Reviews

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare Review – The Old Dog Has Learned New Tricks.

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Platforms: PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS3 and PS4
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Developer: Sledgehammer Games
Publisher: Activision
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Last years Call of Duty: Ghosts was a low point for the series with a dull campaign and multiplayer that ignored the efforts of Treyarch’s Black Ops II to move the franchise forward. This has left newcomer Sledgehammer Games with the task of cleaning up the mess, and to a large degree they’ve done just so, and in the process painted Infinity Ward, the developer responsible for making Call of Duty a household name, as the weakest of the three teams now tasked with working on the series.

With a full three years of development time for this latest title Sledgehammer enter the fray as the newbies determined to make their mark on a franchise that has been taking a slow but steady decline. It’s a lot of pressure, but with the foundations having already been laid and a clear template to work with Sledgehammer have come out on tops. It’s still very much Call of Duty, and nowhere will that be more apparent that the tightly scripted campaign which remains utterly incapable of providing players with a sense of agency, but that does provide enough big explosions to keep Micheal Bay happy. The multiplayer is still very much Call of Duty as well, but this time it’s Call of Duty Plus. It’s familiar, but a bit different. Different enough, though?

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The big talking point is the inclusion of EXO suits, powerful contraptions that strap onto soldiers, enhancing their strength and granting them a range of handy abilities with which to combat the enemy. It may sound mental but such technology actually exists today, albeit in a considerably less advanced state. The standout is the ability to essentially double jump and boost forwards, backwards or sideways. It immediately adds a quicker, more frantic style of movement to the game in the vein of Titanfall, although Respawn’s effort is by far the more impressive by way of just how damn smooth it is. Melee attacks will now send enemies flying, while you’ll occasionally find cars from which the doors can be ripped and used as a shield. There’s even a slide move for when you want to feel extra cool.  EXO suits also grant abilities like a deployable riot shield. Once you get a handle on the new movement you can start to really blast around the levels, the new style of getting around mixing in nicely with the fluid gunplay. These are ideas that have been done before in other games no matter how hard the developers and Activision pretend otherwise, but that doesn’t stop them from being something new for the series,

But what goodwill Advanced Warfare manages to cultivate with its new toys and ideas is never fully capitalized upon by the simple fact that it never allows players the actual freedom to use any of them, instead opting to once again herd them down tiny corridors where the game inexplicably feels the need to provide a companion with the words “follow” hovering above their heads. Seriously, where do you think I’m going to go? There’s quite literally no other way to go. Indeed much of my time with the singleplayer was spent looking at text stating, “stay in the mission zone”. Not once, not twice but half a dozen or more times did I venture a mere 20ft from where I was supposed to be and punished as a result. Rather than running head-first into a deathtrap I chose to flank the enemy by running 30ft to an area filled with cover, only to be told I couldn’t do that. What, oh Call of Duty, can I do, exactly? levels don’t contain a lot of places to get to with the newfound ability to leap upwards toward the heavens, so mostly you’ll jump up to the occasional bit of scaffolding or over a car. New mechanics may have been added, but the level designs in the campaign don’t feel like they’ve been changed to truly accommodate them. Your newfound ability to pull of controlled descents via thrusters can only be used in specific moments, yet when one thinks of being granted double jumps and controlled falls one imagines using them more naturally around the environment to flank enemies by power leaping up the side of a building before dropping down from a great height.

All your news toys are tightly controlled. Being able to leap over cars is only available during certain missions, as is the Overdrive ability which slows down time for a short span. Your magnet gloves may be awesome, but they can only be used in specific sections of the game. At the start of each level you’ll be told what you’re getting because the tightly scripted events demand it. Being granted such awesome abilities and then being hemmed by such linear level design feels unnatural and entirely at odds with itself. It’s like being granted the power of flight, but told you can only use it within  warehouse. Fun, yes, but not as fun as it should be. The Exo suit brings a much needed sense of powerful movement to the game, yet the developers are so keen to adhere to the Call of Duty linear template that the movement they worked so hard to create is curtailed. Even with just slightly more open levels and vertical design, perhaps along with the ability to let players choose the Exo abilities they want to take into combat rather than assigning them automatically  Advanced Warfare would have been brilliant, a true leap forward for the franchise that still managed to remain true to the franchises core values.

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In many regards Advanced Warfare therefore serves as a perfect encapsulation of the series strengths and problems. Such mechanics as the branching storyline in Black Ops II and the EXO suits seen here demonstrate that Activision and co are willing to put a few toes outside of their comfort zone, but refuse to take the entire step needed to truly advance the franchise. They won’t quite commit to evolving the series, understandable in some ways and frustrating in many others.

