This could be the new Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. A statement that mightn't mean much to you if you're not a Call of Duty fan. If you are though, as I am, you'll understand the weight of that prediction. It's a comparison that feels true after spending a significant time at the controller playing Advanced Warfare's multiplayer and seeing some single-player in action. Call of Duty as a franchise may be an easy seller at retail, but dropping your first entry into this multi-million dollar series is nerve-wracking, no matter what your pedigree.
We get a new Call of Duty title every year. Some people complain about that, saying they are basically the same. I don't agree, and have along with other fans, something new to dig into every year. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to critique.
The franchise hasn't had a huge change since the first Modern Warfare. Alterations have been tweaks, touch-ups only. I liked Modern Warfare 2's introduction of Spec-Ops, loved Black Ops II's theatre and broadcaster modes. But neither had that essential advancement the series started to really need. Infinity Ward's shift from the past to modern day frontline felt seismic. Press still talk about its first reveal at E3 in 2009, and the game still charts on many people's Top 5 lists.
For some it was their first entry into the series, and the point which competitive Call of Duty was born. Not since Halo 2's console multiplayer years before had a first-person shooter impacted and influenced the industry so much. XP upgrades, Perks, Killstreaks, Custom classes... things that are now seen in so many games today.
Return to warfare
Advanced Warfare is about the future, and in more ways than just the near-future sci-fi of the campaign story. Sledgehammer are introducing new ideas that they believe are needed to reinvigorate the franchise: exoskeletons, a loot system, firing ranges to test weapons on while maps load. They're also bringing in fan favourites that disappeared in Ghosts: Hardpoint, Capture the Flag, and the competitive features from Black Ops II.
Yet it's understandable that you weren't blown away by Advanced Warfare's introduction. I wasn't. As usual, they debuted with single player, and while the exoskeleton provided some cool moments - like ripping a car door off and using it as a shield - it didn't feel that different from every other marketing push the franchise has offered previously.
It wasn't until we heard about multiplayer and had some hands-on, that I felt some degree of excitement. Sledgehammer Games co-founders Michael Condrey and Glen Schofield took to the stage at Gamescom, and shared far more information and gameplay on multiplayer than what we're usually used to. It felt way too early. It spoke of confidence in what they were doing, yet they presented themselves in a very humble way.
Similar was our time with them at the studio a month later. That time offered a vital understanding of how they're walking the fine line between innovation and keeping conventions. It's still Call of Duty, yet it's different. They've listened to fans, but also trusted their own instincts and vision for the game. You get the sense this is a studio that knows exactly what they're doing: it may be someone else's franchise, but this is their project.
The game's development began at the same time as Ghosts, and the extra year of development time - three rather than the usual two - shows. Twelve extra months is important to cram in these new ideas and flesh them out.
The addition of the exoskeleton is huge, embodying the marketing slogan for the game: "Power changes everything". It's not just about Kevin Spacey monologues. It's about what Sledgehammer are bringing to the digital battlefield to change the dynamic of Call of Duty multiplayer so completely.
After spending ten hours plus on a range of maps, I have to agree. We're used to playing Call of Duty in two dimensions. X and Y are now joined by Z, as jump boosts add verticality to the match flow.
Initially I thought it'd add little. We've had it in some aspect previously, working our way up two or three story buildings. But this is very different. Professional Call of Duty player Matthew Haag, better known as his alias Nadeshot from Optic Gaming, said that he'd "just keep going back to old Black Ops 2 maps" and imagining what they'd play like with the exos.
"I just think of old setups with Hardpoint, and you can imagine someone just jumping over you. It's just really gonna change how the game is played," he explained when we talked during one of the breaks between our hands-on with the new game's multiplayer.
I have to agree. The addition of the exo has meant the addition of verticality, and that's added new complexity to any choke point as you're having to cover anyone jumping over walls now.
Keeping the power balance
"Multiplayer has a much larger burden on balancing," says Creative Director Bret Robbins when we ask him about incorporating these new abilities into the franchise. "Much larger. In the single-player game we can get away with it, you know because you are fighting AI rather than other players, so it doesn't exactly have to be fair. You can go a little crazier with the abilities."
I bring up one of the worries fans who played the game had: the lack of the Dead Silence Perk. It's an optional ability that removes the sound of your footsteps. It might sound weird and unrealistic, but it makes the game better. With players being able to ‘sound-whore' (as it's called in the community), it makes it more beneficial to sit in a corner wait for our enemies to come to you. The game is more fun if it pays off to move around the map and attack.
