During the opening presentation for last week's Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare multiplayer preview event, a word was mentioned repeatedly by Sledgehammer Games' Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey: "verticality." It was used to describe the revolutionary game mechanic that has been incorporated into Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. The thing that changes everything. And that is... (deep breath)… jumping.
Call me cynical if you like, because I probably wouldn't disagree with you, but it's difficult not to roll one's eyes when hyperbolic marketing lines are read off a teleprompt describing a 20 year old FPS mechanism in a way that makes it sound like Sledgehammer Games has just invented it. And even if COD: Advanced Warfare's developer wanted to claim this as a new "rediscovery," unfortunately Titanfall beat them to the punch back in March.
It's not that I'm unexcited by the prospect of being able to leave the ground for the first time in a COD game. Indeed I welcome this physics-defying parting of feet and ground with open arms. It's just that rebranding "jumping" as "verticality," the game-changing, fan-requested feature that completely revolutionizes your COD experience just feels like a stretch.
A stretch, because actually, the real meat of the game is not in its jumping, but in everything else. Sure, jumping is a paradigm shift for any game that hasn't featured it before, but we all know the long and the short of it. You can change elevation. You run on roofs. You can jump down on people. The interesting thing is how all this goes down, where, with whom, and carrying what.
So let's move onto that, shall we?
While "verticality" was the word of the night, the phrase of the eve was, "play it your way." The reason why is because it helps hammer home where the Call of Duty franchise is going – and that is deep into customization territory. It really does sound like Sledgehammer Games has been listening to COD fans, because what they're doing is combining a loot system that generates a vast range of weapons and gear – including new directed energy weapons – with perks that enable players to loadout their characters not only with the armament that suits them best, but also perks and abilities that match and augment their playstyle.
Basically, weapons have ten variable parameters, as well as multiple design and color variants. As you successfully progress in PvP, you earn weapons from random supply drops that are doled out after a battle. There are three tiers of rarity, Enlisted, Professional, and Elite, which respectively feature increasingly desirable stats and looks. The thing that makes all this interesting is the fact that weapon drops are random, and there is a huge range of potential differences in stats. The actual numerical differences seem fairly trivial on a fundamental level – which makes sense because overpowered weapons would be a game-breaker – but the point of this is being able to choose weapons that best augment your playstyle. So, for example, if you favor close-quarters combat, you might be happy giving up a few points from a weapon's range if it means more power close-up. The weapon isn't overpowered per se, but in your hands, it gives you a little boost that really does work to your favor.
Custom gear and one-shot reinforcement consumables can also be earned from supply drops. The gear does nothing other than change your look, but for most people that'll be highly desirable. While waiting for a match to begin, players stand in a virtual lobby and can check each other out. In-game your male or female avatar's custom gear can also give you a highly distinctive look.
The customization becomes more meaningful when you move onto the Pick 13 create-a-class system, boosted from COD's previous Pick 10. Customizing scorestreaks plays a fundamental part of this, with players able to increase or decrease scorestreak scores to make the rewards more or less powerful accordingly. There's even the ability for players to have co-op scorestreaks.
The other aspect of Pick 13 that adds depth is the Exo Abilities. This is an additional function that you can add to your Exoskeleton beyond the standard jump, slam, dodge, slide, dash, grapple, and cloak Exo maneuvers that come stock to augment your tactical approach. Perhaps you might want the ability to hover briefly mid-jump, boost your ground speed for a short period of time, or even see other players in the HUD. There are seven abilities in all, and each is essentially an ace up your sleeve.
Along with Abilities, an Exo Perk can also be added to your suit, and like Abilities, they give you a nice boost. Reloading while sprinting and shooting while sliding was a perk that I took, and can't see it not becoming a firm favorite of mine. Other Perks include suppressing sounds to make you stealthier, and enlarging your battery supply for your suit.
What this adds up to is a system that lets you build characters with noticable differences for specific strategic purposes. It certainly makes the game tactically more interesting, and makes you feel a little more connected to your avatar - which is now "you," rather than just being the same of-the-shelf model as everyone else.
While character creation is significantly evolved, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare's gameplay feels much the same. The operative word here is "feels," because here's the thing. Taken in isolation, the Exoskeleton is a huge leap forward for the COD franchise. But in the grand scheme of things, how many other FPS games have you played that let you jump? I found almost the moment I started running around and blasting things, I didn't give this new addition a second thought. You just take it for granted like it's always been there.
I'm not saying it's not great and doesn't make a difference to the game. It just doesn't really make much of an impact because it's such a familiar mechanic. Actually, the one thing I did notice is that I had a little difficulty getting used to the timing of the jump. It just seems a little sluggish, and the trajectory isn't as intuitive as Titanfall. It's something you'll no doubt quickly get used to, but it didn't feel quite as seamless as the jumping mechanics from other FPS games I've played.
One thing I was a little disappointed by was the visual design of the maps. Their layout and design is solid as always, but they just lacked excitement: basically offering nothing that felt particularly imaginative and new. After so many iterations of Call of Duty, I'm sure it's difficult to come up with something that feels really innovative and impressive, but even so. It all feels a little familiar - even the best of the bunch, the San Francisco map with its clever tsunami event. It's not anything to do with COD per se, but simply because scenes featuring the Golden Gate bridge have pretty much become a sci fi cliche, whether it's being clambered over by apes, bashed by giant monsters, or relocated by Magneto.
The gameplay feels familiar too, but that's not a bad thing. Of course jumping makes things a lot more entertaining and gives you more interesting tactical options, but ultimately its novelty almost immediately falls away, and what you're left with is essentially traditional, tight-feeling COD PvP action with far more freedom of movement. I think that's what most hardcore COD PvP'ers want – especially when matched to the customizable aspect of avatar creation.
In terms of multiplayer options, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Hardpoint, Search and Destroy, Domination and Team Domination all make a return. At the event, we played Uplink, which is a sort of powerball meets capture the flag game, and Momentum, an adaptation of an old COD: World at War mode where players move between a constantly changing active node on the map.
After playing a good few rounds of multiplayer, I walked away feeling very positively about the game. It feels very buttoned-down. The headline feature without doubt is character customization. I'm a big fan of playing specific roles, and COD: Advanced Warfare lets me tweak my character to enhance the way I like to play. But the thing I like the most is the supply drops. I mean, who doesn't like getting loot? It's amazing how something as simple and fun as random drops help dial up the anticipation. Maybe you'll get something not very useful, but perhaps you might get something really cool that'll help you develop your character in the way that you want to. And if you don't? Have another go and try again.
On the face of it, many of Advanced Warfare's changes aren't particularly earth-shattering, but that's typical of the evolutionary pace of the COD series. What it's doing this time around is really focusing on what the core player base spends the most amount of time doing, and making it more subtle and nuanced. That's a smart move. I'm sure some might be hoping for something more radical from the game – and we'll have to wait to see whether the single-player experience offers more than recent COD releases have – but for now, it looks like COD will continue to do what it does best, better. And that's resist the temptation to bring in machines and vehicles, and stay on point as the person-to-person matchplay PvP game.
I think that's what the majority of the COD faithful want, and I'm certainly excited by the promise Advanced Warfare is showing.