Did you hear? A new Call of Duty developer is in town, and that has a lot of veteran fans of the annual first-person shooter series eager to see what exactly that might mean for this year’s entry.
Call of Duty has been primarily built on a two-year development cycle between Activision studios Infinity Ward, famous for introducing the Modern Warfare series, and Treyarch, best known for their work on the Black Ops series. This year marks a first for the franchise: a three-year development cycle with the introduction of a brand new studio, Sledgehammer Games.
Sledgehammer isn’t entirely new to Call of Duty, however. The dev house got its big break by assisting sister studio Infinity Ward in the completion of 2011’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Before that, co-founders Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey were busy conceptualizing a gritty third-person Call of Duty game set in the Vietnam War, which never ended up seeing the light of day. They’ve got chops as a developer — previous work includes the genre-revolutionizing game, Dead Space — but does Sledgehammer have what it takes to live up to the passionate and sometimes fierce expectations that millions of Call of Duty fans have every year?
With an extra year of development time and a new driver behind the steering wheel, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare has the potential to drastically alter the direction the series is headed in. But without the same level of expertise as other studios and with so much pressure placed on their debut solo project that aims to be the first truly next-gen Call of Duty title, will Sledgehammer find themselves in the ditch?
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare certainly is the biggest departure from the series’ tried-and-true formula since 2007, when the original Modern Warfare fast-forwarded Call of Duty’s traditionally World War II setting to present day. But, it’s still Call of Duty. In that sense, I think Sledgehammer Games accomplished exactly what they set out to do: Introduce new concepts and move the series forward in a meaningful way without alienating long-time fans.
Advanced Warfare’s roots clearly lie in the foundation set by Treyarch and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, despite Sledgehammer owing much of their success to their previous work on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Pick-10 is back, except now it’s Pick-13. Once again, weapon attachments only affect weapon behavior, while Perks only affect your soldier’s performance. Wildcards appear once more, while weapon camoflage patterns are unlocked as they were in Black Ops 2. League Play returns as a Ranked Playlist in Advanced Warfare, and as Treyarch did before them, Sledgehammer has placed a heavy emphasis on competitive settings and eSports-friendly modes.
Sledgehammer’s vision of the future — 2054, to be exact — does differ substantially enough from Treyarch’s to not be criticized for borrowing too heavily, but at times, I wonder why Advanced Warfare simply wasn’t called “Black Ops 3”. It really feels like a natural progression of Treyarch’s latest work, which is just fine by me. I personally thought Black Ops 2 was the best thing to happen to Call of Duty in a while. Similarly, Advanced Warfare is exactly what the franchise needed right now. Whether it’s the right direction or not is largely up to you and your tastes, but the fresh design ideas are much appreciated. Oddly, any advancements or additions made in Call of Duty: Ghosts appear to be largely ignored here, which may be a good thing to those who’ve expressed distaste for last year’s entry.
So, what is new in Advanced Warfare?
Let’s start with the most obvious: The Exo Suit. Every Operator, as they are called in Advanced Warfare’s multiplayer, is equipped with a performance-enhancing Exo Skeleton Suit that grants enhanced speed, strength, and, most notably, mobility. On the ground, players can Boost Slide while sprinting and Boost Dodge left, right, and back as a way to quickly get in and out of gunfights or cover. In the air, players can Boost Jump (double jump), Boost Dodge left, right, back, and forward, or send their Operator speeding to the ground in a special Boost Slam melee attack that kills on direct impact. You’d think that melee attacks would reach all new levels of absurdity with the assisted strength, but while a good socking to the face will send soldiers flying, the range of melee attacks has been toned down significantly from previous titles.
What I find most impressive is how intuitively these actions are integrated into the console controller layout. Performing a Boost Jump is as easy as pressing the jump button twice, as expected, while all Exo Dodge techniques are mapped to the left thumb stick. Whether on the ground or in the air, boosting is a simple matter of clicking the thumb stick in while pointing it in the desired direction. Meanwhile, the Boost Slam is as easy as pressing the melee button while in mid-air. All of it will really only take you a few games to get the hang of and you’ll be zipping around in the air like a Super Saiyan in no time.
There’s certainly a comparison to Respawn’s Titanfall and its nimble Pilots to be made, but Advanced Warfare ditches the forward momentum-based wall-running chains for more vertical and tactical movement that allows you to advance or retreat more rapidly. The way Sledgehammer has integrated it enhances the game’s gunplay, I find, while Respawn’s implementation better serves map traversal. Personally, I prefer the former and think it’s better suited to Call of Duty.
