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Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Score: 90%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Sledgehammer Games
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1 - 2; 2 - 18 (Online)
Genre: Action/ First Person Shooter/ Online

Graphics & Sound:

Iím not really sure itís ever accurate to say that thereís a lot riding on each yearly Call of Duty. At this point, itís unstoppable; not that anyone would really want to stop it. After all, theyíre all various shades of great. But here, at the end of our first year with the latest cycle of new hardware, people are paying closer attention than ever. So it is with pleasure that I announce that Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is a definite step forward for the long-running shooter series, from both a technical and a design standpoint. Will it win any converts? No, but it proves that the series no longer lives in its own bubble.

Advanced Warfareís visual design isnít a huge leap forward for the series, but it is a marked improvement. The biggest and most obvious difference is in the character design; particularly the faces. Itís pretty clear that Sledgehammer Games didnít take the easy path and just create new faces from scratch to match their respective voices. As far as I can tell, each of the people you see in Advanced Warfare looks exactly like his/her voice actor.

Motion capture aside, Advanced Warfare looks damned cool. On a technical level, it doesnít wow on the same level as next-gen exclusives such as Killzone: Shadow Fall -- though, to be fair, this is a much better game. Iím not sure I totally buy into the technology that gives this game its subtitle, but in terms of spectacle, itís so wild that youíll willingly suspend your disbelief. Visually, the combat-redefining Exosuits are almost sublime in their simplicity; they look like the framework for a giant battle suit, but streamlined to the point of being wholly utilitarian. On the other end of things, even the excessive moments this series has become notorious for have their own unique charm to them. In the real world, drones tend to stay hidden even through the completion of their missions. In Advanced Warfare, they take to the ground, overwhelming the battlefield (and often, your field of vision) in horrifyingly compact swarms reminiscent of the Kryll from Gears of War.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare sounds the part just as much as it looks it. Voice acting is perhaps better than it ever has been (more on that in a bit), and the sound effects are just as good as they always are. That being said, Advanced Warfare doesnít always beat you over the head with sensory overload like so many of its predecessors do. Several of the weapons sound more subdued than they look; this goes a long way in establishing that this game wants to be more than the Bay-esque experience the series has become known for. That being said, the gameís futuristic bent can definitely influence the sonic output, and sometimes you can close your eyes and pretend youíre watching Transformers. But for the most part, itís a surprisingly grounded experience. Sure, firing a red hot laser sounds like youíd expect it to, but jump jets and other Exosuit powers sound plausible enough. And of course, the soundtrack is standard Harry Gregson-Williams fare.


Gameplay:

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfareís Single Player Mode follows Private Jack Mitchell of the United States Marine Corps. After a disastrous incursion in Seoul that claims Mitchellís best friend and left arm, he is approached by the father of his fallen brother in arms, who happens to be Jonathan Irons (Kevin Spacey), the CEO of the worldís largest and most advanced private military corporation, Atlas. He offers Jack a job, and along with it, a state of the art prosthetic arm that easily allows Mitchell to resume his duties as an operator. Turns out, Atlas is outfitted with the best men and the best equipment to get high-risk military operations completed with a bare minimum of casualties. But for every powerful hero there must be an equally powerful villain, and that comes in the form of a technophobic terrorist organization calling itself the KVA Ė and its intimidating leader Joseph "Hades" Chkheidze. Even by franchise standards, the story is completely ridiculous from nearly every perspective. The twist that propels the narrative into its second half is exactly what you think it is, and it eventually goes careening off the rails with a series of jaw-droppingly implausible developments, and almost becomes self-parody. But is it entertaining? Yes, in a "I cannot believe someone wrote this" kind of way.

Much has been said about Kevin Spaceyís full motion capture performance for this game, and for good reason. However, the reason for its excellence may not be what youíd expect. Think about it: with a few non-Campaign related exceptions, Call of Dutyís cast of characters is pretty unmemorable. I remember their names, but their motivations were paper thin (how could they be otherwise?) and everything else was lost amidst the shouting and the expository growls that pad out the load times. But Spacey? He goes absolutely apesh*t, chewing up the virtual scenery with such gusto that you can almost hear the "om nom nom"s between each ridiculous line. Itís a brilliant change of pace for a franchise that is all too often bogged down by the gravity of its scripts.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfareís Campaign is substantially longer than that of every other game in the franchise, and in a few key areas, it is also bolder. It doesnít always feel like a standard Call of Duty game, though it does most of the time. Level design is deeper and more thoughtful than weíre used to seeing; while youíll see your share of corridors and conveniently closed-off arenas, thereís a very slightly expanded sense of player agency. It isnít nearly to the same degree as it is in shooters like Crysis or classic action games like Uncharted, but thereís not always a single way to get things done. There isnít as much room for creativity as I would have liked, but a step forward is a step forward. And when it all comes down to it, itís a quality experience with a healthy amount of variety and more than its share of memorable moments.

