Sledgehammer Games‘ Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is a fantastic game that over-delivers everything fans expect of a Call of Duty, while also adding enough new things to see, do and shoot so that it doesn’t feel like it’s the same game as last year, just dressed in new clothes.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say Advanced Warfare has it all: great single-player campaign, fast-paced multiplayer with enough innovation to keep things feeling fresh and excellent co-op multiplayer by way of its Exo Survival mode that pits you and up to three friends against waves of increasingly-powerful enemies. It’s a blast no matter which mode you play.
Basically, if you want to know whether this year’s Call of Duty is worth buying, after my time with the game I can’t say anything but HELLS YES. Even at R849 it’s money well spent, and I’m cheap.
Perhaps more to the point, if you hated Ghosts or Modern Warfare 3 you may be wondering whether you’ll also hate Advanced Warfare. In fairness, I have to say you probably will – this is still Call of Duty after all, and the addition of high-tech weaponry and military equipment probably won’t do much to convince you that the game is anything other than a thinly-veiled shooting gallery played from a first-person perspective.
But I still think you’ll be missing out if you give this one a skip because of how much fun that shooting gallery is. The story also makes a whole lot more sense than it did in Ghosts, and you’re playing from a single character’s perspective rather than jumping around between platoons so the cohesion that was missing from previous games’ stories is definitely there. Sledgehammer Games has done a really good job here.
Is it similar to previous Call of Duties? Of course. Does it have frantic set-pieces that move you breathlessly from location to location around the world? You bet it does. Is there the usual geo-political guff that draws you, a military grunt, into a greater conflict? Most assuredly.
But it’s also set in the distant future and you get to be a much more advanced soldier than the series has seen so far. And that’s pretty cool because it means crazy gadgets, double-jumps and other cool new hardware that you’ve never seen before, and which make the game play differently enough that the mechanics feel at least somewhat fresh.
I’d even dare to say that it’s incredibly cool as those advancements put you in some pretty kick-ass situations, the likes of which the series has not seen before. I’m talking bulletproof mech-suits armed with rockets and miniguns here, marching through a facility and blowing everyone to Kingdom Come.
And on top of all that, the story’s actually pretty solid this time around. Nobody’s going to win any prizes for character depth or storytelling genius, but it’s good even if it’s a bit predictable.
So no, this year’s Call of Duty isn’t another cookie-cutter old-game-new-paint COD: Sledgehammer Games has crafted a game that takes everything that made the franchise good, and turned it into something fresh and new. Sure, it still makes a few of the old mistakes like holding the player’s hand a bit too much in places, but overall it’s a fine new addition to the Call of Duty franchise, and by far the best Call of Duty since Modern Warfare.
The six to eight hour campaign sees you playing as Jack Mitchell, a career soldier fighting the good fight in the year 2054. Mitchell starts off as a US Marine, but after an awful accident in the game’s first mission, he ends up signing up with the Atlus private military corporation, run by Kevin Spacey’s character, Jonathan Irons, and whisked around the world to fight in battles paid for by the highest bidder. It’s a clever premise for the game’s varied levels and settings.
The action starts off just like you’d expect a Call of Duty to: with plenty of explosions, shooting and spectacular future-military manoeuvres as the US Marines tear up Seoul, South Korea in a bid to repel the North Korean forces intent on invading, and the frantic action doesn’t let up until the credits roll.
Atlus takes on varied work: a Nigerian rescue here, a technician extraction there, all pulled off using the most incredible – yet plausible – military hardware yet seen in a game. Not even Tom Clancy’s Future Soldier had anything resembling Advanced Warfare’s Mute Bombs – bombs that encapsulate an area in a blanket of quiet for 30 seconds so the soldiers can do some silent wet work – or Smart Grenades that choose a target and fly over to them when thrown, or Threat Grenades that light concealed enemies up for greater tactical awareness on the battlefield. The tech that’s on show here is truly imaginative.
But the star of the show is undoubtedly the new “Exos”, exoskeletal suits that augment Mitchell’s physical abilities that can be upgraded between missions to make them even better. They’re the reason he can double jump, put on a burst of speed in mid-air and strafe sideways mid-jump, and also how he is able to grab doors to use for cover, send enemies flying with a single punch and other feats of strength. Double-jumping to out-of-reach locations makes exploring fun, and gives the levels a sense of verticality that really opens up the tactical options. It’s also fun as hell to leap over an enemy’s head and shoot him in the face while falling back to earth. Exos are the entire reason this Call of Duty plays so differently, and using them to their full extent is gloriously entertaining.
