Like clockwork, Activision has been publishing new Call of Duty games every holiday season since 2003, and nearly every year they continue to smash sales records and dominate the video game landscape with a combination of thrill-ride single player campaigns and addicting multiplayer competition. But despite all of this, the franchise has a reputation for not being innovative and is cited as often as the Madden series as a major cause of stagnation in video games. The staleness reached its peak with 2013’s Call of Duty: Ghosts, which seemed to coast on its brand name alone. As a result, the series saw a major downtick in sales for the first time. The downward sales trend continued here with 2014’s Advanced Warfare, which is a shame because the series hasn’t reinvented itself this well since the original Modern Warfare.
One obvious sign that the game was going to feel fresh again was the new developers. In alternating years since 2006’s Call of Duty 3, each game has been developed primarily by Treyarch or Infinity Ward, allowing for a short two-year cycle with not much room for creativity. Sledgehammer Games, started by the team responsible for the original Dead Space, had previously assisted with development of Modern Warfare 3, but now with Advanced Warfare has officially joined the fray as a third source of Call of Duty games, giving each developer more breathing room to create better, more unique games.
With their first release, Sledgehammer has already pushed the series several decades further into the future than we’ve previously seen from Black Ops 2 and Ghosts. The game begins in 2054 with a mission against North Korea fought in Seoul. The player is immediately introduced to the future-tech they will get to play with throughout the campaign. Private Jack Mitchell of the U.S. Marines follows his close friend Will Irons into a drop-pod that allows for quick but well-defended deployment from an airplane directly into hostile territory. As they touch down onto an abandoned building, the game delivers its first of many visual treats with a gorgeous aerial view of a bright, futuristic Seoul being devastated by seemingly out-of-place armed forces. Instead of fighting your way through the building and down to the streets as past Call of Duty’s would have done, Jack and Will strap on mech-suits, allowing them to hop right off of the building and land safely to the streets below. The new technology keeps coming, not only with imaginative new guns but programmable grenades that can deliver EMP blasts. As the mission reaches a finale, Jack and Will attach a bomb to a gunship as it’s on the verge of taking off, but the ensuing explosion takes Jack’s left arm and Will’s life. It’s a wildly exciting mission that’s already delivered a few major plot points, fantastic visuals, and some fun new toys to play with, but Advanced Warfare is only getting started.
It’s at this point when the game offers up something only AAA money can buy – motion-captured megastar actor Kevin Spacey chewing the scenery as Will’s father, Jonathan Irons. Ever the opportunist, he makes an offer that Jack can’t refuse – a chance to get his arm back and fight again, this time for Jon’s expansive private military corporation. Spacey is perfect for the role, not far off from the persuasive megalomaniac he plays on House of Cards, and he seems to be having the time of his life playing the guy with all the answers and the willingness to make all the unpopular decisions. Unsurprisingly, he turns evil quickly, but Spacey gives Jon enough personality to make you like him anyway. This scene received attention in Advanced Warfare’s advertisements, and it’s one of the best in the game, where Spacey lays out his plan not for world domination, but world peace, through the dismantling of the supposedly war-mongering United Nations. He wants a war to end all wars, but while his cause may be noble in a twisted way, he’s of course going to make those “unpopular decisions” and thus needs to be stopped.
The journey to stopping him is a joy to play through, as Advanced Warfare rarely lets the same environment or gameplay tactic overstay its welcome. Continents are traversed. Drones are piloted frequently. National monuments are blown to bits. Double-crossers end up triple-crossing. All sorts of new technology gets introduced constantly, but it always appears to have some basis in reality. It’s tough to shake the feeling that most of these technological advances haven’t already been explored in some capacity by our own or some other government. One especially well-implemented device is a grappling hook allowing for quick platforming across levels; it comes in handy both in an excellent stealth mission at Jon Irons’ own mansion and in general gunfights throughout the game, adding a vertical dimension that the Call of Duty series has historically ignored. Sledgehammer even took a page from their work on Dead Space, doing away with heads-up displays altogether and allowing holographic projections to deliver all information. There are loads of new items to use allowing for new experiences never before seen in a Call of Duty.
Much like the way that Kevin Spacey’s Jon Irons shakes things up at the U.N. by explaining that their current policies “don’t work,” Sledgehammer has completely shaken things up in the Call of Duty series, pushing innovation over stagnation. There are some flaws as the multiplayer hasn’t received nearly as much of an update, checkpoints are frustratingly random, and the game’s ending has Irons essentially turning into a cartoon version of himself just to make sure you won’t buy into any of his earlier more well-reasoned arguments. But anyone who enjoys first-person shooters, even those who have previously given up on this series, should have a blast playing Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
4.5 Chicks out of 5