Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is the first title produced under the new development schedule for the blockbuster franchise. Publisher Activision has upped the production time from two years to three years on each game; and to maintain annual releases, a third studio was added into the rotation cycle with Infinity Ward and Treyarch. Newcomer Sledgehammer Games is no stranger to the series, having helped finish Modern Warfare 3 with Infinity Ward and previously working on a now-cancelled third-person Call of Duty. After last year’s Ghosts was more of the same, resulting in lukewarm reception from press and consumers, Activision needed to rebound this time around with a CoD featuring new additions to instill some excitement back into the franchise. Lucky for them, their bet on Sledgehammer paid off in the form of the delightful Advanced Warfare.
Advanced Warfare’s campaign takes place dozens of years in the future in a world where technological advancements made way for augmented soldiers on the battlefield. You assume the role of Jack Mitchell–who features the voice and likeness of the talented Troy Baker–a Marine honorably discharged after losing an arm in battle against the North Koreans. Fortunately for Mitchell, his Marine squad mate and best friend Will is the son of Jonathan Irons (deftly played by Kevin Spacey), head of the wildly successful private military corporation ATLAS. Irons offers Mitchell a second chance by bestowing him with an advanced robotic prosthetic arm and employment as a soldier in ATLAS’ army. Nations begin heavily outsourcing their combat functions as well as their construction and infrastructure projects to ATLAS over the next several years, and thus the PMC sees tremendous growth. On the surface, Jonathan Irons appears to support justice and freedom for all, though it becomes questionable where his allegiances and morality lie. Advanced Warfare’s story wants to discuss the issues of military privatization, US international policy, and politics, but it only briefly brings them up. It has a narrative featuring just enough intrigue to keep me interested. There are thrilling set pieces to look forward to though, such as the sensational car-hopping highway chase. Another major attraction is Kevin Spacey’s charismatic performance, the likes of which I wanted more. Additional story and Spacey can be found in a section called Intel, which contains an audio log by Jonathan Irons corresponding to each level and two additional cutscenes. Advanced Warfare isn’t aspiring to be a touching drama – the plot, characters, and writing aren’t exceptional or memorable. Instead, it wants to entertain us like action movies filled with spectacle and achieves just that.
Sledgehammer has taken efforts to improve Call of Duty’s storytelling in Advanced Warfare. There’s a noticeable increase in the number of cutscenes here, especially at the beginning of chapters, replacing the series’ frequent presence of shifting maps and wire 3D models of the mission while characters fire off military jargon-heavy briefing dialogue. I quickly came to put a voice and face to the mostly generic cast of characters. However, there is not enough effort and time put into exploring any of the characters for you to make a strong emotional connection. The flow of the missions holds better pacing than recent entries in the franchise. The constant stream of high-adrenaline, loud action that made past Call of Duty stories exhausting is broken up by slower missions and cutscenes, giving the player time to breath – that is until the final chunk of the campaign. Several exploratory, stealth, and vehicle sections help break up the monotony of gunning and hiding beneath cover. This sets up better contrast and excitement for the high-intensity action sequences. Meanwhile, combating enemies is still an exercise in shooting target practice cutouts with very limited movements. Advanced Warfare’s campaign is an incremental improvement that fails to take enough steps forward to steal the show.
But let’s be honest here: multiplayer is the dominant reason why millions pick up Call of Duty every year and is the place where Sledgehammer’s contributions in Advanced Warfare shine. Easily the most radical addition is in your traversal options, thanks to the exoskeleton’s boosting ability. The basic move is triggered by hitting the jump button twice to perform a double jump. You can then hover or quickly jet back to the ground to avoid being a sitting target or deal a powerful melee attack to an opponent down below. While in mid-air or on the ground, pushing down in any direction allows you to boost side to side, backward, or, only while in the air, forward. The directional boosts are exceptionally valuable as a way to swiftly avoid fire and roam through the canopy of buildings.
