When it comes to Call of Duty, you usually have a good idea what to expect. With little real variation from year to year, when you plonk your money down, you know exactly what you're letting yourself in for - a highly polished first person shooter with plenty of explosions, a few dozen "ooh-rahs", and guns. Lots of guns.
This time, however, we had reason to believe things would be a little bit different. For some time, it's looked like Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare might be one of the first games to mix the old, reliable formula up a little bit. With a new, more futuristic setting, and with Activision seemingly feeling a little bit less than bullish about their leading franchise for the first time in recent memory, Advanced Warfare promised to breathe life back into the somewhat stagnant series. So, was a journey to the future just what the series needed, and is this a Call of Duty game that pushes the well tested boundaries? Well, not really.
In fact, Advanced Warfare is a game the suffers from all the same old Call of Duty problems, only with a few new ones thrown in for good measure. It's not that there's anything phenomenally wrong here, and it's not as though the gameplay's massively glitched, or broken either. It's just that as yet another yearly franchise, Call of Duty seems to have fallen into a hole of doing just "good enough" to get a game out the door - and that's where Advanced Warfare really falls down.
The story here is eerily familiar -yet told in an impressively polished way. Set in 2054, in a world that looks surprisingly similar to what we've got now, the plot revolves around a military contractor corporation known as Atlas. With a suitably Bond-villain-esque name, Atlas is effectively "a super power for hire", with enough military capacity to take on pretty much anyone in the world - so long as you can afford their bill. Leaving the American military proper to join up with the freelance bad boys, you step into the shoes of a headhunted new recruit, as you take on an evil terrorist organisation hell bent on bringing "the west" to its knees - but as is always the way, things aren't always as they seem...
Things kick off in a suitably spectacular fashion - after being flung out of the bottom of a plane in a kind of drop pod, you hurtle towards the ground at breakneck speed (the ground which is weirdly only visible above you, on the pod's LCD roof) as anti-aircraft fire explodes around you, and rockets shoot past. After a few too many near misses, you suddenly veer off course, before smashing into a building, careering down the outside of it, and eventually coming to rest on the ground, before picking yourself up, and brushing yourself down A Team style, with your ever so slightly sci-fi weapon in hand. It's all very heart racing stuff, and it all looks incredible, thanks to the new visual sheen the game's been given as the first Call of Duty game developed from the ground up for "next-gen" formats (that's the PS4 and Xbox One to me and you). But as we all know, it doesn't matter how good a game looks if it doesn't play well too - and that's where Call of Duty starts to fall down.
Perhaps more so than ever before, the levels in Advanced Warfare shepherd you down a narrow path. And that's not always a problem in games - in fact, sometimes a bit of linearity is a good thing - but when things are quite as repetitive as this, it doesn't take long before the linearity starts to grate. In almost every level, without fail, you simply move in a straight line, from one room to the next, picking off enemies as you go. Every now and then, you'll find yourself attacked by a whole swarm of baddies, and then it's up to you have a slight change of strategy, and find somewhere to hide, as you hold your ground 'til you've cleared them all out. That, in a nutshell, is the pattern pretty much every levels follows. Fight through corridors picking off the odd enemy -> find slightly more open space -> defend yourself against attack until a certain condition's been met. And we really needed something more.
The "something more" Advanced Warfare attempts to provide comes in the form of the Exo Suit, a new exoskeleton for your soldier that gives ordinary people superhuman powers. Whether it's giving you crazy strength, the power to slow down time, some funky jet boosters that let you double jump, or even a built in riot shield, you'll have different Exo Suit loadouts depending on what level you're playing (you can't change it in the single player), and the various functions can be accessed by using the d-pad. Unfortunately, while it may be a nice touch, it's not really enough to make COD feel fresh - you rarely really have any reason to use the new features outside of certain specific sections, and when there's nothing on screen to tell you which power is accessible in which direction on the d-pad, you often find yourself just triggering anything and everything accidentally when you even try.
The story, on the other hand, is done with the usual COD flair. Told through fantastically animated cutscenes, despite its generic tendencies, the plot is actually one of the best parts of Advanced Warfare, with some top notch voice acting, creepily realistic "uncanny valley" facial expressions, and plenty of twists and turns to keep things moving. Unfortunately, while the military jargon may be lighter in this one, there are still a few "WTF" moments, like when a character asks you to "flank the technical". The technical what?
