Release Date: November 4, 2014Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox One (Reviewed), Xbox 360Developer: Sledgehammer GamesPublisher: ActivisionGenre: First-Person Shooter
Man, what a year for Call of Duty pre-orders to fall 40 percent. Granted, after the flaccid performance last year’s Ghosts put on for fans, it should come as no surprise. But it’s truly a shame that fewer people seem to have been paying attention to Advanced Warfare, because it is the most refreshing Call of Duty in years. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, and I, too, was one of the people that paid little to no attention to this game pre-launch, but from top to bottom, the folks over at Sledgehammer have showed not just that they have some fresh ideas for the series, but that their fresh set of eyes are looking at the series far less cynically than their brethren at Infinity Ward.
Right out the gate, the campaign wastes no time in establishing itself as different in a variety of ways. The upgrade gamers will likely notice first comes in the graphics department. The cutscenes are better looking than just about anything I’ve ever seen done on a console, and even managed to dip into the uncanny valley a few times, thanks to faces that look freakishly real. This carries over into real-time play, as well. The exotic locales, from Seoul, to Greece, to the Arctic, are all brimming with detail and color.
For the first time in years, I can say that I will remember individual levels on visuals alone. The sound also deserves a mention, with gunshots that rattle your teeth and explosions that rock any speakers that they emanate from. The sound here really packs a punch.
Once you take control of protagonist Jack Mitchell, you realize the game plays just as good as it looks. In Advanced Warfare, gun battles don’t play out on a flat plane, thanks to the exo-skeleton abilities, the most notable of which was double jumping. Enemies will leap up to catwalks and fire down on me, while I leap over barriers that, in previous games, would have simply served to funnel me through a small corridor while getting shot to hell, artificially inflating the game’s difficulty. It’s amazing what a small tweak to movement can do to totally change the dynamic of a game.
The exo-skeleton did more than change movement, however. One mission granted me a grappling hook that not only allowed me to scale ledges, but grab guards from a distance and reel them into the underbrush for a stealth kill. Another one granted me Mag Grips that turned me into a space-age spider, while yet another gave me stealth camouflage. These abilities turned what would have been dressed-up shooting galleries into science labs of death, allowing me to toy around and experiment with my abilities as I saw fit to make the act of taking a digitized life as entertaining as possible.
This was only possible thanks to levels that were designed with the abilities in mind. I found that for every claustrophobic corridor I encountered in Advanced Warfare, there were just as many semi-open areas that allowed me to wander around in and engage the enemy as I pleased.
Whereas Ghosts seemed to be just a few clicks south of being an interactive cutscene with occasional shooting sections, Advanced Warfare feels more like a playground. The only things I was left wishing for were the opportunity to customize my exo-skeleton before each mission and that some powers, such as the mag grips, had been expanded on. The mag grips and stealth camouflage, for example, were only used in very specific, contextual instances, and nowhere else. It would be nice to see Sledgehammer open up their level design a bit in the future and let players run wild with these. There’s a lot of potential there.
Another area where the campaign hits a home run is with the narrative. Sledgehammer threads a narrative that was just the right balance of Michael Bay level explosions, The Rock bro-isms, and commentary on the current state of mega-corporations. It manages to be just topical enough to make you think a little, and just ridiculous enough so that it doesn’t off as preachy or heavy-handed.
Kevin Spacey plays the his role wonderfully, while Troy Baker shows us why he is video game voice acting’s current “it” boy. The story has its holes, but it kept me glued to my seat until the very end of the six to eight hour campaign, even though some of its “surprise twists” were telegraphed almost from the beginning of the game.
The campaign isn’t without its problems, though. Eight games into the series, the developers still seem to be utterly clueless on how to craft decent enemy A.I. This may not be their goal, since the battles here are more about being big than being smart, but the gunplay could be improved tenfold if what I was shooting at felt more like an enemy combatant and less like a cardboard cutout. It would also explain why Veteran mode (which I completed my review playthrough on) is still so frustrating (not hard, but fair) at points.
There are other moments where the game just slows to a crawl. One mission started with a cutscene, then almost 10 minutes of dialogue in a refugee camp, then another 5 to 10 minutes of buildup once the mission had started before I really did anything.
While I may have just praised the narrative for being one of the strongest in the Call of Duty franchise, it’s not as good as games that focus more closely on narrative. Give me a better story or more interaction during this down time, and I’ll go with it, but when your idea of “interaction” is “Press X to Pay Respects,” you really leave me wondering if you’re trying too hard to make the game out to be more than it really is.
Also – Quick Time Events. It’s 2014. Get them the hell out of my game and either find a better way to make your game interactive or just relegate these things to a cutscene. I’m tired of looking like I’m going epileptic on my controller just to make the character pull a lever.
The multiplayer side of things feels just as refreshed as the single-player side of Advanced Warfare does, thanks to not just the improved movement offered by the exosuit, but from a few other wise additions, as well.
Sledgehammer crafted each map specifically to take advantage of the exo-suit abilities. While moving around on the ground floor is still a plausible tactic, there are countless other ways to get around the maps, as well, in the form of rooftops and other secret passages. While hearing that any given room or area has ten times the entry points it used to have may make you think that each map turns into a mindless fragfest, I actually found matches to feel more controlled than they have in years. Since everyone’s exosuit can do the same jumping and dodging maneuvers, it really pulls back the reigns and keeps things at a controlled level of chaos.
The exo-suit has more to offer than improved movement, however; it also offers another layer of customization in your Choose 13 Loadouts (think Black Ops 2’s Choose 10, but with three more points, which actually make a huge difference). Exo Abilities range from a cloaking device, to a riot shield, to a trophy system that destroys up to two enemy projectiles. While these do a great job of mixing things up even more, it’s a shame that their battery doesn’t recharge until you die and respawn. Since I was often waiting for a pivotal moment to take advantage of them, I found myself using them far less than I would have liked.
Another great addition that made the multiplayer feel addicting again was loot drops. Completing challenges in the past meant getting an XP bonus and maybe a new scope for your favorite assault rifle – something that lost its lustre long ago. Now, however, completing challenges can drop an orbital care package that could yield a new piece of cosmetic armor for your fully customizable operator. It might even drop a rare variant of a gun that comes with special perks to make you more powerful, but also with penalties to keep things balanced. For the first time in years, I got the itch to keep playing again.
For those that prefer not to play online, there is also a split screen mode that allows you and a friend to play against computer controlled enemies, which deserves mention simply because almost no games do this anymore. It’s just another way Advanced Warfare gives you a variety of ways to play.
To round out the humongous package that is Advanced Warfare, there is also a co-op mode that supports up to four players, called Exo Survival, which will be familiar to anyone who’s ever played any survival mode since World at War introduced its zombie mode. Using one of three distinct classes with their own abilities and perks, players take on wave after wave of enemies that evolve and get tougher over time, with a break in between each round to use points earned in battle to upgrade weapons, exosuit stats, and other attributes. While objectives are thrown in at random to keep things fresh, it’s not by any means groundbreaking, even though it is loads of fun. Overall, it feels like the least fleshed out part of the package, which speaks to just how substantial the single and multiplayer portions of this game are.
Last years’ Ghosts left me thinking that Call of Duty had finally peaked and that its downward spiral had finally begun, but developer Sledgehammer has proven that, sometimes, getting a fresh set of eyes on even the most established franchise can bring it back from the brink of mediocrity. The exosuit added a much-needed level of shine to the dusty shooting mechnics, and freshened up all three modes of play that Advanced Warfare has to offer. For the first time in years, I have found myself looking forward to the next Call of Duty.