Sledgehammer's path to the main Call of Duty series was not the standard one.
The team had been working on a third person game that was to get the Call of Duty name before being picked to help Infinity Ward finish up Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 when a huge portion of the studio left to form Respawn Entertainment, the developer behind this spring's Titanfall. It was only then that the team was finally tapped to make a full Call of Duty game, something they'd never set out to do.
And somehow, they nailed it on the first try, bringing us what might be the best of the Call of Duty series in years with the sole exception of Black Ops II.
But it's still Call of Duty, through and through. Fans of the series won't be left in the cold. The standard structure is in place right down to the way the campaign and multiplayer are structured.
It's Only A Paper Moon
The campaign presented in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is a weird mix of high production values coupled with a flimsy, hammy plot with some assembly line action figure characters
So, basically, it's Call of Duty.
You play as Private Jack Mitchell, a soldier in the U.S. Army in the year 2054, alongside his best friend, Will Irons. In a mission gone wrong in South Korea, you find yourself minus one friend and one arm. This is where the much-hyped Kevin Spacey character, Jonathan Irons, comes in.
But first, one of the most awkward moments I've ever seen in a game: Press X to Pay Respects.
This sets the tone for much of the ultra-serious, eye-roll inducing writing that makes up Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
Then we get Kevin Spacey.
Kevin Spacey and the other primary actors – including Troy Baker, star of pretty much every video game in the last three years – are some of the big highlights of the campaign. Spacey's turn as the megalomaniacal head of a private military corporation is great fun to watch. The game's lone female character, Ilona, is a highlight as well.
Despite the writing being downright hammy, the people delivering the lines do a great job delivering them, making them believable despite gaping holes in the plot and some unintentionally silly stuff.
This is helped along by the general shape of the story. Some of the Call of Duty games in the recent past have had plots so full of twists and turns that you manage to get lost going down a straight corridor. Advanced Warfare has its soap opera moments, but you never lose track of what's going on or who is on what side.
The final kicker that helps amp the campaign mode is some of the best motion-captured CG I've ever seen. The ultra realistic characters should be deep in the uncanny valley, but with the exception of a few moments where I got a good look at a character's eyes, the characters were stunningly realistic. The graphical upgrade in the game proper, campaign and multiplayer alike, is no minor upgrade either.
Still Just a Murdertrain A Comin'
The gameplay, too, is a mixture some familiar problems and fresh updates.
It does a good job, if nothing else, of introducing some of the new technology you'll be operating when you get into the multiplayer modes. Think of it as a five hour tutorial for double jumping. Variable grenades also give you a chance to experiment with things like threat grenades, which highlight your opponents in red on your hud for a short time.
There are some great set piece levels as well. One stealth level reminded me a bit of the classic ghillie suit level in the first Modern Warfare, while a level in Antarctica is visually impressive throughout with some especially good lighting and art direction.
The campaign's biggest problem is one Call of Duty has always struggled with: It's an ultra-directed experience meant to mimic an action movie mixed with a shooting gallery more than an in-depth gaming experience. This is especially apparent with some of the campaign-specific toys you get access to, like the grappling hook, magnetic wall-climbing gloves, or tanks.
Instead of feeling like parts of the game, they're more like different sections of a theme park ride. You get just enough time to enjoy them, but not enough to explore them.
Even so, it's a fun theme park ride with a lot of variety, fun stuff to look at, and some of the best characters the series has yet seen.
Jump Up, Jump Up and Get Down
But we all know what we're here for. Call of Duty isn't about the campaign. Not after the first few hours.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is all about the multiplayer and it manages to update the formula without tossing out the fast twitch action, progression and customization that fans of the game love.
The single biggest change to multiplayer is the addition of Exo units, the back-mounted hardware that gives you double jump and special abilities like cloaking, healing, and sprinting. That double jump adds a new verticality to Call of Duty that I can see now the game has been sorely lacking. After last year's lackluster Ghosts, I was starting to wonder what another Call of Duty could add aside from some different maps.
The boosting that comes with the Exo units isn't simply a double jump, though. There's boost dodging as well and what is best described as the Call of Duty version of the Mario butt-stomp. This lets you take advantage of the mobility of a jetpack without turning yourself into a floating target.
I'm not going to pretend like I'm not dying constantly in Team Deathmatch anymore, but the way I move around maps has definitely changed from past games.
The game also does a better job of keeping players engaged even when they're not winning. Every couple matches, you'll get a notice when someone drops you: Supply Drop Received. The supply drop can give you access to new guns, temporary elite items, or even a new pair of pants to go with your customizable character outfit. This is on top of the standard progression, so whether you're having a great day or not, you'll still get that excuse for just one more match.
Not only can you customize your loadout with the standard Pick system – updated to 13 from 10 to reflect the addition of the Exo unit – but you can customize your character's look as well, picking from a variety of male and female soldiers and clothing them with gear from any of the factions throughout the game.
The laundry list of standard modes like Domination and Hardpoint are present and enjoyable, but there are few new modes to check out as well. Momentum is a tweak on Domination that has the winning team pulling in more points per kill the more spots they've captured. The real highlight, though, is Uplink. Fellow gaming editor Joey Davidson calls this Call of Duty: Advanced Quidditch, and he's not too far off.
The way Uplink works is that the opposing teams fight over a satellite, which happens to be a small, passable ball, in an attempt to get that ball to their team's floating goal.
This is one of the few objective based modes – along side Kill Confirmed – that doesn't seem to fall victim to campers. Despite the addition of actual double-jumping jet packs, players seem to find ways to camp in just about every game mode. Uplink and Kill Confirmed kept players moving around and stuck out as some of my favorite modes.
If you still have a soft spot for Call of Duty, then Advanced Warfare is a must-buy. Even with the disappointment of last year's iteration, Advanced Warfare is confirmation that the series still isn't dead, even for those of us who might not consider its yearly release date a special holiday.
The campaign sports high production values that make it worth the five or six hours it takes to get through it, and the multiplayer keeps up with some of the competition by making mobility the big feature of the game.
It's still Call of Duty, but it's a fresh take on the formula and shows that Sledgehammer was a good choice to bring into the yearly rotation of Activision's biggest shooter. I'll be looking forward to seeing what they have to offer next time around. Assuming Call of Duty is still a thing in 2017.
Disclaimer: We purchased Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare for the Xbox One with company funds, and we played through the single player campaign before writing this review.
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