At the start of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s second level, protagonist Jack Mitchell stands in Arlington National Cemetery, silent witness to the military funeral of his closest friend. Neat rows of white marble headstones stretch into the distance. Marines line up like somber statues in their freshly pressed dress blues. A veiled widow weeps and clutches the flag folded in her lap. It’s imagery that seems long overdue in a franchise that’s so often striven to temper its guns-blazing nature with even-handed reflections on the cost of war.
Then, in the center of the screen, a line of text fades in, one of the button prompts you usually get when you’re about to plant C-4 on a tank or desperately wrestle a pistol out of a terrorist’s grip. It reads, without a hint of irony, “Press X to pay your respects.”
That sort of bizarre, almost laughable juxtaposition of attempted solemnity and overt game-ness is hardly exclusive to Advanced Warfare, of course. The Modern Warfares accompanied every death screen with a pithy quote about the horrors of battle, then thrust you back behind the trigger to have more raucous fun perforating enemy scum. Black Ops II let you see through the eyes of the villain to communicate the horrible injustices that can drive a man to terrorism, then let you control him on an almost superhuman, machete-wielding decapitation spree.
If the duality stands out more in Advanced Warfare, it’s because first-time lead developer Sledgehammer Games has made such a concerted effort toward improving both of the extremes. They’ve greatly expanded the core gameplay mechanics, with the result that basic combat encounters—whether in single- or multiplayer—offer a deeper, more consistent level of engagement. From a storytelling standpoint, they’ve tried to deliver something with more focus and subtlety than the typical globetrotting romp from one explosive setpiece to the next.
On that front, they’ve been only partially successful. The decisions to focus on a single playable character, Mitchell, and to use frequent cutscenes to keep narrative purpose front and center pay dividends. No Call of Duty story has been this coherent or straightforward. Not once did I wonder why I was headed to the next exotic locale or who the voice barking orders at me was. Even more encouraging is the choice to slow down some of the playable segments, giving you mid-mission downtime to explore, listen to dialogue, and take in your surroundings. Pacing like that is a fairly basic accomplishment—something first-person shooters have been doing well at least since Half-Life 2—but it’s a welcome shift for Call of Duty.
Where Advanced Warfare‘s narrative stumbles, then, is in the actual story it attempts to tell. The premise starts off strong enough: After losing his arm in combat, Mitchell is approached by the father of his fallen friend, Jonathan Irons (Kevin Spacey, channeling the same smug charm and quiet aggression he brings to House of Cards’ Frank Underwood). Irons happens to be the CEO of Atlas, a PMC firm that touts more firepower than any single nation on earth, and he soon outfits Mitchell with a shiny new robotic arm and a high-paying gig among his mercenary ranks.
There’s real potential to deliver a different kind of story, to explore the moral grayness of an army for hire and the creeping temptation to abuse a seemingly unlimited amount of power, even with the best of intentions at heart. For a while, it seems like that might actually be the endgame, but a thoroughly predictable, disappointing plot twist early on abandons any hope of nuance in favor of a simplistic showdown between good and evil. Irons slides from relatable if potentially misguided father-in-mourning to Bond villain in the span of about two minutes, and it just keeps getting worse from there. Now, if I’m being even-handed, Advanced Warfare probably doesn’t fare that poorly when stacked up against other Call of Duty narratives, but it’s heartbreakingly easy to imagine a few key changes that would’ve made it a commendable narrative, period.
It’s a shame, too, because Spacey’s talents are given so little room to shine in the wake of that dropoff. The strongest material he’s given, outside of some decent scenes near the start, actually comes from a series of audio-only monologues that are curiously hidden away in the menus. I can’t help but wonder if they were initially meant to play during gameplay before someone decided that would take the pacing too far out of traditional Call of Duty territory.
The gameplay changes, however, have much less to apologize for. As far as exciting hooks go, Advanced Warfare’s tricked-out exoskeleton and 2050s weaponry certainly rank up there, but Call of Duty has never really wanted for exciting hooks. What makes those two concepts genuinely valuable are the important design problems they manage to solve, some which have lingered since Modern Warfare.
For the first time in the series, campaign firefights manage more dynamism than a march through a series of shooting galleries with the occasional pause to wipe the blood out of your eyes. Level after level, Advanced Warfare puts meaningful gameplay tools at your disposal and allows you to choose when and how to use them. The exoskeleton’s new mobility options—boost-aided double-jumps, midair dashes, side-to-side dodges, and ground slams—provide the means to flank creatively, not just down obvious alleyways but by leaping onto rooftops, over walls, and into open windows. New threat grenades light up targets in bright red even when they’re behind cover, allowing you to understand the layout of the battlefield and strategize accordingly, rather than simply waiting for a flicker of movement and reacting.
Those two mechanics, while the most foundational and pervasive, are really just the beginning, too. At various points and in various combinations, you’re also given access to active camouflage, a deployable riot shield, a sonic emitter that temporarily stuns nearby enemies, an on-command bullet-time ability, and a grappling hook, all of which allow you to mix up the pacing of a fight. Even then, those are just the gadgets you carry with you for entire missions; there are also vehicles, drones, and other surprises you encounter at predetermined moments throughout the campaign.
