Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare review: calculated risk

Posted: November 3, 2014 in Game Articles

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by Arthur Gies

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare developer Sledgehammer Games has the unappealing responsibility of cleaning up someone else’s mess.

Last year’s Call of Duty: Ghosts was a low point for the series coming off its most successful game ever. Its campaign and story were uninspired and boring. Its multiplayer design took away what had proven so successful in Black Ops 2 and replaced it with something that failed to improve on the series’ defining mode of player progression, and its maps felt awkward and empty too often. And now, with Advanced Warfare, new developer Sledgehammer has to make everyone forget any of that happened with their first full Call of Duty release.

With little exception, Sledgehammer has demonstrated itself up to the challenge. Advanced Warfare’s production values and excellently paced campaign set the table, and its major additions to Call of Duty’s multiplayer, from basic mechanics to its deeply addictive progression system, might be enough to chase away bad memories of Ghosts.

“Advanced Warfare’s big changes revolve around the new exo suit”

Sledgehammer hasn’t veered away from the basic building blocks of the Call of Duty formula with Advanced Warfare’s trip to a near-future of massive paramilitary corporations and superhuman technology. It remains a fast first-person shooter oriented around crouching behind cover and aiming down gunsights with the left trigger while firing with the right. It’s arguably the most-copied set of mechanics in games from the last decade, because it works. Movement and shooting in Advanced Warfare is quick, smooth and recognizable to anyone who’s played a shooter since 2005.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s big changes are all oriented around the Exo suit, an exoskeletal support system that’s standard issue for all soldiers in Sledgehammer’s near future setting. Practically speaking, the exo adds new kinds of mobility to Call of Duty’s genre-standard toolset, with actual options varying somewhat from level to level based on the situation at hand. Most exos allow for a double jump, and every exo allows a sort of boost left, right or backward.

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All of this makes moment-to-moment navigation much more interesting in Advanced Warfare than previous entries in the series or its imitators have managed. The exo conceit also allows Sledgehammer to vary up the singleplayer campaign’s format and ideas in some exciting new ways. There are some real standouts, including a brilliant stealth mission and an extended drone sequence that gives the C130 mission from the original Modern Warfare a run for its money.

In fact, speaking strictly from level and encounter design and mission variety, Advanced Warfare is the best campaign the series has seen since Infinity Ward re-imagined the franchise with Modern Warfare in 2007. There’s no muddy objectives to get stuck on, and at least on my playthrough on the “hardened” difficulty setting, there were very few cheap-feeling death loops to get stuck in. It balances fairness with enough challenge and sophistication to make success feel worth it, and I never felt like any one part overstayed its welcome.

This is somewhat more surprising, given that Advanced Warfare is longer than last years Call of Duty: Ghosts by a healthy amount — I dragged myself through last year’s game in around four and a half hours, which was more or less on par with Modern Warfare 3. My time through Advanced Warfare on Hardened clocked in closer to seven. And through that extended playtime, I didn’t feel like Sledgehammer had run out of new scenarios or concepts.

In fact, the only truly deflating element of Advanced Warfare is a story that never manages to get off the ground. Much has been made of House of Cards actor Kevin Spacey’s turn as Jonathan Irons, the CEO of a paramilitary-oriented corporation named Atlas, but his performance tends toward over-the-top. This is at odds with the over-genuine, hyper-serious sobriety of literally every other character and the overarching environment the story takes place in. The plot is just an inch or two short of completely predictable, the dialogue is frequently gibberish, and the “interactive” points in scripted scenes are often in “press X to whatever” territory — a staple that reaches some almost parodically frustrating lows here.

This is an especially sour note for the campaign given that it moves the series forward in other small ways that I appreciated regardless. In a departure for first-person war games, Advanced Warfare isn’t predicated on killing some evil invading force that seems primed on capitalizing on border paranoia, and the enemy isn’t composed of third world canon fodder. There’s concern shown for civilians. There is a somewhat sophisticated view of geopolitics and America’s place in it, and the most interesting character in the game is former-Spetznaz-turned-Atlas operator Illona, one of the series’ first major female characters.

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Sledgehammer even wisely knows when to pull back, when to let the game breathe for extended periods of time without shooting or violence, something the series often felt like it lost after Modern Warfare. But the protagonist and leads all otherwise hedge closely to the Call of Duty status quo, leaving Advanced Warfare’s otherwise forward-thinking changes in the background. The result is a really good Call of Duty campaign that feels like it could have been truly great.

Multiplayer is a different story, as Sledgehammer more successfully leverages the new possibilities for movement and player ability more consistently. Advanced Warfare’s levels all seem tailored to the exo — you can walk around, but you’ll find much more speed and access by looking up and plotting a less conventional path. There are multiple points of entry everywhere, and they’re accessible from more places.

