That a "new" version of Call of Duty is going to show up every year is now as obvious as the sky being blue. The reason for quotations over the word "new" is that different iterations in recent years have only differed marginally from each other. Small changes have been enough, according to Activision. Fast-paced multiplayer and over-the-top Hollywood-esque solo campaigns are clearly the two things that have always endured in Call of Duty. And usually it's only the weapons in the game and which historically important monuments players will be blowing to smithereens that change with every new entry in the series. Nothing more than that. Until now that is.
"Power changes everything". As you can see, it's not an overly humble slogan that developers Sledgehammer Games have chosen to put on Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, and with a tagline like that it should be a pretty revolutionary chapter in the series. But has it changed things in the game for the better, and are there enough exciting new additions to Activision's cash cow so that it feels fresh again? Let's start by checking if the story has more to offer than Kevin Spacey's undisputed superstar polish.
The year is 2054. Assuming the role of soldier Jack Mitchell (Troy Baker), it is up to you and your best friend, Soldier Will Irons, to help the people in Seoul fight back against an attacking North Korea. Sadly, the mission goes horribly wrong. Will dies and Mitchell loses his arm and, in the process, receives harsh burns over large parts of his body. During Will's funeral Mitchell comes across his father, Jonathan Irons (Kevin Spacey), and gets a job offer from Atlas. Atlas, a private military force available to the highest bidder, offers all kinds of technical "reinforcements" for the individual soldier.
Mitchell gets more than just a robotic arm, he's also the recipient of an Atlas exosuit reminiscent of the ones you'll have seen in Elysium and Crysis. This outfit allows you to jump inhumanly high, tear off steel doors as if they were paper, become invisible, and more. Mitchell is now a part of the world's strongest army, hunting down North Korean terrorist Hades takes him everywhere, from Nigeria to Baghdad. During the adventure plenty of questions arise: is it really Hades that's the biggest threat, or is there someone else behind the scenes pulling the strings? Is Hades just a puppet being controlled by someone else, someone much more powerful?
If you've not already noticed, the story in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare doesn't break any new ground for the medium. You won't sit, mouth agape over the twists and turns and the rather predictable exchanges, while much of the dialogue between the characters is, in places, so very Michael Bay-like that it sent us into violent fits of the giggles. But this we knew already, Call of Duty has never offered us well-rounded and colourful characters like games such as the The Last of Us or Bioshock Infinite, but then that's not the idea. Those that pick up the annual Call of Duty release want a fairly straightforward, action-packed shooter where the story is designed and built around cool moments, not vice versa.
Of course there's nothing wrong with that, but perhaps the story of privatised armies, future soldiers, and the corruption brought about by power has more potential than what the end result here offers. It is always disappointing when the storytelling only scratches the surface of a narrative line that obviously could offer something more meaningful and poignant. However, we must also be aware that this is Call of Duty and not some thoughtful and poetic war film by Stanley Kubrick or Terrence Malick. Instead we have hovercrafts, robotic attack drones, huge weapons, giant explosions, big mech-suits, laser guns, and an overall aesthetic that jumps between futuristic sterility and the dark, brutal and analogous.
Even though we felt a certain sadness at how little Sledgehammer investigated the problem of privatised military forces in the single-player campaign, the story is saved by the performance of the actors (Troy Baker, Gideon Emery, Angela Gots and, obviously, Kevin Spacey). In particular, the motion-capture shines strongest in the cutscenes. All the intensity in the eyes, the body language, the delivery of the lines, it often makes you forget that there is actually is a game to be played.
The animations during the action sequences are not as good, as many of the characters suffer from dead eyes and stiff mouth movements. The voice acting never takes a turn for the worse, and goose bumps, of the positive variety, appeared more than once as a result. This is especially true when Spacey shows off his A-list credentials, and when that happens it becomes obvious that Sledgehammer Games has undoubtedly cast the right actor.
The story section of Advanced Warfare took us just under six hours to play through, and thanks to the ridiculously accomplished cutscenes and well considered pace of the action, we had more fun than we'd had with the previous four Call of Duty titles.
The biggest change when it comes to the basic game mechanics revolve around the new exosuit that Jack Mitchell wears. Being able to do superhuman jumps, vertical movements while mid-air thanks to booster rockets, and a new attack from above - these are new to the series and it's clear that Sledgehammer has had a good look at Halo, Crysis and Titanfall, of this there is no doubt.
Making use of the boost-movement while in mid-air is both helpful and annoying, and we found ourselves regularly refraining from using it during the single player campaign. Double jump, on the other hand, fits like a glove and adds more than expected to the Call of Duty formula. Attacking from above ("Boost Dash") is, however, not very practical and ultimately a feature that Sledgehammer could have been skipped altogether. It's slow, it's hard to aim, and more often than not you land right next to the enemy having done absolutely no damage. This is one feature for those who want to show off in multiplayer, if it hits that is.
