It’s November again, which means the launch of both this year’s Christmas adverts and the annual iteration of the Call of Duty series. There are more parallels that can be drawn between the two than timing though; both have ardent supporters and bitter detractors, both have accused of rehashing the same themes and styles with a fresh veneer, and both have traditionally lasted just a few minutes. But this year Activision’s offering feels slightly different with Sledgehammer Games at the helm. Following the departure from Infinity Ward of West and Zampella, Sledgehammer stepped in to help the flailing firm with the development of Modern Warfare 3; now both companies alongside Treyarch, are each developing their own Call of Duty titles and Advanced Warfare is the first to benefit from the effective three year development cycle. The tweaks to the formula this time around are more apparent, and it’s still first and foremost a Call of Duty game.
In the campaign you play as Private Jack Mitchell (voiced by Codec Moments’ man of the moment, Troy Baker) of the United States Marine Corps, who is dropped (literally) into Seoul to assist the South Koreans repel an incursion from the North with the rest of your friends from Badger Squad. On your way you’ll man a turret to repel a swarm of attack drones, you’ll meet an Atlas PMC Hostage Rescue Force who drop in as they are extracting a South Korean VIP, and you’ll take down some serious enemy firepower in the form of a mobile HAVOC launcher. Not bad for your first day. Despite the Korean setting for the first level, fittingly called ‘Induction’, the game does not play on the global scale like the Modern Warfare and Black Ops series; instead it focusses on the power wielded by private military contractors as you find yourself joining the ranks of the aforementioned Atlas PMC, run by Jonathan Irons and played by Kevin Spacey.
The game is still mostly linear and does the usual COD trick of introducing some shiny new toys, then only lets you play with them when the script allows it. Prime examples include breaching an area with all guns blazing and without drawing attention from enemies in the surrounding area thanks to the Mute Charge; climbing the outside wall of an office building to breach through the roof using Mag Gloves; and marking hostage takers through walls for a team kill using a Harmonic Pulse device. In my review of Call of Duty: Ghosts last year I said: “it’s a shame that players don’t always have the freedom to experiment with toys and tactics as they choose.” In a world where open world or non-linear games are abundant and allow you to use your tools to switch up your tactics on the fly for any situation, I stand by these words; so it was a pleasant surprise to find that Advanced Warfare does allow you some freedom to experiment with some of the other toys and tactics that make up your load out.
Most importantly, you are given your ‘exo’; an armoured and powered exoskeleton that improves your abilities and gives you a tactical edge on the battlefield. There are two types of exo in the game, assault and specialist, which feature different abilities and the one you will be using in each mission is dictated by the game. The assault exo features Boost that allows you double jump and land safely after falling great distances and Sonics that incapacitate enemies for a short while, allowing you to pick them off. The specialist exo features a deployable riot shield, Overdrive that provides a bullet time effect and Stim, which boosts your maximum health for a short while. As you progress you will earn exo challenge points for kills, headshots, grenade kills and for finding Intel; you can use these to upgrade your exo skills including bullet and blast resistance, and buffing your recoil and reloading stats.
The game also features two varieties of ‘variable grenades’: tactical and lethal, with each one letting you cycle through three types of explosive goodness. The lethal variable grenade lets you cycle between standard frag, a contact grenade that will explode when it hits any surface and a smart grenade, which will seek out an enemy and fly towards them. The tactical variable grenade comes equipped with an EMP that is handy for dealing with drones and robotic enemies, a flash grenade and the awesome threat grenades that lights enemies up bright red on your HUD. The threat grenade is especially useful in smoke, or in some indoor sections that provide your enemies with lots of cover; simply light them up and take them out by shooting through the walls and desks they are cowering behind. There’s also the addition of the threat detection scope, which provides the same effect when aiming down sights and makes you think about which enemy weapons you should acquire.
Advanced Warfare bucks the recent trend of Call of Duty games getting shorter, clocking in at around seven hours to complete the 15 missions; and not only that, the variety of missions and locales is refreshing and whilst it’s mostly linear, the game shines in some of the more open and varied missions. These allow you to successfully flank enemies or perform unscripted acts using the tools at your discretion; there’s even a stealth mission that allows you to plot your own path, taking enemies out at your will, or avoiding them by subtly using cover and elevation to your advantage. To my surprise this enforced stealth section didn’t suck, but it would have been nice if alerting the guards meant a transition to action shooter, rather than restarting at the last checkpoint. This worked really well in the latest Wolfenstein game and made for a far smoother experience. A real let down were the two vehicle sections, which have you piloting a hover bike or boat as the enemy bombards you and your surroundings. After the tank assault in Ghosts last year, I know that Call of Duty games can do better than this, so if you are going to insist on having vehicles, make them fun rather than the frustrating and linear sequences that are found here.
Graphically the pre-rendered cut-scenes are close to photo-realistic and some of the in-game engine cut scenes are incredibly detailed too. The early cut-scenes are interspersed with Atlas adverts that put a promotional spin on your missions, which is a really nice narrative twist for the series. The game loses its graphical gloss a little as you play, but it maintains a solid frame rate with no detectable slowdown for me from start to finish. It sounds great too as bullets whizz past you in surround, and there’s some outstanding voice acting in the form of Spacey’s Irons and your ever present English brother-in-arms, Gideon.
When you’ve finished the campaign, the multiplayer really does stand out; I’ve been playing a lot of Battlefield 4 lately and this, as always, is the antithesis. It’s fast paced, always lots of fun, and with the addition of the exo and it’s boost ability it’s really changed the game for the better; in my mind it’s the biggest shake-up since Modern Warfare was released. The maps reflect this with each one offering multiple paths if you boost jump, allowing you plenty of opportunities to flank your foe from above as well as to the left or the right… campers be warned. There’s also a myriad of game modes if you don’t fancy standard death match, including my personal favourite ‘Kill Confirmed’ and the return of Hardpoint. The ‘pick 13’ load out system doesn’t give a massive advantage to high level players and allows those of us who struggle with score streaks to add additional perks or accessories to our weapons. The game also includes a wave based coop offering similar to that found in Modern Warfare 3; it’s a fun way to pass the time and offers a glimpse of the rumoured zombie DLC if you complete all the maps on offer.
All in all the game is a solid first person shooter, which is starting to balance out the linearity of previous instalments against the age of the sandbox. The additions to multiplayer are exciting enough to reinvigorate my interest in a franchise that I’ve been able to take or leave, since Black Ops.
A PlayStation 4 review copy of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare was provided by Activision, and the game is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC now.