I’m about to break! (And I think it’ll be expensive.)
For gamers, no franchise seems to encompass as much of the Madden-mentality as Call of Duty these days though that may prove an awkward double-entendre given the nature of both consumerism and both of those games. No matter what you say to someone, they’ll have likely already made up their mind regarding both franchises and to that end, each define video game reviews themselves in different ways. Madden gamers will defend its focus, the sport itself, even as they break rushing, passing, and kicking records on a regular basis, going four and out if they can’t get a touchdown every time. It doesn't matter what critics say about Madden NFL 15.
Call of Duty goes the other way, giving an incredibly epic reach around to the military complex built into the red-blooded, white-striped men of America as opposed to the mall of America. I will never back down from contesting video games as a hobby that increasingly returns on the investment given the cost of a movie ticket or even a six pack of beer. Hell, a pack of cigarettes and a gallon of gas won’t take you nearly as far as a single multiplayer game like Call of Duty and to that end, Advanced Warfare succeeds despite everything I’m about to say.
First, Advanced Warfare’s writing and dialog is increasingly predictable, mundane, and worthy of a forehead-slap and a chuckle. Every single level pushes further into a story that features cinematics convincing enough, despite content frequently straying into machismo military jargon cut to patriotic ribbons by characters all too aware that the player is eager for action. The franchise adds exoskeleton suits which allow for things like pushing a tipped truck down a street as cover, leaping from a great height to glide to the ground, and quick bursts out of harm’s way.
These new mechanics allow for some truly exciting set pieces, though even a hover bike chase in a stormy Detroit doesn’t feature the same interactivity as vehicle sequences have in the past whether or not you thought firing an SMG from a snowmobile was sloppy. The game’s visuals manage to pair muted colors with intense darkness for impressive scenes, despite an engine that continues to show its age. In the immediate, Advanced Warfare manages to both entice the senses and make us all feel just a little dumber for its existence.
One Frogger-esque scenario early in the campaign seems to suggest both agility and an awareness that a car can do just as much damage to a person as a gun might though it and nearly every potentially serious moment sports an incredible shiner from an early funeral scene. Of course, the games press and consumer base lambasted this moment almost immediately, though I’d argue that it at the very least tries to address the nature of all war regardless as to whether a private military corporation is running the show or not.
That’s the hook here. Rather than a nuclear blast in the middle east or a series of terrorist threats around the globe or even World War II, the evildoer in Advanced Warfare is a corporation and while both Electronic Arts and Activision have earned this kind of ire from gaming communities around the world, Atlas really deserves it. Even after being invited to join the United Nations, Atlas plans a biological weapons attack on the United States itself.
Others will fall all over themselves to lift “Press X to pay your respects” as a beacon of Call of Duty’s failings, but it shines as a bright point of maturity in a campaign that eagerly leads gamers from one place to the next. The “Press X to [blank]” thing remains inherent to the franchise’s design and I can’t really ask for a better opportunity to say people bitching and moaning about this should go to the local Veteran’s Affairs office and ask around if they can’t help with volunteer tasks. Call of Duty, at least historically, hasn’t offered much choice and setting the player’s character up with this funeral scene endears and draws an active participant further into a role almost no human being should ever actually volunteer for. It manages to do this because it happens almost immediately in the narrative. There’s the draft and then there’s a series of increasingly difficult Atlas drones preventing the player from saving the world, as it were. There’s a reason drones are more expensive to manufacture (and mandatory drafts are so obsolete), though you’d be forgiven for feeling daft as Atlas squad-leader Gideon carries a near unfailing “Follow” objective marker through most of the campaign.
I often found myself ahead of this marker and therefore, exceedingly frustrated. Mission briefings via overlay, prominently featuring a digital Kevin Spacey decidedly planted in the middle of the uncanny valley, feel awkward and forced not unlike how John Rhys-Davies interrupts your conversation while waiting in the Indiana Jones line at Disneyland. Spacey inevitably plays himself as a corporate superpower and even labels Atlas as such in the introductory missions, though a subplot revolving around the player as a sort of surrogate son does tease you through the experience.
Read Heath Hindman's full article on Call of Duty's funeral scene here.
Sound design remains a major plus for the franchise, particularly in adding to the way the player receives positive feedback for using exoskeleton abilities, dashing with a push of the left stick, and admittedly even hearing a circuit break after spamming the ability in a multiplayer match. Other characters have their moments, though compelling voice acting seems to be a struggle. I’d like to see the engine and gameplay used for more original story telling and while Call of Duty allows for that within military and PMC settings, Advanced Warfare often treads on near James-Bond-levels of forced twists and turns.
The game does ask challenging questions about the extent to which Americans accept money’s influence both in politics and the military industrial complex which fuels most consumerism in one way or another. It’s not that the values that define service in the military are bad, but that Call of Duty takes an awkwardly bold step out of the lineup of shooters relying on it to raise awareness. The publisher has engaged in non-profit work to build a support system for veterans looking for jobs after combat, so seemingly condoning corporate warfare and undermining its tangibility to the existing network of conflict in the same breadth proves a big reach for the creative minds behind Call of Duty.
While I’d like to say the heroes and villains manage to reinforce and strengthen those narrative questions about ethics in warfare, neither group has remained more than cardboard shooting gallery dummies at this point in the series. Further, both the writing and gameplay suffer for trying to imitate the best parts of past Call of Duty campaigns. Baghdad of 2055 seems to hold true to the history established by the series, particularly as a major Atlas branch sits across the river from towering skyscrapers. Still, I couldn’t really understand how the years leapt forward with each mission, given the level of urgency in every single action required to complete the campaign.
It doesn’t mean the franchise has completely fallen on its face, though all the words you’ve read thus far should tip you off as to why Advanced Warfare gets the score it does below. Quite literally, face animations accurately capture characters in the right fiery and explosive lights, but these moments often hit just one note for a player thrust from crowded shooting gallery to exoskeletal set piece and beyond. It’s the game’s competitive multiplayer that will sustain the series into the next year and with dedicated fans looking to power suit their way to the top of the leaderboards.
Increased verticality and momentum go a long way in reenergizing the character customization system, game modes as old-standard as Team Deathmatch and as freshly frantic as a Quidditch-esque mode where exoskeletal jumps give you the boost needed to throw a ball into holographic goals. New assault rifles, shotguns, laser weaponry, and explosives will provide more than enough of an armory for even those dedicated to unlocking everything in the multiplayer tree. New consoles like PlayStation 4 or Xbox One may wind up dampening multiplayer populations online given the wealth of exciting software on each, so don’t expect to see this reviewer tearing it up in Advanced Warfare multiplayer.
Call of Duty doesn’t just return to its explosive roots here; it manages to create a new metaphor for the American bang-bang shooter consumers who continue to drive sales of both it and other major franchises. Rather than a snake simply requesting players not tread on it, it is the snake eating itself.
Copy provided by publisher. Review based on Xbox One version. Also available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PC.