Additionally the exo-skeleton means different movement options and new features such as invisibility, an increase in running speed, an energy shield and several other options. Just like Crysis, in other words. These features can only be used as long as you have enough battery in your suit, which adds a strategic element to what is a very well executed set of game mechanics. You have to be economical with the abilities and make sure to use them at the right time, exploiting these new features, particularly in the multiplayer. It adds a lot to the original concept and it's nice to see that Call of Duty can be evolved.
Most people who purchase a Call of Duty game do it first and foremost so they can spend hundreds of hours with the multiplayer, and there are plenty of reasons to stick around in the multiplayer modes from Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. To begin with, a new mode has been introduced that has been tailored to be more welcoming to new players, the Combat Readiness Program. You will be thrown into matches where you meet both people and computer-controlled opponents, but they have chosen to omit the more competitive elements, such as killcams and the statistics relating to how many times you have died; a nice gesture that many new players will find helpful.
Once you feel comfortable enough to tackle the "real" multiplayer, there are plenty of different modes to try. Classics like Team Deathmatch, Hard Point and Capture the Flag are all very well, but it's the entertaining Uplink (in a nutshell: get the ball and throw it in the opponent's target zone) and the welcome return of Search and Destroy that will grab most players initially. And it's in multiplayer that the exo-suit jumping and dodge functionality is at its very best.
Being able to quickly move sideways in the middle of an intense gun battle is often the difference between whether you'll live or die, and being able to do those high double jumps means that no place feels like a safe haven. Many maps are designed with a focus on this new verticality, and as such you really get used to the new patterns of movement, although some of them leave a lot to be desired regarding the creativity of the composition. For example, we were surprised and disappointed by the fact that the Defender map - which has a tsunami wave that shows up in the middle of the match - did not change significantly, and had there not been a notification that the wave was coming in, you might not have even noticed it. Most other maps are entertaining and all have been designed with the new features in mind, but our hope is that Sledgehammer has saved some of their best creations for the DLC content drops they have lined up.
Another new game mode is Exo-Survival, which is a mode for up to four players where you meet wave after wave of enemies that gradually get stronger while missions are delivered during play, such as collecting dog tags and defusing bombs before timers run out, with the overall goal being to survive as long as possible. Amusing initially, but the higher up you get, and the stronger the enemies, the more bored you'll become. Since there are only a few different mission types that come and go, this gives rise to lots of tedious repetition. Fun for a while, but nothing that will keep anyone playing in the longterm.
However, Sledgehammer has focused on a reward system in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare that should give people plenty of reasons to explore all the different parts of the game. Everything you do will be rewarded (weapons, items of clothing to your character, and temporary buffs such as double XP) whether you play single-player, Exo-Survival or multiplayer. These gifts can, however, only be used in the latter of the three. You can also collect different versions of all weapons (Enlist, Professional and Elite), which means that they will be stronger in some areas but worse in others.
We appreciated the balancing of the different weapons, and the fact that some don't offer a feeling of superiority that many other games of the same genre do. On the other hand, we're amazed at how inferior you feel when taking control of a mech-suit in a multiplayer match (one of the scorestreak rewards), when all too often your more nimble adversaries will crush you in a matter of seconds. It feels a little strange that we preferred to avoid that huge mech suit that shows up occasionally on the map.
Lucky then that you can make your own loadouts including weapons, clothing and Scorestreaks, so you can choose perks other than the suit. The old system from Black Ops 2 where you had to choose ten different things has been upgraded to thirteen, and we have spent a lot of time picking and choosing our equipment and perks so the loadouts are ready no matter what happens on the battlefield.
So is Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare the game that turns the series on its head? In a way it is a classic sequel the flashy Hollywood-esque action, with the focus on explosions and set-pieces over what could have been a worthwhile story. And let's not forget the rapid and ruthless multiplayer. But from another perspective, thanks to some new mechanics it's clear that Sledgehammer is trying to draw in as many new players as possible via the new concept (and with the Combat Readiness Program there's more incentive for those who only want the campaign to try their luck in multiplayer).
Although the changes are not hugely daring, innovative or exciting, it's still clearly a step in a different direction, and demonstrates a desire to move away from the old formula. We have had, and will probably continue to have, a lot of fun with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, despite its shortcomings. There is no giant leap, but the ideas borrowed from games like Halo and Crysis have proven absolutely justified in this case. Advanced Warfare is a breath of fresh air in a series that has been standing still for several years.