The Call of Duty games are often best understood not as first-person shooters in the lineage of Half-Life 2 and Halo, but as extensions of light-gun rail shooters. They're games set in strictly scripted corridors, with one button to pop in and out of cover, one to shoot, and another to reload. That you can move your legs around a bit hardly matters, and taken on these terms, the entries in the series which lean towards boyish action romp are at least lightly entertaining.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare resists even these acts of apologia. If the first Crysis game was made by a team of people asking themselves, "How can we create a videogame which approximates the thrilling freedom and power of being a super-suited soldier?", Advanced Warfare was made by people asking, "How can we create a Call of Duty game that approximates the thrilling freedom and power of playing Crysis?" Much like the metallic 'exosuits' that wrap around its grizzled heroes, this is Call of Duty wearing the artificial shell of a more interesting game.
Those exosuits are introduced early and are the product of Atlas, a near-future private military company run by Jonathan Irons, played by marquee signing Kevin Spacey. When Irons' son, your best friend, dies and your arm is blown off in the first mission, Atlas offer you a second chance to be a soldier with the promise of a robot arm. You accept, in the first of many thoughtless, stupid decisions your character makes, each one serving to undermine the game's insistence that you're the only person who can help in the increasingly unlikely action scenarios.
Not that the story matters much. Having described the set-up, you can now correctly guess every plot beat that follows during the game's 7 hour running time. The interstitial cutscenes don't even do much to justify the combat sequences. When one scene ends with a pledge to track down a newly discovered villain, it's not clear why the next mission begins with you flying a fighter jet for the first time.
At the very least, the story dodges much of the unpleasant jingoism that marks the worst of the previous Call of Duty games. It mostly maintains that romping tone as you hop around the world, visiting futuristic Detroit, Seattle and New Baghdad and other more exotic locations. Spacey, with little of interest to do or say, alternates between the warm dad and malignant smarm he's been playing in film and television for most of his recent career, while the facial technology that brings his performance to life looks great in cutscenes and, when pasted onto an in-game polygonal body, is like staring into The Abyss.
Each mission gives you a different exosuit to use, and each exosuit has a different set of three or four powers. That means that across missions you'll be alternately able to double-jump, magnetically climb metallic surfaces, turn invisible, hover, drag yourself or enemies great distances with a grappling hook, and more. It seems on paper like a genuine attempt to mix up the cover-pop-shoot rhythm of Call of Duty movement from the past ten years, and an opportunity to offer players more freedom as to how they approach different challenges.
Of course, it doesn't work out that way. To start, the abilities available to you are introduced during a briefly visible pre-mission loading video, and then there's no way mid-mission to check what you're currently capable of. This will put you in situations where you attempt to double-jump, only to discover you're not currently able to even scale shin-high rocks.
Even the powers you do have in any given moment can't actually be used at any given moment. Your ability to scale vertical walls, for example, only works when the script says it does. The game demands you use it three or four times over the course of the campaign, each time either to reach the roof of a building or clamber over a route-blocking wall. This means that your climbing ability amounts to little more than a ladder and door in thematic clothing.
Almost all of the abilities are like this. Want to turn invisible and sneak close or around your enemies? Then you better wait for the defined stealth mission. The ability to vanish adds nothing as you crouch in bushes or hide behind rocks while enemy patrols drive by, in a poor imitation of Modern Warfare's first stark, exciting Chernobyl mission. Want to detonate a mute charge and go in silently? Only in the breaching scenarios the level designers have laid out for you.
It is as it ever was, of course. Since Modern Warfare and arguably before, Call of Duty has always been about following the beats laid down for you by its creators, but it's never felt so jarring. Now that you ostensibly have a toolset which should allow you to pick your own routes, to approach scenarios in your own way as you do in so many other games, being unable to do so feels more than ever like having your robot arms tied behind your back.
The game is consequently at its best in the few instances when it does open up, just a little. There are two later missions which offer you an open space and give you the grappling hook, which is able to rapidly pull you between ledges. In the first mission this is used for stealth, giving you a destination at the other side of a large compound home and leaving you free to sneak your own path across it. In the second, you've a number of turrets to destroy in a medium-sized section of city streets, and the grappling hook lets you hurl yourself around above the fray and take those turrets down in an order you choose.
