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Sunday, August 20 2017 @ 04:55 AM BST

Guardian's Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare Review


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

4 out of 5


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.

The futuristic setting has revolutionised your arsenal too: grenades dangle in the air for a moment while waiting for you to direct them toward a specific target with a nod of the head. You can switch between grenade types with a click of a button, even after pulling the pin (essentially increasing the number of grenade types you carry from two to six) while guns report their remaining ammunition with a digital readout on the hilt (removing the need for any screen-cluttering heads up display read-outs).

A light upgrade system has been introduced to the single player campaign. As you rack up the kills and find the Intel-filled laptops that the enemy has carelessly left laying about, you earn upgrade points that augment your suit’s abilities (reducing the amount you recoil when hit, for example, or increasing the number of grenades you can carry). You also earn new equipment and outfits that can be taken into the labyrinthine online modes, a way to report your achievements to other players via the ambient showboating of your clothes.

It’s here that Advanced Warfare’s long-term appeal is to be found (the storyline lasts for 10 hours or so; Activision hopes that players will remain in its competitive and co-operative multiplayer modes for the next 12 months). The science-fiction setting re-invigorates with a liberating range of different attachments and modifications for your weapons (everything from long-range microphones that an pick up the sound of distant enemy footsteps to heat-seeking scopes that light enemies up through walls). Call of Duty’s brittle rhythm remains, but here it’s played out with a new kind of urgency.

You can customise your load-out to a fine degree, “spending” 13 points however you see fit across a range of different weapons, attachments, projectiles and augmentations. The maps are some of the series’ best in years, designed to hustle players around in a whirlpool circuit. The exosuits bring a new sense of verticality now that you can leap walls and scale buildings with relative ease. Some maps even come with a set-piece moment that can be triggered to change its layout, or force players to congregate chaotically in certain areas.

While Activision would have us believe that this is a bold and daring re-imagination of Call of Duty, in truth it is a necessary re-arrangement. Any multi-million annual blockbuster game series must find new ways to freshen its formula while retaining enough of its familiar character so as not to alienate its fans.

Advanced Warfare is the best that Call of Duty has been for years, a successful negotiation of that troublesome creative and commercial tension. And while the game has nothing substantial to say about the future of warfare, it nevertheless presents a grimly vivid vision of how humanity’s technological ascent will continue to enable the wealthy (both governments and private military companies fronted by Kevin Spacey lookalikes) to better kill and maim others in the pursuit or protection of power.