“It’s that time of year again,” I hear a lot of people saying. Some with a snicker and others with enthusiasm. But no matter which way you look at it another Call of Duty has dropped and the franchise continues its annual trend of splitting opinion and offering a home for the corridor shooter heroes out there. Each and every one of us.
This year of course, the conversation revolves around two things: new studio Sledgehammer Games being at the helm, and their procurement of the venerable Kevin Spacey as one of its main characters. It’s also the series’ true step into the next-generation of home console, if you ask me, and while the game manages to strike all of the franchise’s beats with metronome-like proficiency, it does so with a ‘best hits’ mindset. Advanced Warfare takes all of the best bits from the best games in the series and crafts a clever, enjoyable and engaging experience across every facet, though it rarely shakes things up and lacks in variety outside of the single-player campaign and multiplayer proper.
War-torn Seoul is the opening act for Advanced Warfare where you quickly learn that the future is now and Space Invaders was actually a warning of things to come. Call of Duty muscle memory immediately sets in and you find yourself instantly trying to secure your first laptop of intel (you'd think in the future laptops would be largely obsolete, replaced by smart devices, but I digress). ’Induction
’ isn't even a clever name for your first boots on the ground Advanced Warfare experience, because the level is very much a tutorial. But you learn that this game isn't about being metaphorical or philosophical (read: it's not trying to be Ghosts), it's a straight shooter this one, which is as refreshing as its movement system and ever-escalating gadgetry.
Advanced Warfare also doesn't pull any punches in channeling the best the series has offered in the past. You'll finish your first mission on a sour note with both personal and peripheral loss. Our (in-game) voiceless protagonist, Mitchell, gives an arm
and a leg
for his country, but thankfully at the tail end of it all is the option to Upgrade through accrued Upgrade Points between missions. You gain these by working towards satisfactory engagement in four areas: Kills, Headshot Kills, Grenade Kills and finding Intel. The points go towards your new in-game companion - your Exo.
Detection, Resistance, Armor, Recoil, Flinch, Reload, Quick Aim, Tactical and Lethal Grenade, Sprint and of course, Battery. These are the basic skill and attribute areas you bolster throughout the campaign. There are 22 points to fill (two per skill/attribute) with the first costing you one upgrade point and the second two, totalling three per application. At roughly eight to 10 hours of play on Veteran, the hardest difficulty I tackled, I came in shy of decking out my Exo by seven points. Thankfully, like all Call of Duty games, once a mission is clear you're free to re-engage it on any difficulty level you like, opening up replayability to the collectors and 100 percenters out there.
At its absolute heart, and as I touched on a little earlier, Advanced Warfare is
Call of Duty. It's inspiring in parts, because this is a team who hasn't lived and breathed the franchise, in development, for the past 10 years. Rather it's a team who understands the CoD beat; the cadence at which the game's campaign should run and they one-up themselves the whole time. By and large it's simple in delivery and even more so in execution. The plot isn't overly convoluted or complex, but it's full of meat. Each mission's end feels like the episode closer of a weekly TV action-thriller, and the characters are all well-balanced and wonderfully presented to a point that you're so drawn in by the time you reach Atlas, you don't even realise you've subconsciously signed-up for the long haul.
Character portrayals and acting are the best the series has ever seen here. The seasoned Troy Baker is excellent as the young Mitchell you play as, though he only talks during cut-scenes, which I found odd. The supporting cast take his lead though, and deliver standout performances. Cormack felt incredibly real all-too often, but at the end of the day it's Kevin Spacey's skills that ultimately pay the bills. His character is perhaps less underhanded than his brilliant Frank Underwood, but the transition he makes to eventual Bond-esque villain is great. You can actually follow this descent by listening to Intel from the menu, though I think it might have been better served as exposition during missions, even if it began to play out after the game's switch, but I don't want to delve too much here for fear of spoilers.
At the opposite end of the acting is their in-game representations. Advanced Warfare is a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde experience where visuals are concerned. Across the board, this is definitely a decent-looking game on next-gen, and some levels in particular are stunning. Others, however, tend to err on the side of "must have been done earlier in development". It's not as inconsistent as Ghosts was, by any measure, and that silky smooth 60fps the series is known for is in tow, but certain levels show lacklustre textures or feature far too much pop-in. Grass sways in imaginative wind (where there should be none) and rarely blends with the environment. In the San Francisco Bay, white 'splashes' indicate blocky, barely-detailed ships are in fact, afloat. It's peripheral stuff not specific to where the game is directing you, but at this point in time (and with some of this studio's visual heritage), I was expecting more.