On that note, I believe there is a small case to be made against the new movements. While it increases the intensity and speed in firefights and moment-to-moment gameplay, it sure does a number on map flow and throws any measure of predictability out the window. Expect to be shot in the back a lot more than previous titles with players zipping around the map and behind you at record speeds. That, and Sledgehammer’s tendency to re-spawn players very close to hotspots, objectives, or where ever your Operator was just killed, can lead to some very frustrating and unfair deaths. On the bright side, I fully expect tweaks to spawning if player feedback demands it and Exo movement does show up on radar, so it’s manageable if you’ve got a good eye. You’ll also need to be wary of your own movements as well, as you can see by the new and improved mini-map that now notifies you when your soldier is making noise.
The new gameplay elements and deeper meta-game introduced by the Exo Suit can be a bit of a trade off, but it’s one I think was necessary regardless, even if I’m still undecided on it. What has me most curious is the question — and it’s probably the same question on everyone’s mind — of whether or not future titles from Treyarch and Infinity Ward follow the trend.
Either way, if none of that is for you, there’s always Advanced Warfare’s Classic playlist that does away with the Exo Suit entirely. Though, maps are built in favor of the new mechanics, so it’s likely you still won’t find that “classic” Call of Duty experience you’re looking for. Speaking of maps, if, like me, you were at all a fan of Black Ops 2’s designs and layouts, you’ll probably find a lot to like in Advanced Warfare’s roster of 13 maps at launch, 14 if you include “Atlas Gorge” from the Season Pass. Most maps are sectioned off into lanes, only a solid dose of verticality is introduced this time around as it’s now much easier for players to gain height advantages quickly. Perhaps the most difficult tactic to master in Sledgehammer’s shooter is keeping tabs on what’s above you just as much as what’s in front, behind, or beside you. If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that I need to improve my aiming skills to better track enemies that launch into the air mid-battle. It’s tricky, I tell ya, but nice to be challenged again.
As mentioned previously, the Pick-10 create-a-class system is back, but now with an extra three points that you can gain by deselecting Scorestreaks — a first for the series. These can be spent on extra Attachments, more Perks, a second Exo Launcher grenade, or Wildcards that let you wield an additional Exo Ability, more Scorestreaks, or a primary weapon in place of a secondary. The level of customization has never been so deep in Call of Duty, and it even extends to Scorestreaks, which can now be tailored via a wide selection of options, adding to its overall cost of in-game points. It’s too bad that a lot of them, including some of the top-tiers ones, are severely ineffective at getting additional kills. I found it more useful to forgo Scorestreaks entirely and to spend those points elsewhere. The guns on the Paladin gunship, for example, are rather inaccurate and overheat much too quickly.
Perk balance has been reconsidered to reduce “crutch” options to a minimum, providing ample opportunity for more unique loadouts set-ups that perhaps aren’t normally as popular. Dead Silence, for example, a perk that mutes your soldier’s footstep sounds, has now been relegated to an Exo Ability, a slot that’s filled with just as equally useful options. Meanwhile, all soldiers can now “fast reload” weapons by double-tapping the reload button. You end up losing the remaining ammunition in your magazine, but it helps cut down your reliance on what are normally ‘must-have’ Perks like Sleight-of-Hand or Attachments like Dual Magazine. In any case, Sledgehammer’s thoughtfulness in opening up class balance is much appreciated.
And, yes, there are no Claymores or I.E.D.s in Advanced Warfare. Praise the COD Gods!
A much wider selection of grenades is also available in the Exo Launcher slot, including new additions like the EMP Grenade, Tracking Drone, and Spike Drone, on top of returning favorites like the Frag, Semtex, and Stun grenades. A personal favorite of mine is the Threat Grenade that highlights enemies in its vicinity when thrown. Exo Abilities, on the other hand (literally), are Perk-like abilities that are more closely tied to your Exo Suit and replace what was normally the Tactical Grenade button on your controller or keyboard binding. These interesting options grant opportunities to wield a ballistic Exo Shield, gain an additional burst of speed, cloak your soldier, hover in mid air, or block incoming explosives, all for a short amount of time as each ability is tied to a battery-life that depletes rapidly. You’re only given one battery per life, so, they must be used wisely.
The selection of weapon Attachments are your standard affair, save for a few. There is an assortment of high-tech optics to choose from, courtesy of Advanced Warfare’s future setting, including a Target Enhancer that highlights enemies in its line of sight or an Auto Focus Sight that automatically zooms in on a target when your soldier is stationary. The new Tracker pings enemies on your mini-map that you injured during combat while the Parabolic Microphone pics up suppressed weapon fire, also revealing your enemy’s location.
I didn’t find Advanced Warfare’s weapon selection particularly extensive at first, but there is more to it than what initially meets the eye. Hundreds of different weapon variations can be unlocked via Supply Drops, which award players with three different tiers of items — Enlisted, Professional, and Elite — in three different categories — Weapon Loot, Gear Loot, and Reinforcements — earned by simply playing. Elite variations of weapons, for example, not only offer alter base statistics, but also often sport a noticeably different appearance, including unique camo options. You can very much liken Advanced Warfare’s Elite Weaponry to the Legendary Weapons you might find in Bungie’s Destiny, which is a really cool RPG-esque addition to Call of Duty, in my eyes.
