Review: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (PS4)

The Call of Duty franchise seems to have become dependent on yearly releases following similar formulas and mechanics. This has lead the series, some would say, into a state of stagnation. Thankfully the latest entry, Advanced Warfare, seeks to reward both loyal fans as well as new and returning players with some fresh ideas and aspirations. Whether Call of Duty succeeds in overcoming its lineage, or simply gives the same experience with a fresh coat of paint, is dependent on how much you like set-pieces. If nothing else, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare provides a great example of how linearity and set-piece mission design can be extremely fun, provided the right tools are given to the player.

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The campaign depends on set-pieces such as this. Here, your unit has set off a mute charge and is going to clear a room where a hostage is being held. These sorts of moments keep you playing and the game moving at a brisk pace. That design allows for very exciting action sequences, but they are always incredibly linear.

While multiplayer has been the core pleasure of recent Call of Duty entries, it ought to be remembered that the series provided some of the most stellar single player adventures. The original Call of Duty is perhaps still the closest video game experience that captures that chaos of films like Saving Private Ryan. Modern Warfare, shifting to a contemporary setting, succeeded in creating Hollywood style experiences inspired by real-world operations such as the British SAS Iranian Embassy raid of 1980. In short, Call of Duty campaigns were well known for delivering a fantasy experience of otherwise horrifying, real-life military operations. Advanced Warfare still sticks closer to fantasy than reality as with its recent games, but the core design works hard to deliver an engaging vision of near-future war.

The focus of the story and the gameplay mechanics is the increased dependence on technology in war. Every sort of recent development mentioned in tech articles is here: stealth cloaks, powered armor, and miniature drones. Some more extreme examples of futuristic tools include grenades that release a pulse to highlight enemies in red, making them visible through walls, or mute charges which disrupt people’s hearing momentarily without them realizing it. Of course, this all comes together in the powered exoskeleton every soldier is equipped with, providing you with a variety of special abilities while still convincing you that it is a feasible vision of the future of warfare.

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Every mission gives you a specific set of Exo Abilities. These abilities define the level design and the theme of that part of the game. Therefore, you have no choice in what abilities you get, but you can be sure that the level will make the most of what you are given.

Essentially, the core hook of the game is that every level provides you with a specialized exoskeleton, specifically equipped for the mission at hand. Stealth missions may provide you with grappling hooks to carefully scale structures around enemies, or, in one instance, actual stealth cloaking. Taking on missions with an emphasis on close-quarters combat would equip you with increased melee strength, or even a sonic pulse that disables enemies that come near you. Every level is introduced with a listing of the abilities you are given, usually some combination of three. Regrettably, this means you cannot really customize the actual abilities you get for a given mission in the main campaign. This is a result of just how much the level design depends on these abilities. For example, the mentioned grappling hooks are nearly the entire focus in a level which involved scaling skyscrapers and construction sites; it would be impossible to progress without that specific mechanic being given to you. In other levels, the main challenge is the smart use of an ability, such as using a stealth cloak to enter an enemy base, while timing your movement and enemy patrols so you can stop and recharge the cloak without detection. Without that specific focus on managing your stealth cloak’s energy, the level is otherwise incredibly simple. In essence, player freedom has been sacrificed to provide a more focused, handcrafted experience of a level. That linearity allows for well-timed moments of excitement that capture your attention the first time through, but provide little challenge or variety in later replays.

It is pretty easy to say that the campaign here is very exciting, and that is all the single player mode seeks to do. While other games deliver deep stories, sandbox game-play, or complex progression systems, Advanced Warfare ignores all that for the duration of the single player mode. Instead, it delivers the most linear, yet most engaging campaign of the franchise since Modern Warfare. The dependence of the level design on specific abilities means you get to enjoy a nice variety of experiences. Of course, that is all the campaign does. It does not give you reason to plan or explore, and perhaps that is for the best. Sledgehammer Games seems to have decided to not change the direction of the Call of Duty campaign formula, but to refine it to a high polish, justifying its linearity with the excitement that a well-guided experience can provide. It is difficult not to compare it to a roller coaster: short, simple, and exciting, but eventually you learn all the twists and turns.

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The little freedom the campaign does give you is in upgrading your exoskeleton with small yet useful advantages, such as quicker aiming, more armor, or dampened recoil.

That being said, the steady RPG-creep of leveling and progression into non-role-playing games is rather evident even in this linear experience. Completing challenges on missions, such as head shots, allows you to earn points that can upgrade your exoskeleton. You are given the option of a variety of small but useful advantages, such faster aiming or increased grenade capacity. Replaying the campaign allows you to keep the progression you have made, making you more capable with each play through. However, the main reason of any repeat play through depends on your interest in finding collectibles or trying out higher difficulty settings. In reality, the main reason to return to the game following the campaign, though that part is exciting the first time through, is the multiplayer.

