If one series truly defined the seventh generation of consoles, it was Call of Duty. It went from being a fun shooter on PC to becoming a cultural phenomenon after the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007. The success was due to having an incredible campaign that essentially let players star in a big-budget action flick and great multiplayer that forever changed RPG systems in online shooters. Throw in two top-notch console launch titles (Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty 3) and a series of excellent yearly sequels, and you had a series that stayed at the peak of gaming both critically and commercially for the entire console generation. Sadly, the series has struggled to reach the same heights on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One and only Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare feels like the previous era of innovation and explosive storytelling.
The disappointment started with the first game to be released on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One: Call of Duty: Ghosts. It suffered from an issue that a lot of cross-gen games did, which is that it felt more like a sideways step than a series actually moving forward. Sure, the graphics looked better than ever before but the story fail to captivate (despite having a cool dog sidekick) and there wasn’t anything all that new about the multiplayer. This kicked off a trend of a lot of underwhelming Call of Duty sequels to come out as well as raising questions of Infinity Ward’s leading stature for the series.
Black Ops 3 had a laughably bad story twist. Infinite Warfare had a solid campaign but invisible walls made its multiplayer feel limited despite the robust movement options (that still couldn’t keep up with Titanfall 2, which released a week prior). WWII felt like a step backwards, was rotten with microtransactions, and has the issue of trying to turn one of the most gruesome wars into endless multiplayer rounds that are supposed to be fun. Black Ops 4 didn’t even bother with a campaign, instead trying to capitalize on the battle royal trend, which deflated soon after launch. Most recently, Modern Warfare changed history so much that it painted the Americans as the heroes in every scenario. None of these titles were outright bad, but none of them were the best shooter released in their given years.
However, there was one that bucked the curve: 2014’s Advanced Warfare.
Five years later and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare can truly be appreciated
As the first Call of Duty title fully developed by Sledgehammer Games, Advanced Warfare was filled to the brim with fresh ideas. While still ultimately grounded, the first-person shooter featured more robust movement due because of the exoskeleton armor. A brief boost allowed the gameplay to feel more vertical than ever before while still retaining the core strategy of Call of Duty. Infinite Warfare tried to be more like Titanfall in its movement and failed because of how sluggish it was in comparison. Advanced Warfare, on the other hand, succeeded because it was doing something differently by only relying on double jumps for its mobility. It delightfully struck the balance between boots on the ground and a more mobile first-person shooter.
It’s also one of the few recent Call of Duty games to have a meaningful campaign. Not only did it have an overall message of the corruption of power and how large corporations can’t be blindly trusted, but it had a fantastic villain played by Kevin Spacey (who is an even better fit for the scumbag role today than he was five years ago). The campaign had a strong plot, memorable levels with variety that cleverly utilized its futuristic setting, and was built to take advantage of the player’s movement capabilities unlike the campaign of Black Ops 3, which was an afterthought in almost every way.
Most importantly, it was the last Call of Duty to fully feature all of the franchise’s strengths. It had great wave-based co-op (with a DLC pack focused around zombies in exoskeleton suits), fulfilling competitive play, and a strong campaign. The more recent releases have nailed an element or two, like Infinite Warfare having a well-paced campaign and Black Ops 4 having strong multiplayer, but none have been the full package in the way that Advanced Warfare still is.
The yearly cycle is starting to take its toll on Call of Duty
Part of the reason why Call of Duty has struggled has been its strange development cycle. By alternating developers, the series has been able to give their titles longer development spans (originally three years, now seemingly two with Treyarch already allegedly working on a Black Ops sequel for 2020) while still releasing on a yearly basis. That’s a sound strategy, but there’s not enough cooperation between studios in making sure the games felt like proper sequels. From weird control decisions (some games have slides, others have dolphin dives while running) to different visions of how movement should be done, Call of Duty hasn’t seen any evolution over the years. Instead, we’re getting a bunch of ideas tried out every couple of years without any substantial iteration upon them.
As noted above, Treyarch will once again likely be back in 2020 to deliver another game in the Black Ops series. Raven and Sledgehammer’s Cold War-era game is rumored to not be its own thing, but rolled into Black Ops 5, which is another erratic move in a series that is having trouble finding its way. This is potentially the best shot at having another great Call of Duty game considering how strong the multiplayer aspects were in Black Ops 4. It’s a lot to ask for, though, especially with the game releasing around the launches of the PlayStation 5 and next Xbox. Meanwhile, Infinity Ward has put out the weakest Call of Duty games over the past console cycle and Sledgehammer Games is a shell of itself after most of its key leadership (including founders Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey) left to pursue other ventures. It seems more likely than ever before that Call of Duty might never regain its former glory as an industry leader even if it still can put out a solid shooter every year.
However, we still have access to all of the series’ past triumphs. Advanced Warfare stands tall as the most recent of them, and while it may be five years old at this point, it has aged like fine wine. Everything from its multiplayer to the memorable campaign have withstood the test of time, despite the multiple opportunities the series has had to make it feel dated. So, if you are looking to remember what made the Call of Duty series so special in the first place, Advanced Warfare is not only a good place to start, it’s the best place.