The same guns, the same historical encounters, the same ping when an M1 Garand runs out of ammunition: After a few years of great first-person shooters, World War II got boring. So the developers of Call of Duty took their considerable prowess in creating a cinematic first-person shooter and delivered Modern Warfare. The fourth game in the main COD line, MW reset expectations for competitive console shooters while giving players access to, well, modern weaponry. But you can only shoot M-16s and AK-47s for so long. They might not ping like the old M1 does, but over time and annual sequels, the "modern" conflicts quickly ran out of history and headlines for developers to pull guns and conflicts from. The developers of Call of Duty pushed on into the realm of "near future," where plausible weapons that could be in our military's hands soon were ushered into the eager-yet-virtual hands of Team Deathmatch and Domination players around the world. That leads us to today. Sledgehammer's first full attempt to develop a Call of Duty game is called "Advanced Warfare."
By invoking the same sort of naming convention used by Modern Warfare, you get the feeling that they're trying to send a message. A message that this is new, and that it's perhaps meant to serve as a fresh start for a series that badly needs one. The resulting product is one that, yes, is still a Call of Duty game. The new, further-in-the-future-than-our-last-near-future guns are fun to play with. But the most meaningful change involves how you move your soldier around the battlefield. It probably won't be enough to drag in new players or pull in those who have written this type of game off entirely, but it's also the freshest thing to happen to Call of Duty since they decided to let you start shooting down UAVs.
The movement comes via a metal "exo suit" that the characters wear on their bodies. This lets you quickly dash sideways, forwards, and backwards. It lets you use an assisted double jump that helps you get up to high ground quickly and efficiently. And it lets you pound down onto the heads of your foes from above with a powerful but tricky-to-aim slam. It probably doesn't sound like much, but being able to get around the map more quickly and change your elevation with ease actually makes a huge difference. In single-player, it gives you new options and abilities to play with during a fun campaign with a story that would feel right at home in a typical, mindless summer blockbuster. In competitive multiplayer, being able to boost around corners to avoid incoming fire or dropping down off of rooftops and boosting behind an enemy feels outstanding. It's fun to shoot boosting enemies out of the sky, too, and overall, the boost jumps bring elevation into play more frequently than it's been in most of the past games in the franchise. Now that it's easier to get up there and you don't find yourself quietly loping up staircases or climbing ladders that leave you totally vulnerable, the battles end up feeling a bit more dynamic and faster-paced than before. The multiplayer maps are designed around your mobility and the whole thing fits together really well.
As before, Advanced Warfare is split up into three distinct modes. The campaign is another six-hour romp through a war-torn world. It's straightforward as ever, which is a little disappointing considering the series did better with player choice and branching in the campaign back in Black Ops II. It also delves into the same sort of "Private Military Companies behaving badly" story beats that every other piece of fiction about modern or future combat seems to these days. Despite some incredibly corny moments (including a button prompt that may replace Homefront's "Jump in Mass Grave" as the world's goofiest button prompt), the campaign is engaging and offers a somewhat more interesting story than the series typically delivers. Part of that comes from Kevin Spacey, who plays Jonathan Irons, the founder of Atlas Corporation, the PMC in question. The game benefits a lot from Spacey's performance, which looks extremely realistic in cutscenes and only slightly less realistic in-game. He delivers the kinds of speeches you'd expect and delivers them extremely well. You also get a fair amount of dialogue from Spacey's Irons as the game's unlockable intel, giving you insight into what his character was thinking over the course of the game. It's a strong performance that brings the rest of the proceedings up a notch, which isn't something you can say very often about film or TV actors when they appear in video games.
There's an upgrade system built into the campaign that lets you earn points by reaching milestones in number of kills, headshots, grenade kills, and laptops collected. These points can be spent on things like increased health, the ability to aim down your sights more quickly, have more battery power for your exo suit's abilities, and so on. It's not a huge feature, but it gives you a reason to at least think about using the game's smart grenades or keeping an eye open for those intel laptops.
Advanced Warfare's multiplayer offers most of the modes and options you've come to expect from the franchise. The shooting and weapon handling all feel as you'd expect them to, but the use of the game's exo suits really change things up. Suddenly, Call of Duty is even more about fighting from the rooftops, because you can quickly double-tap your jump button to get up there. Changing your elevation and moving around at faster speeds than you could previously makes the whole game feel more active without making the whole thing feel too biased in favor of players who stay on the move. Most of your boost jumps and dashes have a short window where you're just sort of hanging out in the air, so boosting around carelessly is a surefire way to get gunned down out of the sky over and over again.
You'll also have an "exo ability" slot, which replaces tactical grenades. These are short-use things like Overclock, which gives you a termporary speed boost, or Hover, which makes it far easier for you to get shot out of the air over and over again. There's also a Cloak, in case you're playing against people who haven't already adjusted to seeing and shooting at Predator-style cloaked characters in video games. Overall, I found the exo abilities to be almost totally useless.
