“Ideas don’t determine who’s right,” says Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s Jonathan Irons, in defense of his ruthless, genocidal solution to war. “Power does.” But while it’s true that simply throwing vast budgets at a first-person shooter can make it commercially, if not critically, successful (see Destiny and last year’s Call of Duty: Ghosts), ideas certainly help. With something new around every corner, the appropriately named Sledgehammer Games has managed to break the sense of annualized fatigue plaguing the Call of Duty series. The new smooth-as-silk engine brings power to the table, avoiding graphic slowdown even in the midst of 16-player carnage, while the ideas for future technology fundamentally change the gameplay for the better.
Every soldier now comes equipped with light exoskeletons, armor that allows them to boost and dash through the air, adding verticality to the franchise. (It also finally explains how your character can get shot so many times without dying.) The Call of Duty series has always been more of a tactical FPS than a corridor shooter, one that requires a mastery of the environment to flank foes, and this increased maneuverability opens up these maps, particularly in multiplayer. New gadgets also offer new strategic options, like a mute charge that suppresses sound, a threat grenade that visually tags all nearby enemies, and a sonic pulsar that temporarily disorients human foes.
With all the UAVs in the sky, simply running and gunning is rarely a viable approach, and Advanced Warfare’s balanced stealth sections wisely borrow from other forward-looking titles like Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Metal Gear Solid in their use of cloaking technology and takedown kills. Most intriguing are tools like a grapple gun, which can garrote enemies as it harpoons them back to you, and magnetized gloves, which give you the strength to use car doors as shields (or hurled objects). Sadly, these features are underutilized throughout the campaign, used largely to introduce a sense of variety to the missions as opposed to being a part of your regular, tactical arsenal, resulting in a lackluster and rather familiar endgame—at least for those who played Sledgehammer’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.
But even similar gameplay elements benefit from the major upgrade to Call of Duty’s dramatic storytelling. Jonathan Irons doesn’t just have Kevin Spacey’s voice; he looks and moves just like him—one step further, even, than that of the motion-capturing of Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page in Beyond: Two Souls. The overall plot—an idealistic villain with unlimited funds commits acts of unspeakable terrorism—isn’t anything new, but it’s grounded by such commitment and gravitas by Spacey that you almost want to set the controller down and stop fighting him. At the same time, the constant displays of new technology keep you engaged, from a sequence that has you leaping from van to van on a speeding highway to one where you maneuver a drone assassin into the perfect position to clear out a room. You’ll drive hover tanks and submersible speedboats, fly tricked-out planes, and maneuver mech suits. A shootout is as liable to occur on the irradiated streets of post-apocalyptic Detroit as in the fragile ice caves of Antarctica, and an opportunity for tourism before chaos breaks out presents itself in both bustling New Baghdad and the quaint, classical streets of Greece.
For those who find the single-player mode as exciting as the interactive tour at Universal Studios (and to be fair, it’s a very scripted campaign), there are also immersive co-op and multiplayer options that have been carefully and coolly designed to make you lose all of your friends. The co-op co-opts the familiar “survival” mode of many other shooters, but with a great deal of variety in mission objectives (to keep things fresh) and a risk/reward upgrade system that either lets you level up abilities and weapons between missions (for survivability) or to hold those points as score multipliers. As for multiplayer, the Pick 13 system replaces the Pick 10 customization introduced in Black Ops II, and while that may result in an increasingly dense loadout menu for series newbies (the Combat Readiness training program doesn’t really help, and is riddled with glitches), it makes for an exponentially more varied game, especially with players adjusting and swapping skill sets between deaths. There’s even a classic mode for those looking to upgrade the graphics of their last Call of Duty title without fundamentally changing the core mechanics with the Exo skills.
In short, Advanced Warfare advances every single aspect of the already impressive Call of Duty series. Jonathan Irons may scoff at the idea of dying for what you believe in, as it doesn’t make that belief true, but at least so far as this game goes, it’s entertaining, and that’s more than enough.