Sledgehammer Games is now the third development company to handle the Call of Duty franchise, alongside series veterans Infinity Ward and Treyarch. Having only partially worked on Modern Warfare 3, Advanced Wafare acts as the team's first full-fledged Call of Duty title; and they were sure to make this first impression a lasting one. Co-founders Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey were respectively the co-director and director of the first Dead Space, and both have had their hands at some memorable 6th generation classics like 007 Nightfire, or The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King video game. They were given three years to work on Advanced Warfare; one extra year longer than the typical two year development cycle we've previously seen. After the lukewarm to even disappointing reception Call of Duty: Ghosts received, fans have been cautious of what to expect, and Sledgehammer has made sure to take all criticisms from the previous Call of Duty titles to heart, as a way of knowing how to go forward, and where they think they should take the series. As a result, they may have just potentially changed the future of Call of Duty and how it's played. And it's all thanks to the Exoskeleton.
For the purpose of the game's universe, we're told of the US Military working on the concept of an exoskeleton for humans as far back as 1965 under the codename The Hardiman. The project was unsuccessful as the prototypes weighted over 1500lbs. Fast-forward 90 years, to the 2050s. The private military company, Atlus Corporation have dedicated their existence to technological breakthroughs and have made sure all Atlus soldiers are equipped with an exoskeleton suit which boasts a loadout to assist in hostile environments. These include superhuman strength with the ability to bench press thirty times more than that of a normal soldier, enhanced jumping capabilities that allow you to jump ten times higher, and advanced technical manoeuvring like boost jumping or dodging, allowing soldiers to leverage verticality when deciding how to go about an objective. Atlus Corporation is founded by CEO Jonathan Irons, whose son (William Irons) is best friends of the main protagonist for Advanced Warfare "“ Jack Mitchell. Jack and Will are both serving the US Marines and are a part of a unit set to intercept North Korean forces from invading Seoul.
Things take a turn for the worse when William gets caught in an explosion that sends a large piece of sheet metal toward Jack, severing his left arm. Discharged from the military, Jonathan Irons (modeled and performed by Kevin Spacey) approaches Mitchell at his son's funeral and offers him a second chance as a soldier for Atlus with the promise of technology that could more than protect him and a prosthetic arm that is ahead of leading US military technology by about twenty years.
Now fully upgraded and learning the ropes of being an elite member of Atlus, Mitchell is now working to stop a terrorist organization known as the KVA. Their leader, under the name "˜Hades,' sought to "reset" the world back to its natural state by eliminating technology. They initiated the first global terrorist attack in history by simultaneously destroying the nuclear reactors of developed countries around the globe, including the United States. Countries took a severely devastating blow to their infrastructures, which paved the way for Atlus to rise as the most powerful private military company in the world. In fact, they became the first corporation to be admitted into the United Nations Security Council.
The story as a whole is fairly light in comparison to other story-heavy titles, but as a Call of Duty game, it's without a doubt one of the most coherent and well told storylines to date. You really get a feeling for Mitchell, who is ironically the most human protagonist in a Call of Duty title for having a robotic arm. In past games, main characters felt indestructible, despite how much they've gone through. In Advanced Warfare, they still put you through some extremely action heavy moments, but there are the odd times where Mitchell's hand would glitch or act up, and it really added to his character. Another interesting thing to note is that the game takes place from the mid-2050s to early 2060s and we do get to see the character age and grow. Expect some plot twist moments that may be predictable, but are handled in a good way that you can actually rationalize and understand the mind of the antagonist. It takes a good writing staff to create a villain you can relate to, even for the briefest of moments.
The campaign spans 15 chapters, and is roughly 12 hours in total on Veteran mode, so players can adjust that completion time accordingly relative to the lower difficulty modes. There are challenges for every level that will reward players with upgrade points to spend on Mitchell at the end of each level. You can improve his recoil, flinch rate while being shot at, explosive resistance, and even increasing the number of grenades you can carry. Each level is in a different part of the world, but they aren't used for the sake of being different. Without spoiling too much as to who the true main antagonist is, the settings all make sense in the context of what the villain was trying to accomplish. You will travel to Detroit looking about as good as it does now even after a nuclear strike, Seoul, Bangkok, San Francisco, Lagos, Santorini, Antarctica, and other fantastic and diverse settings. No two levels look or pan out the same, and the pacing was very well done. There are action scenes-a-plenty, but there are also down times where you're just walking and taking in the scenery. One of my most memorable levels in the game was simply exploring the Atlus facility in the second level.
Levels also incorporated different game mechanics that allowed you to survey an area in a stealth drone, infiltrate a hostage situation as a tiny robotic fly camera, and even tap into security camera feeds to mark and spot a target of interest. Sledgehammer did a terrific job at making sure players had lots to work with, outside of simply shooting everything.
