This year is a big year for the Call of Duty franchise. This fall’s installment (because they are basically yearly now) marks the first Call of Duty, made for major gaming platforms, that was made by a developer other than the dynamic duo of Treyarch and Infinity Ward. Sledgehammer, while being involved in development for the last four years in varying small to medium roles, took the helm for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Now, in most franchises, an alteration in lead development is a harbinger for bad things to come. People Can Fly took the helm for the most recent Gears of War, leading to a humbling disappointment of a title that showed Microsoft that, maybe Gears of War isn’t as infallible as they thought. Batman: Arkham Origins, though few people caught it, was developed by Warner Bros. Interactive, not Rocksteady, the developer of the first two installments of the series, and while Arkham Origins wasn’t exactly a failure, it did feel underwhelming. The examples of successful games developed by studios new to the title or franchise are far outnumbered by those that were mediocre or outright failures.
So here we have a brand new Call of Duty. Last year’s title, Ghosts, seemed to hold fast to the Call of Duty doctrine, with a campaign soaked in treachery and betrayal, action and explosions, and a multiplayer that, though they’ll never admit it, played, looked, and felt like a recycled experience (though fans seem to have little to no problem with this). Enter Sledgehammer, a studio who, until now, hadn’t created a game on their own. Their only work credit being Modern Warfare 3, a game they took on in a pinch after the Zampella/West departure (with only twenty months to finish), it is safe to say that they are a studio that has found a certain comfort in risky business. But MW3 was a co-op with the remnants of a broken Infinity Ward, Advanced Warfare is Sledgehammer and Sledgehammer alone. It would be a tall order to ask DICE to step in and make a Call of Duty like this, and they’re veterans of the genre.
Then we got our first glimpse of Advanced Warfare. Cutscenes that rivaled movies, Elysium-style EXO suits, and, to top it off, Academy award winner Kevin Spacey. And Spacey wasn’t just going to be some cameo, short-lived and subtle. No he was going to be one of the central characters. Sledgehammer was about to do something great. Hollywood was about to infect videogames, and while there had been stars in games before, none looked to be as impactful as Advanced Warfare was aiming to be.
Impact. Power. Two words, as important to Call of Duty as ever. So Sledgehammer built a game around them. Immediately, as Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare launches, that is unmistakably clear. The cinematics are, as you would expect (though so few truly deliver), cinematic. But not in a, “man this looks good for a videogame,” kind of way. More in the realm of, “this isn’t a movie?” In fact the last time I got chills equivalent to those I felt in those first five minutes was when the opening cinematic of Halo 4 began. And Halo 4 only did that for its opening and closing. Advanced Warfare does this for every cutscene. They are Blur good (and if you don't know who Blur is, first of all, shame on you, and second: your welcome) These scenes are so good, in fact, that you are far more willing to forgive any flaws when the game actually gets started (more on that shortly).
This Call of Duty, while intimidating in its presentation, when you get down to brass casings, is little more than another installment in a series so successful mistakes are almost completely overlooked. Don’t get me wrong, the game has its moments. Troy Baker (Joel from The Last of Us, Booker DeWitt from Bioshock Infinite) and Gideon Emery (Battlefield 3’s Blackburn, Stahl from Killzone: Shadow Fall) both nail, quite convincing roles, and Kevin Spacy is just as menacing and coercive as Francis Underwood (House of Cards) ever was. As I stated before, the story is beautiful to watch, and it starts so powerfully. But midway through the game the arc begins to hiccup, just before diving into archetypal nonsense that felt forced in its best moments and just plain boring in others.
Outside of the cinematic story cutscenes, Advanced Warfare doesn’t feel very different than any other Call of Duty game. The AI is a little smarter, the sound engineering a little more powerful (though, still not Battlefield level umph), and the campaign missions are full of action that is just a little more over the top. The visual candy shop that happens when you aren’t using the controller, however, fades away as soon as you pick it back up. Several background textures were noticeably “meh” and a few were blatantly “eww” (look at the trees during the first scene your character meets Spacey).
Sadly, the campaign also failed to take advantage of the EXO suits. There were a few really interesting applications, but even those were, more often than not, applications that you saw in the bevy of trailers that came out leading up to release day (a trend in Hollywood that has nearly forced me to stop watching movie trailers).
Multiplayer felt like, well, Call of Duty multiplayer (…again). And while I will admit, the usefulness of the EXO suit increases exponentially, I still found myself playing without it, save for jumping up to a few good crow’s nests. It is fast paced, vicious, and has a deep persistence, all things that frequent CoD (not the fish) players will have grown accustomed to, and are very welcoming to most newcomers. It just feels a little too “recycled.” Yes, there is a lot of promise here. I said it in the beginning of this review. Sledgehammer made a game that stands next to the rest of the Call of Duty family with broad shoulders and lifted chin. For a first game in the driver’s seat, that is a hell of an accomplishment and there is no end to the possibilities of what they do next.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, while a strong first lap for newcomer Sledgehammer, didn’t exactly quick-scope the cap off of our head. NerdyBits gives it 7 bits out of 10.