You get just a novel snippet of peace in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. In this shooter's future, technology has trumped terrorism, rooted out the last evil masterminds and flexed its bionic muscles in total defiance of lead-footed politicians who'd rather talk than get things done. "The world is running out of bad guys," your partner says, hopeful but tragically unaware that he's basically describing a video game glitch. Call of Duty never runs out of bad guys.
This one gets points for honesty, though, in that there is no pretentious cover-up of why the good guys beat the bad guys (or why the plot finds them easily interchangeable). In Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, you win because you have better guns, stronger sights, super abilities and superior movement. Whether it's in the rich and varied multiplayer mode, or the frantic, thrill-a-minute single-player campaign, you're constantly relying on cool weapons and combat data to make taking lives easier. Advanced Warfare front-loads the benefits of power in a franchise that has always made technology the exalted, almost fetishized solution to every problem. And you know what? It's more fun when it admits as much.
Much of Advanced Warfare's futurism is a neat, narrative wrapper for a doubling down on hard-to-master shooting skills. The futuristic EXO suit that encases your soldier in strong metal limbs and a boosting backpack lets you juke, bounce and dash aggressively through the air like a rocket-powered bayonet. It feels truly three-dimensional and liberating – and punchier than Titanfall, if you care to compare. Mastering movement, to the point where you can also cancel downward before you fatally grant someone the "Skeet Shooting" medal, is one fresh way to manage Call of Duty's hyperactive multiplayer loop. It's more fun to run away now, is what I'm saying.
There's really no avoiding the loop entirely, for better or worse. There's only the long-term work of extending the period between capricious death and quick respawn with practice, considered equipment loadouts and learning Advanced Warfare's strong selection of dense, vertically challenging maps – including standout tours through a winding, bombed out prison and a battle in the bay beneath San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. For the most part, winning battles in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare still means coveting your lance and the element of surprise, maybe more than your virtual jousting skills.
Whereas Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 gave you ten slots for equipment and perks, Advanced Warfare goes for a slick "Pick 13" system. It's a good form for Call of Duty's progression game, because the system is easy to understand from the top down and removes most of the fine-print haggling of what each item costs to carry. This doesn't mean you can run in with 13 shotguns, though: You get one primary and one secondary weapon slot, and each gun can have up to three attachments to aid in aiming or recoil. The quality of the item doesn't impact the number of slots taken up, and the same goes for whatever grenade type, suit augmentation, score reward and passive perk you take into battle. While the 13 slots are easy to read, the strengths and weaknesses of every potential arrangement takes much longer to unfurl, especially when you sacrifice a slot to, say, carry a backup primary weapon instead of a secondary pistol.
As tedious and hampering as the unlocking process can feel, it does put the brakes on an overwhelming avalanche of equipment, at least while you find a fighting rhythm and examine the relationships between all those guns, scopes and battery-limited EXO powers. For instance, the pop-up bullet shield can spare you the damage and let you return fire while an opponent is reloading, but if they're far and you didn't bring a long-range weapon, it's a waste. Technologically advanced scopes will let you spot someone before they see you (the ideal situation in Call of Duty, really), but peeking down the sights too long will make you a slow target for others – maybe you spackle over that flaw with an EXO health boost or a quick cloak. You also can't forget about subtle counteractive perks, like one that hides your opponent from vision enhancers, and destabilizing score streaks, such as pesky aerial drones. The biggest mistake you can make, though, is thinking of everyone as equal and wanting to shoot and dodge all fair and square. You will be honorable, yes, but extremely dead.
If this sounds frustrating, it might help to spend some time with the more structured modes over deathmatch variants. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare dabbles with a new take on "War," called "Momentum," in which you and your team overrun a piece of territory to unlock the next one in a string spread across the map. It becomes a tense 12-player tug-of-war, and a well-coordinated team can feel like a terrifying cyber-steamroller, pushing you back and back down the lane until it's too late.
Meanwhile, Kill Confirmed returns in Advanced Warfare, forcing you to stick your neck out for a dogtag to really cement a victory – if you die trying, the other team can not only retrieve their tag and nullify your kill, but collect yours and boost their own score. I also enjoyed Uplink, which has you collecting a fallen satellite (or, you know, "ball") and boosting it through a holographic hoop in a gun-infested, jetpack-heavy basketball game. Thanks to the science-fiction armor, occasional laser weapon and the surprisingly vibrant locales, there are times when Advanced Warfare feels divorced from its usual army-flavored bloodbath.