Another impressive feat is that there is more than one instance where certain game levels are far more open in level progression. This is a huge improvement over previous modern first person shooters that may just boil down to linear corridor after linear corridor. With Advanced Warfare, there is a good selection of levels that allow players the freedom to express their unique and individual play styles, by allowing objectives to be satisfied in different approaches. Bangkok is a stealth mission that allows you to scan the surrounding environment for enemy soldiers and plan your best course of action, or non-action in this case. It goes without saying that this might be the most memorable Call of Duty campaign in recent memory, and I hope Sledgehammer continues this mindset of placing as much of an emphasis on the single player portion as they do with the multiplayer.
The Multiplayer section comes in two main styles: competitive and cooperative. Out of the box there are 13 maps in total that can be used for either competitive or co-op. Zombie-fans might not be satisfied. But Exo-Survival is the co-op mode for Advanced Warfare, and allows you and your buddies to team up and complete waves of objectives. Objectives vary from simply killing everyone you see, to collecting dog tags around the map, to diffusing bombs, and so on. Later waves become increasingly more difficult as they will give you more to deal with. It's a great secondary experience to multiplayer; however I do not see this as something that's going to be as talked about as Zombies. It's most probably going to remain as an afterthought. But that's far from a bad thing. It's a well-constructed multiplayer mode, and it will see some following. I just feel that the true star of the online scene will continue to be competitive mode.
While the core gameplay received a drastic gameplay enhancement with the abilities of the Exoskeleton for every part of the game, you really get a feel of just how different Call of Duty is now in its multiplayer modes. The pace and flow of an online match is intensified, and far more fast paced than ever before. More often than not, my peers and I that got a chance to sit down and play the different multiplayer modes were instantly taken back to games like Quake or Unreal Tournament. Granted, it might not be AS fast paced as those titles, but even trying to shift towards that approach deserves credit in my books. Players will be jumping all over the place, and the ability to boost jump required level designers to think more vertically in structure. On top of that, boost dodging and dashing after split-second reactions that either save you when you're near death, or get the spring on an unsuspecting player by dashing out from a corner.
We got a chance to play some of the modes like Team Deathmatch, Free-for-All, Capture the Flag and recent favourites like Kill Confirmed. Sledgehammer also decided to bring back Hard Point, and introduce a new increasingly popular mode, Uplink. Uplink plays like a competitive sport, where teams have to capture a ball-shaped satellite, and return it to an uplink point, which is a glowing hoop on either end of a map. Where the mode gets interesting is that you are able to toss the satellite to other team members who may be closer to the goal. Alternatively, you can also throw it at an enemy, which would temporarily render them unarmed so that you can quickly dispose of them and continue to the goal. Of all the modes I got a chance to play with I think I enjoyed this one the most, and especially considering Call of Duty is typically very popular as an esport, what better way to increase its popularity than by introducing a mode that actually plays like a sport?
One of the more impressive features about Advanced Warfare's multiplayer component is how customizable it is compared to any other Call of Duty title. Characters are completely customizable from the ground up, allowing you to change everything from the eyewear, to gloves, shirts pants, boots, and even the look of the exoskeleton. This is all displayed in the Virtual Lobby. For the first time ever, you can see your created character in a lobby next to other created characters and observe their stats, gear and weapon class just as they can view yours. Pick 13 is Advanced Warfare's way of customizing classes, and is brought back due to the demand and popularity of Pick 10 from Black Ops. Players have 13 slots that can be spent with attachments for your primary or secondary, how many grenades you want to carry, how many perks you want, or how many scorestreaks you'd like to place.
Scorestreaks make a return, and offer players a chance to upgrade as they see fit. You can upgrade a typical UAV so that it also paints targets at the cost of increasing the score required. The best part about this is that it lets you choose what you want to prioritize. You have the option to not use scorestreaks at all, and are in no way obliged to have them. You can instead use that for an additional attachment or perk. The system does have one confusing flaw, however. There are wildcards that allow you to use an additional Perk 1, 2 or 3, or have a third primary attachment. The problem is that a wildcard takes up a slot, so you actually need two slots available: one for the wildcard and one for what the wildcard is allowing you to do. It is an understandable flaw as there needs to be some sort of consequence for allowing players to further enhance their character beyond the normal limits.
Supply drops are random reward instances that happen in any given online match, and at the end of each round you can open it up to receive randomized custom rewards ranging from unique weapons to tiered gear for your character. These weapons are the same types of weapons you will normally use, but offer unique perks exclusive to these custom guns. For instance there was one Elite tiered AK that I received that had a better rate of fire, but to counter that it disabled the use of any attachment for it. I've heard complaints that supply drops will give you weapons you won't be able to use until you unlock those weapons at higher levels, but an interesting thing to note is that you may redeem tiered weapons or gear you either can't use or don't want for experience to level your character. One of the issues with this system is that it seems to only work for tiered items. So stock or default items cannot be redeemed, which raises the issue that a player could potentially fill their armoury with 7 pages of stock items they cannot get rid of, and won't be able to have a spot for those rarer weapons or suits.