The exoskeleton abilities of the campaign naturally mesh with Call of Duty’s long established multiplayer concepts. You play on small, intricate maps in teams or free-for-alls, unlocking upgrades at nearly every corner to keep you playing. This system of progression is benefited by the exoskeleton, allowing you to craft a soldier that not only has a unique load-out of weapons and perks, but tools as well. As you rack up kills in multiplayer, you not only unlock weapons, attachments, and perks, but the abilities given to you throughout the campaign. The already chaotic shooting spree of a Call of Duty multiplayer session is reinvigorated as players can now utilize Exo Abilities, such as cloaks or health regeneration. Built into every exoskeleton from the get-go are also huge movement capabilities such as double jumps and dashes, mirroring the experience of Titanfall in a more limited sense.

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The full customization options of the game come out in multiplayer. There is quite a lot to unlock, and a smart system of point values allows you to try out a wide variety of combinations.

The load out you use in multiplayer is defined by the Pick 13 System. You are given 13 points to use up, with every perk and item having its own value. This gives players the possibility of more customization while providing a good system of balance for fair play. Wildcards are added to the mix to allow you to bend the game’s mechanics and rules while the 13 point system balances things out. For example, I am able to carry a primary weapon, a secondary, a grenade pack, and a single Exo Ability. I can use a Wildcard that costs me one of my points, but gives me the ability to replace my grenade pack with an extra Exo Ability. The cost of the extra Exo Ability and the Wildcard means I have to remove something else, so I kick out my secondary weapon. As a result, I can try out interesting combinations of items and abilities that don’t follow the exact same formula for every player. Depending on your play style and preference, you are given a good amount of freedom to customize your soldier. Outside of these actual abilities, you also earn items to visually customize your soldier, including different exoskeleton paint schemes.

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Some of the abilities and attachments of the game truly standout, visually and mechanically, in terms of pure fun and delivering a futuristic experience. Here I have just used a Threat Grenade, which highlights all enemies in red for a short period of time. I can see all the enemies coming at me, without leaving the safety of my cover.

The weapons themselves are rather exciting. Not constrained by real weapon systems, yet still grounded in what is convincing, Advanced Warfare’s guns provide a satisfying variety in shooting mechanics. Every weapon’s flavor comes out in how it recoils, how sharp its muzzle flash is, and its specific sounds. These characteristics make each weapon feel right for what the game is trying to convince you of; stealth weapons feel sharp and silent, while mid-range weaponry has intense stopping power and precision even at full auto. The attachments give you more room to play, as well. These include sights that can switch between close and mid-range, and a Target Enhancer that highlights enemies in red, much like the tactical grenade mentioned above. On that note, grenades themselves come in a surprising array of choices. They are split into two categories: tactical and lethal. Tactical grenades give you options that detect enemies, or release EMP blasts for drones. Lethal grenades give you the standard frag grenade, as well as Smart Grenades that home in on your target, or Contact Grenades that explode upon touching an enemy.

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The in-game visuals are generally pleasing, but nothing stellar. This scene shows the game at its best.

Visually, Advanced Warfare is not the prettiest game on the latest consoles. That being said, there is a lot of tough competition that is hard to beat: do not expect the single player graphics to keep up with Killzone: Shadow Fall’s environments or Metal Gear Solid V’s character models. Overall, however, the game is enjoyable to look out, if not particularly exciting. There are a few standout moments, however. Certain characters seem to have been given an extra level of polish on their in-game models, such as Kevin Spacey’s character, Jonathan Irons. Lighting, as well, provides particularly nice effects, if not as detailed or varied as in other games. Finally, the game’s cinematics are amazingly well done. Of course, they are not a reflection of the game’s actual visuals, but they are still a very nice treat between campaign missions. It is the audio work that really shines, however, delivering a very crisp, sometimes surprisingly loud array of effects. Every gun delivers its own, unique pop, and explosions mimic the booms of modern day action-movies.

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The graphics of Advanced Warfare are certainly an improvement over previous games in the franchise, which is to be expected, but are nothing truly stunning. The lighting, at a few points during the campaign, does deliver a very nice visual experience.

Overall, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare delivers the same basic formula present since the first Modern Warfare. That being said, it is possibly the highest point in that series of games. The introduction of special abilities through the exoskeleton system means that the campaign itself, though as linear as ever, is filled with a variety of fun experiences. That ride is exciting, but short and shallow. The multiplayer is the same Call of Duty we’ve come to expect, with more variety and a smarter system for providing players with balanced yet exciting customization options. If you like Call of Duty’s recent entries, or if you feel the series has been growing stale following Modern Warfare, this one will provide you with plenty of fun. It will not, however, change your mind about the franchise as a whole.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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