As a gamer, there’s one constant in the yearly gaming calendar. If you’re in the mood for some fast, fun, deeply engrossing multiplayer action, without doubt the Call of Duty franchise delivers. Year after year, Activision, and the various developers it employs to craft the titles it releases under the brand, delivers an on-point multiplayer game sure to delight fans of past iterations. However, it’s not exactly the freshest gameplay around, relying on a core formula established by Modern Warfare back in 2007 and repeated in five of the games released since. Call of Duty has become something of a punchline in the industry for delivering the same basic game as the year before, wrapped up in prettier graphics and with a few extras tacked on for good measure.
The thing is, it works. Where series rival Battlefield 4 was a buggy, broken mess, Call of Duty: Ghosts was stable and gave players the multiplayer action they craved. Each year, it’s more of the same, but it’s more of something Activision knows players will enjoy. That’s why they’re so reluctant to mess with the winning formula. And that’s why this year’s entry, Advanced Warfare, is such a welcome and refreshing surprise.
This time around, rather than feel tied down to either of the current Call of Duty storylines — Modern Warfare and Black Ops — developer Sledgehammer Games instead decided to create its own story arc. Advanced Warfare, as the title suggests, is set in the future and features advanced technology, weaponry and soldier capabilities. Its story takes place between 2054 and 2061 and multiplayer takes place in various locations borrowed from and inspired by the timeline established in the campaign.
Let’s start with the weakest part of Advanced Warfare, and indeed the weakest part of most Call of Duty games: the campaign. Usually, the single-player story missions feel like an afterthought, tacked on to give the multiplayer some context and to provide something to do for the moments you’re without internet. Advanced Warfare is no different. It’s as clichéd as they come.
Players take control of Private Jack Mitchell, an oddly mute protagonist who only seems to speak during cutscenes (sparingly, at that) and during small pieces of narration. He and his friend Will Irons are dropped into Seoul during the Second Korean War, as the North invades the South. Here, players are introduced to the technology of this future world, and it makes for a wonderful change. Soldiers now wear exoskeletons, which offer various enhancements to their standard abilities, such as increased strength, faster running speeds, improved accuracy, thrusters to enable higher jumping, hovering and slowed falling, as well as other boosts.
Grenades are now multi-functional, offering various modes depending on the situation. Lob a threat grenade to detect enemies hiding behind cover. EMPs will disable drones and other electrical equipment. Impact grenades will explode on… well, impact. Smart grenades will automatically find the nearest enemy and boost towards them, or can be guided by the player towards a target. Smart shields can be deployed, which lower automatically when you’re ready to shoot, while drones can be commandeered to fire at distant targets and monitor the battlefield. The technology on offer is a refreshing change to the norm, and adds dynamic capabilities to battles. Stuck on a street, with waves of enemies in front of you? Boost your way up onto a canopy or roof and storm them from above. Besieged by drones? Throw an EMP and then use your thrusters to quickly navigate out of trouble. The exoskeleton unlocks a sense of freedom enjoyed by other future-tech titles such as Destiny and Titanfall, but with the same core gameplay that Call of Duty has always offered.
Back to the lacklustre story, though. Will, Mitchell’s friend, is killed in combat, and Mitchell loses an arm in the same explosion. Returned to American soil (and with the Koreans presumably defeated, as this war is left somewhat ignored once you’ve left Seoul), you’re approached by Will’s father, Jonathan Irons — and if you’ve seen the trailers, you’ll be more than aware that Irons is played by Kevin Spacey, bringing his best Frank Underwood (minus the Southern drawl). Irons offers Mitchell an advanced prosthetic arm and a place in Irons’ Atlas private military company — the world’s largest of its kind. Once you’ve enlisted, you’re tasked with battling the KVA, a terrorist organization intent on ending the world’s reliance on technology.
There are the usually bombastic set pieces synonymous with a Call of Duty campaign, involving guns, explosions, intense battles, collapsing buildings and tight corridor sections. Everything you’ve played in past games is rehashed here for you to enjoy again. There’s even a huge twist to the plot, which you definitely won’t see coming. Okay, that’s a lie. It couldn’t be more obvious if Kevin Spacey himself came to your house and beat you with the game’s script, which I assume was created by blending every other title in the franchise and then pouring the remainders out into a word document. Still, there are a couple of great monologues on power and democracy from Spacey, so you’re certainly getting your money’s worth. What’s more, there are new additions to gameplay, such as a stealth mission complete with a grappling hook, a drone level, a tank level and a hoverbike level, which help to shake things up somewhat (vehicle control remains as lousy as ever).
It helps that this is the prettiest Call of Duty has ever looked. Sledgehammer built a new engine from scratch to power the game, and it shows. Whereas last year’s entry, Ghosts, looked good, Advanced Warfare practically glows from every pixel. Working with finite levels and carefully controlled AI has allowed the developers to make every texture, every character, every surface shine. From the pristine halls of Atlas headquarters, to the shining utopia that is New Baghdad, to the gloomy caverns of Antarctica, there isn’t an ugly moment in the game. There are few framerate issues or graphical bugs, and everything feels as fluid and smooth as we’ve become accustomed to. Particular credit should go to the impeccably animated cutscenes, as well as the in-game character models. When Irons gets close to the camera, it’s pretty much like having Kevin Spacey staring into your eyes, with minute detail — such as individual pores — rendered here.
