As one of the industry’s biggest franchises, Call of Duty’s reputation generally precedes it. One of the grandparents of modern-era first-person shooters (alongside Halo), many fans worried that the franchise showed its age and antiquity with last year’s Ghosts, an Infinity Ward title that felt more derivative and lackluster than yearly iterations of Madden football. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare changes that, though: Sledgehammer Games’ solo take on the franchise outshines almost all prior releases, capitalizing on the blockbuster-movie style of CoD campaigns while revamping the multiplayer for its smoothest play yet.
Advanced Warfare, as with many of its predecessors, contains three separate gameplay components: a single-player, story-based campaign mode, a competitive multiplayer mode, and a cooperative mode available either for single play or team-based gameplay. Sledgehammer Games worked with this formula in CoD: Modern Warfare 3 alongside Infinity Ward, but Sledgehammer developed Advanced Warfare on their own (apparently, for the better). Each game mode carries its own revisions to Call of Duty formula and comes with its own benefits and drawbacks.
While a series best known for its multiplayer component, Advanced Warfare’s single-player campaign stands out as one of the best of its breed. Part of the thrill comes from the inclusion of actor Kevin Spacey, recently highlighted for his performance in the Netflix series “House of Cards” as Atlas Corporation CEO Jonathan Irons he takes on a role similar to Cards’ Frank Underwood, complete with megalomaniacal tendencies and manipulations. For what it’s worth, Spacey delivers fantastic voice acting (which we know takes talent because of how miserably Peter Dinklage messed up the task in the publisher’s own Destiny) and grounds the game in a semblance of movie-like “reality” that might not have been achieved otherwise. But Spacey’s inclusion takes a backseat to an engaging, ripped-from-the-headlines story of a corporation grown too big for government oversight combined with likable characters trying to take the operation down once it shows its true colors.
Sure, the protagonists come off as a bit shallow, the plot feels contrived at times (the gang spends an awful lot of time using various Atlas equipment that would probably have some sort of fail-safe switch to keep it from falling into the wrong hands), but somehow Advanced Warfare still manages to pump the adrenaline, tug at the heartstrings, and incite the anger through all of its roughly 5-7-hour campaign. Set in a near-future 40-50 years from now, it offers everything your typical big-budget action movie would: huge explosions, giant mechanized fighting machines, unrealistic maneuvers that ooze “cool,” firefights where three people take out a small army’s worth of enemy troops…sure, it’s “short,” but it tells an effective, engaging story that sets the stage for future Advanced Warfare titles.
Some of the campaign’s effectiveness comes from its jaw-droppingly crisp visuals and cutscenes. Characters looked real as ever on the PS4, and the emotion displayed on the faces of compatriots like Atlas trooper Gideon and US Marine Cormack add to the visceral feeling. Advanced Warfare’s urban and natural landscapes are both gorgeous and expansive, but the divide between reality and virtual reality still shows in the cracks: the next-gen versions hiccup through cutscenes on occasion and sometimes drops below the ideal 60 frames-per-second frame rate. Also, though most characters faces look fantastic, Spacey’s model often seems oddly flat, not capturing the nuances in expression or the twitches of anger that make his characters seem so terrifying in other performances. Small as these issues may sound, they do stick out in an otherwise stellar presentation.
But hey, maybe you’re one of those gamers who picks up a CoD title with absolutely no intention of playing the campaign (my first suggestion is to change that and play this game’s campaign). As someone who couldn’t stand the inhospitable, insta-kill nature of Ghosts’ multiplayer, I can say that Advanced Warfare offers a much-improved, streamlined experience with tons of gameplay modes, character customization, and gameplay mechanics to breathe fresh life into what felt like a dying franchise. The game’s largest change comes with the addition of Exo Suits, exo-skeletal frames equipped to the player that change player mobility. The addition of mid-air dashing and double-jumping take it further away from the world of rival series Battlefield, but also adds a new vertical element to multiplayer map design.
Movement doesn’t feel quite as fluid as Titanfall (there’s no parkour-inspired wall-running), but it definitely feels a step above prior Call of Duty titles. Character customization is both deep and approachable; a bevy of weapons, attachments and perks can be mixed-and-matched, but you can also customize your character itself with a variety of cosmetic clothing and armor. Sometimes you’ll receive special Supply Drops, which offer special gear to equip to your character for a limited time. It keeps the gameplay exciting and fun, and adds variety without messing with the formula too much.
When it comes to the quality of online matches, it still feels too early to come to a conclusion. Just days after its initial release, server load is pretty extreme. Play during peak hours (roughly 10 or 11pm Central) and you’re likely to experience terrible lag and kicking, but the daylight hours generally play smoothly and without issue. I also haven’t been able to successfully log in to my Call of Duty account from the game, which would allow me to access the Call of Duty app and participate in clan-based competitions. But in a well-running match (which most of them are) the gameplay runs buttery-smooth, hit-detection is sharp, and in most cases you have a small chance to fight back when you’re coming under fire.
One big revision is the melee attack: it’s far looser than ever, meaning that running up and knifing opponents for a one-hit kill will take some precision (unlike Destiny’s wide-reaching melee with variable damage). If you actually dislike Call of Duty’s multiplayer, this game probably won’t offer enough change to convert you, but it’s enough to make old players feel at home while bringing those turned off by Ghosts back into the fold.
Advanced Warfare’s third mode could be easily overlooked, but it’s the one with the most improvement over its past version. Exo Survival throws waves of enemies at you, each one more difficult than the last. MW3’s Spec Ops mode simply started you off with a pistol and let you go to town, collecting cash on each kill and using it to upgrade weapons and buy equipment. In Exo Survival, however, you choose from one of three exo suit types: the mobile Light suit which uses submachine guns and assault rifles, the tank-like Heavy suit which lumbers around but wields a laser and other heavy weaponry, or the Specialist suit with normal mobility, shotguns, and sniper rifles. From here you’ll still take on waves of enemies, but occasionally you’ll take on special objective rounds where you’ll grab dogtags from the field, defuse bombs, or gather intel from downed enemies. It’s a great fusion of multiplayer objectives into the wave-defense formula, and it’s exciting to play.
For better or worse, Exo Survival definitely feels more challenging than Spec Ops. Maps are more open than they were in MW3, and enemies swarm from all sides almost instantly. Successfully completing objective waves confers bonus perks, while failing them will give you a hazard for the next wave like swarming nano-drones or smoke bombs to cloud your vision. Where Spec Ops felt at least moderately accessible as a single-player, Exo Survival definitely begs for a second player at all times. And, unlike Spec Ops mode in MW3, there’s no persistent level gains: you’ll only get access to more powerful weapons by holding out through additional waves. I would have liked to see some sort of persistence carry through from match to match in Exo Survival so I could like I’m making progress over multiple games; seeing my rank raise in Spec Ops mode and gaining access to stronger weapons earlier on made the early waves easy, but incentivized continued play. Though I like the new style of Exo Survival, I’ll likely spend more time in multiplayer unless I have a friend online or over visiting.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is a prime example of how to restore faith in a struggling brand. The game’s not perfect, but it absolutely feels “advanced:” the new features, refined gameplay, action-packed story, and attention to detail make for a game where you’re willing to forgive the missteps in the name of something larger. There’s more here than just the inclusion of Kevin Spacey, and if the campaign’s wide-open ending is any hint, Activision and Sledgehammer Games have larger plans in store for the Advanced Warfare series.