As rigidly structured as ever, yet the exosuit freshens up a predictable formula
In a year where the biggest shooters both feature some sort of assisted double jump, it’s fitting that Call of Duty (the biggest of them all) should join in on the party, strapping on its technologically-advanced exosuit to dash and double jump its way to mobile parity. Call of Duty is no stranger to near-future warfare, of course; both Black Ops II and Ghosts meddled with such futuristic tomfoolery, but Advanced Warfare takes the series a step further with a leap to the 2050s. Any pretence of reality is absent here, extending to a degree of creativity that would have been impossible in an historic or contemporary setting. You’ll see drones clutter together in the sky like a swarm of sparrows, enemy bases hidden beneath kilometre-wide digital canopies and the HUD replaced by a digital read-out upon whichever weapon you’re currently carrying. Just as it abandoned the dead horse of World War II, so too does Call of Duty leave the tedium of modern conflicts behind, fully embracing the sort of science fiction histrionics of the likes of Titanfall and Destiny.
With a new studio at the helm, three years of development time and the possibilities granted by current generation hardware, one might expect and hope for such drastic changes in a series in dire need of some fresh, new ideas. While nothing Advanced Warfare does is particularly innovative, let alone drastic – double jumps, grappling hooks and stealth camouflage are all known quantities – within the enclosed bubble that is the Call of Duty goliath, these changes freshen up a predictable formula. This is as invigorated as the series has felt since the original Modern Warfare and the best it’s been sinceModern Warfare 2. As someone who has played every game in the series this is a welcome outcome, particularly after Ghosts’ flaccid attempt last year.
If you had already fallen off the Call of Duty wagon in years previous, Advanced Warfare’s single player campaign is unlikely to get you back onboard. For all its shiny new additions this is still as Call of Duty as Call of Duty has ever been. You know the gist by now and the sorts of words and phrases I can put here to describe this new seven-hour adventure: the big-budget spectacle, the bombastic action, the absurdity and frenetic pace of it all. It’s as straightforward as ever, too – Black Ops II disappointingly retains its status as the only Call of Duty to feature player choice and a branching narrative.
Firefights through tight corridors are punctuated by open spaces and pompous, eye-popping set pieces, linear vehicle sections and plenty of quick time events. The shooting is as tight, snappy and satisfying as it always is, the sci-fi spin giving you access to new toys like homing grenades, multi-purpose tactical grenades that can be used as EMPs and threat grenades to mark the locations of enemies obscured by smoke or cover.
You’ll still stick ever so closely to the backsides of AI teammates with big FOLLOW markers above their heads. They’ll bump into and move you out of the way, forcing you to wait as they open a door to the next area. That is if they don’t suddenly expect you to open the door, yelling at you to hurry up and get a move on when the task isn’t completed within a matter of seconds. You’ll also occasionally fail a mission because “friendly fire will not be tolerated” when someone walks directly into your gunfire like a deer in headlights.
It’s rigidly structured in a way Call of Duty always has been. This predictable formula must seemingly be strictly adhered to, even when Sledgehammer Games are pushing the series forward elsewhere. Just take a look at all the new technology at your disposal: the magnetic gloves for scaling walls, the Mute Charge that muffles all sound across a small area, negating the need for silenced weapons. These are exciting and interesting tools, often introducing the sort of creativity this series has been bereft of in the past, yet you can only use them when the narrative deems that you can. Even the double jump – such a vital component – is unavailable in a number of missions. The magnetic gloves are essentially a ladder in window dressing.
These are missions designed to be played in a particular way, removing any player agency when you’re not simply mowing down its cannon-fodder enemies. Advanced Warfare is at its best when it deviates from this stringent formula, breaking away from the stifling linearity and giving you multiple tools to play with in wide-open areas that allow for some experimentation. One mission late on equips your exosuit with both the grappling hook and double jump and the freedom to complete its myriad objectives in multiple ways. At one point I used the grappling hook to pull myself inside an enemy helicopter, shooting everyone inside before bailing out of the wreck and using the double jump to land on a nearby rooftop. This was completely apropos of any objective or instruction; I did it because it let me, but this is a rarity.
A bona fide stealth mission earlier in the campaign is similarly freeform, leaving you to your own devices with some new mechanics specific to that level. It’s a stark contrast to a later stealth section that falls more in line with the poor imitations of Modern Warfare’s All Ghillied Up, forcing you to follow the AI and hide as per their instructions – being pulled along for the ride rather than feeling like an active participant. Each Call of Duty has tried to recapture that level’s brilliance, but none have matched its hidden depth and player agency.