It’s backed by the bombastic sound, with explosions, gunfire and the screams and cries of your teammates and enemies all coming through loud and clear. Sledgehammer’s audio director, Don Veca, told EDGE magazine that, “[the audio] goes through your body, into your bones, and your skull. You hear it in your ear, and it sounds completely different.” While it certainly wasn’t life-changing, I can’t complain about the audio quality of Advanced Warfare — though Call of Duty’s rather empty sounding guns return once again.
Of course, all of this is utterly irrelevant if the main reason to buy the game sucks. While the story is a fun distraction — taking me around six hours to best — most people who buy Advanced Warfare will do so for its multiplayer modes. They will not be disappointed. The actual feel of the game is unchanged. Gunplay and movement is as quick and light as it’s always been, and feels reassuringly familiar. It’s the introduction of Advanced Warfare’s technology that revitalizes multiplayer and reminds us why the series has lasted as long as it has.
The exoskeleton carries through to multiplayer, and with it comes a level of customization we haven’t seen before. In addition to customizing individual weapons — adding scopes and perks and suppressors and whatnot — and customizing your loadout — changing your secondary weapon, what grenades you’ll throw, which perks you’ll unlock for achieving kill streaks in games — players can also add wildcards and unlock additional slots for upgrades, as well as change their character’s face, gender, clothing and uniform before heading into battle. The exoskeletons also come with power slots, which open up new additions to your arsenal, such as making you invisible to enemy drones or showing suppressed fire on your minimap. They allow more granular control for players to fully customize their character to their play style, whether you’re a stealthy sniper or a guns-blazing rampager.
Indeed, your first couple of hours will be spent finding your method of play. The exoskeleton, with its boosting and jumping abilities, lends even greater dynamism to multiplayer than it does to single player. See an enemy running along a roof? Boost up there and punch him in the back. A sniper taking pot shots at you as you try to run through an open area? Use your speed enhancements to evade his shots. An obstacle standing between you and your foe? Jump over it and bring the pain down on his head. The exoskeleton opens up combat beyond the ground-hugging nature of past entries. If you’ve ever felt claustrophobic in a Call of Duty game after the open, vehicular fun of the Battlefield series, the exoskeleton goes a long way to remedying it.
It’s all backed by the typically excellent rewards system, which constantly throws badges and unlocks at you as you play. There are seemingly an infinite number of badges to earn, from executing an enemy in mid-air to nailing 60 shots through the barrel of your gun. You won’t play a match without earning some kind of achievement, and that sense of accomplishment will keep you playing better and longer. Levelling up opens up greater advantages, such as additional upgrade slots, random drops in the middle of matches, further customization, better weapons and so on. When you first jump in, the amount of choice and options can be overwhelming, but after your first few games you’ll quickly settle into the groove and have your own evolving, customized loadout ready for every match. If you want to test your gear before launching into battle, you can — there’s a virtual shooting range you can try your new gun out before heading into battle and kicking ass.
As for the battles themselves, it’s here where multiplayer shows its conventions. There are several modes, but many are simply variations on Capture the Flag or King of the Hill. Sure, they’re all good fun, but does grabbing balls and throwing them into special containers really need to appear alongside traditional capture the flag modes, when the two are basically the same? Still, the maps, inspired by the campaign, show the depth of the franchise’s experience. They’re well-planned, nicely animated and make for a heap of gun-toting fun.
Outside of that, there’s a cooperative mode called Exo-Survival, which is a random mode of sorts in that it constantly changes what you’re tasked with doing, be it fighting robots, shooting dogs, gathering intel or simply battling enemies. It’s a fun distraction for groups of up to four people to enjoy. If you’re a little rusty, or a beginner to first-person shooters, there’s also the Combat Readiness Program, which strips back a lot of the multiplayer game and mixes AI-controlled bots in with players to make sure everyone gets to grips with the controls and can rack up a few kills in a game — if there’s one thing guaranteed to make a new person stop playing, it’s constantly dying without the reward of bagging a few kills in the process. If someone starts to dominate a game, they’re frozen from play, which is a nice touch to make sure there’s as level a playing field as possible.
Above all else, Advanced Warfare is a heck of a lot of fun to play. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it, and will likely continue with the multiplayer for at least another couple of months. With a group of friends, laughing and shouting at one another through headsets, it’s easy to see why the series consistently racks up sales into the millions with every outing. Unlike the past few entries, it doesn’t feel like Sledgehammer Games is simply rehashing the same ideas in a different package. Sure, the story is as obvious as they come, and the multiplayer modes aren’t particularly new, but everything else feels like they’ve taken the core of the game and given it a thorough overhaul. The future tech and exoskeletons are a refreshing change, adding just the right amount of new gameplay without ruining what makes Call of Duty so fun in the first place. The gorgeous graphics make playing it an endless pleasure, the dynamic movement aids both the campaign and the multiplayer, and the seemingly endless customization of characters in multiplayer will keep you coming back to unlock new perks and powers. Yes, it’s the same old Call of Duty, but Sledgehammer has taught this reliable old dog some fantastic new tricks, and cemented its place at the top of the first-person shooter hill.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is available on PS4, Xbox One, PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.