Which makes the fact that some levels don’t allow you to use every exo-suit ability all the more puzzling – in some levels you can double-jump, use the grappling hook, turn on your cloak, and in others you can’t without any real explanation. It’s frustrating to find yourself in a situation where you think a double-jump would be super-handy, only to find that it’s been disabled for the mission. And you can’t choose which abilities to take with you on each mission, either – it’s all determined beforehand by the designers. That’s all down to the game’s linearity, of course – Call of Duty isn’t exactly an open-world celebration of player choice – but even so the artificial restrictions are grating.
A big criticism of previous games was their use of quick-time events that demanded players press a button or sequence of buttons to get through certain parts, and to address that Sledgehammer instead chose to automate a lot of those sequences entirely, or only ask that the player press a single button to initiate the action.
I’m honestly not sure which is more annoying: watching something cool happen that doesn’t require much input from me, or being asked to hit buttons in the right order for that “something cool” to play out as it should and being punished by insta-death should I fail. I suppose minimising button presses is the lesser of the two evils, and Call of Duty is nothing if not linear by nature so they need mechanisms like that to advance the story, but I can’t help but think there has to be a better way to tell those parts of the narrative.
Those gripes aside, the levels Mitchell must navigate look fantastic thanks to the beefed-up graphics engine. They’re also not just pretty – Sledgehammer Games took every opportunity to put the player in genuinely exciting scenarios, with more than one high-speed vehicle sequence that took my breath away, and a chase sequence on a bridge that looks like it was ripped straight out of a special-effects-laden Hollywood blockbuster that quite literally had my jaw hanging open in amazement at its conclusion.
But this year’s Call of Duty is not all stupid explosions and collapsing bridges. One of the most memorable levels in the whole game has Mitchell sneaking through a heavily-guarded location, where he’s given the opportunity to use his newly-installed grappling hook to get himself to otherwise-inaccessible locations. But the grappling hook is good for other things, too, like grabbing unsuspecting enemies and dragging them towards Mitchell so he can dispatch them quietly and hide their bodies in the bushes. There are several routes to the objective, too, you don’t absolutely have to kill anyone if you’re smart enough and it was tense yet enjoyable as a result. It was a thoughtful mission in the middle of a game that I’d expected to be about the exact opposite, and I loved it.
Even when all you’re doing is playing shooting gallery, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is, more than anything else, a whole lot of fun, and when that shooting is accompanied by spectacular scenarios, the game goes from pretty good shooter to holy-crap-this-is-amazing. And since that happened a lot throughout the campaign, I came away with far more “That was amazing!” moments than I did ones that irritated me.
By the time the final level wrapped up and the credits rolled, I was surprisingly not all Call of Dutied out like I am every year – I actually went back and re-started the game, this time on a higher difficulty. As predictable as the story was, as unoriginal as the ending could be said to be – you’ve definitely seen what happens in other places if you’ve watched action movies from the late 80s – I had enjoyed myself so much that I wanted to play again. That’s the hallmark of a great single-player campaign, in my opinion, where it’s just long enough to keep you wanting more when it ends. And that’s exactly what Advanced Warfare delivered.
While the single player campaign has its share of limitations, the game’s multiplayer portion offers freedom itself. Everything is bigger, better, faster this year, from the weapons to the rewards to the kill streaks to the levels themselves, and the incredibly fast-paced action and tight gunplay lends the multiplayer a sense of familiarity while the exoskeleton-powered jumps and punches add something new.
I found that skillful use of well-timed jumps and dodges made all the difference in my effectiveness; sure, it took me a while to get used to the new movement options and I found getting a bead on other players to be somewhat more challenging than in previous years, but the changes are welcome as they infuse the multiplayer with a sense of newness that COD hasn’t really delivered on since Modern Warfare 2.
And of course, all of the most popular modes are back – Capture the Flag, Team Deathmatch, Domination – along with some new ones to mix things up. Uplink is by far the best of these, since it plays a bit like American football meets Quidditch meets Team Deathmatch. You have to go and pick up a small
ball satellite and bring it to a goal an uplink node, which scores points for your team. While you’re carrying the snitch satellite you can’t shoot, and your teammates must protect you, encouraging tactical play and rewarding teamwork. It’s a whole new way to play Call of Duty and the mode I liked the most, especially after I discovered that throwing the satellite at an enemy forced him to catch it, which immediately disarmed him while giving me back my gun.