These glimpses at what Advanced Warfare could have been are all too brief. This is a campaign filled with thrilling, adrenalin-pumping moments and is as polished a shooter as Call of Duty always is, but there’s untapped potential to reinvent the formula just bubbling below the surface, and it’s disappointing that it’s never able to fully breach.
The story, too, sticks closely to the series’ regular trappings, albeit avoiding the unpleasant jingoism present in previous games. You’ve got your evil PMC, the charismatic madman leading them and the hoo-rah military types trying to stop him. The only difference, of course, is that this particular madman looks and sounds like Kevin Spacey. His star power certainly adds some gusto to the narrative, even in the predictable role of pantomime villain. But the script doesn‘t give him much to work with either way, impressive as his digital representation may be – just don’t stare into his lifeless eyes for too long.
Competitive multiplayer is still the star of the show, of course. View it at surface level and it’s as one might expect. You’ve got your regular smattering of game modes, from old favourites like Domination and Kill Confirmed, to new additions Uplink and Momentum. Uplink is essentially basketball with guns, placing a “ball” in the middle of the map and two goals on either side. Throwing the ball into the goal nets you a single point, while carrying it in doubles that. You can also pass the ball, humorously lobbing it into the hands of an enemy combatant to render them unable to shoot as you gun them down and retrieve the ball again. Momentum, on the other hand, sees the return of a mode previously featured in Treyarch’s early Call of Dutygames. Here, five capture points are placed across the map and must be captured in a set order.
The loadout system has received another tweak, as it often does, returning to Black Ops II’s Pick 10 and extending the number to 13. This means you can equip a range of weapons, perks, abilities and scorestreaks as you see fit, provided you choose no more than 13. So if you’re someone who gets no use out of scorestreaks, for example, you can remove all of them, perhaps selecting three attachments for a single weapon instead, or taking even more perks with you into battle. It’s a highly customisable and flexible system that goes someway to smoothing out the disparity between high level players and those below them.
You can even customise scorestreaks now, too, maybe altering a sentry gun so it fires rockets instead of bullets, or swapping out the UAV for an orbital version that can’t be shot down. You can also flip any of them to support, meaning any points earned towards your scorestreak stay there after you die. All of this customisation makes these scorestreaks harder to achieve, but if that’s a risk you’re willing to take, the reward more than makes up for it.
Other customisation options exist elsewhere, letting you outfit your male or female soldier in a variety of unlockable attire. This stuff is purely cosmetic and seems fairly throw-away. More interesting are the supply drops you’ll randomly unlock as you play. These are essentially loot crates, often containing new clothes and occasionally new weapon variants and temporary buffs like double-XP. These weapons have altered stats to their regular counterparts, perhaps bumping up a weapon’s damage output while reducing its accuracy, and other such adjustments. It’s all fairly menial, but a superficial comparison to DotA is no bad thing (there’s even a little animation for the box opening).
So far all is par for the course, then. Where Advanced Warfare separates itself from its predecessors is with the exosuit. While its use in the campaign is often no more than mere surface gloss, this tidy piece of future-military kit comes into a life of its own during multiplayer. Being able to dash away from danger reinvents the way you tackle each combat scenario, while the double jump feeds into the map design, offering more verticality and more interesting ways to tackle each situation. Now every encounter is unpredictable, everything is faster and the whole game feels more active, making the combat substantially more dynamic. Obvious choke points dissipate as enemies drop from above. You begin to dash across open spaces and jump through second story windows, adding layers atop the regular Call of Duty routine.
Again, these systems are known quantities within the genre so this isn’t exactly a reinvention of everything you thought you knew. But for a series that has barely changed in eight years it’s a positive step in the right direction and gives the series’ multiplayer the first shot in the arm since the original Modern Warfare. Familiar as it may be, there’s no denying the entertainment value on show.
Yet it’s hard not to feel disappointed. More than anything, Advanced Warfare has stirred me into the realisation that this series probably isn’t changing any time soon. This year seemed like the perfect time to forge ahead into a new generation with a revolution of what Call of Duty is, but with such a stout following and the monumental sales this series manages each year, why even entertain the idea of possibly alienating even half of those people? Maybe it was naive to think such a popular franchise would ever reinvent the wheel and see such drastic changes, but I foolishly hold out hope each year.Advanced Warfare wasn’t the game to do it, but it’s still an enjoyable game in the way only Call of Duty can be. As solid as ever and the best it’s been in quite a while. I just won’t be holding out hope for next year.