Michael Condrey's answer is a great example of the studio's desire to innovate but knowing that keeping the balance is more important. "Yeah I understand why people use it, especially in Search and Destroy. It's about the fact that without it you were at a competitive disadvantage. That's not balance. That's not Call of Duty to us. You do not want to be in a position where you have to take Dead Silence to remain competitive."
Condrey goes on to explain that secondly, the game's audio has been written in such a way that the perk's now meaningless, "We've rewritten the audio engine. It's a new audio engine for us. And our audio system handles audio exclusion in a way that's more elegant than in the past generations. Largely making Dead Silence unnecessary."
That said, fan feedback could, will, make a difference. "We've got competitive players coming in. We've got public matches happening all the time. And what you can tell your fans sincerely is if by November Dead Silence needs to come back in some form, it will be back in some form". It may be Sledgehammer's take on Call of Duty, but the most important voices are still going to be heard.
So they'll try to innovate. They'll try to get rid of things that you basically needed to use. If it's not a viable choice to play without, then why have it?
In most Call of Duty games there have been perks that you should always use. And smaller changes matter a lot to fans. This recent year they went crazy online when a Sniper Rifle's zoom time was changed by .3 of a second.That's how much hardcore players know this game.
All's a weapon, all's a game
Playing through multiplayer, I focused on the newer additions. After the movement with the exos, the biggest change to me was Supply Drops, which is the game's loot system. You get drops either through XP earned, completing challenges like we are used to from COD, or time played: the idea is that even if you're not the best player in the world, you'll still get access to the cool stuff.
Supply Drops give you three things: Weapon Loot, Character Gear and Reinforcements. These are split into three categories, from common to rare: Enlisted, Professional and Elite.
Weapon Loot is guns. When I sat down with the game the guns looked pretty similar to what we usually get, but there's always something different. Last year we got Marksman Rifles, this year we get a heavy weapons category which includes some energy weapons. There were three submachine guns, three assault rifles, a sniper rifle and so on. They felt good, robust.
But after playing with them for a while you start unlocking different versions. Now instead of just having the 35 weapons, you basically have 350. So for each weapon you'd unlock different varations of it. I unlocked a version of an assault rifle outfitted with a different barrel and built-in red dot sight. I unlocked a sumachine gun with built-in silencer. A version of the very powerful Magnum-like pistol with a built in ACOG-scope, basically turning the pistol into a sniper rifle. Not bad.
This does several things to the game. First, it's awesome getting loot. Especially if it's something that is rare. Second, getting the assault rifle with a scope on meant I could use my attachment slot for something else. I could add a silencer or a foregrip and make the gun better. Third, getting guns like the sniper-pistol made me discover something new. I would never have put an ACOG on that pistol, and it turned out great. I did better with that than with the normal sniper rifle. So I would change up my usual shotgun + sniper class. Now I didn't have to use Overkill (which allows you to carry two primary guns instead of one). Instead, i use the shotgun as primary, and pistol as secondary, freeing up a pick in my class. It really gives players more tactical opportunities. And, of course, all these weapons also have different camo paint jobs.
"You can be a little more overpowered with certain weapons. Some weapons can be just a lot better than other weapons in the campaign and that becomes a reward for the player... in multiplayer you are gonna piss everyone off if you show up with some overpowered weapon. Balancing is king in multiplayer," the team explain when we ask about the headaches of trying to balance the increased load-out of weapons this time. Character Gear could be a helmet, boots or a new exo for your character, though this is more cosmetic in nature. In a game as fast as CoD, your enemies mightn't have time to check out your outfit as you thunder by, so there's a new lobby system to let you have some gear envy before the match begins. But there's some tactics here as well - you get to see what weapons and attachments they're carrying.
But I ended up spending most of my time in-between matches on the Virtual Firing Range. At any time when you are setting up your custom classes you can hit a button to instantly teleport to a firing range and get a feel for your new guns. It's a great way to test out new equipment without risking your stats in-game. And it's actually a lot of fun.
Reinforcements are one-time use Perks or Killstreaks that get delivered at a set time in your next map through a care package. Again, even if you're not a great player, you get to tinker with the big stuff.
