After years of incremental updates, experiments and minor upgrades, this year’s Call of Duty is the biggest departure for the series since it moved from WW2 to the present day in the original Modern Warfare. Advanced Warfare shifts the action 50 years into the future, to a world where private military corporations (PMCs) wield more power than national armies and soldiers are equipped with strength- and speed-enhancing EXO suits. It’s the shake-up Call of Duty needed, but the formula still isn’t perfect.
Jumping straight into the campaign mode, it’s clear new lead developer Sledgehammer games has picked up exactly where the last team left off; explosive set-pieces, globe-trotting locations, conspiracies and double crosses are still the order of the day, only this time they unfold with full body and facial motion capture. Characters look impressively lifelike, particularly Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey as Jonathan Irons, CEO of the powerful Atlas corporation. His performance loses a little impact, though, as his virtual avatar has such lifeless eyes.
The time period and locations might have changed, but at its heart Advanced Warfare barely mixes up the formula from previous Call of Duty games. Even with the EXO suits, most missions dissolve into a succession of shooting galleries or escapes, with a small scattering of on-rails and vehicle sections to provide a break from the gunplay.
I HAVE THE POWER
Strapping on an Exo suit for the first time feels liberating, as jet-powered double jumps let you reach high ledges and boost dodges let you quickly dive between cover. However, they are woefully underused; certain levels are built around one particular ability, but you’re never allowed free reign to use it in other missions. The grappling hook creates a multitude of movement and cover options, but you only get to use it once or twice throughout the 6-hour story.
EXO abilities constantly change between levels, meaning gadgets you relied on in the previous mission are no longer available – jumping down from high ledges, only to discover our EXO didn’t have boost jets to reduce our fall speed, led to a few unnecessary deaths. Most abilities rely on battery power, but others, like the very useful Stim health restoration, are one-shots – although this is never explicitly explained at any point.
The gunplay is still as slick as ever, with a few new additions mixing up the shoot-cover-reload-repeat mechanics. Threat Detection grenades highlight enemies through smoke, Target Enhancer scopes reveal enemies behind walls, and Mute Charges silence all sound in an area to let you breach guarded rooms stealthily.
Unfortunately, the same NPC hand-holding and refusal to let the player lead the charge returns. Just once, we’d like to be the ones to kick open a door, rather than have to wait for an AI-controlled companion to do it.
SUIT UP AND TAKE IT ONLINE
As ever, there are several truly memorable sequences that make the campaign worth visiting, but few people buy Call of Duty for the single player mode anyhow; the majority of gamers will jump straight into multiplayer. It’s here the extra mobility from the EXO suits comes into its own.
Not only do players get to double-jump, boost and dodge their way across each map, but they can add all manner of abilities, lethal and tactical grenades, and perks to give them an edge in battle. Using the Pick13 customisation system, an upgrade over the Pick10 system that debuted in 2012’s Black Ops II, you can swap out secondary weapons or kill streak rewards to double up on health-restoring Stim packs, temporary invisibility or silent footsteps.
Supply drops add even more variety. Earned randomly based on the length of time you play, each drop rewards players with unique variants of the default weapons. An assault rifle may fire faster than the standard version, or it might include pre-installed attachments that don’t count against your Pick13 allowance. All together, are literally millions of load out combinations, which should keep fans happy until the next version of the game arrives.
On top of the returning selection of game types, Sledgehammer has added two major new modes, designed to cater to eSports fans; Uplink and Momentum. The former has teams fighting over downed satellites, which have to be returned to your base to score points. A mish-mash of american sports, you score one point for throwing in the satellite into a floating ‘end zone’ but two points are scored for leaping up and ‘dunking’ it in.
The latter is a tug-of-war over territory, where teams must capture a set of flags in order. Reaching the enemy base results in a win, but the opposing team can re-take your captured flags and push you back through the battlefield.
Of course, all the old Call of Duty favourites return, enhanced with EXO movement mechanics, and there’s also an option to play team deathmatch, domination and Search and Destroy modes with EXO abilities switched off – which should appeal to COD purists.
A PEEK BEHIND THE CURTAIN
There are plenty of new maps to learn, and based on what we’ve played so far there’s a healthy mix of small, indoor environments and larger open areas. Unfortunately, they are rather restrictive; players might now have the ability to reach higher vantage points, but try to get to the top of a building and you’ll frequently be met with a flashing “Out of Bounds” sign – breaking the illusion of go-anywhere EXO movement. Call of Duty isn’t Battlefield, but at present it’s too restrictive.
It’s such a shame that the whole multiplayer experience is hampered by woeful connection issues that make most games all but unplayable. Usually Call of Duty’s greatest strength, Advanced Warfare stumbled out of the gate with laggy gameplay and disconnection problems; hopefully Activision will issue a quick fix, but right now it’s unacceptable for a game that sells largely on the ease of access of its multiplayer component.
If you prefer to team up with your friends, rather than compete against them, Exo Survival pits you against waves of increasingly tough opposition. Points are earned for completing each wave, which can then be spent on EXO or weapon upgrades, but the whole experience just feels lacklustre – especially after last year’s COD: Ghosts tried something new and refreshing with Extinction.
Sledgehammer will be adding Zombies, the wave-based survival mode that proved so popular in Treyarch’s Call of Duty games, as downloadable content in the future, so all isn’t lost for fans of co-op gameplay, but Exo Survival simply doesn’t compare.
Advanced Warfare is a case of two steps forward, one step back for the franchise. EXO suit movement ups the ante further than any previous entry in the series in terms of mobility and pace, but the developer hasn’t capitalised on its introduction in the campaign. Multiplayer, usually a sure-fire success, is uncharacteristically broken at launch, and the co-op mode is more of an also-ran than must-play addition. If Sledgehammer can fix its online issues we’ve no doubt the Advanced Warfare disc will spend a lot of time in our PS4 disc tray, but right now it’s difficult to justify the price of entry.