While it took a little bit to get acclimated to exoskeleton boosting, I quickly came to appreciate the newfound freedom and quickly learned to chain boosts together efficiently to move through maps with ease. Playing in a way that uses the exoskeleton boosting extensively gave off an arena shooter-like vibe reminiscent of the days of the Quake or Unreal games. Undoubtedly, there will be traditionalists who hate fighting hopping, air-dashing opponents, so Sledgehammer has included “Classic” playlists that disable exoskeleton movements. The new traversal options open up the map designers more verticality to work with and thus greater liberty in constructing their multiplayer battlefields. The library of maps encompasses a variety of sizes, settings, and paths. A handful of them even feature dynamic events, such as an incoming tsunami or automated turrets, which force shifts in your game plan.
Additionally, the exoskeleton brings timed abilities you can equip to your Operator. The faster health-regenerating Exo Stim and pop-out, riot shield-like Exo Shield are new ways for you to recover when hit. Stealth players and snipers will benefit from the Exo Cloak active camouflage and the Exo Ping, which pinpoints locations of enemies when they fire weapons or use an exoskeleton movement. Exo Hover adds hovering to your Exo movements while Exo Overclock increases your on-foot speed. To maintain balance, the Exo abilities run for a limited amount of time, followed by a cooldown period. They’re a solid addition that gives players another tool for their disposal.
Advance Warfare’s multiplayer provides plenty of customization, especially for you to play your way with the Pick 13 loadout system, a natural step forward from the Pick 10 system Treyarch introduced in Black Ops II. When constructing a loadout, you’re allocated thirteen points and each weapon, accessory, perk, exoskeleton ability, and scorestreak takes up one point. Wildcards will use up one point also, which allow adding another weapon, accessory, perk, or exoskeleton ability than normally allotted. For example, double up on perks if you don’t use grenades or higher scorestreaks. The Pick 13 system culminates in dozens of combinations and the flexibility to cater loadouts to your play style. The game features aesthetic customization by letting you switch the gear your Operator adorns as well as the much-loved custom emblem creator. Standard weapons and gear become unlocked as you level up as well. Rarer ones arrive in Supply Drops, a new loot system. Supply Drop weapons will have certain attributes tweaked, differentiating them from their standard equivalents. Reinforcements, one-time use perks and scorestreaks, are acquired through the loot system as well. Every time a Supply Drop arrived, I anticipated open up the virtual chest to see what I gained. It’s a new element that gives you more incentive to keep on playing especially to show off, since your Operator is put on display in Advanced Warfare’s new Virtual Lobby between matches.
The selection of weapons in Advanced Warfare contains an array of different types with high-tech attachments to go along with them. The futuristic setting gave Sledgehammer the opportunity for a little more creativity in designing the look, feel, and sounds of the weapons. The signature silky smooth gunplay of Call of Duty is intact as the shooting feels great with the mechanics all sharp and responsive. Combat remains at a twitchy, fast pace, but the new exoskeleton movements and abilities grant increased chances at survival. Newbies can get their feet wet with the “Exo Survival” mode or Combat Readiness Program. Exo Survival is a cooperative mode that pits you and up to three others against waves of enemies while the Combat Readiness Program pits you against AI-controlled bots and even a handful of real human players, all in an effort to simulate the online competitive arena.
Last but certainly not least are the game’s overhauled visuals. Sledgehammer’s longer development period on Advanced Warfare and greater time with the new generation console hardware gave way to the best graphics the franchise has seen. The leap in graphical fidelity is instantly recognizable, particularly in the campaign. Arriving on the streets of South Korean capital Seoul in the first chapter was a sight to behold: neon-covered candy to my eyes. Some of the visual flair and effects are understandably toned down in multiplayer, though. Models of human faces received a noticeable jump in quality and better capture the performances of the source actors like Kevin Spacey. Loading cutscenes have a stunning appearance and, while pre-rendered, assist in creating a cinematic experience.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare gently shakes up the series’ conventional play with the new exoskeleton and enhances previous establishments, as is the case of the Pick 13 system. Overall, these are small steps in the right direction, despite not becoming a tremendous evolution for Call of Duty. My greatest hope is that Sledgehammer has indeed planted the seeds of change for a franchise often criticized for rehashing itself. Maybe someday, one of the three studios will revolutionize the first-person genre once again as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare once did. Until then, I’ll be happily hopping through virtual battlefields with my exoskeleton.