently hired by a private militia group known as ‘Atlas’ (headed by a remarkably maniacal Kevin Spacey). The globe-hopping narrative nature of the Call of Duty games, sees Mitchell and his unit entering distinct environments and wildly differing conditions as the story progresses. As well as the heavily promoted San Francisco locale, you’ll be treated to missions in locations as diverse as Antarctica, Bangkok, Baghdad and the Greek island of Santorini (which I was sad to see will suffer heavy modernisation over the next 40-50 years).
Spacey is outstanding in his role as ‘Jonathan Irons’, not only a fantastic antagonist (with an actual personality that the series sorely needed), he also portrays the charisma required to understand why Mitchell would be enticed into a private, corporate militia in the first place (beyond the slightly cheesy, ‘best friend I lost in the war would have wanted it’ motif anyway). TV and voice actor, Gideon Emery also plays his part as ‘Gideon’, Mitchell’s friend and leader of his unit, extremely well (shades of ‘Captain Price’ in Modern Warfare shine through in one or two places, even if he never reaches the heights of Billy Murray’s landmark performance).
Arguably the weakest performance is from Mitchell himself. It’s a strange one. Call of Duty typically leaves their main protagonist fairly devoid of personality – one assumes they do this to allow the player to imprint something of their own personality onto the character. This is sort of the same here – except they have hired the sublime Troy Baker‘s voice and likeness into a role he isn’t given any freedom to flourish in. The script isn’t exactly Shakespeare and is delightfully predictable in places, but we know that Troy Baker is more capable than most of delivering a performance full of personality and humour, like Delsin in Infamous – or something quiet, subtle and nuanced like Joel in The Last of Us. Here, he is Mr. Generic – there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it just seems a bit of a waste. As though Sledgehammer hired a flavour of the month rather than thinking what the role really needed.
That said, it is a minor misstep and not one that particularly affected my enjoyment of the campaign. In terms of the rest of the presentation, the game makes few, if any missteps. On PS4 (version reviewed), it looks fantastic, character models are gorgeous – lip syncing in cut-scenes is awesome, though occasionally looked out of sync when using the in-game engine, but unless you stopped to watch the characters talking on purpose, you could totally miss that! Frame rate was locked pretty much at 60fps throughout (I know there are rumours of slowdown but I honestly could not see any – and I WAS looking). Weapons feel powerful and sound fantastic (if you’re not playing through surround sound or headphones, you won’t get to appreciate just how deep and layered the sound work is). There are a few textures hidden about the scenery that look a little simplistic for a true next-gen title, but again – you really have to stop and go hunting for the issues – playing the campaign properly, you probably won’t notice them at all.
The new weapons and gadgets are great fun to play with – the first time I threw a ‘Threat grenade’ and saw my enemies lit up through smoke and walls, my jaw hit the floor. So cool! The technology on display is exciting and interesting without going too over the top.
The same can be said for the game’s biggest hook. The Exo suit. Part of this vision of the future is the introduction of Exo suits and the various abilities they can afford you, from retractable shields, to quick healing and the much advertised boost jump. It’s this latter element that really (literally) elevates the game above the more recent entries into the franchise, adding much needed verticality to gameplay.
Your Exo suit, which looks simple and practical in its design, is imbued with up to three active abilities at any one time. This means that your suit is tailored to your mission – which is great fun on the one hand – and a tad frustrating on the other. When you start a mission, you see which are the active exos that you’ll be using – great for making sure you’re always equipped to handle what the mission throws at you – or predicting exactly what the mission will throw at you. The downside is, you never get to choose what you’ll equip. You can’t approach any mission with the boost jump, magnetic climbing gloves, and requisite slow-mo mode (called ‘Overdrive’ in this game), only the missions that choose those abilities for you. This takes what could have been an aspect that opened the game up and gave multiple approaches to each mission – and turns it into a familiarly linear experience. I guess the counter argument would be giving players the option to approach missions where you need to boost jump, glide over gaps or drop safely to the floor from a great height – without equipping any of the right tech – would have been game breaking.
Overall, the single player experience is a short but polished experience, and a vast improvement over previous efforts. There’s plenty of action, plot twists and variety to keep you entertained and the 6 hour campaign means it never wears out its welcome. The addition of challenges (head shots, grenade kills etc.) and some rudimentary upgrade progression trees (these allow you to reduce recoil, carry extra grenades or reload quicker etc) added a little to the sense of progression and I can see people re-playing the campaign to hit all the achievements, but once was enough for me. If you play Call of Duty just for the single player, you may feel a little short changed by Advanced Warfare.
On the other hand, if you’re paying the price of entry for the multiplayer, you won’t be disappointed.
The layer of polish, exciting tech and vertical gameplay elements that made the single player game so much fun carry over into the multiplayer – and then some.
The Call of Duty MP experience we all know and love is very much alive and well in Advanced Warfare. Game Modes such as Free for all, Team Deathmatch, Kill Confirmed all return, as well as Hard Point and Capture the Flag (not seen since 2012’s Black Ops II) along with new modes: ‘Momentum’ – a riff on the old ‘War’ mode from Call of Duty 3, and ‘Uplink’ – which we’ll get to in a moment.
For the most part, the modes are as you left them, the improvements come in the form of the awesome maps and the freedom that your exo suit allows. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t have the free running freedom of Titanfall, nor the verticality of Battlefield 4, but what it does do is add a whole dimension to the CoD formula that FINALLY has it feeling fresh.
