When protagonist Jack Mitchell is first introduced to ATLAS Corp, he’s guided through a facility’s testing area where engineers and scientists are gauging the limits of a new weapon: the exosuit. Test subjects wearing the exoskeleton are found scaling metallic walls, boost jumping from platform to platform, sparring against multiple assailants, and protecting themselves from sentry turrets with erected shields. This posturing display of advanced technology delivers a single message: “Welcome to the future”, thus setting the tone for what’s to be expected from Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
If one man was to be the face of this advanced militaristic future, it’s Jonathan Irons. Voiced by the irrepressible Kevin Spacey, Irons heads ATLAS Corp, a private military corporation that outguns the rest of the world’s armed forces, and rapidly becomes the go-to solution to all matters regarding global conflict.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare paints a straight-forward narrative without the convoluted, fancy PowerPoint presentation-driven, bullshit storytelling that has plagued the series for years. Mitchell, who is scarcely voiced by an underused Troy Baker, is around long enough (as opposed to being one of two or more lead characters killed off, as has been the case in past entries) for the plot to stay its course. Because of this, the story maintains a digestive focus that’s simple and longingly welcomed.
This focused narrative leaves room for Advanced Warfare to try new story beats. “Hold X to pay respects” has been the butt of many jokes on the internet; however, it’s an admirable attempt to shift the tone from the blitzkrieg of sustained climax that Call of Duty is commonly known for. And when one character in particular dies, it managed to get more emotion out of me (even if it was just for a half second) than any annual attempt in the past half-decade.
Despite this, and even with Spacey’s exaggerated, House of Cards-like performance, as well as the superb visuals in both pre-rendered and real-time story sequences, Advanced Warfare doesn’t do enough to allow Call of Duty to graduate from its bro-shooter roots.
New toys, tactics, and mobility options introduced in Advanced Warfare set a high bar for the expectations of how the game will react to such changes. So does this new Call of Duty succeed in a true advancement through its single player campaign? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
Weapons, items, and of course, the exosuit, go only as far as to make Call of Duty’s story mode a more convenient romp through its 15 chapters rather than offering a completely new experience from the ground up. Threat Grenades – tactical disposables that highlight enemies through walls – and Smart Grenades – capable of homing in on their targets from above – make these cluttered/corridor combat encounters much more manageable and alleviates the constant mistakes of gunning down your own allies. The exosuit’s boosting ability, on the other hand, is only reliable as a lateral positional tool when moving from cover to cover, or opening/closing the gap between you and your enemies.
I use the term “only reliable” because all other abilities – including boost jumping – are granted at the story’s discretion, not yours. This means that you’ll have access to the time-slowing Overcharge ability in one mission which will then get swapped out for an EMP blast in the next chapter. To be fair, each chapter leads with a list of all activated abilities before mission start. However it’s a frustrating inconsistency that not only shows that Sledgehammer (or Activision execs afraid of changing the brand too drastically) was intent on determining what gamers can do and how they can do it, but it often confuses players as to their capabilities in each mission.
For example, one sequence had a squad mate bark at me to use a ladder. “Ladder?” I ask. “This is Advanced fucking Warfare! I have no need for ladders!” I then proceeded to double tap the A button to activate a boost jump to reach the platform above – before realizing that the ability was removed.
That’s not to say that there isn’t some success in the exosuit’s implementation. Best attempts are made when stages are blown up to the point where mobility is a must, such as an Assassins Creed-like stealth mission that has you luring unsuspecting guards into bushes, and an all-out assault nearing the end of the story that has you double jumping and grapple-hooking (one of the many abilities not included in multiplayer) from one point to the next. However, for the vast majority of the campaign, there were hardly moments that I felt I needed – or was even capable of – using the exosuit to its fullest.
Setting aside all of its restrictive tendencies, as a classic Call of Duty experience, Advanced Warfare is extremely well paced. On-rails sections are enjoyable and rarely overstay their welcome. Sledgehammer was also bold enough to push players through sections where they’re unarmed, and others where the lead character is gravely wounded to the point that he’s unable to operate weapons properly.
The highlight of the campaign had me suppressing fire on a sniper tucked away in a tower while advancing my way through a foreign city. It’s the type of ebb and flow that Treyarch has attempted in its own Call of Duty iterations yet failed on many counts, and one that we haven’t seen pulled off successfully since Call of Duty 4. Ultimately, Advanced Warfare’s campaign retains a strong classic Call of Duty experience; however, it disappointingly falls short in fully embracing its own future.
Thankfully though, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s multiplayer boasts a no-holds-barred commitment to future warfare, making it the best competitive space in the franchise’s history.
For starters, it’s easy to ignore the iterative, yet robust, level of customization Advanced Warfare brings to the table considering all drastic changes the exosuit carries. Black Ops 2’s Pick 10 system takes the form of Pick 13, which incorporates scorestreaks into Create-a-Class as well. Scorestreaks get a special treatment here as not only do they get a wildcard that adds a fourth streak, but each can also be independently customized. Want your UAV to act like a pulsating Threat Grenade? Go for it. Want to earn points towards it even after dying? Why the hell not?
