Editor's Note: Activision hosted a review event for this game and provided lodging, transportation, and food for the event. This review is based on playing the game at the event and then a some multiplayer with the final retail version of the game.
So here we are: another year, another new Call of Duty title. I know that some people pre-order new CoD games the day they're announced, and they'll have probably already beaten the main campaign by the time this review is up. But for those of you who like to look before you leap, gather 'round the holo-fire and I'll tell ye a tale that takes place approximately fifty years in the future. A tale of prosthetic limbs and prosthetic sons, of lasers being fired alongside SMGs, of teams locked in matches of death. A tale of Advanced Warfare. After three years, Sledgehammer games is finally up to bat in the CoD production cycle, and Activision was kind enough to pay for my trip out to Sledgehammer's HQ so I could get my hands on Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
I'm going to be honest, Call of Duty games have always missed the mark with me because I don't really get into realistic military games- I like to maximize my escapism by mixing some Sci-Fi into my First Person Shooters. So you can imagine how excited I was that a series of games that's had a significant impact on the FPS genre (as well as the overall popularity and general acceptance of online multiplayer games) but has always eluded me was finally crossing over into my territory. For those of you who are die-hard fans of the series that are worrying about it changing too much- stop it. It still has everything you know and love about the series and plays very much like a Call of Duty game is supposed to. Only this one has orbital lasers, target enhancers, and combat Exoskeletons that make you jump real good. Plus, Sledgehammer did a pretty good job of basing their fictional technology on things that are currently in development, or at least on the military's wishlist. It's got that whole 'In the not too distant future...' vibe going on that perfectly marries the feel of a modern-day shooter with Sci-Fi elements.
Of all the new additions, the biggest game changer is the EXO boost. It's presence is varied by class in single player and co-op, but thankfully it's standard in multiplayer. Not only does it give you a double-jump, but it lets you perform a slide maneuver on the ground and in the air. The EXO boost adds a whole new element to exploring levels and facing off against your opponents. Since it's so easy to change your direction and altitude, you have more options to pursue enemies as well as evade them. Any game of cat and mouse can turn on its head in an instant. I'm a really big fan of the EXO abilities as well, but that might be just because they remind me so much of Halo: Reach. The Cloak, Overclock (Sprint), and Shield feel the most familiar in that regard (even though the Shield is a deployable buckler rather than a full-body lockdown). But the real fun starts when you unlock the EXO abilities that let you heal yourself, paint enemies with threat detection, and hover around the battlefield. Of all the cool future-tech, my favorite invention has to be the threat detection. It lets you see your targets through any number of obstacles as a red silhouette and it comes in a multitude of forms, including: grenades, UAV attachments, and the EXO Ping ability. And since it's relatively easy to avoid by selecting the Cold Blooded perk, it's easy to keep it in check.
All that being said, when I first picked up the game I suffered from feature overload. EXO boost, EXO abilities, variable grenades that switch between THREAT, STUN and EMP, new weapons, and any number of nuanced features like quick-reloading that dumps your ammo- it's a lot to keep track of when you aren't used to it, especially if you plan on diving head first into the multiplayer. Thankfully, if you play through the campaign, they do a decent job of introducing features at a steady pace to keep you from getting overwhelmed. And even if you want to skip that, Advanced Warfare has a new Combat Readiness mode for newbies. Combat Readiness takes you and everyone in your lobby into a game populated by bots. Where there are no gamertags, no leaderboards, no voice chat- just a generally positive atmosphere that only shows you how well you are doing compared to how well you've done in the past. If you don't want to jump right into the fray and get torn to bits, you can do some low-impact games against a team largely constructed of bots until you get the hang of it. I'm one of those gamers that gets easily discouraged, so I'm all about this mode. My only problem with it is that the bot AI isn't much better than the one from the campaign- they're slightly more aggressive, but not much more intelligent. If you're playing with another human, it's pretty easy to tell the difference between them and the bots.
I spoke briefly with Scott Whitney, the Video Director for Advanced Warfare, about the campaign, especially about some of the aesthetic choices they made to differentiate it from the multiplayer portions of the game. This time around, Sledgehammer intended for the campaign to be more cinematic than it has in the past. Whitney specifically cited that they wanted to do less cutscenes of people talking over maps that give you a brief idea of what you're about to get yourself into, but no real plot development. They wanted to have more character development this time around and get players emotionally invested in the story. The actors look amazing, and for the most part they skip right past over Uncanny Valley. Plus, nobody does a villain quite like Kevin Spacey. Spacey's Jonathon Irons is the focus for most of the story, starting out as a father figure for the protagonist, Jack Mitchell (played by Troy Baker), before eventually becoming the megalomaniacal antagonist. I'm not really spoiling anything for you here, since the trailers imply most of this already. The story is certainly more cinematic than it has been in the past, it does a great job of focusing on the characters rather than the missions. But it doesn't really get it's hooks into you emotionally. Honestly, I'd place it on par with every other summer blockbuster. It plays great, looks great, and it has some good performances, but the emotional scenes come off as hamhanded. Whenever the story hits a low note, it feels like it's waving it's arms and screaming 'This the part you're supposed to be sad!' To its credit though- it is really good at getting you to hate the bad guys. The best scenes in the game are the ones where the antagonists are showing you just how evil they are, and when they get their comeuppance for it.