Even in their non-Elite form, you’ll find that, in addition to stats like Damage, Accuracy, Fire Rate, etc., base weapons in Advanced Warfare each come equipped with specialized character traits. This is most apparent in the Sniper Rifle category where you’ll find one that can only one-hit-kill with a headshot but fires very rapidly, another that boasts a more familiar damage model, another that fires two shots, the second of which triggers the first round to explode, and another that is pretty much a guaranteed one-hit-kill anywhere on the body but can only be fired while aiming through the scope. You’ll also find four round and five round burst weapons, weapons that can only be dual-wielded, weapons that fire faster over time, or weapons that grow more accurate over time, among many other flavors. It brings real purpose to each and every weapon choice, making your selection that much more meaningful, and is something that I think would do well to carry over into future titles.
Of course, I must make mention of some of the more out-there weapons like the EM1 direct energy rifle that’s basically a giant laser gun, the Tac-19 shotgun that sends opponents flying with a powerful blast of energy, or the MORS and RW1 railguns that are ever so satisfying to get kills with.
Unfortunately, a lot of the more specialized weapons appear to be taking a back seat to the tried-and-true Assault Rifles which are clearly the more dominant class of weapons in Advanced Warfare. In addition to simply being fully automatic, they’re extremely accurate and are the only class of weapons that don’t sway whatsoever, which is extremely beneficial when trying to take out agile targets that are usually on the move. Of the lot, the Bal-27 is the clear winner, which can get annoying when it appears in your Kill Cam death, after death, after death. Sub-Machine Guns are decent but have a harder time matching up with their longer-barrelled brothers due to the distance they must close, which also applies to Shotguns. Sniper Rifles can also be quite difficult to use. Not only will your targets practically never stay still, but the amount of scope sway gives off the impression that your soldier pounded back one too many brewskies before charging into battle. In what was clearly an effort to crack down on “quickscopers”, perhaps the multiplayer designers went a little too far, making sniping for average shmucks like me a lot tougher.
Through Supply Drops or by completing certain challenges, you can also earn your Operator some seriously sweet-looking gear that Sledgehammer has graciously allowed us to show off to others in Advanced Warfare’s Virtual Lobbies while in Matchmaking. Again like Destiny, your Operator is fully customizable with eyewear, helmets, chest pieces, gloves, Exo Suites, etc. It’s the icing on the already delicious cake that is Advanced Warfare’s impressive selection of personalization options, a selection that is very likely to be widened through a plentiful offering of micro-downloadable content, if that’s your thing.
Another no-brainer is Advanced Warfare’s Virtual Firing Range that lets you test out all of your gear instantaneously while creating your class at any point before or during matchmaking. It wasn’t just a thrown-in feature either. Eight different simulations are at your service with virtual dummies that mimic the hit boxes and health of real players, allowing you to put different damage models to the test.
Black Ops 2’s Pick-10 system was already really good at letting you play Call of Duty the way you want to play Call of Duty and Advanced Warfare’s Pick-13 just takes that to the next level. What you may or may not agree with is the decision to go back to a progression-based unlock system instead of allowing gamers to pick and choose the order in which they unlock gear. It’s really up to preference. Interestingly, like Weapon Camo unlocks, Weapon Attachments aren’t earned linearly by simply scoring kills with a particular gun. Instead, there are certain tasks to complete that will unlock specific attachments, adding some nice variety to the unlock tree.
There really isn’t a whole lot new in the way of game modes, save for two very special ones. That said, a lot of the classic modes you know and love play a hell of a lot differently with the new Exo Suit movements. Like I said earlier, map control in modes like Domination can be a lot tricker when it’s much easier for enemies to slip by unnoticed and vice versa. You’ll probably be reaching a little higher for dog tags than you’re used to in modes like Kill Confirmed and Search and Rescue as well. Hardpoint, a favorite of mine from Black Ops 2, also returns but with a bit of that Exo spice for a new flavor. Advanced Warfare’s Capture the Flag, of course, raises the bar in terms of speed and intensity.
Momentum is a returning mode from way back in the day when Treyarch launched Call of Duty: World at War. Based on what was then called War, Momentum is comparable to a very linear Domination with moving objective points where progress is only made when a point is captured and a new one opens up deeper inside enemy territory. Capturing the one closest to their ‘home base’ wins the match. Of course, it works both ways, so there can be a lot of back-and-forth if both teams are equally matched, which can lead to some very drawn-out, high kill-count matches. Spawn are a terrible mess, but it’s part of the chaos, and if you can learn to overcome it, you might crawl out of it with some serious kills.
