The title “Call of Duty” invokes quite the array of responses when spoken aloud among a group of gamers. Steadfast cheers, unwavering and undiminished by the sour looks of distaste and even downright disgust, mingle together in a fascinating mélange of reaction. Perhaps there has never been a more controversial and polarizing IP in the history of the industry. This poses a serious difficulty when approaching a new review. Any good critic must be as objective as possible but how can one consciously ignore such a rich and crazy history?
Well, as Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is supposed to represent a fresh start for the aging franchise, I’m going to focus on the game in question. This isn’t about comparing and contrasting with previous installments; we have to see if the new CoD can stand on its own in a new generation. I say it can. It just doesn’t have the same impact as last generation’s Modern Warfare .
I admit I was suitably impressed with the graphics on display in the PlayStation 4 version. I haven’t seen the PS3 version but I understand the current-gen iterations make the last-gen versions look downright archaic. We are treated to quite the visual feast in the first few hours of campaign play; the backdrops are intense and unbelievably atmospheric, and the detailing and animation is top-tier. From the meticulously crafted facial expressions to the fantastic special effects, Advanced Warfare is a graphical tour de force that hits all the high points, and keeps on hitting them, again and again. The only downside is that, every now and then, this 1080p grandness does come at the cost of a few frames per second.
The sound hits your stereo system like a Mac truck going Mach 5. There’s a driving, ceaseless soundtrack that continually amps up the action, and the surrounding effects greatly enhance the immersion. The war zones you must traverse are loaded with beautifully gritty ambient audio, punctuated by the urgency and suddenness of deadly combat. As you might expect, with Troy Baker (Jack Mitchell) and Kevin Spacey (Jonathan Irons) leading the charge, the voice performances are excellent. Even some of the minor roles are extremely well-voiced. I will say, however, that the balancing isn’t perfect, and some of the effects that should’ve blown the roof off the house were just a touch too tinny.
Aside from these minor issues, Advanced Warfare passes the next-gen technical test with flying colors. The best part is that from the minute you start the campaign, you’re entranced. There’s just so much going on; the draw distances are far greater than ever before, the detailing and design is vastly superior, and the atmosphere is second-to-none. Yes, one could argue it’s just another military shooter and therefore, it’s going to be predictable and in turn, somewhat tiresome. I understand that sentiment because I’ve voiced it many times myself. At the same time, one has to acknowledge when a developer has done its job, and Sledgehammer has done exactly that.
The campaign plays out through a series of missions, most of which occur after you’ve joined Atlas, a global corporation that answers to no government. As president Irons explains during a tour of the facility at the start, Atlas is a “super-power for hire,” which basically means they’re glorified mercenaries. It goes a little deeper than that but as you might expect, there are problems looming on the horizon: Having no allegiance, and with one man heading the charge, things could get sticky. And so they do. The story falls shy due to its relatively disjointed presentation and yeah, it’s a little predictable. Even so, it’s the best CoD plot we’ve seen in years.
This is the epitome of big-budget bad-assery. You’re tossed right into the middle of hell at the outset; the game’s missions are very diverse and satisfying amd the adventure never drags. There are several John Woo-like slo-mo action sequences that will leave you grinning like a loon, and the over-the-top scenarios are just plain ridiculous. You’ll take advantage of a wide variety of futuristic weapons and gadgets, including threat grenades that highlight foes in red (even through walls) and the various Exo Suit abilities that add dimension and depth. You can climb walls, jump and boost, engage a shield or use a health-reviving Stim, and then there are other items unique to the campaign, like the grappling hook.
Progression in the campaign is simple. You earn points based on your performance and those points translate to upgrades. You can allocate earned skill points, much like a role-playing game; upgrade your armor, unlock a lethal grenade, lessen the recoil of your weapons, increase your health, etc. The pacing feels just about right and the game doesn’t bombard you with constant in-your-face tips and tedious tutorials. They tell you what you need to know but beyond that, the only thing that’s “in your face” is the action. Control is fast and tight and despite my reservations concerning the mechanics of the Exo Suit, they actually work extremely well. They’re accessible, reliable and effective.