Aesthetically, my favorite part about the campaign is the fact that they decided to build a whole different HUD for it. It feeds you minimal information, showing your grenades, remaining ammo and EXO loudouts on the back of the gun when you aren't moving. Confining it to the back of your gun frees up a lot of the screen, and it just looks more sleek and futuristic than the multiplayer HUD. However, I can understand why they decided to confine it to just the campaign. It doesn't give a persistent readout, and some of the information it does give is obscured- I spent most of the game not knowing what my EXO loadouts were because I couldn't see where the gun was showing them. Actually, Advanced Warfare's biggest shortcoming is it's annoying habit of obscuring or glossing over vital information. As you complete the campaign, you earn Upgrade Points for you character in four ways: Killing enemies, scoring headshots, killing enemies with grenades, and collecting enemy intel. At no point did the game tell me what kind of enemy intel I was collecting, or even what it looked like. But once I realized that I should be collecting purple laptops, I started finding them all over the place. They weren't particularly difficult to find, the game just never told me what they looked like, so I didn't know what I should be keeping my eyes peeled for. All in all though, the campaign is worth playing through at least once before diving into the multiplayer portions of the game.
Most people pick up Call of Duty for the online multiplayer- and I can see why. The Pick 13 system in Advanced Warfare is extremely flexible, potent, and easy to use. Essentially, you have 13 Points to assign to the slots for your primary and secondary weapons, their attachments, your perks, EXO ability, grenades, killstreaks, and Wildcards. The perks have been significantly slimmed down to three tiers of five choices. A lot of perks have been combined (Slight of Hand and On the Go are now just Fast Hands) and a few mainstays like Marathon have been cut out altogether. Normally, you can only equip one perk per tier, but if you spend a point on a Greed wildcard, you can select an extra perk. Every slot only costs 1 point, so wildcards essentially give you an extra slot by spending an extra point. Some of the wildcards also let you swap out your slots- like the Tactitian wildcard that lets you forgo grenades in order to equip a second EXO ability. Probably the biggest addition to the Pick 13 system is the ability to customize your killstreaks. By increasing the requisite costs for your killstreaks, your turret can shoot rockets, your UAV can paint enemies with target enhancement, and your orbital laser strike can become an even bigger, laserier flood of fire and destruction. Needless to say, I'm a big fan of Pick 13's simple customization. Once you unlock a few things and can play around with it, your options really open up. If you decide to make a class that focuses on having one really tricked out, powerful gun, you can do it. Or maybe you want a class that gives you almost no firepower of your own but drops souped-up turrets, drones and UAVs left and right. Go crazy, you can do whatever you want. I will note though, that even though I really enjoyed this because it's simple- I did find the perk tiers to be restrictive. If you love picking and piling on the perks, you'll chafe at the bit here. Although the average number of perks is three, you can have up to six- you just have to be willing to use all three of your wildcards to do it.
The Multiplayer also has a loot system that I'm hot and cold on. You get clothing, weapons, and in-game bonuses by leveling up, completing challenges, and opening random supply drops. If you're a completionist at heart, this will probably end up rubbing you the wrong way- especially since you don't have the inventory space to hold everything in the game. The good news is, with 80 slots in your inventory, you'll have more than enough room to hold the stuff you're actually going to use. And what you don't use, you can sell for extra XP. But what I love about the loot system, are the modified weapons you randomly receive through supply crates. These come in three varieties: Enlisted weapons with a slight trade off (-1 to one stat and +1 to another), Professional Weapons (-2 to one/some stats, +2 to others), and Elite Weapons (-3 to one/some stats, +3 to others). Each of these weapons is premade, so it isn't like Borderlands where the weapons are completely random, but they're potent and varied nonetheless. They also all have custom paintjobs- and I have a special soft spot for the Elite weapons that are so unbelievably gaudy they're borderline gorgeous. My personal favorite was an Assault rifle I found with gold leafing on the barrel and an underside that looked like crushed pink velvet. And I had a love for it that rivals my love for the Power Glove. One thing I really didn't like though, were the temporary clothes you can earn. Say you get a medal for getting a 5-kill streak, you earn a special helmet. Cool right? Except you only own it for the next half hour. So you can put on your shiny new helmet and tout it around for the next half hour, and if you do really well you might earn the rest of the pieces to the set, and keep resetting their timers by earning the medals over and over again. But personally, I just don't see the appeal in working for a clothing item if you don't get to keep it.
Sledgehammer has added a couple of new game modes, as well as brought back a few favorites. Kill Confirmed, Hard Point, and Capture the Flag are all back, while Momentum and Uplink are new additions. Uplink is kind of like a mixture of Capture the Flag and Pok-A-Tok. You pick up a neutral ball-shaped satalite, and jump into an enemy's suspended uplink zone to score a point. You can toss the satalite around to your teammates, or even to your enemies to rob them of their weapons. It's an extremely chaotic game that I had a hard time getting the hang of. But, even though I wasn't a huge fan of it, I can see the appeal of a sports-themed game mode.
Advanced Warfare is a Call of Duty title that lives up to the franchise's expectations. It looks, feels, and plays like it should; and there's been some incredibly fun additions that mix up gameplay and are good for bringing in non-hardcore players like me into the series. I had a chance to play it a bit when I got back home, and it played just as well as it did at Sledgehammer's HQ- I only experienced a noticeable framerate drop in one match out of a dozen. If you already like Call of Duty, and you're a Halo fan to boot- you won't be disappointed.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've spent an embarrassing percentage of my life planted in front of a screen. I'm pretty sure I know the layout of Planet Zebes better than my own home town, and most of my social life in high school revolved around Halo 2 and Super Smash Brothers. When I wasn't on a console I was playing every ROM I could get my mitts on.
These days I spend most of my time with games made by small studios, because they tend to make what I'm interested in playing. I love developers that experiment with new mechanics, write challenging and immersive narratives, and realize that a game's aesthetics are more than it's graphics. So long story short-you'll see a lot of posts from me about Kickstarter campaigns and Early Access debuts.