Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare has been out in the wild for a while now, but can this year's offering win over those who feel that the series has grown tired and turgid?
No. So let's just get this out of the way—we need one comment below this article saying that the Call of Duty series is total shit; one arguing that it's actually great and that people are just being asshole snobs; and, for good measure, we might as well have one more pointing out that the author of this article is a prick. The holy trinity of comments. Good. Now we can move on.
Universally tainted as the lowest common denominator, the brash reputation the series has developed makes it remarkably difficult to win over new fans. It's a series stuck in an impossible rut that's entirely unrelated to the actual quality of what's being made, which makes writing about whether Call of Duty games are good or not seem unbelievably futile. I can't imagine how it must feel to be one of the poor developers making these games—playing the classics to a conservative audience, releasing more cover versions of someone else's album.
The campaign story trailer for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
Advanced Warfare is a pretty fun game, but there's something faintly sad about the way the series continually seems to double-down on tired, tried-and-tested formulas. To the trained eye it seemed pretty clear that they also handled most of Modern Warfare 3, but, officially speaking, Advanced Warfare is the first Call of Duty headed up by Sledgehammer—a fresh team of shit-hot talent brought in to add a bucket of fresh spunk to the series. The ideas and passion they've brought to the table are evident throughout the game, but often fail to gel with the rigid rules that apparently define what Call of Duty should be.
The frustrating thing is that those rules are total bullshit. Somewhere along the line somebody decided that the blueprint for Call of Duty campaigns was Modern Warfare 2—so now we're stuck with ludicrous chains of set-pieces tied together with painfully linear, hand-holding guff. The multiplayer—thankfully—is a different and vastly exciting beast, but the campaign feels old-fashioned right from the offset.
The series has been like this for a while, but the futuristic gadget funsies on offer in Advanced Warfare certainly make this more frustrating. You can leap into the air with your robot suit! Hang on, though, that's quite dangerous. No, no—you should probably mostly stay behind cover. Wait for that red jelly to fade away from your face.
The game's arsenal of silly gadgets are often used well on one-off occasions, but mostly they just amplify how ancient the cover-shooter formula now feels. After months of hopping around with jetpacks in Destiny, there's something deeply dull about returning to the days of popping up from behind cover to safely secure headshots. I can't help but feel like it's a system that only satisfies when used in a setting that feels gritty and authentic—in a land of personal mech suits and robotically-enhanced fun, I don't want to spend hours lying prone behind a plant pot.
Leaping from plant pots to roses to unexpected shower-wanking, Kevin Spacey's leading role as probably-the-bad-guy-yes-definitely-the-bad-guy weirdly doesn't come across as a total waste of money. The core of the plot remains cheesy and brash, but the delivery and execution aren't always awful. Crucially, I spent the entire game completely aware of what was currently happening—which is something of a triumph for a series that, not long ago, had you inexplicably firing rockets while riding a camel.
Exposition between missions is snappy and smart, but despite strong potential for a memorable story the narrative eventually drives off a cliff in quite a spectacular fashion—swapping out intoxicating fuzzy moral questions for black-and-white kill-the-bad-man bullshit. It's tough to tell if Sledgehammer just tonally cocked it all up, or whether there were concerns that the domestic US market might not react all that well to a story that didn't make it explicitly clear that the guy you were killing was a Bad Man.
The story's themes and mo-cap performances are both quite good, but it's horribly let down by shark-jump revelations and hyper-crass "OMG OPPRESSION!" sections. No one leaps into Call of Duty expecting top-notch Orwellian stuff, but sections of Advanced Warfare feel like an am-dram reenactment of Half Life 2's City 17.
In terms of how the campaign actually plays, it's a lot like being on a school trip. You get in and out of vehicles when you're told to, spend most of it being dragged around against your will, and get slapped on the wrist if you wander too far away from where you're supposed to be. As a consequence, I lost count of the times that the game's campaign left me feeling like a stroppy child.
The problem with this particular school trip is that your teacher is a total dickhead. The game encourages you to look for laptop "intel" so you can unlock upgrades for your character, but it also routinely ends the mission if you wander down the wrong corridor. "You aren't allowed down there. You shot him too early. You went the wrong way." It's like the entire game has been designed to be a killjoy, stepping in to fuck up the fun when you're otherwise having a blast.