All 13 multiplayer maps are also repurposed for an online and local cooperative mode, called "EXO Survival," in which you and three other soldiers survive waves of infantry, drones and beefed up EXO soldiers. You upgrade weapons and abilities between waves, making for a quicker, compact and arguably more rewarding version of Call of Duty's big progression game. EXO Survival does its best to disperse players every now and then to collect things and risk being downed without help, but not enough to fully prevent camping out in obviously maximal rooms. It restarts the process if you last beyond 25 waves – for another 25 – but by then your squad is strong enough to withstand what then feels like a protracted, drama-free assault. Unlocking maps is a decent enough drive to play more, though co-op as a whole isn't as diverse or energetic as Advanced Warfare's competitive side.
When the world starts running out of bad guys, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare finds the next great one in Jonathan Irons, performed by an upsettingly lifelike Kevin Spacey (House of Cards, The Usual Suspects). Irons steps out as the no-nonsense head of Atlas, a technologically masterful company for hire that makes quick work of anyone's war. As a freestanding beacon of power, Irons seduces the player on every level: He arms you with ruthless and effective weapons, calls for decisive action over slow-moving politics, admonishes America by rebuilding Baghdad to more closely resemble Dubai, and in case you still don't get it, literally gives you a super arm when you lose it on a mission for the U.S. army. It's more fun working for a Bond villain, it turns out.
Rather than conjure targets out of "othered" countries, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare points smart guns in every direction for an Ian Fleming-style thriller, building its campaign as a flashy gauntlet for clearly marked heroes. Since you see how effective the apolitical Atlas approach is first-hand, Irons' turn as villain feels sensible and earned, albeit cartoonishly telegraphed at the same time.
The slickly paced campaign shows glints of smart storytelling for the action genre, though you may derive the wrong conclusions. One sneaking mission ends in surprising failure, but is revealed to be a simulation that must be repeated – only with a different partner this time. In your second run, with grimace delivery man Gideon, you abandon stealth and instead rely on your EXO suit to amp you up and dilate time for a loud-and-proud rescue. This teaches you a thing about Gideon's personality, and it almost teaches you that stealth and unfettered action are both valid approaches in this Call of Duty. Almost.
Instead, the lesson is something like this: Power manifests in multiple ways, depending on when the game allows it. Only a few of the abilities in the game are active throughout the campaign, appearing more like cameos than consistent mechanisms woven throughout the action. On the one hand, you have the multi-function tactical grenade, which can either down drones with an EMP blast, stun enemies in a burst of light or paint targets through walls. Selecting the right option is a rewarding decision, and not always easy to do quickly under fire. It's a meaningful part of your arsenal.
Less dependable are abilities like cloaking or a sonic pulse that disorients nearby enemies, which only appear for some missions. More exotic still are things like the grappling hook, a thrilling device that is first used in an awkward stealth mission (with instant failure upon detection). There's a brilliant urban level later where these futuristic devices open the game up: You grapple between terraces and a central train track, yank enemies out of their power suits and launch yourself into massive, emplaced turrets to tear things up. It's exciting, dynamic and as bombastic as any Call of Duty. And what's more Call of Duty than a mission in which you sneak to the end like the Predator, and then blast all the way back to the starting point in a gigantic tank?
It's a shame these mechanisms come across as guest stars, because their use feels so fitting with Advanced Warfare's unabashed science fiction shooting gallery. The game is an impressive display of technology itself, with lifelike characters and movie-like presentation that bulldozes through places like Antarctica, San Francisco and Greece. It just doesn't have the power to break through the expectations of the brand, often coming across as an expertly played round of Call of Duty Mad Libs. How about a [vehicle] chase that ends up destroying [landmark], moments before the heroes capture the [super weapon]? Listen carefully to [gruff non-American] as you both sneak through [swampy place] and take out [those guys] and [remember that mission from Call of Duty 4]. Ooh, and how will the knife be used in the final action scene this time?
Despite the familiarity, it's been years since a Call of Duty campaign was as coherent and fast-paced as this one. Within the confines of its franchise, which has yet to make much room for a mature look at the subject matter, Advanced Warfare works with aplomb and, at the very least, plays its Big Dumb Movie card wisely. If you're running out of bad guys, borrow some from Hollywood.
This review is primarily based on the retail Xbox One version of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, provided by Activision. The multiplayer portion of this review was conducted at a multi-day review event, held by Activision at Cavallo Point Lodge in Sausalito, California. Joystiq paid for its own travel to the event daily in order to play multiplayer. Joystiq did not make use of the hotel rooms provided to other reviewers for lodging and to evaluate the single-player game. The review author completed the single-player campaign at home and tested multiplayer connectivity on regular servers.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.
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