by Simon Parkin
Activision would have us believe that the latest title in the series is a bold re-imagining. It’s not, but it’s still blistering entertainment
For a while it looked like the future of video games was realism. That is the point towards which the technology (if not the art) naturally curves: more power to better render the world and its physics on screen.
Call of Duty, the apex predator of war games, led the charge. In the early 2000s, its makers attempted to recreate the second world war from the blood-soaked mud upwards. Then the series zipped to the present day modes of warfare (cringing in the reeds in a foliage-draped ghillie suit; lighting up insurgents on a gunship’s impassive targeting monitor), before taking a detour to Vietnam’s sweltering jungle, with its soupy rivers and heavy air.
But while realism provided Call of Duty with its visual style, reality was never its modus operandi. You invariably played as a superman dressed in fatigues, swatting back incoming waves of foreigners. You’d stab the restart button every time the inexhaustible opposition overwhelmed as if pumping a fresh credit into an arcade machine. With each annual update, the series’ creators tried to find more outlandish Michael Bay-esque set pieces to up the ante, obliterating the Middle East in a nuclear attack, assassinating Fidel Castro, even going so far as to inexplicably blow up the Eiffel Tower.
Once you’ve decimated Paris’ tourism industry, where can you really go next?
It’s a question that Call of Duty’s publisher Activision has been struggling with in recent years. As the grandiose becomes increasingly familiar, ennui has begun its profit-rotting work.
CoD Advanced Warfare’s solution is simple: drop the pretence of realism and fully embrace the science fiction histrionics. This is achieved, as in so many video games, with the introduction of an ability-enhancing suit. The exosuit (an imaginative evolution of military technology that’s already in development) sits at the core of Advance Warfare, redefining both halves of the game’s offering: the single player campaign (Call of Duty: the movie) and the online competitive multiplayer (Call of Duty: the sport).
With the exosuit (there are a few variations, each with different capabilities) your character is able to tear the doors from vehicles and use them as impromptu shields. It enables the wearer to boost high into the air, dash forward and body slam on top of an opponent. It affords superhuman strength (punch an enemy and they will blast backwards) and agility (you can scale metallic buildings using nothing more than your magnetic palms). You can even slow time, a trick that is put to creative use in one memorable scene where you must dash between the high-speed traffic as you cross a six-lane motorway.
Crucially, the suit changes Call of Duty’s feel in the hands. You must acquire new muscle memory learning to dash across open spaces in multiplayer in order to reduce the amount of time you’re in plain sight, or to zip out of the way of incoming grenade blasts. It’s quicker, more stylish and, crucially, allows for a greater degree of showboating and skilful play – an essential development as publisher Activision continues to position the game as a serious player in the world of professional eSports.
By setting the game 45 years into the future, new studio Sledgehammer (made up of staff best known for their Dead Space science fiction horror series) is able to provide set pieces that would have been impossible in historical or contemporary settings. The skies are heavy with drones – both the self-cloaking variety, able to eavesdrop on conversation from 200 metres away, and the swarming type, which flit through the air like emigrating swallows, and clatter to the ground when you trigger a vision-coning EMP blast. One mission has you ride hover-bikes through a drenched dystopian Detroit (“The city hasn’t changed much,” says your team-mate, drolly); another has you break into a chemical plant that’s hidden in the jungle under a kilometre-wide digital canopy.