A question I’ve been asking myself lately: Am I a fan of the Call of Duty series? I really don’t know. On the one hand, every year I play the newest instalment and enjoy the single-player campaign for what it is as long as it lasts. On the other, as soon as the closing credits begin to roll, I don’t even think about the game again until the following November. And because I rarely have the time or inclination to indulge in multiplayer, my relationship with Call of Duty begins and ends with the portion of the game that almost everyone – including, I suspect, the developers – considers something of an afterthought.
From an outsider’s perspective, this relationship probably seems rather abusive. I return to the franchise again and again because it’s a good provider, I trust it, and occasionally I even feel like I need it; then it batters me with non-stop sensory overload until I collapse, sweaty and exhausted, yet again resentful of the fact that I fell for its empty promises. In my mind, Call of Duty is that one girl you always call when your current relationship falls apart – she’s great at what she does, but you both know she’s meant for someone else.
Ever since 2007’s Modern Warfare – still the series’ unequivocal high point – Activision’s many studios have essentially been releasing the same game each year, albeit with a smattering of new high-tech toys and some surface changes aimed at the dedicated fanbase. Is that inherently a bad thing? It depends. The bar for pure mechanical competence was set so high so long ago, and has been met so consistently since, that creativity is really the only currency in which Call of Duty trades these days; the annual release schedule is viable until the point of diminishing returns, and as much as the cynic in me would like to criticise that, the realist in me knows it’s a smart business strategy in a temperamental industry.
There is a limit to this, of course, and most people reached it with 2013’s Call of Duty: Ghosts, a game so devoid of creative ambition that it managed to strain even my no-strings-attached relationship with the franchise. And there wasn’t even anything overtly wrong with it. A perfectly serviceable game which shifts millions of copies and still (despite a slight falloff in critical reception) manages to position itself among the very best of the genre, that shouldn’t really be considered a failure. But Ghosts just played like a rote checklist of FPS tropes and well-worn scenarios, with very little fresh tissue connecting one blockbuster action set-piece to the next. And while in almost any other game that would have been enough, a series that essentially sells itself can’t justify lazy design quite so easily.
Advanced Warfare is the antithesis of that, essentially doing for Call of Duty in 2014 what Modern Warfare did for it almost a decade ago. It feels like not just a labour of love rather than a soulless cash-grab, but also a genuine attempt to retool and reinvigorate a tired, familiar formula. A large portion of the praise for that should be directed squarely in the direction of Sledgehammer Games, the new lead development team, who quietly toiled away on the title for a long while before it eventually hit shelves. Breaking away from the trappings of an annualized development cycle clearly did Advanced Warfare a whole host of favours: it runs on an entirely new engine at a smooth 60 frames-per-second, consistently operating at the top-end of HD resolution; the audio has been internally rebuilt from scratch alongside it; the facial animation is constructed using the same tools as James Cameron’s upcoming Avatar 2, granting in-game characters uncanny likenesses to the real-world talent providing their faces, voices and motion capture. In purely technical terms, Advanced Warfare is so distinct from its older siblings that it would be justified in asking for a paternity test.
While this kind of under-the-hood mumbo jumbo is typically pretty far down on my list of priorities when it comes to video games, in this case it really does matter. Yes, because this is the first Call of Duty title to be developed primarily for next-gen platforms (which is noteworthy in and of itself), but also because Advanced Warfare is such a pleasure to behold that the overall experience is genuinely enhanced as a result. It isn’t entirely successful elsewhere, and some of its ostensibly new ideas only feel fresh within the narrow confines of its own universe, but there’s nothing wrong with baby steps as long as they’re being taken in the right direction.
That direction is several years into the future: specifically the 2050s, which plants Advanced Warfare firmly in the realms of legitimate science-fiction. Even though sun-bleached glass-and-steel modernity is nothing new, it certainly feels fresh in this context. Gone are the competently-bland warzones, muted colour palettes and recycled audio-visual assets. In their place are swarms of hovering drones snaking through the skyscrapers of near-future Seoul; high-tech boulevards strewn with carnage; a slick billionaire’s compound home to stomping bipedal mechs and technological experimentation. It’s an altogether more vibrant, diverse and imaginative gameworld than anything the series has produced thus far.
Fast-forwarding the time period has injected a lot of new life into Call of Duty’s bloodstream, and while it manifests most readily in the aesthetics, the futuristic technology – all, apparently, based on existing military research – actually facilitates some of the more significant changes to the series’ core gameplay and structure that we’ve seen in almost a decade.
The aforementioned Exosuits, for example. These come in two distinct flavours – Assault and Specialist – each with varying abilities, and players spend the lion’s share of the campaign wearing one or the other. Of course its frequently rather arbitrary which suit or accompanying abilities you have access to in any given mission; the campaign tends to function like a tour of all the new toys, introducing gadgets, mechanics and the scripted sequences to show them off, before quickly abandoning them in favour of something else. It’s expected, though, and at this point criticising Call of Duty for being Call of Duty is a waste of both my time and yours.
Besides, I actually found myself significantly better disposed towards Advanced Warfare than any of the series’ other recent offerings almost entirely because of these ostensibly new additions. Admittedly some of them are of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it variety – one very linear mission involves a cloaking device, for example, which I don’t recall ever using again – but others turn up regularly, and feel less like one-off gimmicks and more like properly-integrated mechanics. The Assault Exo, in particular, with its jet-assisted movement options, allows for sliding, dashing, hovering, double-jumping and Mario-style ground-pounding, which increases the mobility of the player fairly significantly, while simultaneously offering much more verticality to the environments. On paper that’s a relatively minor addition, but when you consider that this is still very much the quintessential linear, corridor-heavy Call of Duty campaign, and that a lot of your time is going to be spent being funnelled through fairly small areas, there’s a lot of value in just being able to interact with those spaces more dynamically.