Those who do plan on playing the multiplayer competitively with clans and the like will be happy to know that a lot of work has also gone into the companion application for mobile devices. Advanced Warfare's app is being worked on by Beachhead Studios. Speaking with studio head John Linden, he gave me a brief rundown of what to expect from this year's new companion app. Clans are a big focus for the app, and you will be able to chat amongst your fellow clan members this time around. Orchestrating clan wars is also possible, and one of the more interesting uses for it is how you can prioritize what you want your clan to work on. There is a great 3D map of different multiplayer levels that allow you to choose whether you want to prioritize on Team Deathmatch, or Momentum, or Uplink or the like. They really wanted to build and develop that sense of a strong community within your clan, and you can even update, create or alter your clan emblem and seamlessly watch it change in the actual game. Since clan leaders are only capable of doing this, clan members can also design their own idea for an emblem and submit it through this app. It's a great offering for people who want to extend their experience outside of the video game, and will be available on Andriod devices, iDevices, Windows phones and tablets, and even the Amazon Kindle. Expect it appear on the same day as the game's release.
The audio for this is absolutely stunning at times. The feel and sound of these futuristic weapons is an audiophile's fantasy with a good home theatre system or a good headset. The EM1 rifle is perhaps one of the most futuristic weapons as a shoots a continuous stream of energy, and you can really feel the power of it behind the sound of each blast. Audio Director Don Veca explained their use of real world sounds as the core behind some of the futuristic gear or devices, to still stay as grounded as possible, while exploring all these futuristic gadgets. For instance, an opening moment in the game shows a swarm of drones which immediately looked like something out of the Matrix, and I was blown away to discover that their base sound was simply a beard trimmer!
Out of all the things that audibly impressed me, the mute charge might just be my favourite. Certain moments in the game will have you place this circular charge on the ground. When activated, you get this rush of all sound drowning out in its area of effect so that you can breach and clear without alerting units in other parts of the level. I think I went back and replayed some of these levels just to hear that again.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is visually stunning. For the first time in nearly a decade's worth of Call of Duty titles, Sledgehammer decided to scrap the series' staple of using a heavily modified Quake engine from 1999, and instead build one from the ground up. It still retains essences of the former engine, but is so different now that it looks and feels like something completely new. The lighting system is fantastic, textures are generally very detailed, save the moments where you're "playing" the game by staring at the ground. Character models are incredibly impressive, but the absolute star of the show is the likeness of Kevin Spacey.
A lot of work went into the motion capturing of the famous actor, and his digital doppelganger is eerily lifelike. His performance was one of the most believable performances in a Call of Duty game; and as much as I can go on about him, other actors were certainly no slouch. Troy Baker does his typically solid performance as Jack Mitchell, while Gideon Emery does a great job voicing his character of the same name. And another outstanding performance is done by Russell Richardson, who portrays Cormack "“ Mitchell and Will Irons' Marines leader.
In fact, every single cutscene in this game is some of the most detailed and top of the line cutscenes I've seen in a video game. I hate to drop that line but as far as I've seen, this is as close to Avatar-level CGI that games have ever come to. The subtlety and range of the facial expressions is a sight to behold, and there were more than a couple of moments where I had to pause the game, or replay said level for its cutscene to make sure I wasn't being fooled and that it wasn't live action. It's that good.
Overall, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is the most surprising review I've done. As someone who hasn't been too keen on the past handful of Call of Duty titles, it's refreshing to see Sledgehammer's first take on the series be so successful, and groundbreaking for the series' new direction. The Exoskeleton offers an innovation to the classic formula that the series was desperately in need of, and the story was far from an afterthought, nor was it thrown in there to simply exist as a mode. A lot of thought and care went into the handling of it and shows. The visuals received a much needed boost to truly look like a next gen experience with some of the most amazing looking cutscenes that gave me the same feeling of awe as watching the famous opening to Onimusha 3. The multiplayer is almost completely reworked thanks to the Exoskeleton, and yet still retains that feeling of being Call of Duty. From this point onward I'll be paying closer attention to Sledgehammer Games and where they continue to evolve the series, because so far they've done what Treyarch and Infinity Ward weren't able to do for me in years: give me a Call of Duty I can genuinely invest a lot of time into.
|Unbelievable visual presentation.|
|The Exoskeleton changes the core gameplay in the best way possible.|
|A story well-constructed for a Call of Duty title.|
|The Wildcard slot poses some issue with Pick 13.|
|Some items cannot be removed from your inventory.|
|Zombies fans will be disappointed, despite the cooperative mode being a solid entry.|