This review discusses the campaign’s story at length. I’m not going to spoil anything that hasn’t already been spoiled in pre-release trailers, but these days, I think that still deserves a bit of a warning.
Rest easy: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is better than Ghosts. That might not come as much of a shock, because Ghosts is the worst Call of Duty since that one based on The Remains of the Day, but it’s still worth mentioning just in case you thought Ghosts was the start of Call of Duty‘s inexorable slide into irrelevance.
Ghosts is also a pretty good touchstone because newcomers Sledgehammer seemingly took a look at it, and went “Erk, that’s a bit shit. Let’s not do that.” And then they didn’t. And lo, the world rejoiced.
Rather than plodding through a campaign that makes absolutely no sense (complete with remote-controlled dogs), fighting with appalling graphical options and inexplicable slowdown, and then delving into a multiplayer mode whose netcode was presumably based around tin cans and string, Sledgehammer have assembled a perfectly good – albeit not quite ambitious enough – Call of Duty game. And that, right there, will probably tell you whether or not you’re going to like it.
This particular HURGH WAR game puts you in the futuristic army boots of Mitchell, a marine who stops being a marine when his arm is blown off and the military goes “Well, that’s about it for you.” He’s offered a second chance by Kevin Spacey – sorry, Jonathan Irons – who fixes him up with an amazing prosthetic limb and hires him as an operator for his PMC, Atlas.
Pre-release, much was made of the fact that A) Kevin Spacey is present, B) Kevin Spacey is the villain, C) PMCs are potentially bastards, and D) holy shit you guys Kevin Spacey is in our game. The plot of Advanced Warfare basically follows Kevin Spacey’s descent from paternalistic PMC leader who’s actually quite a nice guy, into the sort of patently unbelievable techno-terrorist you’d expect to see smirking at James Bond from behind a cat.
As you can probably imagine, Spacey hits pretty much every line of dialogue perfectly. Seriously, I can’t fault the pre-release whatsits for focusing on him, because he is really good. He manages to be friendly and dad-like in the early stages, determined and commanding in the middle, and absurdly evil by the end. There’s even a bit of moral ambiguity there, too; he’s mostly fed up with governments being useless bureaucratic institutions, and he firmly believes (not necessarily incorrectly, considering you’re repeatedly shown how much good Atlas is doing at fixing up the world) that he can do better. And then that ambiguity goes down the toilet, along with any hint of real-world relativity, when he unveils an absurd superweapon.
Alas, the script doesn’t quite hold up to the joy of Spacey. His decline from well-meaning individual into lunatic extremist isn’t exactly well-charted; it’s less of a gradual slide and more of a sudden leap off a cliff. There are a few hints here and there, but for the most part it just feels like a missed opportunity that could actually show how someone can start off so positively and yet end up a twisted monster, while remaining oddly sympathetic. Instead he just goes from nice boss to total lunatic. Sad.
Thankfully, nobody actually plays Call of Duty for the story – which is why I spent so many paragraphs talking about it, funnily enough; while Advanced Warfare‘s plot is Tom Clancy by way of Michael Bay, it’s still that special brand of enjoyable stupidity that can rival any summer blockbuster movie for sheer popcorn value. I was pleasantly surprised. Plus, hey, Kevin Spacey and Troy Baker and Gideon Emery!
Anyway: no, people play Call of Duty for two things. They play for campaigns with crazy setpieces, and for the multiplayer.
And the campaign is… well, it’s good. It’s a little too reminiscent of past Call of Duty games, insofar as it’s full of exactly the setpieces you’d expect (vehicle driving bit, turret gunning bit, cover-your-squad-by-sniping bit, sneak past enemy patrols bit, real world landmark gets blown up bit) but they all work rather well. It’s fast, it has absolutely no pacing insofar as every single mission is a ridiculous rush of gunfire and explosions, it has lots of incredibly satisfying futuristic weapons, and there are a great many people for you to shoot.
Not everything is quite like past Call of Duty games, though. Advanced Warfare gives you a few new toys, like Variable Grenades and Exo Suits. Variable Grenades are basically Judge Dredd’s Lawgiver in handheld explosive form: each of the two types have three settings, so you can have your lethal grenade act as a contact explosive, or a frag grenade, or a “smart” grenade that homes in on enemies. Your other grenade type can create smoke, or paint targets onto your HUD, or unleash a drone-smashing EMP blast.