These tantalising glimpses of what Advanced Warfare might have been are all too brief. You're otherwise reliant on the same sort of scripted missions Call of Duty has always had, in which you push forward against waves of enemies or in which you're given some briefly usable gizmo. The latter includes a low-flying sniper drone in a mission where you have to provide cover for an advancing team of squad mates operating on the ground. That's fun, though I feel like I've done it before. Elsewhere you'll pilot hoverbikes, speedboats which can plunge underwater, bulkier mech suits, a tank, and the aforementioned fighter jet. None of these feel good to control, and have only destructive power or extreme brevity to commend them.
To continue the trend of damning with faint praise, there is at least no single moment where you are required to defend a landing zone. There is no single moment of dumb controversy. It's not possible, as it has been before, to walk through entire levels without firing a single shot, while your teammates do the work for you. In fact, if you ignore the constant pressure to keep moving, keep progressing, keep looking forward at all times, you'll discover that neither your teammates or enemies do much of anything.
I love that when I throw the grenade near the end of this video, the friendly soldier on the left fires at no one. Also, who in this situation would sit in their car and toot their horn over and over?
Your character's power doesn't only come via the exosuit and additional goodies, but through the unlock system. By killing and headshotting and completing other certain tasks, each mission will earn you upgrade points which can be spent in between missions to increase your grenade carrying capacity, shorten reload times, and increase health. They're mostly percentage increases and playing on the normal difficulty, I didn't notice any upgrade have any substantial impact on how the game felt to play. By the end, I'd unlocked almost all the things I could unlock, and the upgrade points had begun to come slower as I maxed out some of the routes to earning them.
With so many features and changes amounting to so little, the meat of the game remains as good as it ever was. Call of Duty's machineguns tend to be indistinct - they offer variation in terms of iron sights and optical add-ons but all feel similarly rattly. When you find them dropped by an enemy, there are still absurdly powerful shotguns to use and grenade launchers which come with large reserves of ammo, but mostly you'll be burst fire tap-tap-tapping for the length of the game.
Clipped of its ability to be considered willfully simplistic, where does that leave Advanced Warfare? Common wisdom suggests the strict linearity of Call of Duty is because it's aiming for a more mainstream audience, the kind which might find itself overwhelmed by more open games. But if anything, the necessary adherence to a creator's script makes Advanced Warfare frustrating, as it misleads with cutscenes and mid-mission dialogue that suggests your goal is one thing when progression actually depends on some as-yet untriggered event. Also Grand Theft Auto V seems fairly popular, and that's not exactly a simple game.
In spite of its attempts to be straightforward, the PC port causes problems in explaining how to play the game, too. On a number of occasions messages flashed up on screen saying things like, "While sprinting press UNBOUND to slide." Reviewing the controls menu then showed half a dozen buttons not currently assigned, meaning I had to fail a scripted sequence three times while I ran in circles in a corridor, binding and unbinding different commands. When I finally found the correct one - Hold Crouch, it turned out - the prompt still read "press UNBOUND." Otherwise the game's only technical crimes for me were sudden framerate drops, though Alec ran the game once and found it messed about with his graphics drivers and caused his soundcard to no longer work.
Perhaps the series' unwillingness to grow is less to do with target audience and more to do with what's feasible within budget and time constraints. Call of Duty demands a yearly sacrifice and now has three main studios and umpteen satellite companies responsible for the development task. Simply organising such an endeavor would seem to rely on the project having a limited scope, were it not that other series were already crafting open worlds at the same grim, efficient rate.
Maybe - shock, horror - it's just that people like this kind of thing. Under certain circumstances, if approached from certain angles, I can enjoy this kind of thing.
But I do not particularly enjoy this particular thing. Witnessing Advanced Warfare in its gamesuit made from chopped-up pieces of better games, it's easy to picture the series as a Pinocchio aching to be a real boy, but the sympathy you feel in light of its efforts does little to quell your instinct to escape.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is out now. I'll have some thoughts on the multiplayer portion of the game later this week.