Later Call of Duty titles have attempted variety by injecting a few one-off setpieces that proved cool to witness but were limited in interactivity. Advanced Warfare, by contrast, turns most of its clever ideas into real mechanics, often recurring and almost always built to let you play an essential role in creating the spectacle. When you’re first introduced to the grappling hook, for instance, you’re limited to climbing up a handful of preselected platforms in between shootouts. In a prior installment, that would probably be the end of it, but you soon realize Advanced Warfare uses that on-rails section as a sort of tutorial, later bringing the feature back for a pair of delightful levels that let you zip back and forth between any ledge in sight, once for stealthy navigation and once during an insane, climactic firefight in an impressively sprawling environment.
In spite of all that progress, Advance Warfare’s campaign can’t quite shake all of its inherited cobwebs. Nearly a decade on, we’re still unironically breaching doors in slow motion and popping easy bullets into terrorists as their bodies flail in cartoon surprise, and it’s still not entirely clear what’s gained in the process. Vehicle segments, though far from terrible, still feel a bit clumsy and out of place compared to the smoothness of the on-foot gameplay. Nor can the game manage a more satisfying conclusion than another stilted quick-time-event showdown against the villain, followed by a shameless tease of the inevitable sequel.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the multiplayer that benefits the most from the gameplay changes. After years of playing out the same basic gunfights with a few additional bells and whistles, it’s exhilarating to experience something that upends your expectations without losing sight of the essential hallmarks. Even more so than in campaign, the exoskeleton’s mobility serves as a wonderful spoiler to your ingrained habits, forcing you to engage with the added verticality in the new maps and think in entirely new ways about the best avenues of approach.
Equally impressive is the new Exo Ability slot, which replaces one of the traditional grenade buttons with a limited-use power. As I tinkered with the various options and found my early favorites—Cloak, Shield, and the temporarily health-boosting Stim—it became apparent just what a distinctive impact this new slot has on building out a playstyle. Specialization has always been key to the success of Call of Duty multiplayer, and Exo Abilities manage to take the depth of perks and make it an active component of gameplay.
They also have the effect of making each engagement longer and more involved, since you have a way to react when an enemy gets the drop on you. It’s worth noting that the basic tuning of the game seems to have been tweaked with that goal in mind, too, with slightly more bullets to kill and a noticeable reduction on the auto-aim when you snap down your sights. In the past, it’s sometimes felt frustratingly like most multiplayer deaths came from being blindsided by another player. Now you’ve got a chance to recover and pull out the kill. Without a doubt, this is the most skill-based Call of Duty multiplayer since the first Modern Warfare. Not coincidentally, it’s also the most fun.
In addition to those foundational changes, Advanced Warfare also manages to pack in more new features than you’d find in a typical year. Energy weapons offer up a different gameplay archetype with its own set of skills to master. The Pick 13 system, an expansion of the last two years’ Pick 10, brings scorestreaks into the mix, offering even more chances to tweak your loadout as you see fit. New modifiers let you change the behaviors of your scorestreaks at the expense of making them costlier to earn. An added weapon drop system randomly awards you items with subtle gameplay benefits and unique appearances, allowing you to grow even more attached to a particular gun that suits the way you play. Uplink, a new game mode that plays out like a (more) violent version of basketball, might just be the best mode in the game.
There’s practically too much to mention it all, and I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that I enjoyed each and every change at least a little. At most review events, I’ll try out multiplayer enough to feel like I’ve seen everything; with Advanced Warfare, I kept coming back until the very end, managing to reach level 40 in the process.
By contrast, this year’s co-op mode, Exo Survival, feels a bit on the standard side. It’s essentially a halfway point between the Survival and Zombies modes of past installments, with the former’s straightforward tone and the latter’s emphasis on powering up your character with upgrades and new perks. I imagine diehard co-op enthusiasts will likely get mileage out of working through the various multiplayer maps, but I’d be lying if I said it’s made a significant impression on me so far.
On the whole, then, Advanced Warfare’s clearly a complex proposition, not just in the volume of changes and additions, but also in the final tallying of where it excels and where it comes up short. It’s a jack-of-all-trades, master of some, and that’s a difficult situation to encapsulate. I’m tempted to say that the successes on the gameplay front—both in campaign and multiplayer—count for far more in the long run than my disappointments with its once-again fumbled attempts to elevate its storytelling. In some respects, I’m mostly glad they made the effort—it’s frankly unnecessary, given most people’s expectations.
At the very least, Advanced Warfare offers reassurance that there’s still something of value left to be found in the franchise. For the first time in years, I can envision a future where Call of Duty won’t just be a fun and polished adrenaline-pumping shooter, but an experience that balances its gameplay bombast with worthwhile storytelling and thematic depth.
In other words, it’ll be something we can all respect—no button prompts necessary.
|Developer: Sledgehammer Games • Publisher: Activision • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 11.4.2014|
If Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s storytelling ambitions disappoint, the same can’t be said of the upgrades to gameplay. In both campaign and multiplayer, the exoskeleton and other futuristic gadgetry breathe new life into a franchise that seemed increasingly trapped in the shadow of the original Modern Warfare.
|The Good||The deepest, most enjoyable Call of Duty multiplayer to date; smart evolution of single-player gameplay.|
|The Bad||A promising story that’s torpedoed by a total lack of nuance.|
|The Ugly||Watching two-time Academy Award–winner Kevin Spacey reduced to virtual moustache-twirling in front of the U.N. General Assembly.|
|Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is available on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Activision provided travel to and accommodation at a review event for the benefit of this review.|