It’s 5:15 p.m. the day Activision flew me and about four or five dozen journalists and other game-industry folks out to San Francisco to check out Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s multiplayer. We’re temporarily lined up outside the building like we’re waiting for concert tickets. It’s like clockwork: Whenever unknown lines happen in big cities, folks from all walks of life spontaneously wander by to ask what we’re waiting for. Eventually, two very well-to-do ladies in very loud clothing and louder voices come by. The following then transpires:
Woman 1: What’s this line for?
Journalist: We’re previewing the new Call of Duty?
Woman 2: The new what?
Journalist : You know, the video game?
Woman: 1: Oh, it’s video games! How adorable!
This sticks with me when we’re finally let in to the event and we’re surrounded on all sides by gunfire and ominous, industrial bass drops. Draped in its new next-gen engine, Advanced Warfare now has all the gloss and sheen and bombast of anything Michael Bay spits out on a yearly basis, but the single-player has always been missing Bay’s sense of assholish mirth, with any latent morality stemming from the player’s actions buried beneath the sheer jingoist glee. The franchise has never let real-world implications get in the way of good headshots and bigger explosions, and arguably they shouldn’t, and yet there’s also been a constant desensitization with each installment to the mayhem, and divorced of any deeper context, the incentives to fight the good fight in multiplayer veer dangerously closer to the worst kind of flag-waving hysteria. Kids used to play Cowboys and Indians, or Cops and Robbers. Now it’s us, in all its various forms, versus terrorists, who pretty much only have “brown” in common.
As such, on paper, Advanced Warfare is the best kind of step forward, taking any semblance of our modern world out of the equation. The game is set 50 years in the future. With no single government to lambast in an obtuse but still disquietingly xenophobic way, the enemy ostensibly becomes America itself. Specifically, private military corporations all vying to be the one to take down a new multinational terrorist group responsible for melting down nuclear reactors across the world, leaving the world not quite post-apocalyptic, but certainly post-catastrophic.
In the previous Call of Duty games, there was always something vaguely uncomfortable with so many players playing out Bush-era military wet dreams millions of times a day. Advanced Warfare taking the series into the future of messy politics allows the game to go a little wilder, with the series’s business-as-usual running and gunning augmented with power armor, rocket boots, laser cannons, soundwave-firing shotguns, cloaking devices, and a vast array of new, inventive grenades. There’s limits to the game’s insanity, keeping things still within the realm of potential, drawing primarily from military prototypes and extrapolations of current tech, but still far enough away from the days where calling in a pack of rabid dogs was a viable reward. In trying to take Call of Duty away from its Modern Warfare roots, Sledgehammer Games may have arrived in similar territory as the franchise’s former masters from Infinity Ward when they ran off and made Titanfall. They may also have achieved the same degree of success in making a game that’s equal parts accessible, deep enough to please the hardcore, and different enough to bring estranged fans back to the fold.
Advanced Warfare offers a degree of customization unprecedented in any multiplayer title to date. Every game you play brings you in contact with supply drops that give access to more and better guns, accessories, clothing/armor options, new grenades, new killstreaks. The Pick 10 system that debuted in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is back. It has now been expanded to Pick 13, allowing the player to choose two weapons, four loadouts for each, and allocate points for weapon tweaks, enhancements, kill-based rewards, and killstreaks. According to Sledgehammer Games lead devs Glen Scofield and Michael Condry, there’s over 300 weapon variants and hundreds more customization options. Combined with a much more extensive player-appearance system, with male and female character models, and specialized armor/costume options for each, it’s possible to play the game for a month and not play as or against the same soldier. More than once during the extensive playtime Sledgehammer allowed press during the event did I see someone picking all defensive loadouts—radar grenades, riot shields, spy drones, proximity mines—and act solely as a watchman for capture points.
What really draws the comparison, however, is the level design. No longer restricted to urban combat, or bombed-out warzones, Advanced Warfare is free to throw more sci-fi at the player, and it works wonders. The word “verticality” gets thrown around often at the event, and while obviously there aren’t mechs tromping around, the stages encourage the Titanfall ethos of taking the fight to higher ground as much as humanly possible using your new boost technology, and getting to those points is when the most ugly and brutal fire fights of the game end up happening. The surprise kills of the game aren’t typically from someone sniping you from half a mile away as in games prior, but from someone using their boost ability to stomp you down from two stories up.
More than this is the fact that you now have stages actively trying to get in on the action. As opposed to the desolate deserts and military compounds of games past, or even Call of Duty: Ghosts giving players the ability to destroy skyscrapers and blow up gas stations and the like, the stages feel much more like living, breathing environments. One stage is set in a recently abandoned prison, possibly in the aftermath of a massive riot, with embers still burning, walls still cracking and falling apart, shaking with every massive explosion. A stage set in a rainy future cityscape feels like something from a Star Wars prequel, but far more grounded in real architecture as opposed to CG-fueled fantasy. The most impressive of the stages we’ve seen so far is a stage set underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. At a specific time in the match, an alarm will go off, signaling a tsunami off the coastline, and anyone who hasn’t gotten at least 50 feet up when the wave hits is doomed.
The sum total of all this is possibly the first Call of Duty in ages to truly embrace its own sense of fun. The game plays faster than any before, but also with a tighter grasp on how to keep the player coming back, looking for new routes, how to reward the full use of your abilities, not just how well you aim. The game has brought back some of the gameplay modes that sat out Ghosts, namely traditional Capture the Flag and Hardpoint, along with a new mode called Uplink which is nothing short of Call of Duty: EA Sports Edition, in which a ball containing a computer virus has to be slam-dunked into a floating orb in your opponent’s territory to score. Considering Call of Duty shares much of its audience with the Madden-playing one-game-a-year crowd, this is the best of both possible worlds.
Call of Duty’s slow creative languish since the first Modern Warfare has been painful and uncomfortable to watch, especially in light of how many people kept buying it, regardless. Advanced Warfare appears to have gone to the roots of what fun, accessible multiplayer looks and feels like. Whether it’s enough to stand out in the current landscape of similar futuristic shooters remains to be seen, and can really only be determined by the reaction of the wider community, but what’s for certain is that it’s definitely a hard right turn into interesting territory from its predecessors. There’s at least an attempt here to get imaginative, to bring a tiny bit more of wild chaos into the mix that previous games, by nature of their dedication to staunch realism or to the tired zombie genre, haven’t been able to foster. Infinity Ward being out of the picture seems to have forced Sledgehammer into a place of needing to tighten their grip and consider what works and what doesn’t to bring everyone back to the table. Call of Duty might actually be able to mature by not taking itself so damned seriously.