The latest Call of Duty game is upon us, and with each successive release of the franchise brings an increasing level of scrutiny from gamers who are becoming more and more fatigued by its refusal to change its formula up. Advanced Warfare arrives at a time when other blockbuster titles like Titanfall and Destiny have joined the fray with their own unique brand of multiplayer shooter action, so in judging it, it behooves one to not just consider the game on its own merits, but against the standards of both its competition and its predecessors.
In the months leading up to Advanced Warfare’s release, publisher Activision heavily promoted the game’s story-based single player campaign, particularly the fact that Hollywood heavyweight Kevin Spacey was heavily involved. This was also particularly promising because developing duties were handled by Sledgehammer Games, led by Dead Space alumnus Glenn Schofield and Michael Condrey. Alas, while Advanced Warfare’s single player ups the ante with exoskeletons and DARPA-inspired gadgetry, it refuses to shake off the franchise’s stubborn linearity.
As former marine Jack Mitchell, you are constantly led around from mission to mission, following your superiors around with little sense of agency. Stray from the very specific path the developers have laid out to you, and the game more or less ends and you have to restart from a checkpoint. Time and time again I was astounded by lack of freedom in Advanced Warfare’s campaign, a lack of freedom that essentially reduced it to an interactive movie punctuated by occasional shooting galleries in which you pick off scores of enemies while hiding behind cover. AW boasts a range of exosuit abilities, chief of which allow you to thrust yourself in any direction, but enemies are often so numerous and so accurate that, on higher difficulties, any tactic that doesn’t involve hiding behind cover and picking off targets will often result in near-instant death.
What I find most insulting about AW’s campaign is that it pretends that the numerous advances in game design over the last ten years never happened. There were large portions of the campaign, particularly in the middle, in which I did absolutely nothing but follow NPCs around, opened doors when they told me to, planted bombs when they told me to, and then sat back as scripted sequence after scripted sequence took over. In fact, of the six hours it took to beat it, I would estimate that at least half of AW’s campaign functioned as an interactive movie, and the other half a glorified version of the Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters ride at Disneyland.
So then it stands to reason that Sledgehammer and Activision set out to craft not a single player campaign, but an interactive movie with shooting gallery sequences. Let’s say we ignore the fact that it isn’t even fun to begin with, and judge it for its Hollywood blockbuster production standards. Right off the bat, the realism in characters’ faces is jaw dropping. It surpasses anything that’s ever been seen in any media, let alone videogames, in digitizing human faces. Every facial tic, every pore, and every hair is recreated with astounding realism, and the game knows it, as evidenced by the numerous times Kevin Spacey’s character, Jonathan Irons, leans in frighteningly close to you. Trust me, by the time you finish AW’s campaign, you will have an encyclopedic knowledge of Kevin Spacey’s face.
Unfortunately, it’s obvious that most of the graphics department’s budget was sunk into character faces, because the rest of the game looks woefully unexceptional. There were some ugly environmental textures and bland lighting that only looked marginally superior to previous Call of Duty games. There are several impressive setpieces, like one taking place on the Golden Gate bridge, but these are few and far between. Unlike previous games in the series, Advanced Warfare has you playing as the same character, and as a result it loses the series’s signature feature of showing you the conflict from multiple perspectives. Although linearity has always been a mainstay of the series, it made up for it by showcasing epic setpiece after epic setpiece. AW, as a result, suffers from a massive case of tunnel vision that isn’t helped by its forcing of the player to adhere to its very specific script.
And as far as the actual story goes, don’t get your hopes up; the entire thing plays out like a 15 year old’s fan fiction of Call of Duty. There’s a bit of a plot twist regarding Spacey’s character that comes up about halfway through, but anyone with some semblance of intelligence can see it coming miles away. It’s a shame, really, because Kevin Spacey is one of the finest actors of our generation, having appeared in movies like Seven, American Beauty and LA Confidential. To see him reduced to something straight out of a very bad episode of 24 is bizarre and disappointing.
Where Advanced Warfare really shines, as you might expect, is in its multiplayer. Here, the new additions to the Call of Duty formula really get their chance to shine. No longer do battles play out on the ground. Now, players have much more mobility, and veteran players who have settled in with the series’s formula must now adapt to a plethora of new skills if they wish to remain deadly. I take particular joy with double jumping, because AW allows you to boost in any direction while you are in the middle of your double jump. This introduces a level of verticality previously absent in Call of Duty, and combined with its characteristic lightning fast gunplay, successfully adds more depth and flavor to what was previously a moulding formula. Of course, this is balanced out by the fact that using exosuit abilities generates noise that is visible on your foes’ minimaps, so one can’t just hop around the place with impunity.
There’s also an entire universe of upgrades and customization you can apply to your character. The addition of exo-suit abilities means you have to spend a little more time considering where your 13 picks go. You can opt to have multiple exosuit powers, and there are perks to negate the noise you make when using exo abilities. Technology and gadgetry are far more prevalent in AW’s multiplayer, as there are multitudes of drones, jammers and turrets to utilize, and whether you intend to use them or not, having an awareness of what they all do is crucial in the event that they are used on you.
Still, one gets the sense that the developers have played it a bit too safe. AW’s multiplayer is rock solid, but that’s only because its adhered fairly rigidly to the formula laid down by the original Modern Warfare. In a way, AW feels like the full realization of what Call of Duty multiplayer really should have been: a bunch of soldiers bouncing all over the place and shooting one another with twitch-based skill. The exosuit abilities have fully opened up the battlefield, and Call of Duty multiplayer has completed its metamorphosis into a modern-day revamp of the twitch-based shooter. Make what you will of that, but the bottom line is that while Sledgehammer have done a competent job at building on the established formula, the only possible direction the series can go without a dramatic upheaval would be to introduce rocket launchers and gibbing.
Sledgehammer’s approach to multiplayer seems to have been to simply pile on everything that was well received in previous Call of Duty games, and then add exosuits to the mix and stir. The result is, to use a food analogy, a pizza with everything on it. And an exosuit.
I was hoping Advanced Warfare would do things differently by finally having a single player mode that I could care about, but once again it is the multiplayer that saves it the whole thing from mediocrity. The game essentially feels like one step forward for the franchise that really needs a hundred of them. It feels like someone who has spent his entire life in a house that has gotten increasingly dilapidated finally taking a step outside before retreating back inside. The addition of exosuits is certainly a welcome addition that helps the franchise stay relevant for a while, but with Activision having not just Sledgehammer, but Infinity Ward and Treyarch taking turns working on Call of Duty games every year for the forseeable future, it’s hard to imagine how new ideas will bear fruit for a franchise that is on the edge.
The Final Verdict
In the end, whether you’re a diehard fan who plays Call of Duty or a disgruntled one who hasn’t played it in a while, then you’ll probably find a lot to like with Advanced Warfare’s multiplayer that warrants a purchase, but with expectations becoming exceptionally high for triple A gaming these days, Activision’s reliance on an 11 year old formula is doomed to inevitable failure.
+Exosuits freshen up multiplayer
+Tons and tons of customization
-Unexciting, mediocre story
-Single player is extremely linear and lacks player agency