If you’ll indulge me a moment, here’s an example: imagine you’re being pinned down by a sniper on a distant balcony. In previous games, the solution would be to find cover, peep out, and take potshots until he fell – probably cartwheeling through the air as he did so in faux-dramatic fashion. In Advanced Warfare, you could do that too. You could also double-jump onto a balcony of your own, sprint and slide your way towards him, smack him off the edge with a robotic arm, leap into the air, slam your whole frame down into the ground among a group of his mates, dash sideways behind a nearby car, yank the door off, use that as a shield while you approach the survivors, throw it directly into the face of one and finally shoot the other. I’m sure you see the difference.
You could even, if you were so inclined, send one of your new “smart” grenades into the air and steer it directly towards him. Of all Advanced Warfare’s tech-wanking, I’m particularly fond of the variable grenades, primarily because they evoke that rather old-school-FPS feeling of certain weapons and bits of kit being specifically appropriate in certain situations and/or against certain types of adversary. EMP grenades are useful against swarms of unmanned drones and the occasional mech-suited soldier, for instance, while the Threat grenades highlight all enemies within their range and paint them onscreen in vivid red thermal imagery. Because these grenades are “variable”, they can be cycled through on-the-fly, which means that more often than not the player is carrying around six varieties rather than just two. It’s a neat way of side-stepping the weapon limit and making the player’s arsenal feel more diverse, without cluttering up the UI with fussy radial menus.
On the subject of that user interface: it’s gone, or at least remarkably streamlined. The hovering waypoint is still around, but all of the other necessary information (ammo counters and suchlike) is integrated into the weaponry and equipment itself – similar to how the Dead Space games do things, actually. I’m very much in favour of that, as it keeps the screen from becoming cluttered and is actually thematically consistent, which is more than I can say for the narrative.
Yes, I’m going to complain about the story, which kind of runs contrary to what I was saying about not criticising Call of Duty for being Call of Duty, but I feel it’s warranted in this case after how much of a big deal was made of Kevin Spacey’s involvement throughout the game’s marketing. And Kevin Spacey is certainly involved: he looks like Kevin Spacey, he moves and sounds like Kevin Spacey, he’s even playing Kevin Spacey (which is really the only character he ever plays). It’s a half-arsed performance though, hovering somewhere around disinterested for the majority, before rapidly and inexplicably shifting into a cartoonish impersonation of a power-mad Bond villain towards the end.
Spacey plays Jonathan Irons, the charismatic head of a multi-billion dollar private military contractor, Atlas. His son – Will, a marine – is killed in action during a moment of typically heroic self-sacrifice, and Irons blames it on military negligence; he’s essentially pissed off because the U.S. Marine Corps can’t operate with the same freedom and flexibility as his own private army, which (it’s heavily implied) he never really got over his son not wanting to be a part of. In retaliation he rolls up to Will’s funeral looking for a new surrogate, and finds one in his best friend, Jack Mitchell, who, after having lost an arm in the disaster which killed Will, is pretty pissed off about both his best friend’s death and the fact he can’t return to active duty. So after being promised a flashy new robo-prosthetic and a second chance at a military career, Mitchell accepts.
Outside of this basic setup the plot doesn’t really make much sense. It’s certainly less garbled than usual thanks to eschewing multiple viewpoints in favour of a singular perspective, but it has little interest in nuance, to say the least. The characters are all stock archetypes, and the big dramatic beats are marched towards, through and beyond without a single thought spared for things like proper motivation or logic. By the time Kevin Spacey was openly announcing his plans to take over the world during a United Nations conference, my eyes were rolling so severely I could actually see my brain struggling to figure out what was going on.
It’s jarring to see video game storytelling still so frequently short-changed, especially now that, visually at least, we’re rapidly approaching in-game cut-scenes which are almost indistinguishable from live action. Those in Advanced Warfare are the best I’ve ever seen by quite a margin, which of course only serves to emphasise the eerie, lifeless eyes of the cast. I’d still argue that whatever video games are or may ultimately become, the best medium for traditional storytelling they will never, ever be – still, you play the hand you’re dealt or you fold, and with a marquee name like Spacey’s on the billing, you’re likely going all in whether you like it or not.
So the plot is there, in its typical form, and it isn’t very good. In other news: the sun rose this morning, and I’m reasonably sure it’ll set later this evening. I’m not annoyed about either of those things, and nor should you be. Besides, with the whole “Press F to pay respects” thing still doing the rounds, there’s a fairly strong chance that Sledgehammer Games are now as indifferent towards Call of Duty’s narrative as the rest of us. It certainly feels that way; the cast are camping it up the whole way through, a lot of the purportedly “dramatic” fare is bonkers, and the entire thing really just feels like a GI Joe movie you’re allowed to play.
And while the actual playing isn’t revolutionary, at the very least Advanced Warfare is trying. It didn’t make me feel as though I was being exploited, or taken for a mug, and in all honesty I had a lot of fun with it. There are genuinely interesting moments: the open-ended grappling hook stealth mission, for example, or the bit where your fake arm stops working and you can’t reload or aim down the sights. Of the 8765 hours in a year, I can spare six of them to be reliably entertained – especially when it feels like the goal is to actually entertain me, rather than solely to make my wallet lighter. Call of Duty might have let us down with Ghosts, but it’s sorry. It’s making an effort. So I think I can find it in my heart to forgive Call of Duty, at least as long as it keeps giving me lasers.