Oh, the lulz I had.
To encourage new players to take the multiplayer plunge, Sledgehammer introduced a brand new mode called the Combat Readiness Program for people who want to get to grips with the multiplayer without getting mercilessly slaughtered at the hands of more experienced players. It lets you play with a mix of AI opponents and players of your skill level, giving you the freedom to explore the new movement system, learn the levels and try out the guns; it’s a great way to get your eye in before hitting the brutal world of online play, and trying out the kill streak rewards that can be tough to earn when you’re constantly dying in regular online battles.
Advanced Warfare has also expanded on the Pick 10 approach of Black Ops, by letting players Pick 13 instead when they create their own custom classes. That means players get a combination of 13 perks, weapons, attachments, suit abilities, grenades, gadgets and kill streak rewards to take into battle with them, and naturally success on the battlefield means more unlocks – and potentially more powerful and effective weaponry – with which to load up. Players can save their loadouts for quick selection, and the sheer amount of options is staggering. Unlocking new attachments/weapons/perks is a matter of using what you’re given to complete challenges, and of course levelling your soldier up by playing a lot.
Sledgehammer also put in player customisation. Basically, you get to dress your soldier to make him or her look relatively unique using equipment you’ve unlocked. It’s a bit odd to see in a COD game, not to mention rather superfluous because there isn’t much time to see what the person who shot you looks like, but it’s there for those who like a bit of The Sims mixed in with their COD.
Ultimately, Advanced Warfare’s multiplayer feels like it mixes Titanfall‘s soldier movement, Destiny‘s weapon handling and Crysis’s suit abilities together with Call of Duty’s famed fast-paced shooting, and that makes it play differently to previous Call of Duties. Not so much that it feels like a whole new game – or to deter people who hate it from hating it – but enough that fans get something new out of 2014’s Call of Duty.
This year’s game has a co-op mode called Exo Survival that lets you and up to three friends fight waves of incoming enemy soldiers, who get progressively more powerful the longer you survive. Players choose their exo suits at the start, and upgrade their weapons and equipment with money earned in each round and attempt to survive for as long as possible. It’s a blast with friends, and gets hectically stressful the longer you survive.
There is no “Zombie mode” in the vanilla game, however, but one will be added in future DLC packs. Sledgehammer did include a “Zombie Mode” teaser, but to access it you’re going to need to play a lot of Exo Survival first.
You will need to:
- Complete 50 rounds on Tier 1 maps to unlock Tier 2.
- Complete 75 rounds on Tier 2 maps to unlock Tier 3.
- Complete 100 rounds on Tier 3 maps.
That unlocks a tier 4 map called Riot, and you need to last 10 rounds before the Zombie Bonus Round begins. Alternatively, if you have a friend who’s unlocked Riot already, simply join their game and once you’ve beaten the Zombie Bonus Round, you will have access to Riot as well.
As fun as it is to shoot people and level up, it is the constant stream of unlocks and a tangible sense of progression that keeps me coming back for more. Sledgehammer has fine-tuned things perfectly to the point where I feel good play is constantly rewarded, and that risk-reward area of my brain is sufficiently tickled to keep me engaged.
The net code isn’t the best, though, as connectivity proved a bit laggy producing some very dodgy hit detection on occasion, and I battled to find Uplink games some nights. Sledgehammer has admitted that connectivity is a problem for all versions of the game and have promised to release a patch soon to address it, but as of this writing it’s still an issue despite a new patch rollout.
Overall, though, Advanced Warfare’s multiplayer is much better than Ghost’s was last year thanks to Sledgehammer’s tweaks and changes, and I can’t wait to see what they will add with DLC over the next 12 months.
With so much going for it, Advanced Warfare is a damn fine game. The single player campaign is highly enjoyable, the addition of exo-suits and futuristic gadgets has a meaningful impact on how the multiplayer plays, and its set-pieces are nothing short of spectacular, making this the best Call of Duty since 2007’s Modern Warfare without a doubt.
If you hate COD, this isn’t going to change your mind, but it’s clear Sledgehammer Games have pulled out every stop imaginable to make this the best game they could for fans of the franchise. If that’s you, go grab it today, you won’t regret it.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is out for PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. It starts at R599 for PC and R799 for consoles. This review is of the PlayStation 4 version.