Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare / 7th of November 2014
Sledgehammer Games last foray into the Call of Duty franchise was way back in 2011 when they stepped in to help a struggling Infinity Ward finish off Modern Warfare 3. Three years on and Sledgehammer have been handed the reins to the most high profile of videogame franchises and, along with the benefit of an extended development cycle, relatively speaking, they’ve almost achieved the impossible, making Call of Duty feel fresh once again.
I must admit, ever since Modern Warfare 2 I’ve held no love for the series. To me Call of Duty had veered off in the wrong direction, focussing heavily on killstreaks, twitch shooting and an ever more pointlessly large array of gun porn. The idea of rewarding clever play, and creating intuitive level design had been falling by the wayside for the best part of seven years. And so Sledgehammer’s offering is something of a revelation, offering players that same sensation of intense gameplay so indicative of the series, but without the punishingly high entry levels of previous instalments.
By going back to focus on the gunplay, rather than over-elaborate customisation options, Advanced Warfare has managed to resurrect what Call of Duty used to be about. Shooting is precise and gives great feedback to players, allowing for gameplay that’s more enjoyable when you’re actually doing the shooting yourself rather than playing with gadgets, or camping in corners hoping for one more kill to unlock your next bonus.
It’s something all the more surprising considering Advanced Warfare is, by name, a futuristic shooter stocked to the brim with cloaking devices, homing grenades and rail gun toting power suits. But thankfully, due in part to the well balanced “Pick 13” system, these additions work to serve the gunplay, rather than it feeling as if gunplay exists just to unlock of a slew of more entertaining toys. And as for the much lauded exo-suits, something that at first appeared to be a panicked reaction to Titanfall’s jetpacks and parkour, is in fact one of Advanced Warfare’s greatest surprises. Rather than speed up what is already a frantic game, things generally slow down as players become all too aware of the verticality and the increased threat that comes with it. On top of that - unless you sacrifice a perk to prevent it - exo-suit jumps, dodges and dashes appear on the mini-map forcing players to weigh up the dangers of mobility versus exposure. The end result is a multiplayer experience that plays like one of the best iterations in the series, without compromising on past innovations, whilst still making room to add in a few of its own.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the game’s single-player campaign. In the lead up to the release, any and all advertising focussed heavily on the inclusion of Kevin Spacey as a key character within the game’s narrative, motion capture and all. And although it has to be considered something of a coup for any videogame to enlist such a big Hollywood name, it’s not something Sledgehammer have been able to mould into anything resembling an engrossing storyline.
As Atlas CEO Johnathan Irons, Spacey’s character runs a private military corporation capable of rehabilitating the game’s protagonist after he suffers a severe injury, whilst using his own zeal as a father who lost his son at war to justify the privatisation of global warfare. From there you’ll know just exactly where it’s going and what’s going to happen and it swiftly becomes clear, this is a script even the likes of Michael Bay would scoff at. But that’s par for the course for any Call of Duty narrative, and notable highlights this time around include a senselessly tacky military funeral, complete with on-screen prompts for grieving, as well as the obligatory destruction of a global landmark (it’s the Golden Gate Bridge’s turn this year).
The mission structures themselves are also typically predictable with the vast majority of missions made up of intros intended to induce artificial tension, mid-sections built around following - irritatingly slow - squad mates, and the obligatory single use gimmick such as a hover bike chase. Considering how well Sledgehammer delivered with regards to Advanced Warfare’s multiplayer, the campaign is exceptionally pedestrian and won’t provide players with anything they’ve not seen before. Bizarrely several missions will often go as far as to remove the players ability to use some of the gadgets on show such as the exo-suits, simply for the purposes of making the mission in question as simple as possible. It may not appear as obvious as adding invisible walls as other games occasionally do, but its effect is ultimately the same.
The combat itself fails to replicate the ebb and flow of the game’s multiplayer as fights often devolve into your average pop up cover shooter, intercut with quick time event heavy set-pieces. The Call of Duty franchise has provided players with some of the best individual levels in videogame history such as All Ghillied Up and Death from Above, but it appears that rather than try to create something different, every campaign in the series has merely tried to replicate these moments. Advanced Warfare’s is no exception and the failure to push in a new direction, instead adhering to such a restrictive linear format, is the last obstacle holding the series back from returning to the top of the FPS pile, both commercially and critically.
But taken as a whole, and with the concession that any Call of Duty game lives or dies on the strength of its multiplayer, Advanced Warfare is one of the best instalments in the series in a long time. Sledgehammer’s formula of genuinely game changing new ideas, cherry-picking of previous innovations and centring it all around the traditional gunplay, has made the game’s multiplayer something that feels both new and old school at the same time. If next time out they can nail the campaign and shake things up even half as well, then the series has a bright future and may not have yet peaked as some, including myself, had previously assumed.