It seems these days that every Call of Duty game is required to ship with at least one cooperative mode. Usually that means yet another tired dose of the shambling undead, a series of special operations, or an alien invasion. For Advanced Warfare, Sledgehammer has brought us Exo Survival, their take on the wave-based challenge mode. The maps are split into four tiers of increasing difficulty, and they range from laughably easy to tough as nails. But it's fun stuff.

Letís briefly talk competitive multiplayer, the focal drawing point of the series: Advanced Warfareís is the most functionally unique Call of Duty multiplayer suite by far. Itís still identifiably a Call of Duty experience, but Sledgehammer has changed things where theyíve been in dire need of change while refining the elements that make the best installments in the franchise (particularly Black Ops II) so special. All the modes you love (or love to hate) return, but the various gameplay enhancements at the base of Advanced Warfare almost make all of it feel new again. Almost.


Difficulty:

Recruit. Regular. Hardened. Veteran. If you came expecting something else, you havenít been paying attention. As always, these difficulty levels are balanced and challenging exactly as theyíre advertised. Mechanical differences aside, Advanced Warfare has no identity crisis, and doesnít fix anything that wasnít broken. And the difficulty settings were never broken.

As of this writing, most players are still getting used to the altered combat dynamics as they apply to multiplayer, so now is absolutely the time to jump in and get acclimated. But after sinking a number of hours into the multiplayer, Iíve come away with one major pointer to make the experience easier on you. Stay out of the air if youíre in the open; if you use those jump jets, you will be shot down.


Game Mechanics:

Sledgehammer Games has taken a series of extremely careful steps to innovate with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, not a single of which threatens the traditional gameplay format of the series. Every change feels organic and natural to the framework of the franchise, and as far as the tried and true goes, none of it has been messed with.

The showstopper is the Exosuit. In both the single player and multiplayer, Atlas and Sentinel operators are outfitted with special suits that, depending on the type, can drastically affect their speed, agility, reflexes, and verticality at the touch of a button. Exos come with abilities equipped by default; most allow the player to double jump and dash around on the ground or in midair. Others allow operators to deploy mobile riot shields that quickly expand and collapse, cloak themselves to near-invisibility, hover in place, increase movement speed, reduce movement noise, and so forth. The applications for both single player and multiplayer are impressive.

As you progress through the single player missions, Mitchell earns upgrade points, which can be slotted into specific areas to increase his combat effectiveness. Want more grenades on your belt? Are your guns kicking too hard? Is your Exoís battery running out too quickly? Want to sprint for longer periods of time? Spend your points accordingly, and you can create exactly your kind of soldier.

The biggest multiplayer improvement, to nobodyís surprise, is the enhanced mobility. In the eleven years since this franchise has come into being, the most that was done to change player motion was Modern Warfareís addition of a sprint button. These new abilities, when used properly, can greatly improve your chances at successfully evading enemy gunfire and increasing overall battlefield awareness. Now, you can escape from previously unwinnable situations, and gain new perspectives on the map without being shackled to the ground. Advanced Warfareís enhanced mobility isnít as liberating or as anarchic as it is in Titanfall, but itís a very welcome (and long overdue) improvement.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare ditches Ghostsís subpar customization system in favor of what is arguably the seriesí best yet. Pick 13 is Advanced Warfareís way of bringing back the popular "Pick 10" system and making it bigger and better. When you create a class, you have thirteen slots at your disposal. These are designed to be filled with weapons, attachments, Exo abilities, scorestreaks, and perks. The depth at play here is staggering.

This depth is further compounded by a loot system that is frequently showering you with rewards. Youíll earn weapons, supply drops, and armor pieces by playing, and itís a joy to mix and match in between matches as you work to create the ultimate future warrior. From customizing your loadouts to creating new emblems and tags, Advanced Warfareís multiplayer is a deeply personalized experience that is even better when youíre sharing in it with friends Ė or even a clan.

With the release of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, the franchise has taken a very successful first few steps towards a bigger and better future. Given the franchiseís penchant for iteration, itíll probably be a slower kind of revolution than most of us are probably hoping for. But all the same, itís wonderful to see such a departure from the status quo, prudent as it may be.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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