Up close, character models are stunning though, with realistic skin, piercing eyes and believable facial hair. Cormack, who I mentioned before, is the most emotive in-game model and the lip-syncing for him and the rest of the cast is really very good. He best matched the CGI models that appear in the game's gorgeous cut-scenes and simply came across as a hugely believable character which completely reflects the nature of this narrative. In CoDs gone by, players were too easily confused by who they were, why they were that person and therefore what the point of it all was -- Advanced Warfare keeps things in your direct sights. It’s not mind-numbing though, there’s real forethought behind this game’s story, it’s more that it keeps the player engaged by allowing them to sink into the role and experience the overarching story the team here is telling, for themselves and through the eyes of a single character.
Obviously it’s not all about the single-player component though, with the life-blood of the series being multiplayer. The retail product is unfortunately lacking a dedicated co-op mode of a unique nature (there is co-op in Exo Survival, but that’s more a Horde Mode than anything), and by and large the modes, maps and more are all part of that Call of Duty cadence I’ve riddled throughout here, but it does pack a single, defining game-changer in movement.
The Exo abilities that have been the focus of marketing aren’t a lie. It’s not the PR team sinking their teeth into an aesthetic thing and calling it new because it is new and it will, over time, change the way this game’s competitive side is played. It’s a challenge to learn and even more difficult to master. It will make you rethink map layouts, even if they seem familiar to the series, and it will absolutely make you shift the way you would normally go into a gunfight to a point that the adage ought to be changed from “never bring a knife to a gunfight fight” to “always wear your Exo because who cares about guns and knives”.
Where Call of Duty may have sunk into an area of bravado-laden run and gunners, or cheap campers, the Advanced Warfare Exo addition changes the formula. And the better you get at creating movement lines with that suit and its short battery life, to literally dance around the opposition, the sooner those players of the past will be left behind in the proverbial digital dust.
What’s crazy to me though, is how much they pared back some of the abilities from the single-player game and left them on the sidelines for multiplayer. And I’d be over-stepping the potential longevity of the current gameplay release roster this early into the game’s life. Even at my review retreat I really only had three days with it -- despite all of Call of Duty’s familiarity, the community shapes how these things blossom and in that light, the exclusion of the single-player game’s grappling hook and magnetic gloves should be looked upon as a massive oversight. Even the idea of allowing players to choose specific Exo abilities alongside the aforementioned, to absolutely create an asymmetrical playing field, could be a solution and it does feel that even with all that change on-hand in terms of suit movement, there’s a sense of playing safe through those exclusions.
I gained serious insight into the inner workings of the development process for this game (like that Eric Hirshberg wrote most of Spacey’s lines), and lament that the Sydney Opera House multiplayer map is nowhere to be found, but the studio’s optimism and passion was, and is, very clear. There’s also the idea that some of these ideas
aren’t actually dead and that we’re to be reminded this is a year-long investment when you sign up. The movement system is an absolute game-changer -- that cannot be denied, but there’s a bigger question of ‘is that enough?’. The series is long in the tooth now, and despite Ghosts’ actual design flaws it was also a catalyst for that long-overdue discussion about whether or not fatigue was finally setting in. Seeing what Sledgehammer is not only capable of when playing to familiarity, but also their game-changing (and breaking) moments of genius and foresight suggests not, but accelerated movement in an emerging era of that already becoming the FPS norm isn’t the major change we crave.
There are options all over the place -- asymmetrical multiplayer, open-world single-player, full narrative co-op, user-generated content, more use of vehicles off rails, grappling hooks in goddamned multiplayer... and so on. None of that is meant to lead you to believe this is a bad game -- it’s the best Call of Duty since Modern Warfare and may in fact be better, but saying that isn’t because it’s changed the series’ formula the way that game did, rather it’s refined it. And maybe that’s not the fault of any of the developers working on the game, and rests more squarely on the shoulders of the publisher who sets that beat I’ve talked so much about.
Instead of a ‘best hits’ directive, maybe it’s time to change the tune altogether.