And for what, exactly? When it isn't telling you off for "playing it wrong," Advanced Warfare seems happiest when it can just play the game for you, popping you onto a rollercoaster and taking you on an explosive adventure. I can still recall a time when these sequences were a surprise—with brief moments in the original Modern Warfare game suddenly wrenching away all control in a way that was unexpected, almost shocking.
Advanced Warfare locks you into cut-scene mode so frequently that every trick it pulls feels par for the course. Buildings collapse, men punch you in the face and the ground beneath you routinely crumbles. These have simply become the parts in which you put the controller down and have a sip of tea. It's like they've entirely forgotten how to create suspense, or tension. It's a universe in which nobody actually knows how to park cars—you only ever get out of a vehicle after flipping it and / or crashing it into a wall.
The best part in Advanced Warfare doesn't actually involve guns. Handed a wrist-mounted grappling hook and sent to spy on a private estate, you can quickly whizz around between nearby ledges and generally behave like a mega-sneaky assassin. Whistling at guards draws their attention, getting them close enough to use the grappling hook to yank them in for a deadly embrace.
Pretending to be Mortal Kombat's Scorpion as you relentlessly murder strangers in a bush makes up a part of this mission's appeal, but mostly I loved it simply because it felt like the game wasn't actively working against me. The rules here are simple: don't let the guards raise the alarm. The path you take through the outdoor complex is largely up to you, offering a brief jaunt in a tiny sandbox that ends up being a vast amount of fun. It's a reminder that Call of Duty campaigns aren't fundamentally bad—they've just developed some terrible habits.§
Sections like these, where the dreaded "out of bounds" areas are clearly marked by thick jungle or cliffs, allow you a framework to chill out and enjoy yourself without needless frustration. But as with previous Call of Duty games, the urban environments here are a total mess—a modern hall of mirrors where only one path is usually real. Matters get confused when areas suddenly offer you freedom, only to snap back to the bottleneck without any warning.
It's like trying to play the right role in a game that's being invented by a child: the rules change without warning. Forget about what we did last time; I know that worked then, but that doesn't work now. There's an urge to shrug off Call of Duty's weird, controlling tendencies as just being a part of what the series is now—some people love it; millions can't be wrong; people who hate it are just being snobs. That's partly fair, but there's a difference between aspiring for simple design and treating players as simpletons.
When it isn't carefully nudging you through a gauntlet of pre-canned explosions, the campaign often seems to forcibly slow you down. It creates walls made of invisible jam that stop you from running too far ahead, making it feel like you're moving through glue, or getting you to follow body-blocking characters down corridors while they move at a geriatric pace. I particularly struggled to find the patience to put up with this infuriating bottleneck crap, which left me wondering how Call of Duty fans reacted in the face of this patent nonsense. Peek into the rocket-paced freedom of the multiplayer mode and it's like you're looking at an alternate reality.
The multiplayer reveal trailer for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
In contrast to the asphyxi-coddling of the single-player campaign, this year's multiplayer pops a firework in your pocket and kicks you into a box full of vipers. Fuck. What's going on? Fuck. FUCK. There's a mode that lets you mess around with bots until you're comfortable, but basically you're looking at trial by fire. On the surface it seems to be CoD-by-numbers, but the exo-suit movement makes for some simple but dramatic changes.
Double-jumping is easy to grasp, but you can also boost-dodge when you're on the ground by clicking in the left stick while moving in any direction other than forward—which naturally remains reserved for activating sprint. Getting into the habit of boost-dodging behind cover at the first sight of a fight you can't win is a process that took me a good few hours, but that's just the tip of this delicious iceberg.
You can also boost-dodge in any direction once you're physically in the air, allowing for vastly accelerated movement at the cost of, visually, being a psychotic jumping bastard. You can still skulk around on the ground hiding behind cover if that's what you're into, but honestly I've given up on that game. I'm leaping around the multiplayer maps willy-nilly like an aroused praying mantis at the ugly bug ball, gleefully capping suckers with a silenced SMG before firing off into the sky to pounce on my next unwitting victim.