Kill 'em all (together)
Another way of getting Killstreaks is through co-op. Let's say your buddy is really good and he earns one of those cool helicopters, flying around wrecking havoc on the enemy team. Now you can press any button and join him. He'll fire missiles, and you control the machine gun.
Sledgehammer has taken the Pick 10 setup from Black Ops 2 and included scorestreaks, now calling it Pick 13. That means you can now choose whether you want to use those three extra points on scorestreaks or something else - like perks or attachments for your gun. If you feel you are never going to earn your streaks you might as well use the points on something else.
As usual you earn streaks by scoring points by killing enemies, but also capturing or returning flags in Capture the Flag, confirming or denying kills on Kill Confirmed and planting or defusing the bomb in Search & Destroy. So playing the objective matters.
The other new thing Sledgehammer have added to the system is the ability to modify you scorestreaks. Say your base Sentry Gun costs 600 points. You can now modify and make it fire missiles for another 100 points, or make it detachable from it's stand - also costing another 100. It make the scorestreak better, but it takes longer to earn. The choice is up to you. You don't loose the points when you use them on a streak, but it does reset when you die.
One of the main problems with Ghosts for more serious Call of Duty fans has been the lack of skill gab (for the uninitiated, this meant the ceiling of how good you could get was far too low).
Advanced Warfare looks to have the highest skill gab in a Call of Duty title. The addition of the exoskeleton is a big part of that: it adds more possibilities for the player. More possibilities to make the wrong decision. That might sound bad, but it's not, because it means the better players, who make the better decisions, will win. It means it's worth getting better. But even more important than skill gab is the fact that the game is fun to play. It's fun dashing around with the exoskeleton. You feel empowered. The same goes for the abilities. So even if choosing to use the hover ability at a certain moment wasn't the right one, you'll have fun using it.
Maps, modes and speedball
We played through five different maps, and four different modes. The maps were medium size, but as Michael pointed out they feel more like small maps because of the exos. You move around the map a lot faster. Which also means you are more quickly back into the action after getting killed. Even after ten hours of multiplayer I still feel very new to the game. There is so much to learn.
The maps also have different unique things about them, that alter them or introduce an environmental danger. Part-way through one game on an oceanside map, klaxons started sounding, and soon after a tsunami wave slammed through the lower levels of the area. Such additions are better than the ones we saw in Black Ops II, but if I could, I'd like the inclusion of a mode which opted out of these map-changing moments.
Of the modes we played, Team Deathmatch was good fun and a great way of learning the game. Hardpoint and Capture the Flag both make fantastic returns, and we rounded things off with the new mode Uplink.
I didn't like Uplink at first. Maybe it was because I was on a team with some inexperienced players. but we got steamrolled. In Uplink it's important - more so than usual - to play together as a unit. It's similar to Capture the Flag, but at the same time it's also very different. It's growing on me, much like Hardpoint did back in the day.
Then we had Speedball. In this mode a ball spawns in the middle of the map. Toss it through the enemy portal for a point, and jump through with the ball in your hands for two points. But when you pick up the ball, you holster your gun (though you get a shield buff). You can throw the ball to your teammates, which means you can move the ball around quickly. A trick that people started using very early on was throwing the ball to the enemy, freeing up your gun just as they're forced to put theirs away. Take them out, pick up the ball, continue running. Like myself, the pro players I talked to were skeptical at first, but ended up excited to see how it work in the competitive space.
I already have some fun stories to tell about my early encounters with the game. There are so many possibilities for tactics, and yet it's still about having fun. And adding loot to a game that is already way too addictive... I'm worried about the time sink.
In the end my main fear about this game is it's a little too good to be true. The game feels fresh and full of innovations. But it also still feels like Call of Duty. It feels just as easy, if not easier, to jump into for new players, and yet the skill gab and the possibility to improve and grow within the game looks bigger than it ever has before. There's definitely a pull here to join the frontlines again.
The multiplayer is fun, and has features we've been missing since Ghosts included. I haven't had hands on with the single-player yet. The story sounds interesting, and I'm a little surprised that they have dared to go for a subject like private military corporations. It looks extremely polished, as CoD campaigns do, but also includes a few too many QTEs at the moment (which CoD campaigns also do). We'll have to wait and see how that pans out in the final game. I really hope this proves to be the next big thing for Call of Duty, and those Modern Warfare comparisons don't prove unfounded.