No series in recent memory has lost me as thoroughly as Call of Duty. Though I was enamored with Modern Warfare, the yearly iterations of varying quality quickly lost my interest. I had become a bona fide skeptic, immune to the flashy demos of Advanced Warfare I saw at press events. Imagine my surprise when Advanced Warfare brought me back to a place of genuine enjoyment. The similar naming scheme is no coincidence: this is the best the series has been since Modern Warfare reset the modern military shooter.
The Future, Conan?
Unlike Black Ops 2's tentative toe-dip into futurism, Advanced Warfare dives in with both feet in the somewhat distant future. It eschews all pretense of being a loose metaphor for current geopolitical struggles, and instead turns unabashedly sci-fi. Thanks to an ever-expanding arsenal of high-tech fantasy gadgets and vehicles, this is the series at the apex of feeling like a gritty G.I. Joe reboot.
The major future-props are the EXO suits, advanced exoskeletons that can turn any soldier into a superhuman. These suits enhance natural abilities, letting a normal person rip open metal or lift heavy objects, while also granting special abilities like a grappling rope or boost jump. Completing mission objectives grants points to upgrade your suit with small perks like extra armor or grenades. The EXO suit is modular, letting soldiers equip up to three abilities depending on the mission type.
This is a double-edged sword for Call of Duty stage design. The abilities are catered to each stage, which lets Sledgehammer iterate with a variety of traversal and combat scenarios. However, it does reinforce the criticism that Call of Duty is set on a narrow path, since the constant switching prevented me from feeling like I was really learning the abilities and adapting my own creative solutions. Instead, I was being told it was time to use X or Y ability to see the next whiz-bang setpiece.
Those setpieces are genuinely thrilling regardless. The futurism makes the weaponry feel more differentiated, so the smooth shooter gameplay the series is known for no longer boils down to a series of interchangeable auto rifles. And even aside from the variety provided by the EXO suits, Sledgehammer took special care to pace Advanced Warfare evenly. Quieter moments that crescendo into explosions and the environments are incredibly diverse.
Spacey for Rent
Even if this is the series dropping current events, the story is still passably related to a subject that we've seen in the news: private military corporations. Following a botched Marines mission that kills the player character's best friend, you're recruited by his father, Jonathan Irons, played by Kevin Spacey. Irons owns Atlus, a PMC organization with funding far beyond the U.S. military. The Marines had future-toys, but stepping into Irons' corporation means you get the best money can buy. As a member of Atlus, you intervene in global conflicts as the company rises to prominence as the go-to military-for-hire in the world community. Most of your efforts are focused against a terrorist known as Hades, who aims to destroy technology and send society back to a more primal state.
Your friend's death does lead to a silly moment in which you're asked to hold a button to pay respects. It's hard to fault Call of Duty for this, but it was a cold reminder of how limited the video games are. In the middle of a game that has honed a perfect gameplay metaphor for war and killing, the act of grieving is relegated to a button prompt. It's not the fault of Advanced Warfare that the medium is so underdeveloped in that area, but the juxtaposition was striking.
Spacey brings all of his gravitas and polished smarm to the role.
Irons is played by Spacey in every sense of the word, from vocal performance to very impressive facial capture. Usually when a game company hires a big-name actor to trade on their name, I've gotten the sense the actor feels this is all beneath him, and the result is a shallow, phoned-in performance. Not so for Spacey. He brings all of his gravitas and polished smarm to the role. Though the story takes a rather obvious turn, Spacey's performance went a long way toward selling the emotional stakes of his decisions.
The facial animations are just one way Advanced Warfare impresses, and certainly not the only one. Everything from the environmental art design to the mechanical weight of the suits looks and feels more real than ever.
Pushing the Multiplayer (by Ozzie Mejia)
Call of Duty's multiplayer could often be seen playing it safe, year after year. Even in the face of its competitors taking chances with the multiplayer combat that the Activision's series helped make famous, CoD's various developers seemed content to rest on their laurels. This year, Sledgehammer Games chose to push the series' long-standing multiplayer formula forward. The result is the freshest the series' multiplayer has felt in years and shows what Call of Duty is still capable of when its developers put forth the effort.
One of Advanced Warfare's most notable multiplayer additions is its Pick 13 system, building upon the Pick 10 system from the Black Ops series. This allows players to further customize their loadouts to suit their play style, while allowing enough versatility to cover their shortcomings. For example, those that die quickly and often can opt to eschew Scorestreak bonuses entirely, in favor of more attachments, additional perks, or extra frag grenades. Similarly, anyone that can rack up kills like nobody's business can stack up on higher-tiered bonuses, many of which take up two or three slots. Customization options are such that nobody in Advanced Warfare should feel truly outmatched and it's accessible enough for anyone to jump into for an extended period.
Movement in Advanced Warfare feels far more fluid than in years past. Many of CoD's standard movements, such as sliding and vaulting, remain in place. But the Exo abilities grant some interesting new movement options, especially with the addition of the boost moves. Boost jump, in particular, is an example of how something fairly common (a double jump) can add so much. In this case, boost jump further demonstrates Advanced Warfare's focus towards vertical combat, mixing it up with the standard corridor and chokepoint-based battles that have been a large staple of the series.
Game modes can be hit or miss, however. Hardpoint's return from Black Ops 2 is a welcome one, with the game's emphasis on vertical combat adding a new degree of complexity to the 'king of the hill' conflicts. The new Momentum mode unfolds at a delightfully fast pace, with control points laid out in such a way to encourage both teamwork and going in with guns blazing. A few other modes don't hit the mark quite as well. The new Uplink mode, for example, tries to get cute by having players fighting over a ball to place in a designated goal, but the charm quickly dissipates and and the chaos quickly begins to wear thin.
Multiplayer sessions also feel far more rewarding with Advanced Warfare's new Supply Drop system. Performing certain tasks and simply playing the game for certain amounts of time will reward weapon and gear drops of varying rarity, which is a nice extra incentive to attach to the usual goodies that are attached to earning XP and completing challenges. Considering how many different customization options and details Sledgehammer has put into user-created soldiers, it actually provides ample incentive to keep shooting for those rare drops. The only iffy aspect of Supply Drops are the rarer reinforcement drops that include Scorestreak bonuses, which can sometimes turn the tide of a battle. It's one thing to get outplayed, but it's a rotten feeling to lose because of a random item drop.
Advanced Warfare's multiplayer is a case of "better late than never." Maps with dynamic events, open vertical areas, and a robust create-a-soldier system have been among the items on CoD fans' wishlist for years. Sledgehammer has answered these pleas pretty effectively, creating a multiplayer experience that still holds that enticing charm, while adding enough trinkets to further tighten its addictive grip.
In many ways, Advanced Warfare is another series reboot. While it lacks the sheer audacity of Modern Warfare's approach that shook up the shooter genre, it is staking a claim as its own part in Activision's ongoing Call of Duty arsenal. After annualization that had led to a seeming sense of complacency, Sledgehammer has joined with the best entry in years. Satisfying fans is one thing, but this one subverted my skepticism and brought me back.
This review is based on a Xbox One retail copy provided by the publisher. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is now available in digital and retail stores, for $59.99. The game is rated M.