It isn’t flawless, though. Sometimes, during the slo-mo sequences where you’re supposed to hit a certain button, the button prompt is downright tiny on the screen. As it’s so small, it can also blend into the background. There’s one segment where you’re jumping from bus to bus on a busy highway, and you leap atop an enemy jeep. What ensues are a few simple context-sensitive button presses, but the prompts are just miniscule. A Square or Circle isn’t too hard to spot, but R3 or L3 can virtually disappear into the background. The game isn’t perfectly stable, either. Once, I accidentally shot the guy we were supposed to be rescuing but it was after the area was clear; it was pretty funny to see one of my allies putting a hand on a ghost’s shoulder.
But of course, it’s not so much about the campaign in Call of Duty . The good news is that despite a few flaws – and despite the jump-happy players who can sort of ruin certain matches – the multiplayer modes in Advanced Warfare are extremely entertaining and exceedingly well balanced. There’s a bit of a learning curve, though, and I’m afraid long-time followers of the franchise will be annoyed at the focus on futuristic control. Everything moves so fast that if you haven’t mastered the jump, strafing and power-sliding, you’re going to look quite silly at times. It also makes the game feel like less of a pure FPS, which CoD has always been.
I like the maps most because they encourage that vertical dimension added by the Exo Suit boosting. It’s harder to completely memorize the maps and the design of each is stellar. It makes for a challenging experience that requires an intimate knowledge of your soldier’s enhanced capabilities and his surroundings. We also get expanded loadout options; as you probably know, the Pick 10 system everyone seemed to love in Black Ops II has been expanded to Pick 13. And if you want to have fun with fast-paced modes like Uplink, you better have a special loadout ready to go. Uplink, by the way, is completely different than other modes you’ve encountered…you have to play it to understand.
The old standbys like Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag are great and the weapon selection is solid. I still think some of the weapons aren’t anywhere near as useful as others (perhaps a weapon balancing is in line for future updates), and I really hate a few of the more specialized weapons. That being said, the risk-to-reward ratio feels more satisfying. There’s just a ton of content in the multiplayer modes and it all gels together nicely; I also like that it feels completely different from the campaign. Even character advancement is distinctly different in each mode, and gives both experiences a palpable appeal.
Unfortunately, there are a myriad of smaller problems that conspire to bring the game down a few notches. There’s the aforementioned stability, the story that doesn’t quite come into its own, the perceived lack of balancing in both the audio and weaponry, and the risky shift to futuristic FPS warfare. The added skills do more to spice up the campaign, in my estimation, and could actually hurt the multiplayer experience. FPS purists have already expressed their displeasure with the focus on jumping, boosting, and other Exo Suit skills, and I can understand why. But at the very least, you can’t blame Sledgehammer for trying, right? You wanted something new.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is a glorious return to form. Now, that “form” still requires a bit of tweaking and honing but for the most part, this is a positive reemergence of a video game superpower. The production values are sky-high, the multiplayer will keep you coming back again and again, and above all else, this is Call of Duty with a twist. It retains its core the fans adore while offering a shifting paradigm that gives us a fresh perspective. It doesn’t work equally well in campaign and multiplayer and there are minor mechanical stumbling blocks, but the concept is sound. It’s the new-and-improved CoD that fans have demanded for some years now, so I don’t think we should complain.
The Good: Stunningly glossy, highly detailed visual presentation. Great, immersive soundtrack and fantastic voice acting. Crazy high production values throughout. Campaign is well-paced and features a diverse mission structure. Addictive and hugely robust multiplayer, with a lot of great modes and weapons.
The Bad: Story doesn’t live up to its potential. Game isn’t 100% technically stable. PS4 version suffers from some lag. A multiplayer identity crisis…?
The Ugly: “War is always ugly, but it’s gorgeous here.”