This does actually make a difference, and you will use both throughout the campaign. EMP grenades are basically essential whenever heavy enemies or drones turn up, Smart grenades are fantastic for taking down small groups of enemies, and Threat grenades can give you a nice indication of how many enemies there are and where they are so that you can shoot them through walls. They’re a wonderful addition to the fold.
Exo Suits, too, matter. You get your hands on a few throughout the course of the game, each of which have superpowers of varying usefulness (Slow down time! Pop a big shield out of your arm!) but the most common thing you’ll be using is the ability to double jump. Bus in the way? Hop on top of it. Ledge in the corner looks like a decent spot to hole up? Head over there. At one point you even get your hands on a grapple attachment which lets you basically whoosh about the levels like Spider-Man, so yes, mobility is very much a Thing with Advanced Warfare.
But this is one of the points where the game doesn’t quite go far enough. Yes, there are sections in big, wide-open areas, where you’ll be grappling to balconies of your choosing and double-jumping over walls and basically clearing the area how you choose. Unfortunately, these are few and far between. Most of the game is still Call of Duty: Advanced Guy-Follower. Despite theoretically having all of this freedom, there are maybe three segments where you can actually cut loose and use it. The rest of the time you’re double-jumping because the guy attached to your waypoint maker is saying QUICK DOUBLE-JUMP OVER THIS THING. You’re grappling because he’s just grappled to something. You’re… you get the idea.
It’s not surprising, but it’s disappointing. Sledgehammer managed to take Call of Duty and add something a little bit new to it, but they didn’t really follow through. Don’t get me wrong – you definitely have more mobility, it’s just that you’re still using it in constrained locations. There are still invisible walls all over the place. The game still gets upset if you’re not Following That Guy. Considering the possibilities the Exo Suit allows for more freeform missions, which could’ve changed up Call of Duty in a genuinely interesting way… but, alas.
So yeah, the campaign is more Call of Duty. It’s Call of Duty with some new twists on the formula, but for better and worse, it’s still Call of Duty. It’s one of the better, in recent memory – I’d rank the campaign somewhere around Black Ops 2 – but I can’t shake the feeling that it could’ve been so much more than it is.
Which leaves the multiplayer. First things first: the netcode is not shit. Ghosts gave me no end of problems, but in terms of online play, Advanced Warfare feels pretty much like the CoD games I used to play on the Xbox 360. You still get duff matches where whoever’s hosting clearly has a router held together with sellotape, and I’ve had a few issues getting online at all (presumably because all 7.1 billion people on Earth are trying to log in at once) but for the most part it’s seamless and smooth. AND WITH AN FOV OF 90.
Multiplayer is a bit different, thanks to the Exo Suits. While most of the levels are still small, finely crafted arenas, the double-jumping means that verticality actually matters. You can leap onto higher ground, bound over the top of small buildings and walkways, lurk in unexpected locations, and generally enjoy a lot more freedom than you’re afforded with the usual corridor charges. The maps have clearly been designed for this, with plenty of high-up areas you need to pay attention to, and the game flows a lot better as a result.
Unfortunately, all of these areas are pretty clearly delineated; if you were hoping for Titanfall levels of using your mobility to get to places that were possibly not intentional, you’ll be a bit disappointed. Sloped rooftops tend to have huge invisible walls on them to stop you getting up there, as do plenty of places that you can nearly reach. Rather than having the physics sort this stuff out and let players do what they want, these designed locations… well, they have to stay as designed. Nonetheless, the suits provide a hefty – and welcome – change to the multiplayer, which does actually have an impact. If nothing else, pretty much every area in the multiplayer maps are multi-levelled, although there are usually only two or three levels of height.
Every year also brings some more minor changes to the Call of Duty multiplayer. I’m not going to discuss Advanced Warfare‘s too much, except to say that I like most of the new maps, I like most of the new weapons, I like that it’s using the “points” system to create your loadouts (but all unlockables are still level-based), and I really hate that quick-scoping is still a thing. Oh, and we’re back to Survival Mode for this year’s multiplayer side-dish. Clear waves of enemies, complete sub-objectives, use points to buy or upgrade your weapons and abilities. Nothing mind-blowing, but another polished and entertaining diversion in a game that pretty much is a polished and entertaining diversion.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is a complete package, then, offering both an endearingly silly campaign and the typical live-fast die-fast multiplayer (with new emphasis on height), although it’s a package that provides a nagging sense that it really should be a bit more than it is. Make no mistake: it’s a good Call of Duty game. It just treads a little too close to its predecessors to be considered a truly great one.