Edge of tomorrow
Like a lot of people, I’ve grown increasingly cynical toward Call of Duty over the past seven years. It’s not that I don’t enjoy playing each new iteration and seeing the various upgrades and tweaks, but the combination of the franchise’s annual release schedule and unprecedented popularity means there’s been little incentive to change too much too quickly—especially with regards to multiplayer.
That’s not intended as any kind of slam. Activision had a working formula, so they naturally put their efforts toward refinement and expansion rather than reimagination. But the core gameplay concepts worked so well from the start that most of those updates have centered on everything that matters most before a match actually begins—weapons, character customization, loadouts. What I’m saying is, if we’d cryogenically frozen a Modern Warfare player in late 2007 and defrosted them today, they’d be able to hop into a match of Ghosts and do just fine without any special preparations. It’d probably take longer to explain selfies and convince them that we really, definitely have a black president.
They would, however, be pretty baffled by Advanced Warfare. Everyone can double-jump and air-dash? Did that guy just turn invisible? Does this gun shoot laser beams? Did I really just get a random loot drop? It’s as if first-time lead developer Sledgehammer Games inherited a list of every crazy idea anyone working on Call of Duty multiplayer ever suggested, then decided they were going to implement them all at once.
The banner change is, of course, the addition of the exosuit (or exo, for short) that serves the dual purpose of making you look like a futuristic badass and allowing you to use superhuman abilities. Thanks to mounted boost thrusters, you can double-jump, dodge to the side, and perform a mid-air dash to clear the distance to a just-out-of-reach ledge or opponent. At first, it takes a fair bit of getting used to, since Call of Duty has never required terribly much in the way of vertical thinking.
Once you’re more accustomed, though, the added mobility becomes quite empowering, allowing you to rapidly strafe to break line of sight when an enemy gets the jump on you or climb to a higher vantage point to ambush an unsuspecting group of foes. Even more fun is messing around with the boost-assisted ground pound, trying to land a fatal boot to the head so you can feel like a gritty, realistic Mario.
It’s unsurprising that all this extra motion has led to more complex level design as well. None of the four levels I played seemed substantially larger than what you’re used to in terms of overall footprint, but when you can boost up and mantle onto 12-foot-high roof, the entire concept of lanes and sight-lines gets instantly blown out in a big way. The definite highlight was Riot, an abandoned prison yard centered around a three-tiered cell block. Battles there tended to culminate in an absolutely hectic spray of fire from every direction, some players on the floor, others on the catwalks, and still more dropping in from the rooftop skylights.
The exo also frees up Sledgehammer to try out zanier, more inventive game modes, like Uplink. Part reverse-CTF, part basketball, this mode spawns an orb in the center of the map, then tasks both teams with grabbing it, carrying into enemy territory, and tossing it through their hovering goal to score a point (or, if flash is more your thing, you can dunk it for two points). The big catch here is that anyone carrying the ball can’t use their weapons, meaning they’re something of a sitting duck unless their teammates are there to back them up. Well, that’s not entirely true. If they’re feeling particularly brave, they can also hurl the ball at an enemy opponent, who’ll automatically catch it and then lose access to their weapons, offering a chance to nab the kill while they’re still disoriented.
But for all the exciting opportunities that Advanced Warfare’s freer range of motion allows, it’s not the only thing the exo allows. The other big spoiler to the standard Call of Duty rhythm is a special ability slot that, by default, replaces one of your two grenade types. (I say default because the Pick 10 system is back, now evolved to include score-streak rewards and dubbed Pick 13.) These active buffs allow you to, among other things, summon a bulletproof riot shield from your forearm, go invisible for a brief period, scan the vicinity for moving enemies, and augment your speed. They’re all temporary, governed by an energy meter than only replenishes when you respawn, so it’s crucial to determine exactly when and where you’re going to pull out your chosen trump card. In my early experiences, they lent a strategic rhythm to head-on firefights that’s been painfully absent from prior games in the franchise, allowing me to eke out a win when I was grossly outnumbered or escape with my life when I was ambushed. This is no longer a game where whoever gets the first shot off first wins—at least not as often.