Adding these vastly useful maneuvers into your brain's blueprints for "How to play CoD" took me quite a long time to achieve, but once it clicks into place Advanced Warfare is glorious. Forget about chasing that dude up those stairs—leap over the building and shoot him in the chops when he gets to the top of them and pops around the corner. Old tactics aren't entirely irrelevant, but most of what you know goes out of the window, creating a familiar-looking game that feels furiously fresh.§
Call of Duty has always been fast, but this new stuff accelerates things even more. If you stay still for more than a couple of seconds there will invariably be a man who shoots you in the back. A man will then shoot him in the back, and then a man will shoot that man in the back, too. It never stops, it never rests, it never sleeps. Crouch behind a wall if you want, but don't expect to be there for long.
The score-streak stuff in Advanced Warfare is the neatest selection I've seen so far, ensuring that the destructive toys that the best players earn don't just offer bonus points in the background. Team support stuff like the classic UAV can simply be switched on and forgotten about, but almost everything that actually kills stuff needs to be manually controlled. Brilliantly, these don't always need to be controlled by you.
The Paladin— Advanced Warfare's most expensive streak reward—simply gets called in when you activate it. If you'd rather carry on shooting folk normally, you can let someone else on your team have a go. This, and some of the other streak rewards, also offers up a co-pilot role to the rest of your team on a first-served basis, giving shoddy players a chance at glory that they'd otherwise likely never attain. It's a nice touch, and one that stops the score-streak rewards from feeling like silly god-like gimmicks.
Frankly, though, you can ignore that stuff entirely. The class creation is top-class this year, allowing you to ruthlessly trim bits of the game that you can't be bothered with. Grenades feel significantly less useful this year, so I tend to ditch them in favor of other stuff. Every score-streak can be tweaked or buffed to provide bonus features at the cost of requiring more points to activate in game, with every pure support-based ability allowing you the option to significantly bump up the cost required in return for a cumulative score that won't be reset upon each death. Personally, I like to go all-in on a MEGA UAV that kicks in once toward the end of the match, highlighting foes right across the map in a number of incredibly useful ways.
Prestige chasing feels a little old these days, so it's cool to see them mixing things up in terms of progression between matches, too. Supply Drops are crates you earn at seemingly random points during games that can then be opened to unlock a handful of new loot. Temporary XP boosters are common, as are different rarities of cosmetic items. Rationally, I should really be rolling my eyes upon finding an "Epic" helmet for my character, but fuck it—this stuff is brilliant fun. Check it out dude, my gloves match my shin-pads.
You can also unsurprisingly find guns in these crates, pre-packages with cool camo skins, fixed attachments, and slight tweaks to the base statistics for the usual gun. Oooh, a bright orange SMG with less range but slightly increased damage? Don't mind if I do. If you don't want something you find in a crate, you can choose to break it down into bonus XP. Again, it's a neat system that offers you the option to simply not care about it at all.
Oh, and you've even got cosmetic unlocks that are directly linked to your skill as a player, with the "Bloodthirsty" outfit progressively unlocked by achieving kill streaks. Five kills earns you the lovely red helmet, ten gets you lovely red gloves, etc. In a stroke of cruel genius, these items are temporary—fail to chalk up the same streak again within half an hour and your goodies will evaporate. On a pragmatic basis, this knowledge is useful: if you're spotted by a player in lots of red gear, it's probably best to just run away.§
You only need entry-level cynicism to see that these Supply Drop crates are likely Activision scoping out the possibility of adding FIFA Ultimate Team-style microtransactions in the future, but the current setup is pretty fantastic. Advanced Warfare's multiplayer iterates on previous ideas while avoiding anything that feels like a gimmick, creating a brilliantly fast-paced online shooter that isn't muddied with fluff that detracts from the basics of moving, aiming, and shooting.
The elegance with which Sledgehammer has nailed Advanced Warfare's online multiplayer leaves me bemused at why the game's campaign remains so oddly tedious, a mish-mashed mess of new ideas failing to gel with an antiquated formula. A total refresh would be too much to ask for, but it seems reasonable to expect something better than this. Call of Duty might have been the series that defined its genre, but 2007 was a long time ago.
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