This change of philosophy might sound like a small addition amongst a list of new levels, new guns and the like. But this makes the biggest difference from its predecessors in Advanced Warfare’s immediate play experience. There’s less safety, less predictability, and it combines with some of the best map design the series has seen — hiding places never have total cover, and corners are hard to find. Sight lines exist all over, but there’s just as many means of breaking out of a field of fire by using a boost or performing a running slide.

One new game mode, Uplink, seems designed completely around the new physicality. Uplink most closely resembles single flag CTF, but the “flag” is actually a ball-shaped satellite device, and each team’s capture point is an “uplink point” represented by a glowing sphere suspended in mid-air. You can throw the ball through for one point, but running it through yields two, and a rewarding sense of satisfaction. Uplink takes advantage of every new mechanic that Sledgehammer introduces to fantastic effect, making it the best mode to happen to Call of Duty since Modern Warfare 3’s Kill Confirmed (which also returns).

Co-op

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare features co-op that should feel familiar to fans – it’s a wave-based survival mode taking place on the multiplayer modes maps where you earn points to buy better weapons and upgrades for your expo. There are wrinkles that mix things up a bit. For example, some waves have objectives that need to be completed to avert additional obstacles, like a glitched out exo.

It’s all competent enough, but it lacks the distinctive identity that powers the zombies mode in developer Treyarch’s Call of Duty games. We’ll see if that remains the case.

The exo suit also offers new sub-abilities and perks to choose from, such as an energy-based riot shield, enhanced healing or temporary invisibility. All of these new options can make for more variety in play, but usage is based on a battery that only recharges after death. I found myself discouraged from using these exo abilities — I never knew when I might need them more and was afraid to “waste” my one shot per life. It’s a small complaint in the grand scheme of what Advanced Warfare is introducing, but it feels like a moment of indecision in an otherwise confident game.

But if the exo and its additions are the draw for lapsed players and jaded veterans alike, it’s Advanced Warfare’s progression that will keep them playing.

That, and the loot.

The Pick 10 system introduced in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 returns, albeit with more options and opportunities in the form of Pick 13. Players can pick and choose weapons, perks, and streak bonuses as they like, albeit at a price. The more obscure your choices, the more they will cost you. If you want to take a primary weapon in your secondary weapon slot, you can — but you’ll have to pay with more points. Score streaks can be modified in many ways, including making them support streaks (which keeps progress for them on death, but makes them take longer to earn).

It’s a welcome return, and it allows for the most personal customization of your character class the series has seen when joined by the updated options available for avatar customization. Male or female presets can be outfitted with various cosmetic items, which are in turn now visible in multiplayer lobbies between games.

It’s cool to see other players’ operators, but this seems particularly oriented to showing off the various bits of cosmetic loot that you can earn in-game. As you play, you’ll see the same challenge rewards that have defined Call of Duty since Modern Warfare, but achieving challenges can now also yield “supply drops,” which is a fancy, Call of Duty way of saying treasure chests. You can open these chests between matches for special rewards like temporary XP boosts and improved in-game called-in support drops.

But you can also collect new pieces of armor and gear to set your soldier apart, which is a truly diabolical addition. The Pick 13 system let me find a loadout I really liked without much encouragement to vary it up, and gaining new scopes or attachments for my weapons felt tired years ago, but I got excited for every new cosmetic item I earned via a supply drop.

Supply Drops can also include special versions of Advanced Warfare’s weapons with multiple levels of rarity, another smart feature snagged from MMOs. This might be the most encouragement to leave your comfort zone that Call of Duty has offered in years. These weapons have minor bonuses to their attributes (along with a couple of penalties as well) and hardwired attachments that can’t be removed; the pull to use them was almost impossible to resist. This is especially useful in Advanced Warfare, given the presence of unrecognizable weapons for long-term fans — for example, directed energy weapons like the TAC shotgun or, you know, the lasers.

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No really. There are lasers. And tracking robots you fire out like grenades.

That said, I would have resisted more, if not for the genius of Advanced Warfare’s firing range. Until now, testing a new weapon loadout in Call of Duty meant using it in a match and hoping for the best. But now a press of a button in the pre-game lobby will take you and your loadout more or less instantly into a virtual arena where you can fire on targets and get to know your guns without feeding yourself to the wolves.

It seems like a small thing, but the firing range is symptomatic of smart decisions that seem poised to continue moving Call of Duty’s multiplayer forward. And in the present, right now, Advanced Warfare is the most fun I’ve had with the series since it re-invented the shooter mold. Which isn’t to say everything is perfect, exactly — there’s still a meat-grinder mentality to the multiplayer, where a few great players will likely contribute the lion’s share of the kills, and anybody below that threshold will probably die again and again.

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