Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare isn't the first game in the series to draw from far-fetched research and prototype weaponry, but it's already presented as a thunderous step into the future. In the hierarchy of vague subtitles, we're to understand that "advanced" is ahead of "modern." According to the marketing, the game has changed because your soldier is encased in powerful exoskeletal armor.
But while Activision grafts the game to the front-loaded theme of power – your powerful guns, your powerful Exo Suit, your powerful POWER – the undressed reality is simple. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare has the benefit of a three-year development cycle and a handful of fresh designs in multiplayer.
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Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (Multiplayer Reveal)
Your jet-powered boosts sound superfluous, right until you dash sideways to avoid a fatal shot, or double-jump through a window and crash the party from a catwalk. Without additional augmentation, you can boost upward after an initial jump, drift sideways in the air or enter a quick slide on the ground. And with special suit tweaks equipped, you can hover out of sight or drop with a shattering stomp. The overall pace of battle feels nimble, exciting and unpredictable, but the greatest effect – at least in my hands-on time – is that you'll live longer than you've ever lived before in Call of Duty.
Increased life expectancy isn't the only thing enmeshed with science-fiction in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. The move to the future has divorced the game from some of today's real-world violence, dressing soldiers in unrecognizable power armor and granting them laser guns that seem too fun to be true. As you hop across derelict bunkers on a beach – old relics in the shadow of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge – it feels like the gritty war has been left behind, replaced by a gore-free game of futuristic, high-powered paintball.
Rather than disarm the franchise, this presentation strengthens and draws focus to Call of Duty's standing as a multiplayer game. Single-player aside, Advanced Warfare doesn't feel like a thing for blowing people's heads off. In this form, with a touch of fantasy, Call of Duty offers a cleaner shell for the game at its heart, which is a competition between moving, ducking, flying targets and their robust equipment systems. (Okay, so now I see why marketing is going with POWER IS AWESOME, ETC.)
Sledgehammer Games says its been mindful of what fans want, making small and bold tweaks based on feedback. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, for example, has a quick-reload move: double-tapping the reload button will throw away your current magazine, but let you replenish ammo faster in a fight. Amongst the larger gestures from Sledgehammer are the large number of game modes for Advanced Warfare's launch, including: Kill Confirmed, Capture the Flag, Search and Destroy, Hardpoint, Momentum (a new take on 'War') and Uplink, in which two teams fight over satellite drones and knock them through goals. Jump-boost through the goal with ball(ish) in hand and you earn double the points.
Outside of play, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is taking the Pick 10 customization system from Black Ops 2 and bumping it up to an uneven Pick 13. The goal here is to remove the fine print in how you equip your soldier, simply subtracting slots with every piece of equipment you plug in. This is a vehicle for progression in Call of Duty, but it's also another map to play and master. (The cynical take, of course, is that it's built to house the new rewards you get to keep you playing until next year's game.)
Married with numerous abilities, weapons, scopes, grenades, you name it, Pick 13 represents a web of possibilities that can be rearranged a million times over. It starts with simple decisions, around primary weapons and scopes, and eventually balloons into a mix of alternate weapons, different grenade types (including an electronic one that paints targets in your HUD), EXO suit augmentations and the returning scorestreaks, which unlock in-game rewards when you do well. One of these, which simply has to be pointed out, is a big, inhabitable mech that drops in from the sky in a pod. Just saying.
The suit augmentations deplete battery life, so the chance to hover or cloak yourself isn't exactly free once you've placed them in a slot. These open up even more possibilities in battle, some of which require deft timing - an instant shield pop-up saved my life more often than not, but opening it up too early can obscure your vision in tight quarters, like opening up an umbrella on a bus.
Meanwhile, Sledgehammer is devising even more explicit rewards beyond the moment-to-moment play, though they're all visible and connected to your character. Call of Duty's spin on loot comes in the form of Supply Drops, which show up if you play long enough, if you level up, or if you complete in-game challenges. These give you customized equipment and cosmetic armor changes, scattered across three different rarities: Enlisted, Professional and Elite. You might get a powerful Elite shotgun, for instance, or a nice pair of Enlisted Pants. It turns out they don't protect you from drafts.
The talk of reward systems and progression systems and equipment-jostling matrices can be tiresome, but sometimes the formalities and the marketing terms can obfuscate good work. It's not about the EXO suits or lasers, but the emergence of a rich, fast-paced 3D game. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare's march into the future isn't just for show – it's getting somewhere.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare hits the Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PS4, and PC platforms on November 4.