Sledgehammer takes an experimental approach to weapons that comes with mixed success. The loot system enables players to get supply drops – seemingly at random – with special guns along with cosmetic character gear and different bonuses. Weapons earned here are stat/attachment tweaked versions of your standard arsenal that often come as a pleasant surprise outside of Call of Duty’s tried and true protracted unlock system. Direct energy weapons appear for the first time as well; however, they’re largely unpopular along with the remainder of the heavy weapons class as their penalty in handling and mobility clashes with Advanced Warfare’s movement. But above all else, the best addition to the weapons systems is the virtual firing range, which allows you to safely test weapons at the touch of a button before taking them into the field.
It’s too bad that you can’t stress test the exosuit like you can with your arsenal, because while moving and shooting is surprisingly intuitive, its complex applications require as much conditioning as possible. This is the single best thing to happen to Call of Duty in seven years because it changes basic combat engagement tremendously.
While the series has always been about who locks their sights on whom first, boosting gives the target a number of choices to avoid death. Not only can you dash in and out of cover, but boost jumping enables nigh limitless options in flanking your pursuers above and around rooftops instead of relying on two-dimensional pathing. These new modes of maneuverability makes gametypes like Kill Confirmed feel as if they were originally informed by Advanced Warfare, making them an absolute perfect match.
And then there’s the exoshield. Unlike many of the other unwanted, sluggish exo abilities, you can instantly bring up a battery powered front protector, shielding you from oncoming fire. It’s the only relevant exo ability that completes Advanced Warfare’s new offensive/defensive dynamic along with various mobile options. When using all of these tactics in tandem, it becomes a sublime formula of quick reflexes and deliberate positioning, both in which respond well to Advanced Warfare’s exquisite level design.
Most of the maps in Advanced Warfare do a fantastic job in placing higher platforms in relation to ground level in ways that feel balanced and strategic regardless of a player’s vertical location. Standouts include Terrace, which takes place on a hillside along a series of roof tops, where its diagonal slope gives way for fast travel when making your way downhill. Ascend on the other hand shines in objective-based match types with its three-lane, multileveled design paving multiple pathways from one edge of the map to the next. Detroit is the closest you’ll see to a classic Call of Duty map, which may be a bit of a disappointment to some. However, Greenband is my least favorite by far.
Reminiscent of level design you might find in the Halo series, Greenband has a brilliantly agonizing maze-like structure with tight corridors and high walls to jump over; but the large chasm in the middle of the map often discourages airborne movements, which leads to a frustrating conflict of interest.
Hang-ups like these are important to note, especially if you’re venturing into Advanced Warfare’s more carry-on objective game types. Capture the Flag mirrors some of the satisfaction of the same playlist in Titanfall, where taking advantage of both horizontal and vertical pathways is vital for scoring. On the other hand, the sports-like Uplink – Sledgehammer’s fresh addition to the franchise – is fully optimized for this year’s Call of Duty. With each team attempting to take a satellite (the ball) and score it into the other team’s station (the goal), the momentum is in constant flux with both sides picking up the ball where allies or enemies dropped it, and Uplink ultimately forces players to look at their surroundings holistically and creatively.
None of these changes make Advanced Warfare an unrecognizable Call of Duty; however, they reinforce a dramatic shift in a way the franchise – and potentially this genre as a whole – will treat competitive shooters for the foreseeable future.
There is also a co-op element to Advanced Warfare if competition isn’t your thing; unfortunately, however, it’s not any friendlier. Sledgehammer brings back the beloved Survival Mode, now appropriately rebranded as Exo Survival. It bears more resemblance to the franchise’s first swing at a wave-based/horde mode-style co-op back in Modern Warfare 3 than the horrific regurgitation in Ghosts: four players take on an increasingly difficult onslaught of enemies with breaks in between each wave to upgrade their equipment. However, the exosuit, along with new objective wrinkles, changes Exo Survival in a big way.
That’s because it’s really fucking hard. For every white-knuckle stand-off of killing everything in sight, you might be asked to defuse bombs or collect over two dozen dog tags littered across the map. Fail to complete said objectives, and the game punishes you by disabling exosuit mobility, jamming your HUD display, temporarily restricting use of your primary weapon, or otherwise. The pressure is heavily applied by the veteran grade A.I. that are relentless in their mission to make your life miserable, and can easily wipe out your entire team within the first round. The intent here is to instil the value of teamwork like never before seen in a Call of Duty game, and it accomplishes this by the simple virtue that if you venture off alone, you die. With that said, successful communication and collaboration lead to rare rewards for the franchise as a whole. However, Sledgehammer has swung so heavily in that direction to the point that, at times, Exo Survival is just too depressingly hard to be enjoyable.
In the end, as ball-breakingly difficult as Exo Survival may be, and as disappointingly conventional the single player has turned out, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare stands firmly on the shoulders of its competitive multiplayer. Sledgehammer has succeeded in their drastic changes to the formula with the exosuit; it’s now up to Treyarch and Infinity Ward to carry that same torch.