Advanced Warfare does indeed change how Call of Duty is played, just as Activision's ads promised. However, it’s unlikely to convert those not already enamoured of the enduring series’ twitchy shootymans style. That’s fine though: all it needs to do is reverse the downward trend of Call of Duty sales that, by the franchise's lofty standards at least, went into freefall with last year’s Ghosts.
That change is thanks to the game’s exosuits, which speed things up through booster-enhanced jumping, strafing, sliding, and dashing, and which also allow players to slam down onto hapless foes from the air to inflict damage. Exos can be upgraded with a specific ability that provides a shield, increased speed, one-use health regeneration, a cloaking ability, a rocket-destroying trophy system, and more. These abilities are dictated per mission in the game’s singleplayer mode, so multiplayer is where they really shine, adding much-needed variation to loadouts and play style.
As is typical for a COD title, Advanced Warfare is a triple-A production in every sense. The difference is that here, a new engine and capture technologies — not to mention a new-gen focus — have produced a class-leading game from a technical standpoint. What’s here represents the biggest graphical leap the series has made in the longest time, and the sound is equally impressive. In-game characters look and sound incredible, even as their running animations remain slightly too mechanical. Surprisingly, Spacey’s character looks the least convincing of the primary cast (perhaps we’re too familiar with what he really looks like?), but the others — squad leader Cormack in particular — look astoundingly real.
The decision to stick with a single playable character in the campaign has meant exo upgrades are available, and these help alleviate the familiar COD feeling of being strapped in for a ride rather than an agent of change within the world. That same old rollercoaster ride feeling returns quickly though: exo loadouts are dictated, and some of the game’s technology can only be used at predetermined points. These interesting and well thought-out devices include the mag gloves used for climbing sheer surfaces, the mute charges which dampen sound to allow for a quick series of noisy kills under the nose of other unwitting hostiles, and the enjoyably zippy and destructive drones. Same goes for the cloaking ability.
More choice is afforded the player via the six (!) grenade types, including the excellent Threat Grenade that continually tracks the location of enemies caught in its sizable blast. Another great addition is the exo grapple, which — on top of superpower-like long-range grappling — allows the player to stealthily harpoon hapless enemies and hide their bodies all in one quick motion. It’s even possible to pull enemies out of heavy exos with the grapple, so it’s a shame it’s only available in a handful of the game’s 15 missions.
These new toys are part of the reason why the campaign here is the best since Modern Warfare, but credit must also be given to the coherent, well-paced, and stimulating story. It largely shies away from the series’ forced emotion, love affair with slo-mo, and (to an extent) its on-rails sequences, and only really stretches credulity near its climax. Praise should also be directed at the large number of expertly-crafted and extremely memorable set-pieces and levels here, which only highlight how unimaginative recent previous campaigns have been. One particular highlight is a level in Greece that includes a well-structured stealth section, a terrific drone section, and a sprint down the tiered balconies of Greece while avoiding high-calibre sniper fire, all culminating in a furious shoot-out at street level.
Of course, the bolts of campaigns past are still visible: the game’s vehicle sections are still easily the weakest link, there are still sections that are pretty much just quick time events, and it’s still a game that punishes any attempts to push ahead or deviate from the gameplay style being dictated to you. There are also some lip synch problems, which stick out all the more due to the game’s otherwise immaculate presentation, but it’s otherwise terrific — the best possible kind of surprise for a franchise that in recent years has seemed to be stuck repeatedly trying and failing to emulate the breakout success of 2007's Modern Warfare.
Naturally, exos vastly alter the way multiplayer feels, although the gunplay itself remains mostly unchanged. Exo Abilities can be included in the game’s new Pick 13 Create A Class system, and can be upgraded with perks if you don’t mind using up an extra Pick 13 slot. Scorestreak types are selectable, and even these are upgradable. It’s the deepest, most flexible customisation offered in a Call of Duty game yet. The variety of possible builds is staggering, and it’s all topped off with a decent amount of cosmetic gear and a choice of character models.
Supply drops are another genius addition. These are random rewards that players gain by completing challenges, gaining XP, or simply by playing. They include custom weapons, gear, and one-use Reinforcements such as temporary perks and low-level Scorestreaks, and will make players of all skill levels feel like they are making progress. The constant barrage of achievement notifications that medals flash up will distract some, but they aren’t nearly as bad as the voice chat icons, which appear right in the middle of the screen. Although they are transparent, this is hugely distracting.
Newer players and those with less skill or time to invest will be grateful for the inclusion of the game’s Combat Readiness Program, a mode that mixes other newcomers in with bots, so all can gradually learn loadouts, weapons, and maps outside of the brutal arena that is standard multiplayer.
It’s a great idea and certainly useful to a point, but the transition to proper online play will always be testing, so it’s best to jump in that icy pond as soon as you have the nerve. There, Co-op Scorestreaks give the inexperienced a leg up by allowing them to piggyback on a teammate’s Scorestreak so they get a taste of what it’s like to rain death for a change.
Weapons in multiplayer now include 10 custom options, but the biggest change is the addition of a new class: directed energy weapons. These heavier guns recharge rather than run out of ammo, but they feel too underpowered compared to other weapons available, all of which are nicely designed near-future versions of the usual archetypes. All weapons can be trialled in a Virtual Firing Range between matches too, which is a feature so awesome it’s amazing it took this long to be included.
The problem Advanced Warfare has when it comes to game modes is that there are so many to choose from, some are bound to wither and die despite being interesting in and of themselves. On top of many returning favourites, two are completely new: Uplink is a great mode that has teams attempting to fly two small drones through their opponent’s goal, while Momentum is a capture-the-point style game where a kill-dependent momentum meter determines how quickly you can do so. I still prefer Domination, but it’s a fresh take on an old classic. You can even ditch the exos in any mode, but I don’t know what sort of fun-hating grump would do that.
Maps-wise things are also positive. The traversal options offered by the exos allow for much more verticality, and also mean you’re never too far from the action even on the larger ones. There are some patches of trial and error where you’ll plummet to your death or be caught out by other, er, hazards. Depending on where the fight is, some spawn areas feel too unprotected too, but there’s also pleasing variety and a lack of easily defendable zones. There’s also a noticeable lack of quick-scoping in the game so far, and no single build appears to dominate.
That leaves Exo-Survival, the game’s co-op horde mode that pits up to four against waves of enemy troops. It’s a dull affair even compared to the inexplicably popular Zombies modes of past games, and you're reading the words of a reviewer who lives for co-op. The pacing just seems off, and the enemies here are simply boring. Still, there’s plenty elsewhere to keep you occupied until COD 2015.
Despite the exos, there’s no doubt Advanced Warfare is a Call of Duty title through and through. That means nothing here is incredibly surprising, and also that it’ll never hit the way its forefathers have in the past. In this package is the best campaign since Modern Warfare and the best multiplayer since Black Ops, although good luck going back to those titles after playing this. So taken as a whole, it’s the best game Sledgehammer could have produced without rendering it unrecognisable as COD.
Still, I must admit that fatigue has well and truly set in for me with the series. That's not the fault of this game, but instead the parade of titles that have come before it. There’s no denying this is an amazingly well put-together game and that it pushes the envelope in almost all areas. There’s also no doubt it will sell a truckload of copies — and deservingly so. But for me, Call of Duty now feels decidedly retro. This is same-same but different. A great iteration, but an iteration nonetheless: it's still trapped within the strictures of the exosuit that is COD. But I suppose that's great news for hungry fans and those new to the series, and in the end, that's all that matters.