Most of the maps are multilayered with higher points, ground level open areas, a liberal sprinkling of cover, sniper perches and tight corridors juxtaposed with more open areas. What really makes the difference is the double-jump, boost ability that lets you leap, hop and dash from position to position, making the whole of each map feel immediately accessible.
Comparisons have been made to the ‘Titan Class’ in Destiny (as many gamers online seem to have only parted ways with Destiny to play Advanced Warfare). The comparison is fair to a point, however, Call of Duty is about 10x faster than Destiny – and the height and control you have when leaping in Destiny is much greater than in Call of Duty AW. This game lets you make a fairly straightforward hop, it grants access to higher levels of the map and, when timed right, lets you boost, deftly, through an open window and shotgun an unsuspecting opponent in the face.
I quite like the fact that the boost isn’t that forgiving – and actually requires some skill and timing to use effectively. Unlike Destiny, or Halo, I never got the feeling I could simply hop out of danger. The boost feels very much like its been designed for mobility and skillful attack rather than desperate defence. My only small gripe is I would have liked to see a little more height on some of the maps, it’s better for sure, but still nothing like the vantage points of the old Modern Warfare maps I loved so dearly.
As for weapons, this may be the most entertaining and impressive arsenal yet. Guns are massively varied, from single shot, auto and burst rifles, to snipers, shotguns, fast spraying handguns – all the way to lasers (yup, lasers!). However, it is the tech side of things in the MP that got me really excited. Employing a ‘Pick 13’ system (similar to the previous entry’s Pick 10), your character has never felt so customisable. So if I wanted to overload on tech grenades, cloaking devices etc, I could go hog wild! Want to stock up on heavy weaponry at the expense of grenades? Go for it? Forgo your Killstreak rewards in favour of awesome cloaking technology and precision weapons? Do your worst!
It is almost overwhelming at first, just how many options there are available! As usual, when you start, you have very little unlocked, but within a few short games, your level shoots up and the unlocks come pouring in. There’s something to suit every playstyle – even the indecisive! In one game of Team Deathmatch, I found myself playing alongside a juggernaut of a character, who just seemed to have an endless supply of explosives to launch around the map, taking out the opposition left, right and center – barely firing a shot. Another time, I was up against a player who was employing a very literal ‘Cloak and Dagger’ technique to great effect. Traversing the map unseen and taking me down repeatedly with a knife – never actually appearing on my radar until it was way too late.
Though I was getting my ass handed to me, it was great to feel I was getting killed in genuinely new ways in a Call of Duty game. Cloak and Dagger guy never seemed to touch the floor, making him even harder to spot – it was like having a silent assassin in the midst of an otherwise explosive and bullet ridden war. I loved it – tried to adopt it – and discovered it also requires a lot of skill to do properly…
For me, one of the best areas of ‘newness’ bestowed upon Advanced Warfare is in ‘Uplink’ mode. Best described as a cross between Call of Duty and basketball, it was a strangely compelling mix of sports and warfare that I really enjoyed. Each team has a ‘Goal’ (or basket) floating in midair on their side of the map, a metallic silver ‘ball’ sits in the middle. The objective is simple, grab the ball and either throw it into the goal for one point or ‘dunk’ it for two points (to dunk, you simply have to be holding the ball and jump into the basket-esque goal. There is a vague kind of high-tech reason for all this that has something to with data transfer or something, but it’s irrelevant. You’re playing basketball with guns with a battlefield for a court. It’s ace.
When you’re holding the ball, you can’t shoot. You can run, jump (boost too) and throw. The defence will try to gun you down as you make your way to the goal. You can pass or shoot with R2 and simply have to run into the path of the ball to pick it up. The beauty of this is the tactics that can be deployed, the guy with the ball gets the focus – so its easy for your team mates to pick off defenders in a well paced coordinted attack. In one game we attempted to alley-oop it on every score (usually failing miserably, but was fun to try). By far the most fun thing to do is pass to the other team. Why? Because as soon as the guy who just appeared in front of you has the ball thrown at him, he catches it and lowers his weapon automatically, giving you the chance to gun him down before you pinch the ball back and carry on! Boo-Ya!
It may not be to everyone’s taste, I may even tire of it eventually? But I urge you to give it a try, you may be pleasantly surprised.
Overall, Call of Duty Advanced Warfare offers players the best single player experience in recent CoD memory and arguably one of the best multiplayer first person shooters on the market. New guns, fresh maps and ways to traverse them, along with a hilariously violent sport based game mode (the most fun I’ve had playing sports videogames since Speedball 2), there is so much to like here. Whether you still see Call of Duty as the giant that everyone is trying to beat, or the underdog that has lost its way, Advanced Warfare is a game worthy of your attention in its own right. Hats off to Sledgehammer, they’ve risen to the challenge and laid down the gauntlet for Treyarch and Infinity Ward.
Call of Duty Advanced Warfare is available right now on PS4, Xbox One, PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.
Richard is a father, teacher, gamer and writer. He believes that The Last of Us is the finest game ever made, feels that the StarWars Saga should only be watched in ‘the Machete order’ and once cleared Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in one sitting. Took him 20 hours, four cups of tea and a sausage roll. You can follow him on twitter @vigilantesanta.