I have long been of the opinion that if a game wants to be taken seriously, its component parts of single player and multiplayer should stand up on their own.
It’s ok for them to be two entirely separate entities, like in the Halo universe; I know that there are people who have poured countless hours into the Halo games but couldn’t tell you whose brain Cortana is cloned from (Catherine Halsey is the answer, for the record). That’s OK – just as it’s OK if you want to play games entirely for multiplayer – but if you release a game with a single player campaign, you better make damn sure that it’s worth playing and not pure unadulterated shite (hello, Battlefield 3).
So it was with some trepidation – and memories of the dreadful campaign from last year’s Ghosts – that I approached Activision’s most recent instalment in the sales juggernaut that is the Call of Duty series.
With all of the publicity around the fact that Kevin Spacey is in a game, I was expecting CoD:AW‘s single player to be at least half-decent. I’m pleased to report that it actually stands up fairly robustly in the story department. It’s entirely transparant and about as suble as a pink elephant, but it’s a good story all the same. You play as Mitchell – an ex-marine and veteran of a war against North Korea which cost you a limb, and cost the life of your best friend, Will Irons. Will’s dad, Johnathon Irons (Kevin Spacey) is the CEO of the world’s largest Private Military Company (PMC), Atlas, and he offers you a second chance. He gives you a state of the art prosthetic arm, sticks you in a state-of-the-art EXO suit which makes you run faster, jump higher and sets you on your merry, gun-firing, terrorist-shooting way.
First things first: it’s nice to play a protagonist who is a skinny, ordinary-looking guy as opposed to the usual Gears of War style meat-head or some pretty-boy Nathan Drake wannabe that nobody will ever see themselves as. Second things second, while Mitchell isn’t the prettiest person in the game, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is certainly very pretty. The graphics are great and the textures are fantastic for the vast majority of the game. Much has been said over the years about how Call of Duty continually recycled a tired old graphics engine which originated in the PS2 era, but with Advanced Warfare, developer Sledgehammer has gone all-out, creating a brand new engine from scratch. The results are highly impressive. You get the occasional texture pop-in and there’s sime horrific tearing towards the end; but when the game is running at full capacity, you can count the blackheads on Kevin Spacey’s nose – a sentence I’m sure has never been written before. The attention to detail in the environments and on the character models is stunning, and the game looks magnificent for most of the campaign.
The problem is that despite this beautifully crafted area to lose yourself in, every now and again Advanced Warfare feels this all–encompassing, game-shattering urge to pull you out of the realism (well, as realistic as a sci-fi game can be) you’ve begun to sink into. There are a few things here that I take major issue with – the first is that while Advanced Warfare is mechanically sound and gorgeous to look at, Irons is sending you constant updates, intel and other rubbish which take up a good 25% of your screen. This is fine and dandy if you are sneaking around, hunkered down and waiting for a convoy to pass; if, however, you’re in a firefight on the Golden Gate Bridge, that shit gets you killed. A lot. Repeatedly. And it is really, really annoying. Mechanics, graphics and story should all work together to make a cohereant whole. This flashy, obtuse way of presenting intel was the worst decision in the single player campaign, and it completely detracts from the whole experience.
For all the marketing bluster about how this is a reinvention of the series, Advanced Warfare is still very obviously a Call of Duty game. It has to be, really – with so many millions of people snapping up each new instalment, any drastic change to the winning formula runs the risk of alienating the existing playerbase. Unfortunately, this means that many of the old problems with the series remain in this latest entry. Enemies still spawn the second you turn around, and kill you the instant you’re not looking. If your partner screams that you need to run and grab a Stinger missile as quickly as you can, you better make damn sure that you stop and kill every enemy in sight, or you will die; this isn’t Wolfenstein: The New Order, which managed AI cover-fire extremely well – this is Call of Duty, and it still fails at providing convincing AI – just as it always has.