The newest addition to Advanced Warfare’s roster of game modes is Uplink. If you’ve ever played Halo’s Ricochet, then you know exactly what your getting into. Its pretty much a carbon copy, but Call of Duty style, which isn’t a bad thing. It was a fantastically fun game mode in Halo and it is here too. Instead of scoring the most kills, Operators must pick-up a ball-like satellite and either score a touchdown or throw it into the goal located near the enemy’s spawn. More points are offered for jumping into the floating net, as opposed to lobbing it in. Like real life sports, you can pass the satellite to teammates or attempt to run it in yourself. You can even catch enemies off guard by tossing the satellite to them, forcing them to drop their weapon and giving you the opportunity to neatly take them out with yours before picking the satellite back up again. I personally love modes like these where emphasis isn’t placed as heavily on weapon skill, but on strategy, tactics, and teamwork instead.
In addition to your standard playlist of 11 game modes, there are also Hardcore, Classic (no Exo Suit), and Bonus playlists. Competitive players can work through different leagues in Ranked Play, as in Black Ops 2. Clans will also have ample opportunity to participate in Clan Wars, courtesy of Beachhead Studios, which can be managed through the official Call of Duty Companion App for free.
Advanced Warfare’s three-year development cycle has perhaps produced the most noticeable results in the dramatically improved visual and audio departments. Unfortunately, it still struggles to hit full 1080p on Xbox One, but looks Stunning on PlayStation 4 and on PC where you’ll find an impressive number of basic and advanced graphical options.
Sledgehammer has made a number of enhancements that help elevate Call of Duty’s status to a true next-gen title, but this is mostly only true in the game’s single player campaign where you’ll find true-to-life facial animations in ridiculously high fidelity, along with improved lighting and special effects. You won’t see anything as jaw-dropping in multiplayer matches as backgrounds are still rather 2D and any major special effects are kept to a minimum, but Call of Duty has always been about its solid 60FPS frame rate, which is once again achieved across all platforms. Still, I’m counting down the days until I can look down and see my soldier’s feet and am no longer just a floating camera. All the other modern shooters are doing it. Why can’t Call of Duty?
In addition to a smooth frame rate, Advanced Warfare boasts a very solid “netcode” (hit detection, hit notification, etc.) that has lead to some of the best ‘feeling’ gun fights I’ve had in a Call of Duty title yet. Now, a number of reports and video proof of the complete opposite have surfaced since launch, including complaints of very “laggy” gameplay, so do bear that in mind. I may be one of the lucky few who’ve managed to steer clear of such troubles. It’s one of those things where when it works, you’ll feel it, and it feels good.
Crisp and responsive audio may also play a large part in what I would call a very ‘tight’ gameplay experience. The mix of weapon fire with landing hit marker notifications is brutal. Bullets really sound like they hurt. Advanced Warfare’s audio landscape is crystal clear with every “clank” and “whizz” of the Exo Suit coming through nicely. Operators are nimble and fast on their feet and in the air but still retain a sense of weight and sheer power. Though, I wonder what happened to footstep sounds, as they are almost non-existant. It’s extremely difficult to hear enemies out of your range of vision, which is already pretty narrow on consoles, considering all that there is to keep track of. Either way, I’d like to see a bit of a volume increase for enemy footsteps to at least match older Call of Duty titles. While I’m at it, what’s up with dead bodies and why can’t I distinguish them from prone enemies? I’m not sure what the older games did differently, but I could clearly differentiate between the two. In Advanced Warfare, I’m getting popped by prone players I mistook for dead bodies all the time.
In Advanced Warfare, you’ll find a few oddities here and there that appear like rookie mistakes, but Sledgehammer’s willingness to break the mold right where it counts, at a core gameplay level, might just be what it takes to reel in brand new faces and perhaps entice ex-fans to hop back on the bandwagon.
4 / 5
While it shows in certain areas that Sledgehammer Games isn’t the veteran Call of Duty developer Infinity Ward and Treyarch are, one must admire a studio for taking risks when they could have easily played it safe. They’ve certainly left their mark on the series, which is now better for it. If what the company was able to do in three years is any evidence of the of the care and quality going in to future titles in the years to come, things are really looking good for this and last generation’s most popular shooter.
Quite simply, Advanced Warfare is one of the better entries in the Call of Duty series to-date, that is, if franchise fatigue isn’t getting to you by now. After all, just like an expensive mechanical military suit won’t change who you are underneath, the formula remains the same underneath this shiny new exoskeleton. I’m not sure if Sledgehammer’s innovations are enough for everyone, but it is a top-notch effort that is deserving of praise and one that proves this studio can roll with the big boys.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.