But let’s talk about what the game is, rather than what it is not. For starters the core gunplay has not changed even an iota, and while that’s a shame in some regards it remains as smooth as ever. While I still hold that weapons could really do with having more kick there’s no way to deny that Call of Duty is a master of gunplay, and the EXO suits bring some extra flavor to encounters. You’ll blast your way through the campaign and a tonne of explosion-heavy set piece moments in around 6-hours, a time filled with a high number of irritating quick-time-events, including one hilariously stupid one that takes place mere minutes into the game. Though the big set-pieces and moment to moment beats are familiar the campaign is actually surprisingly fun, despite the clear unwillingness to commit entirely to the EXO suits. There’s so clearly a checklist going on behind the scenes, but to my surprise I didn’t mind too much.

Some credit must also be thrown to a stealth mission in which the game shockingly allows some genuine control. Here you’re given a badass grapnel that can be used to pull of concealed kills and a silenced gun and simply told to get to the objective how you want. The map isn’t exactly vast or brimming with options, but by Call of Duty standards it’s like being given a freaking playground to yourself. Grapple up to the balcony or go in low through the bushes? Kill the guys or leave them be? For one glorious moment, Call of Duty gets it.

Other new additions are small but fun, such as the new smart grenade where you can switch between different types such as EMP or the awesome Threat variant which sends out a flurry of lasers which mark all enemies within a specific area. With the new Exo powers in play this is one of the stronger singleplayer campaigns in terms of pure gameplay the series has had since Black Ops and Modern Warfare, but if you’ve become fatigued with the series over the years it won’t be worth coming back just yet for the solo experience.

There’s even an upgrade system to play around with between levels, although it’s a rather half-assed affair. By killing enemies, nailing headshots and gathering intel you are granted points which in turn can be spent to reduce weapon recoil, a laughable proposition given how little there is, or increase your grenade carrying capabilities. You’ll barely actually notice most of these upgrades, though, and the impact they make on your playstyle is non-existent. The system is merely there, inoffensive in its existence but hardly worth the effort.

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On paper the story is a strong concept, outlining the rise of Atlas, a private military company that is essentially a superpower in its own right. Given how powerful private military corporationss are in our own world these days it’s a good foundation for an intriguing story, but sadly the writers never manage to make it truly work. Indeed the game starts off on the wrong foot by introducing us to protagonist Mitchell’s best friend before killing him off, a death with absolutely zero emotional impact because like previous games in the franchise no time is ever given over to actually creating genuine characters worth investing in. The breakneck pace that the series likes to keep means that there’s still never a few quieter, slower moments in which to truly expand the plot or flesh out the characters you’re fighting with. Much has been made of the inclusion of one Kevin Spacey and indeed he does kill it as Ironside, the charismatic leader of Atlas. In fact the level of acting throughout the story is surprisingly strong and the cutscenes are beautifully animated and detailed, but all that is undermined by the flat writing which takes the narrative in predictable paths. Predictable doesn’t equal bad, though, and while you’ll see the twists coming the narrative is still rather fun. Just be sure to go in with a summer blockbuster mindset and you’ll be fine.

So the singleplayer side of things offers an inconsistent smattering of EXO abilities and a decent storyline, making for one all round good solo experience which won’t win back fatigued fans but should keep existing fans happy, especially after the dismal Ghosts. It’s still too scripted and refuses to try to tell a more engaging story. It still frustrates with its “press X to” sections and complete inability to let players do anything for themselves. It’s a Call of Duty campaign through and through for better or for worse.

The multiplayer, however, is a whole different ballgame. Sledgehammer seem to more fully commit themselves to making the EXO suit a prominent piece of the game, resulting in a more nuanced gameplay style and hectic pace. No, this hasn’t suddenly become a thinking mans shooter with lots of depth, but it’s still a more complex outing for the series and if you can master the jumps and boosts then you’ll find yourself able to enter into some epic battles, especially if you master some of the little tricks the EXO suit allows.

The map designs are consistently great, offering up plenty of space, lines of sight and pathways for the players to take advantage of, and because of the ability to change direction quickly you’ll find you’re able to actually dodge attackers and stay alive a tiny bit longer, although sadly you’re still only able to take  few bullets before dying, meaning victory will still almost always go whichever player sees the other first and opens fire. The movement style really feels like it would have shined when paired with the ability to soak up more damage too. There’s plenty of windows to leap through, tight sections to navigate, rooftops to utilise and open spaces. The maps aren’t any bigger than what’s come before, really, and we could still do with getting some larger arenas, but Sledgehammer show that they know how to make a multiplayer map.

