News, Views, and Reviews
For nearly a decade, the Call of Duty franchise has dominated sales charts and critical acclaim. With that success brings a higher level of scrutiny and criticism than other games probably have to worry about. A series like Crysis or Kill Zone can show improvements with each iteration because they started out fairly rough around the edges, but Call of Duty set their own bar pretty high years ago. For better or worse, that leads to some very high expectations.
Compounding those expectations is the fact that this is Sledgehammer Studio’s first solo effort on the franchise having only assisted with Modern Warfare 3 back in 2011, after the Infinity Ward implosion that year. It wasn’t revealed to the public until earlier this year that Sledgehammer Studio started working on Advanced Warfare as soon as Modern Warfare 3 was finished, making this the first Call of Duty title to boast a three year development cycle.
With the pressure on and the scrutiny unrealistically high, one would think that Sledgehammer Studios would play it safe. Instead, they take some huge risks with game mechanics and storytelling – that pay off in a big way and inject a breath of fresh air into the franchise specifically and the first person shooter genre in general. To put it colorfully, Activision passed the Call of Duty torch to a studio that not only carried the torch with pride, they went and started a huge bonfire with it.
Graphics: With so much scrutiny and skepticism overshadowing Advanced Warfare, I’m surprised more isn’t being said about how GOOD it looks. These are some AMAZING visuals! Maybe it would only be newsworthy if it didn’t live up to those high expectations? I can’t figure it out. The cinematic cut scenes especially have a photo-realistic quality, and I often found myself questioning if they were using real video footage or CGI images. Most notable, of course, are the performances of actors Kevin Spacey and Troy Baker.
During actual game play, the faces and textures aren’t nearly as realistic as during the cut scenes, but then the camera pulls back and shows off huge, detailed environments, with a lot happening on screen. The opening level, set in a massive battle in downtown Seoul, South Korea, will definitely drop jaws and pop eyeballs. The story continues through an impressive variety of locations, each depicted with high fidelity and silky smooth frame rates. That said, I did notice an occasional drop in quality here and there, but when 99% of the game looks this amazing, it’s easy to overlook that 1%.
Another aspect that may get overlooked is the art STYLE of Advanced Warfare. It’s a high tech “plausible future” that Sledgehammer Studios has crafted here, and it’s easy to forget that it’s NOT REAL. There isn’t really a sprawling “Utopian” version of Baghdad in the real world, for example. But, as you’re dashing through crowded streets, dodging traffic and gunfire, it’s easy to forget that it’s not a real place. It has been said that the most successful visual effects are those that make you forget that you’re experiencing “special” effects in the first place. Perhaps that’s the best compliment for the visuals and high fidelity of Advanced Warfare: the line between graphics and reality are blurred so well, the immersion can be so complete, that people aren’t even talking about it.
Game Play: In a world of skeptics, cynics, and hipsters, the quality of Call of Duty’s game play gets the most scrutiny – and I wouldn’t have it any other way. In my opinion, game play (the game mechanics, input responsiveness, level design, enemy AI, etc.) is THE most important aspect of video games. A game can have incredible graphics and/or an amazing story, but I will overlook poor visual or narrative quality in favor of solid game play.
As previously mentioned, the developers have taken some big risks, and they mostly pay off. Players are given special mobility and ability options throughout the campaign, and they’re usually a blast to play with. Some, like the “overdrive” time slowing ability, I almost always forgot I had, and others, like the “mag grip” wall crawling ability, are only used during very specific moments. Still, for a series that is often criticized for it’s linearity, it’s refreshing to have many new options available. Sure, there are some typical “follow this character” sequences, and some interior/corridor, linear areas, but they’re interspersed throughout a variety of encounters and larger set pieces. Several key battles, for example, open up to a much larger “sandbox” of player freedom, encouraging obvious comparisons to games like Halo and Crysis.
As solid as the controls are, and impressive as the player freedom and level variety is, I do have to level one criticism against Advanced Warfare: the pacing is sometimes a little off. Adrenaline fuels the roller coaster ride of the first two levels, for example, only to be dragged down by a lengthy “tour” of the Atlas facility, including a rather out of place weapon tutorial. Other times, the effort to tell the story, and “build the world” of the future the player is immersed in, gets in the way of pacing. It’s sort of an appreciated evil; I admire that the campaign takes some time away from the action to let the events and consequences sink it, but it does result in odd pacing.
Overall, the campaign is super fun and full of surprises. The player is also scored after every chapter and can complete certain challenges to unlock improvements like faster reload speeds and more health. I imagine some chapters will get re-played a lot more than others.
Sound: Most notable of the sound presentation are going to be the character performances, sound effects, and soundtrack, in that order. Kevin Spacey kills it in his portrayal of John Irons, the determined CEO of the private-military-corporation “Atlas,” and steals every scene he’s in. That’s not to take away credit from the other performances, they are also very believable and natural, it’s just that he’s, well, Kevin Spacey. If I had any criticism, I almost wanted a little MORE melodrama from the other characters. The story, as simultaneously fantastic and grounded in reality as it is, could have benefited from bigger expressions at times.
Similarly, the sound effects and soundtrack are decent and serviceable, but it’s almost not expressive enough. There is a consistent high quality, and some designs stand out; for example, the engines of the VTOL ships and the “mute mines” have impressive effects. Some levels throw a cacophony of sound and sights at the player, and it’s notable that the sound still seems to inhabit a distinct “3D” space in relation to the player. Still, as often as my jaw dropped from the visuals, I would have like to have had a few more “epic” moments in sound.
Narrative: After game play, graphics, and sound, I’ve saved the narrative for last – because that’s my preference. However I feel about the importance of game play over narrative, I can’t stress enough that Advanced Warfare should be getting more attention for its remarkable story. It’s really that good. Sure, as I criticized the game play for having a few pacing issues, there are a few exposition-heavy moments in the campaign that drag it down a little too much. Although it is important to explain the universe to the player, it sometimes felt a little strange that the characters in the game, that SHOULD know what has been happening to THEM, would talk about events at length – as though they had just learned about them for the first time. From beginning to end the story spans almost six years, redefines nations’ borders and the world as we know it, and challenges the dynamic concepts of freedom and safety, so there IS a lot to take in. (So much to take in, in fact, that the “collectibles” peppered throughout the campaign include even more video clips!)
At its core, Advanced Warfare showcases a possible future and the consequences of privatizing military efforts around the world. There are sub-plots of family and friendship bonds being made and broken, but those elements aren’t nearly as developed as the central theme and story. As dramatic as the risks Sledgehammer Studio takes with the game play mechanics, I wish they had committed to the story and characters a little more. It’s plausible and a little frightening, and some atrocious things happen, yet the main characters are a little under-expressive about it all.
Conclusion: I feel very strongly that those players that pass up on the single player campaign of Advanced Warfare – either because they are going straight to multi-player or not playing the game at all – will be sorely missing out. Even if it’s not as over the top or as adrenaline fueled as previous Call of Duty games, there are definitely a lot of fun, innovative game play moments. Player freedom and mobility especially stand out, as does the sheer scope of building an entire futuristic world of science fiction . I’m expressing some criticisms about some odd pacing and heavy portions of exposition, but overall, those are drops in the bucket of an extremely entertaining AND thought provoking entry into the acclaimed Call of Duty series.
Call of Duty Advanced Warfare exploded onto consoles and PC on November 4th and is rated ‘M’ for Mature for Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Strong Language.