While the cutscenes give the game an air of polish, and the gameplay for the most part is smooth, if not enticing, there's still a few weird issues that crop up every now and then. In the first level, it's actually nigh on impossible to tell who's friend or foe, because there's nothing at all to mark people up as enemies. When you have one group of soldiers wearing black uniforms on one side, and another group of soldiers wearing black uniforms on another, it can be hard to tell which is which even when they're standing next to each other, yet alone in the middle of a firefight. Needless to say, having to go back to the last checkpoint because you accidentally shot at one of your guys because the game can't be bothered to tell you which is which is a bit depressing.
Well, we say "can't be bothered" - what we mean is, the feature seems to have been made deliberately awkward to make way for one of the game's new "future combat" style weapons. While hovering your cursor over an enemy will cause it to change from "white" to "mostly-white-with-a-hint-of-orange" (a change that's almost unnoticeable), if you want to really tell friend from foe, you'll have to use one of the new features, known as a threat grenade. When thrown, this handy little device will send out a pulse that highlights all enemies in the area in a handy red colour, which not only helps you tell friend and foe through walls, but also makes them stand out against the almost entirely grey or brown environments. The only problem is, they're rather limited - and so for most of the level, you'll simply have to rely on guess work, or wait for them to shoot at you before you shoot back. While future levels aren't quite as bad, as you're usually fighting alongside a small squad of troops rather than in the midst of a large firefight with plenty of soldiers from either side, it still seems like a daft oversight.
Equally awkward are the game's quick time events, which ask you to quickly mash the random button icons that appear on screen, but with nothing at all to draw your attention to them. No pulsing, no glowing, no sound effect, no arrow - all you'll get is a tiny, white icon that pops up somewhere on an object you're supposed to be interacting with/dodging, and is incredibly difficult to spot in the middle of an action sequence. Needless to say, you'll need to keep your eyes peeled, because these sections are ridiculous. One sees you fall off the roof of a bus, and only just manage to grab on, as you dangle a few inches from the floor by only your fingertips. Before long, a truck pulls up alongside with two people on board. Never mind that you're being flung around like a goat in a hurricane - you'll need to shoot both of the people before they can kill you, and then follow a sequence of prompts, pressing X when the truck tries to ram you to jump over to it, pressing R3 to smash the windscreen in (if you can see the white icon against the light grey windscreen), and then, when the icon appears, press X to jump back to the bus. The only problem is, the game seems to prefer to ignore you pressing X on the last move in this sequence, and instead simply lets you fall to your death. Repeatedly. Even though the icon was still definitely on screen when you pressed the button. Of course, for your insubordination at having failed the prompt, it's back to the very start of the section for you, where you have to play through it all over again.
But one of the biggest problems with COD, perhaps even more so than the various bugs and oddities, is that it all feels oh so scripted, and oh so explosive. There's almost literally no downtime here, and no chance to get your breath back between missions - all that happens is you'll be flung from one hell hole to another, and have to fight your way through a neverending stream of hundreds of enemies with each mission. There's only so many gigantic explosion, building collapses and nuclear reactors we can almost get blown up by before we start to get exhausted, and need that word that Call of Duty seems to be so afraid of - variety.
It probably speaks volumes that one of the game's most annoying levels also happens to be one of its best. Here, you're breaking into a heavily armed compound in the middle of an evening party. With light musak filling the air, you have to sneak in, and get to some documents, without being spotted by any guards - or any of the drones that are patrolling the area. The total opposite of everything else in the game, this is such a refreshing change of pace, you can almost forgive its ridiculous "one strike and you're out" approach to the stealth (getting spotted by a single enemy is all it takes to chuck you back to the last checkpoint). Better yet, this is where the game's grappling hook really comes into its own. Along with being a handy way to get from A to B (if A is the floor and B is a rooftop), you can even use it to silently take out guards. Position yourself above them, and press a button, and you'll shoot the grappling hook into the guard, before yanking them up onto the roof with you to be dealt with. With a trophy for achieving 20 kills with your grappling hook in the level, this was actually the most fun we had with the game - on the most annoying level.
So, all together, Call of Duty is more of the same - and that's both good and bad. It delivers the same fantastically acted story, with plenty of twists and turns, but comes with gameplay that just can't accompany it. With no down time to catch your breath, it's a game that can feel exhausting to play, and with little in the way of variety, and far too many scripted events, it mostly ends up feeling dull. When it does try to explore a few different possibilities, Advanced Warfare suddenly comes to life - but for the most part, this doesn't so much advance Call of Duty's prospects as hold the line. Perhaps it's time for a return to the WW2 setting, to refresh the whole experience?
Format Reviewed: PC