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The Pick 1o system previously seen has been expanded to Pick 13 due to the inclusion of new options like EXO abilities. In case you are unsure of what the system entails the general idea is that every weapon, attachment, grenade and perk costs you one of your thirteen points. You could, for example, take up to take items for your EXO launcher, but that means sacrificing something else. Wildcards let you do things like take three attachments for your weapon instead of two, a combination that will cost two points, or even take a primary weapon as your secondary Customisation in this system is expansive and impress; there’s a variety of tools to use with your EXO launcher including threat grenades and homing drones, plenty of perks to pick from and a solid selection of weaponry to unlock on the enemy. As for Killstreaks Sledgehammer have opted to return to the idea of Scorestreaks instead so that completing objectives and getting assists all count toward them, while also introducing customisation options. By bumping up the cost of a Scorestreak you can modify it with such things as extra time active, cloaking, more flares and even missiles.

A great addition is the Operator suite where you can outfit your male or female characters with new helmets, tops, boots, gloves, trouses and EXO designs. New items are gained via Supply Drops, or loot chests as they essentially are, each one providing a random selection of new stuff, including different variations of weapons with slightly altered stats and visuals and rarities.  Bringing a light loot element to the series is a great decision and helps increase the enjoyment of progression through the ranks, giving players a better sense of identity. The only caveat here is that some of these items are only available for you to equip for a limited time. When you combine this fact with the existence of a Store page there’s some concern that microtransactions will make their way into the game. Let’s hope not.

Without a shadow of a doubt this is the most customisable Call of Duty to date. It’s not entirely perfect as once again the series has returned to unlocking weapons at set levels rather than giving players the choice of what they want, and things like sights can only be gained by completing challenges.  These small complaints aside, however, progression feels great and there’s a better sense of ownership tied to your character.

Another nice touch is the inclusion of a firing range where you can test out new guns either from the loadout menu or even when you’re sitting in a lobby. However, this is balanced out by the inability to setup a match filled with AI bots, a feature many enjoy and that also served as a fantastic place for testing entire loadouts.

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The closest that Advanced Warfare offers is the Combat Readiness Program where a mixture of bots and real players do battle. During a match characters are merely referred to as the enemy and friendlies, while voice chat is not allowed. Not even player names are shown in the lobby, all to ensure that it’s the perfect environment for new players who don’t want to face being ridiculed for their sloppy playing or inability to simply keep up with the breakneck pace. It works, too. There’s a serene enjoyment to playing with zero fear of feeling like you’re letting everybody down. The bummer is custom classes aren’t allowed, so you’ve got to choose from the admittedly well put together preset classes.

Only two problems truly damage the multiplayer. The matchmaking system seems a bit stupid as in the early game I was repeatedly put up against opponents well above my rank, although skill wise we did seem reasonably matched. Crippling lag also seems to be affecting many, many people resulting in a petition for dedicated servers, something the game should have had anyway. Personally I cannot comment on the lag as I’ve only had a few instances of it.

These issues aside, though, this is arguably the best Call of Duty multiplayer in a very long time, topping Black Ops II and probably standing second only to the original Modern Warfare’s more streamlined, simple and incredibly fun offering. The singleplayer may not be enough to tempt fatigued fans, but the EXO suit movements, great map design and far better customisation creates a compelling case for returning for the multiplayer.

Finally there’s also EXO Survival Mode, which is just you and up to three other players battling hordes of AI soldiers. Occasional objective rounds are thrown in to the mix and failure to complete them results in a penalty such as a smoke drop that obscures the map.   It’s a fun enough mode that serves as a decent way to cool off after a long bout of competitive multiplayer, but there’s not a whole lot to say about it.

Before we ends this review lets stop and chat about the graphics and audio. Although it’s still quite far from being one of the more visually impressive games around Advanced Warfare looks pretty damn good. The animations are smooth and the textures good, and of course few series manage to create such a hectic atmosphere. There’s almost always something cool happening on screen, and the scripted events, though so often tedious in their predictability, are still handled very well.

The same cannot be said for the audio design. Outside of the impressive voice acting the game sounds muffled and weak. Guns are piddly to fire, explosions lack that powerful, raw sound  and even the most hectic, destructive moments the audio sounds…quiet. Getting caught in a car crash sounds muffled and soft, taking away from the  clearly horrendous accident taking place on screen. This is the weakest game in the entire franchise from a sound design perspective.

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For their first foray into a series that stands as the Internet’s favorite punching bag Sledgehammer can stand tall and proud, having made a great all round package. The singleplayer never gives itself over fully to the idea of EXO suits, but remains enjoyable regardless with a story that while not scintillating and certainly predictable is still good enough to keep the action flowing. It’s the multiplayer where Advanced Warfare shines, exhibiting a more enjoyable pace thanks to the new movement and some great map design, plus a strong range of customisation options.

Say what you like but this years Call of Duty is genuinely good. Great, even.  The old dog may still be old, but it has learned a few new tricks.

The Good:
+ Mid-air firefights.
+ Plenty of customisation.
+ A couple of standout moments in the campaign.

The Bad:
– Poor audio.
– Pretty much most of the normal CoD complaints.

The Verdict: 4/5 – Great
A solid singleplayer and a brilliant multiplayer make for a great all around package.

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