Still, not everything I saw was as immediately promising as the upgrades to the core mechanics. Where Sledgehammer has tinkered around the edges, fussing with new weapon types and metagame systems, I’m less convinced. The new beam weapons, while conceptually cool and neat to look at, didn’t really feel all that effective in combat. On several occasions, I felt like I’d kept a steady stream on someone for a solid few seconds before they saw me, and they still put me down with a quick burst of bullets. Their purported main advantage—no ammo or reloading to worry about—doesn’t seem to matter much when they take so long to kill and your average lifespan is so short.
Then there’s the real kicker: random loot drops. Now, every so often, you’ll earn a crate that can contain either a new gun, a cosmetic item for your soldier, or a one-time gameplay boost. The last two I could take or leave, but I’m really concerned about how these variable weapon stats are going to play out. I was assured by Sledgehammer that each possible weapon variant, from the most common to the rarest, would be carefully designed by a human being to ensure there’s a balanced trade-off at play. It’s about specialization, they said, not an outright advantage.
That’s all well and good, but I’m not sure that balance is my primary problem with the idea. Call of Duty has always suffered from same-y, overlapping weapons that feel like an indistinct continuum with one obvious choice for your playstyle. This just feels like an attempt to take that illusion of choice to a ludicrous extreme, and to put the weapon that’s best suited for you even further out of reach. Want the highest fire-rate SMG for your speedy quick-draw build? Better play longer and hope for the right drop. Worse still, I’m not convinced they won’t succumb to the microtransaction route, allowing you to buy additional crates or weapons directly.
The obvious upside to the loot system, however, is that it’s pushed Sledgehammer to vastly improve the way lobbies work. Now, rather than simply staring at a list of names, you can actually see the character models of every player, decked out with whatever they’ve got equipped. It’s a great way for showing off rare (presumably diamond-encrusted) cosmetics, but it’s also a smart way to allow players to check out what weapon setups their opponents are running with. I couldn’t find any way to check on their perks, secondary equipment, or killstreaks, which would’ve made the idea even better, but it’s a solid start for a game that’s been a bit too oblique about player feedback in the past. Heck, you can even launch straight from the lobby into a virtual shooting range to try out new guns with virtually zero loading time. That’s such a vast improvement over forcing players to try them out for the first time in an actual match that it’s mind-blowing it took this long to implement.
Yet, in spite of all that, Advanced Warfare doesn’t feel quite as revolutionary as Modern Warfare at first blush, simply because it isn’t really ahead of the curve in the same way. Back in ’07, no mainstream first-person shooter had ever envisioned multiplayer with such a heavy RPG influence. But XP systems, level-based unlocks, and customizable loadout slots soon became de rigueur, and the genre moved on to exploring other ideas.
With Advanced Warfare, Call of Duty is largely entering into some of those already established trends: randomized drops, loot as prestige, sci-fi inventiveness, and, of course, most significantly, mobility. That renewed emphasis on movement in first-person games, championed early on by games like Mirror’s Edge, Brink, and Crysis, is the fad Sledgehammer seems to be chasing hardest. It’s impacted plenty of big franchise titles as of late, including, to a certain extent, BioShock Infinite and Far Cry 3, but there’s no doubt that it reached fever pitch with the jetpacks and wall-running of Titanfall.
In some respects, that’s probably the most significant shift Advanced Warfare brings to the table: It’s now Respawn’s mech shooter, not Battlefield, that’s Call of Duty’s clearest competitor. We’ll probably never know exactly how much of that was conscious maneuvering on Activision’s part and how much of it was great minds thinking alike, but I suspect it’ll matter little in the long run. The more important point is that both games are tilling ground that’s immensely more fertile than the exhausted rut multiplayer shooters have been scratching at for years now, and competition between two design teams that talented can only breed interesting innovation. I’m excited to see how Advanced Warfare shapes up this November, but, for the first time in a while, I’m also excited to see what this generation has in store for my favorite genre.
That’s the thing about change, really. It’s hard to be cynical once you realize you don’t know what’s going to happen next.