There are more bugs, like invisible walls for both you and your bullets, which was frustrating as hell lying prone in front of a 16-wheel lorry and not wounding the enemy less than a meter away. And there was that time where I was flanking an enemy heavy, and snapped a good 40 meters to the left as if grabbed by an incredibly powerful magnet, just so that I could fall into the scripted crevasse which appeared. This, Sledgehammer, is sloppy. It’s poor design and it’s completely unforgivable.
The last real issue with the campaign is that while the campaign tells a decent – and at least comprehensible – story, it’s a story we’ve played before. It doesn’t add much to the dystopian-future filled-with-PMC stories that we’ve heard and played a dozen times already. While the overarching plot is pretty good, the missions are little more than isolated skirmishes which feel like they’ve been spliced from any other generic game. They don’t offer anything other than places to shoot people, interspliced with the now-traditional bombastic set pieces. The last few missions in particular are extremely guilty of this, which is only made worse by epic levels of screen tear and freezing.
The multiplayer, much like the single player, is more of the same. Up until now, the Call of Duty franchise has metered out the same formula year in, year out, providing safe bet after safe bet. Advanced Warfare was supposed to hit that nail on the head, and open the franchise out in new and exciting ways which we had never before. The co-op missions are routine at this point, and while the multiplayer has had a few facelifts, and it certainly feels tighter than it used to, Advanced Warfare is just Titanfall – only without the Titans. Maps are more vertical than ever, but still feel relatively confined with predictable chokepoints and routes through them. It’s solid but uninspiring stuff.
That being said, the multiplayer is still fun to play; the customisation options have been improved – the Pick 10 system has been upgraded to Pick 13, and your physical appearance is more varied. Loadouts are varied and unlocks become increasingly powerful, but despite your level it never feels unbalanced. You can quite easily come late to the party and you’ll still walk away from a match with several presitge players with your name in the middle of the scoreboard if you’re a half-decent.
The biggest addition to and improvement on the CoD franchise here is that instead of the usual horizontal terrain which CoD players are accustomed to, you’re encouraged to make full use of your EXO suit, double-jumping and air dodging your way through the various maps and modes. This is actually very useful and a lot of fun in a human vs human matchup – it makes the action all-the-more engaging as you don’t know which direction your opponent is going to jet off in next. It certainly feels like a deliberate response to what Respawn achieved in Titanfall, but it manages to at least feel like a Call of Duty title rather than a carbon-copy of what was achieved in that game.
If there’s a problem, it’s that Halo and other games already did all this years ago. As you level your way through the multiplayer ranks you unlock different EXO upgrades, which we first saw in Crysis. While it may add a host of new toys to the CoD franchise, anyone who has played any other major FPS in the last 10 years will see much of the same. Advanced Warfare boasts a new multiplayer mode, Uplink, which is lifted from another franchise. I started the game and was told to run and grab a drone and upload it at the enemy base by throwing it or jumping into a floating sphere. “Oh, so like griffball in Halo?” Yeah, pretty much. Advanced Warfare feels like a mashup of CoD, Halo, Crysis and even Killzone – not quite what you’d expect of such a high profile game, but at least it isn’t CoD: Ghosts.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is a good game. It’s not a great game, but it’s good enough, and the legions of rabid franchise fans will no doubt be happy – until one poor developer announces an unwelcome change to a rifle’s reload time, at least. If you simply want another iteration of CoD to get you through the winter months, this will suffice. If you want a decent single player FPS campaign to shoot through, you could do a lot worse, but might want to consider Halo: The Master Chief Collection. If you’re looking for a ground-breaking new FPS experience, just play Titanfall again.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is certainly a step in the right direction for the series, but even despite the shift to full-blown sci-fi and the additions made to the multiplayer, it plays things a bit too safe. That’s sure to be fine for most fans who simply want – and expect – more of the same; but I can’t help but think that, moving forward, the series needs to come up with some more drastic changes to the formula if it wants to maintain its position as the pre-eminent videogame release of the year.