Classes, which can be customized right out of the gate, are built using a spin on the "Pick 10" system first implemented in Black Ops II. This is a highly customizable system that lets you do things like opt out of carrying a second weapon in order to, say, carry more attachments for your primary weapon or enable more perks. Advanced Warfare uses a "Pick 13" system that gives you three more points to spend and also brings scorestreak bonuses, like UAVs and care package drops, into the system. So, if you're the sort of player who never survives long enough to call in any of the cooler streaks, just remove them from your class and carry more cool stuff. It's a smart update to the system and it'd be nice to see the series stick with something along these lines for awhile. It's nicely flexible.
Unlike last year's Ghosts, the unlocking of weapons, perks, and attachments all come at a set pace and in a set order. There are no squad points to spend and attachments come from you using the gun effectively. You'll unlock a red dot sight for most weapons after getting 20 kills with it, for example. This leads to a situation where some of your level increases unlock things you have no desire to use, but the level ramp has been reset back to level 50, and I felt like I had most of what I needed to effectively build my kind of class at around level 17. You'll also unlock the ability to customize your scorestreaks, which is a cool idea. This means you can turn your regular UAV into an orbital UAV that can't be shot down. Or your sentry gun can fire rockets instead of bullets. Or you can flip any of them to "support," which means that points earned towards your streaks stay with you after you die. The catch is that these upgrades make the streaks more expensive.
Mode-wise, Advanced Warfare has most of what you'd expect to see and a couple of new options. Team Deathmatch and Domination seem to rule the day, but you can get into Kill Confirmed, Hardpoint, Search & Destroy, CTF, and plenty of others. Personally, I still miss Headquarters, though I suppose Hardpoint is similar enough. Uplink is a new mode that turns the game into basketball or soccer with guns. A ball-shaped satellite spawns at a set point on the map and two goals are placed roughly at either end of the map. Players need to grab the ball and either run or toss it into the floating goal at the opposing team's end of the map. You can pass the ball around and, if you like, you can accomplish melee kills while holding it. It's fast-paced and fun, with the exo boosts and jumps giving it a more frenetic feel than it'd have otherwise. Momentum is a renamed "War" mode, which appeared in Treyarch's early Call of Duty games. Five capture points are set across the map and they must be taken in a set order. The two teams attempt to push back and forth across the five flags until one team controls them all.
In addition to building your class out, you can also cosmetically alter your character with various shirts, shoes, pants, armor, and so on. The list feels a little restrictive, but grows as you acquire "supply drops." These seem to randomly pop as you're playing multiplayer, and, after a match, a drop turns into three items. Many of these are new ways to dress up your soldier, but you'll also get weapon variants. These take existing weapons and slightly alter their stats. So you might find a submachine gun that drops rate of fire by one point but raises your mobility by two, for example. Or a rifle that forces a silencer on you in addition to altering other stats. You also find more ephemeral things, like a short period of doubled experience point gain or a one-time orbital drop that activates a few minutes into your next match. You probably won't be able to have everything unlocked at once, which is a little frustrating. Items fit into your character's armory, which maxes out at just over 80 slots. If you end up with items you don't like, you can scrap them, which turns them into bonus XP. You'll also occasionally earn something called the Bloodshed Helmet, which can't be scrapped and expires after 30 minutes of in-game use, which just reverts you back to the default look once it expires. Expiring cosmetic items comes off like a really dumb idea, but the vast majority of items that enter your armory will stay until you decide to junk them.
The co-op mode in Advanced Warfare is called Exo Survival, and it puts you and up to three other players onto the multiplayer maps for a little wave-based survival. In addition to facing round after round of increasingly stiff AI opposition, you'll also run into objective-based rounds that might ask you to collect dog tags or defuse bombs in a hurry. Completing these tasks are one way to get more upgrade points, which you'll spend at terminals to upgrade your weapons and suit capabilities. It's very straightforward and, overall, it's a good time. But once you start getting good at it, these matches can last a very, very long time.
Advanced Warfare does great with character models, but the whole experience is a better-looking and smoother Call of Duty than Ghosts was. The image quality, overall, is sharper and more defined. Whereas Ghosts would bog down on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Advanced Warfare is typically more stable and capable of staying up around that magical 60 frames-per-second mark. It's not some world-changing difference that's going to make you rethink what game consoles are capable of in 2014, but it's a solid increase all around when you compare it to the franchise's last entry. It looks and performs largely similarly across both Xbox One and PlayStation 4, though I continue to prefer the PS4's controller for shooters. Meanwhile the PC version is, obviously, capable of running at a higher resolution. It looks sharp also gives you more video options than most PC games seem to these days.
Advanced Warfare doesn't reinvent Call of Duty. It's not the same dramatic shift that we saw when the series went from World War II to the modern era. Perhaps holding out hope for something as revolutionary as Modern Warfare was when it hit back in 2007 is foolish. Be that as it may, as someone who has been drifting further and further away from Call of Duty for the past few years, I can certainly say that Advanced Warfare's mobility kept me interested much longer than Ghosts or Black Ops II has. It's the best multiplayer the game has seen in some time and the whole thing totals up to a satisfying, if familiar experience.