When Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare first blew the doors off the shooter genre nearly a decade ago, the natural question was this: "So when are we going to get a 'Future Warfare?'"
Seven years on, we now have our answer. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare introduces drones, nanites, killer robots, and exoskeletons, inaugurating a new era for the series spearheaded by relative newcomer Sledgehammer Studios. But as Advanced Warfare shows on more than one occasion, the more things change with Call of Duty, the more they stay the same.
As expected, Advanced Warfare takes comparatively few risks with the formula that has become ingrained deep into the first-person shooter genre over the past several years, catering primarily to longtime fans and those who view gaming through the prism of Call of Duty and little else. Sledgehammer plays around a bit with the mechanics, introducing dodge moves and a double jump, but otherwise does little to push the envelope of the genre in a way that the name that it implies. In a setting rife with possibilities, Advanced Warfare proves surprisingly short on imagination.
Instead, Advanced Warfare starts pretty much exactly you would expect a Call of Duty game to start: On an airplane that is about to explode, where the hero Private Jack Mitchell delivers a speech about comaraderie and friendship before dropping into Seoul, South Korea.
"We were brothers in arms," Mitchell intones solemnly, right before releasing his pod to watch the plane above detonate.
What follows is a battle through Seoul against the North Koreans, though that's honestly just the beginning—an opportunity to introduce some of the core mechanics and set the stage for what's to come. The real story begins at a funeral, where Mitchell is encouraged to "Hold Square to Pay Respects" at a funeral before meeting private military mogul Jonathan Irons (Kevin Spacey). Honorably discharged after suffering a grievous injury, Mitchell receives a Six Million Dollar Man-style bionic arm and joins Irons' private army at Atlas.
The story that unfolds in the ensuing missions is pleasantly ridiculous in a Michael Bay sort of way, centering around a Bond-style villain and his private complex in New Baghdad. It's best understood as a Truther story, which becomes increasingly clear as the true forces behind a terrible worldwide disaster begin to emerge. The world of Advanced Warfare is the one that conspiracy theorists imagine when they talk about false flag operations or controlled demolitions—a world where dark forces are behind the government's every move. It would be easy to write off as the purest action fluff if there weren't so many people out there who really do believe that ISIS is a scripted psyop designed to goad Americans into another war in the Middle East.
But I digress. In terms of design, there's little to separate Advanced Warfare's campaign from previous games in the series; and indeed, it frequently recycles tropes from previous games. That gillyweed stealth mission that you loved so much in Modern Warfare? It's in Advanced Warfare, only this time you're wearing a cloaking device. Advanced Warfare even has that movement where you're crouched, scarcely breathing, as an enemy convoy rumbles past. It's not until the last quarter or so that the campaign begins to really develop its own identity, turning to such sci-fi inspirations such as District 9 and Star Wars for an appropriately explosive grand finale.
Advanced Warfare's main contribution to the series, aside from a handful of new weapons and moves, is its frankly amazing facial capture technology, which is still a bit uncanny valley but otherwise does an amazing job of rendering realistic-looking human characters. In the grand scheme of things, it might not seem like much since you rarely see human characters up close and personal, but it's crucial in that it allows Kevin Spacey to actually act. And as Kevin Spacey is easily the most entertaining element of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare's story, dominating pretty much every scene that he's in, the tech represents resources well spent.
However, other elements of the graphics suffer. I'm not sure if the art crew was going for a kind of sterile futuristic look, but many of Advanced Warfare's interiors feel overly plain. Again, things get better as the action shifts from San Francisco to Antarctica in the latter part of the game; but when playing multiplayer, many of the maps are so featureless as to be almost distracting.
Where the multiplayer excels are in the usual places: the pace and balance of the matches, speedy round completion, and the ease of learning the game. I'll admit that I'm split on the map selection. Though competently designed, none of them have really out to me to this point. They're pretty much what you'd expect from a Call of Duty map: comparatively small sandboxes with a handful of sniper perches, narrow hallways, and intertwining walkways, with a few throwing in large atriums and terraces for good measure. It's hard for me to pick a signature map out of the bunch, since they mostly blend together when I play them, the only standout perhaps being a winding little village with a neon sign that serves as ideal cover for snipers. The same can be said for the standard wave killing co-op, as well as the new multiplayer modes Uplink and Momentum, the former which is a souped version of the Capture the Flag, and latter which is a tug of war battle in which one team tries to hold several capture points in a row.
