As sure as the change of the season, that time of year is upon us once more: the next Call of Duty is ready to rear its head and bellow in a raucous chorus of exploding grenades, falling spent shell-casings and enough gunshots to put holes in all of Switzerland’s cheese exports.
Certain journalists will express exasperation at this seemingly endless cycle, and others still will display an almost stupidly fond adoration, loved up with the franchise and blind to the various shortcomings, discrepancies and the taste of rot, unmoving. For a good few years now, each new release has been met with boundless commercial success but a certain quantity of critical derision, often at the minor tweaking, visually and in gameplay, which aims to be ground-breaking but eventually emerges as largely superficial.
Things are about to change, however, as Glenn Schofield, Studio Head at Sledgehammer Games and essentially Mr Advanced Warfare himself is keen to tell us. Before getting a chance to knock seven shades of shit out of all the other journos present, I sat through an illuminating presentation by the man himself on what exactly has changed in the run up to Advanced Warfare that will allow it to set itself apart from the pack.
One thing he focussed on early was the nature of the company and the new three-year model that is being applied to the Call of Duty series as a whole; rather than having two studios releasing one title each in alternating years, as Infinity Ward (2, 4, MW2, MW3, Ghosts) and Treyarch (3,WaW, Blops 1 & 2) have been doing for years, there will also be Sledgehammer Games, permitting each studio 3 years rather than two on their next box on the shelf. Evidently this should improve the quality of the output, simply as a result of more time being available to smooth-over any rough edges.
Also mentioned is a commitment to narrative, implying some bigger focus on the single player aspects of the game, which over the past few iterations has become more and more of a pastiche. By focussing on one soldier, Pvt. Mitchell, Schofield promises to make this more than just a military story, one with heart and emotion. I’d be perfectly satisfied with a considered plot with a little social commentary and perhaps just one poignant moment, after the action-movie-tropes-on-meth compilation we saw in Ghosts. In a hailstorm of widespread publicity, we know that one Mr. Kevin Spacey will be starring as Atlas Corporation big cheese Jonathan Irons – leader of one of the Private Military Corporations that the world turns to in the wake of synchronised global terror attacks. With Spacey’s acting chops, playing a character clearly reminiscent of the chillingly excellent Frank Underwood in Netflix series House of Cards, Advanced Warfare might prove itself the redeemer of the franchise.
In what was seen of the story, Sledgehammer aren’t hesitating to make robust use (read ‘a big deal’) of AW’s key USP, the Exo. Fleshing this abbreviated buzzword out to its full title, exoskeleton, we begin to get an idea of what it’s going to mean in amongst the COD formula; think increased strength, think increased mobility, think everyone’s other favourite buzzword these days – verticality! Think that a lot because it’s the area of improvement that revitalises the gameplay, both single and multiplayer, most of all. A powered exoskeleton will do that.
In the story mission previewed, ‘Traffic’, our man Mitchell can be seen pulling some Spiderman manoeuvres in an attempt to rescue the Nigerian Prime Minister, under capture by terrorist organisation the KVA. In classic COD style, thrills and spills up to the gills, the player climbs metal walls with a magnetic grip, leaps atop a moving lorry after a casual ‘F*** it’ from your character’s superior and engages in a pulse-pounding, high-octane, low-realism fight, leapfrogging between vehicles and pulling off some major quick time event acrobatics. The cinema we’ve gotten used to with the franchise is well and truly present, but the emotional slice of the pie, at least from the demo, remains curiously absent.
Visually she’s a beauty, and not just in terms of graphics. Smooth textures and strong explosion and particle effects are one thing, but the way the HUD has been absorbed into the first person perspective is brilliant. Following the direction of ‘augmented reality’, stats such as grenades and weapon ammo are displayed contextually within the environment, for instance your ammo is displayed along the side of your weapon. Other monitors and sensors are also smoothly communicated in this fashion. This maximises screen space and really de-clutters the display, letting the player keep their cool in the heat of it.
COD being what it is these days, it was the multiplayer play test that was really on my mind. Kevin Spacey may be a favourite but nothing beats a little bit of friendly rivalry. In terms of game modes there are a few old favourites returning, in amongst the twelve modes we’ve been told the game will ship with, such as Kill Confirmed and Hardpoint, along with some new additions, one of which has been termed Uplink.
Uplink is a corruption of a traditional Capture the Flag mode and also very similar in effect to the Blitz game mode you may remember from Ghosts. The objective is to take a satellite uplink to a goal zone and it just so happens said uplink is a spherical object and requires a throw into a larger, coloured spherical object to score. We’ve a ball and we’ve a goal, but in these simple objects are also the ingredients for some hilarious fun and some very tense showdowns when the scores really get down to the wire. Much to the dismay of my opponents, I discovered that the TAC-19 shotgun on offer was the perfect way to tool up for this particular game mode, given the available gun selection.
The map style has been totally restructured when compared with past games, with the gameplay changes induced by the Exo system informing the composition of the levels. There’s a lot of verticality and there are also far more routes through and across maps. These routes also have more intersection points so there’s no sense that you’re being forced into a corridor. There are some amazing killboxes on offer as well: on Retreat, there is an oriental style garden area which is opened up onto by three or four different ground routes and two main elevated routes. Be warned, this can turn into a grenade party, but kills are here to be had for the discerning advanced soldier. And remember; you are the advanced soldier.
Defender is another map that makes the perfect environment for testing out the Exo capabilities. Set next to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, there is a network of tunnels through the map, but being hooked on the new boost-jump, it was more often a case of why go through or around when you can go over? Mid-level there is a tsunami wave that engulfs the map, requiring a timely leap towards the skies to avoid an untimely demise.
Changes to the perks system are apparent in the new pick 13 architecture, a familiar set up based on Black Ops II, in which you’ve 13 points to go towards your weapon, sidearm, attachments, perks, scorestreak rewards, Exo abilities and ammo for your Exo launcher, because now grenades are not thrown but fired from the wrist. This really is the future.
The Exo abilities are new territory for the series but do form some parallels with the special abilities on offer in Titanfall; there is a cloak, a stim package, something to see enemies through walls and cover. Though that’s not to start pointing fingers – the Call of Duty family in a broader sense and the Titanfall developers, Respawn, captained by Frank Zampella and Jason West, do share some history, and a rather acrimonious parting of ways, but that’s out there to be read into however you choose, dear reader. Whatever the case, wherever the ideas originated, what AW brings to the table stimulates and invigorates the multiplayer experience and allows for the game to be played in less familiar ways, also opening multiplayer up to a host of potentially successful approaches, rather than bogging the player down with a scarce handful of viable play styles.
That this felt immediately clear when dabbling with the multiplayer is encouraging, as Glenn Schofield pegged the “You Play. Your Way” motto as a key direction that Advanced Warfare was aiming to take.
On top of all this there’s the usual bragging rights about “the most customisable COD ever” where you can “be the soldier you want to be”, etcetera. Until armoured banana hammocks have been added to the potential wardrobe, I’ll count the hyperbole unfulfilled, but there have been additions and if that sort of thing has been your bag in past iterations, there’s no doubt you’ll be even happier here in the newest edition.
Myself, I’ll set the gimmicks to one side; Advanced Warfare simply doesn’t need them. This is the most exciting Call of Duty since Modern Warfare 2 and I’m eagerly awaiting release.