Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare
Call Of Duty never felt like it was lacking a loot system. You won’t notice an opponent’s hot-pink gauntlets in the second and a half between laying eyes on each other and one of you dying, after all, and you can’t give out powerful weaponry through random drops in a game whose players obsess over balance. So it proves: all 350 of Advanced Warfare’s custom guns are variations on the base weaponset, trading off a small increase in rate of fire, for instance, for a reduction in damage. Single-use items might boost XP gain for the next match, or drop a Scorestreak reward a few minutes in, but there is none of the tangible sense of progression that the best loot games offer. It’s all a bit dull.
Happily, there are plenty of thrills to be found elsewhere. Sledgehammer may have run support on previous CODs, but this is its first crack at the many little problems to which Treyarch and Infinity Ward put forward solutions biannually. For the multiplayer’s intimidating learning curve, it offers the Combat Readiness Program, which removes killcams, doles out Scorestreak rewards for free, and replaces the match scoreboard with a tally of your kills, but not deaths. It’s not for us, admittedly, but it’s clearly a more effective on-ramp to competitive play. The loot system addresses the opposite problem, encouraging those who only play multiplayer into other modes for exclusive drops.
Yet COD’s multiplayer formula is too successful to need much tinkering. The bigger challenge for Sledgehammer was surely how to make a singleplayer campaign that adheres to the series’ template without being too obvious about it. Advanced Warfare’s is, like its predecessors, a blend of follow missions, shootouts, setpieces and vehicle escapes. It hits all the right beats in the right order, and as such should be boring. Instead, this is the best singleplayer COD’s been in years.
Forty years in the future, a private military company, Atlas, has amassed an arsenal of remarkable technical complexity and superiority. CEO Jonathan Irons, played by Kevin Spacey, is a head of state’s first port of call when things get sticky. The opening mission puts this into stark relief as you strut through trenches beneath a passing walking tank; take cover from a swarm of drones, then let off an EMP to take them down; and use your Exo suit’s jetpack-like booster to dodge, double jump, cross large gaps and break long falls. Throw a grenade and it hangs in the air at the peak of its arc before homing in on a group of enemies. This is clearly still Call Of Duty, yet things are delightfully different.
Then it very nearly goes horribly wrong. The start of the second mission follows the well-thumbed COD design document to the letter, with a dreary midnight rescue mission that culminates in a slow-motion breach-and-clear section. Then the tech in your left arm goes on the fritz, the lights come up, and you realise you’ve been had. It’s a simulation. After a tour of the sprawling Atlas campus, you run the mission again, this time with your new toys. It is a pleasure.
It’s a fine metaphor for the hours to follow, too. COD staples play out in new ways, the annual sneaking level replacing the ghillie suit with a cloaking device, then introducing a scanner that can see through it. You escape trouble across a downtown river in a craft that can avoid otherwise fatal collisions with other boats by diving below the surface. Sledgehammer has ideas of its own, too. A grappling hook powers a freeform base infiltration that feels more like an Arkham game than a COD one, and the studio nods to its past, too, with one tense, delicately paced section a callback to Dead Space. Tech can’t fix everything, however. The story is stock-in-trade COD fare, and even more predictable than usual, though Sledgehammer at least has the decency to get the non-twist out of the way early. It’s disappointing, too, that after setting up its antagonist as the enemy within – a refreshing change after so many years of Islamic and communist threats – the studio has Irons go to ground late on in New Baghdad. And for all that the new gadgets enthrall, there are simply too many of them. Sledgehammer decides what you take into each mission, and you’ll fall in love with something only to have it promptly taken away.
Many gizmos are constants in multiplayer, but have been toned down to ensure balance. Cloaked enemies are still easy to spot, say, while deployable tech only lasts seconds. The double jump is unchanged, though, and has a huge effect, helping you escape danger or quickly reach high ground. There’s a greater emphasis on vertical space, and it takes some getting used to; you not only need to worry about what’s around the next corner, but what might be about to jump over the wall.
Multiplayer spans the usual assortment of modes, most of which will be ignored as the playerbase sticks to its annual comfort zones. Yet it is a newcomer, Uplink, that best reflects Sledgehammer’s approach to old COD problems. Two teams seek to gain control of a satellite dropped into the middle of a map and guide it through a goal at the enemy spawn point. You can pass it to a teammate, throw it, or simply run with it, hurling yourself at the glimmering portal while your opponents try to trace the arc of your double jump with their guns. It is a game of constant, quiet heroism – the unseen airborne shotgun blast to prevent a goal, the silent charge for the match-winning points – and when the round ends, winners and losers alike will be laughing. COD’s been silly for years, really, but it’s never been made by a studio so prepared to celebrate it. The result is a much-needed mechanical shot in the arm for the most rigidly defined series on the market. Advanced Warfare is still Call Of Duty, but it’s more playful, knowing and refreshing than COD’s been in years.