One thing that surprised me about the multiplayer was how little the much-vaunted exoskeleton ultimately figured into the gameplay. I mean, sure, you're hopping and sliding around a lot, but rarely did I find cause to use the majority of the exo-abilities, the shield and the cloaking device being the most prevalent. The same could be said for the grenades, which aren't that useful outside of the usual frag grenade and perhaps the threat grenade, which makes it possible to see foes through walls. Actually, for a game that's ostensibly about the future of warfare, Advanced Warfare feels surprisingly contemporary. Sure, it was cool to have my HUD jammed, or to activate a cloaking device. But most of the time, I was hopping around with a classic assault rifle or shotgun and tossing grenades.
And that's where Advance Warfare ultimately falls a bit flat for me. After all these years of playing Call of Duty, the tweaks in Advanced Warfare just don't do enough to mix up the formula, which is quietly becoming stale. It's a bit like watching the umpteenth Matrix knockoff in the mid-2000s and being completely underwhelmed by elements like bullet time: Yeah, it was amazing seven years ago, but certain tropes have been so beaten to death as to be cliche. There was a time not so long ago when "No Russian" was on everyone's lips, and Call of Duty was lauded for its daring and ambition in bringing RPG elements to multiplayer—a controversial choice back in 2007, when conventional wisdom ruled that XP would dramatically unbalance the action in favor of experienced players. The series took risks, it was constantly experimenting with shooter conventions, and the setpieces were often amazing.
With Advanced Warfare, I feel little one way or the other. In a few years, I expect that the only level I'll remember is San Francisco, which features a moment that has been used in every action movie featuring the Bay Area since the beginning of time. But with all that said, I think the hardcore base will still like it, because they are the ones who are best equipped to understand the true nuance of Advanced Warfare's slides and double jump, not to mention new weapons like the XMG, which effectively turns you into a mobile turret. Everything Advanced Warfare does seems to be done with the intention of keeping that crowd happy; and you know, who can blame Sledgehammer? Long after everyone else has moved on, they will be the ones sending emails complaining that the laser cannon (which is a surprisingly great vehicle for burning holes through foes at long rage, by the way) is alternately overpowered and underpowered.
The more I play Advanced Warfare, though, the more I think that the series is on the verge of being left behind. Once upon a time, Call of Duty was the undisputed number one competitive shooter, and it wasn't even close. Today, it's still a dominant force among casual gamers in particular, but rivals like Titanfall are rapidly closing the gap. It may just be coincidence, but the heavy thud with which drop pods bearing armored combat suits drop from orbit are extremely reminiscent of Titanfall's drops, if a bit underwhelming when compared side-by-side in terms of scale.
In the end, I suppose this is all a fairly lukewarm endorsement, especially considering the score. What pushes it up just a notch, ultimately, is Advanced Warfare's polish—the series looks as good as ever at 1080p and at 60 frames per second—and the additions to the competitive multiplayer, which are on balance positive additions that impact everything from the pacing to the map design while also retaining the speed and precision that Call of Duty is known for. Where Advanced Warfare chooses to innovate, it is incisive and smart, carefully balancing the design of maps like "Ascend"—a space elevator that features a more vertical design to accomodate the new jump mechanics—around its new mechanics. The faithful will be happy, I think, if only because it's of amazing to double jump and dropkick an enemy as they try to snipe you out of the air.
There is a danger, however, in striving only to keep your core fans happy. Too often, it is easy for development teams to get lost in the echo chamber created by their game's most vocal fans, which has the effect of encouraging them to prioritize balance changes over more ambitious endeavors. That is what I feel has happened with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which tries very hard to capture the essence and the flavor of the series, and is ultimately a little too successful. Chalk it up to new studio jitters; after all, taking on a franchise as huge as Call of Duty is a big task. But if Sledgehammer Games is looking to truly make their mark, then they may have to be prepared to risk the ire of the very fans that they are so intent on pleasing.
The in-engine cutscenes are flat-out gorgeous, but the often drab environments frequently undercut the beauty of the art when the game is in motion.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare feature state-of-the-art audio that takes full advantage of surround systems. The pop of the rifles and the sizzle of the lasers are especially well executed.
The minimalist interface occasionally makes it difficult to tell friend from foe. The double jump feels great, but holding down the left analog stick and pushing left to dodge takes some getting used to.
The campaign lasts between 8-10 hours and includes the usual array of difficulty levels. The multiplayer remains the primary source of Advanced Warfare's lasting appeal.
Tasked with leading Call of Duty into the next generation, Sledgehammer Games is off to a cautious start. Advanced Warfare executes the formula competently while adding a handful of bells and whistles like mechs, laser cannons, and double jumps; but Sledgehammer Games seems reluctant to really cut loose and push the setting to its fullest potential, making Advanced Warfare a solid but ultimately unexciting entry in the series.