Review: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (Multi-Player)

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare attempts a fusion of the run-and-gun movement of old titles such as Unreal Tournament and the more modern, twitch-shooter that has been the Call of Duty series for some time.  It's a refreshing new thing in and of itself, marred by some significant problems with matchmaking and a few carried-over flaws with the design of the latter.  Nonetheless, I found myself enjoying this game despite the usual abrasiveness of COD's core community, and that speaks volumes, as far as I am concerned.
Review: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (Multi-Player)
Date published: Nov 15, 2014
2 / 3 stars

Call of  Duty: Advanced Warfare is a first-person shooter by Sledgehammer Games and published by Activision.  It is the latest entry in the venerable and oft-maligned Call of Duty series and represents the first entry in the series that is developed primarily by Sledgehammer Games.  Since the multiplayer and singleplayer elements of this game are essentially two almost entirely-different games, we're reviewing them separately, starting with the multiplayer, because, let's face is - most people buy Call of Duty for the multiplayer.  So does it live up to the big boots it has to fill in its predecessors Black Ops, or does it shit the bed like Ghosts?  Well, the answer is a little complicated, because this is a very different game to Call of Duty's previous installments.  You're either going to love those changes, or you will hate them, but one thing's for sure, Sledgehammer Games has doen quite the job of differentiating their premiere solo entry into the franchise from the other entries.

One of the most immediately evident changes is the movement system

The combat in Advanced Warfare has gunplay that will feel very familiar to fans of the Call of Duty franchise, with the familiar reliance on knowledge of maps, listening to sound as an indicator and other spotting methods, and iron-sight aiming, but what will feel very different indeed, is the movement system.  It places a great emphasis on mobility, allowing players jetpack-aided jumps, strafe-sprinting, and coupled with a parkour-type system for mantling and other movement regarding terrain, it injects a liveliness into what is usually a relatively-slow Call of Duty shooting mechanic.  

It's easy to understate how much of a difference this movement system makes to Call of Duty.  Where before if someone got the drop on you, you were basically dead, you are now given a ways and means to quickly evade attackers and maneuver much more freely across the battlefield.  The difference this makes both to the tactical game and to the feel of the game as you play too.  It is something I find invites players to be much more tactical and rewards players fast on their feet more than just memorising the optimum routes through a map, which essentially raises the skill ceiling quite a bit.

That increase to the skill ceiling is where many COD players might get put off.  It is a game that is fairly more difficult to master as a result, and more casual COD players simply looking for a simpler or more laid back experience will likely find themselves frustrated by this new depth to Call of Duty introduced in Advanced Warfare.  It certainly lives up to its name in that respect.

A variety of score-streaks keep the game interesting,
but double-down on a losing team rather harshly

Your loadout when you go into a mission is fairly standard but highly-customisable: a variety of available pistols, rifles, shotguns, and special weapons, with a special ballistic shield as well, one primary and one secondary selection for each with all the usual bits and bobs for modification, but the big change in this regard other than cosmetic customisation is that kill-streaks are now score-streaks, and they have much greater customisability and variety now.  From orbital laser strikes to a Goliath mech suit that might remind you suspiciously much of Titanfall, there are a variety of different score-streaks available, and each of them has a variety of ways with which to customise them.

The loadout weapons themselves are pretty much bog-standard, but I did recognise and appreciate an active effort to keep weapons varied.  While there's the usual expy versions of iconic modern weapons, there's also a variety of more original ones, including a laser-beam weapon and a pulse-based shotgun, though the latter seems moderately imbalanced.  It's worth mentioning that most of these weapons are pretty well balanced, including the variant versions you can get through occasional in-game "supply drop" unlocks at random times, but there are a couple notable exceptions.  Scopes which greatly increase accuracy and that pulse shotgun are both level-gated, as are several high-end score-streaks, so the lower-level experience, when you're under-powered and under-geared, can be a pretty un-fun experience really.  The game does include some stock loadouts, but they're not really enough.

That level disparity kind of highlights that fundamental problem in the game design that's carried over from previous Call of Duty games: the score-streaks really double-down the punishment on a losing team in the team-based game modes.  While switching it to score-streaks rather than kill-streaks as were in the previous game does encourage the teams better to achieve objectives, the same compounding of difficulty for a team in team modes that are losing remains.  It's extremely difficult to come back from behind in the game, especially with a relatively-low score ceiling, and even with the promise of a match XP bonus, I often found people either leaving or just going AFK if the team was losing.  It makes it very difficult to fight back when the higher end score streaks start rolling out against you, and it's not really all that fun, to be honest.

I liken it to a game of Natural Selection with the commander element: when you have a good team, with a solid strategy, it comes together just beautifully.  When it falls apart though, it can be pretty unenjoyable.  It's to Advanced Warfare's credit that I still enjoyed it when I was losing, as playing in public games was a crap shoot, and the COD community sure hasn't changed with the game.

An unusual but welcome addition is
the great amount of character customisation

This is such a small thing to many people, but one of the welcome changes to Call of Duty's customisation is a wide variety of options to customise your physical appearance as well.  You start the game with sets of various clothing items for both of the main factions and a civilian set, and along the way you can also find in the supply drops a variety of other items from minor factions, or specialties in the two armies that essentially are interesting reskins.

It's hardly a game changer to most people and I recognise that, but being able to take some ownership of my "operator" like that was something I actually quite liked.  I'm a sucker for being able to customise my character in those cosmetic ways.

The game looks absolutely gorgeous and takes advantage of the PC

PC ports of Call of Duty have a storied history of being mediocre at best, but Advanced Warfare breaks away from that to provide a fully-functional PC port including a variety of resolution and advanced video options, including AA, anisotropic filtering, and advanced DX11 shaders.  Fans of TotalBiscuit's favourite bugbear will be happy to discover that the game also includes a FOV slider which allows adjustment up to a perfectly-reasonable FOV for a PC game as well.

In game, there's a fair few tricks of the trade being used to make things look better than they would otherwise, such as great specmaps on otherwise average textures, but at the end of the day, the game looks great, animates better, and has a very distinct visual style that stands out.  It performs quite well additionally, with the game on max settings hovering around a decent 60 FPS for me at 720p.  I had to knock down a couple to make it work at 1080p 60 FPS, but considering my rig is no great beast as many people will have, that's entirely acceptable in my opinion.

The texture quality is good bordering on excellent, sky-boxes with their accompanying godrays are gorgeous, and the maps include a great variety of visual extras such as cars passing by in nearby roads off-map.  The art and sound direction both are fairly good if not great - well-implemented but somewhat held back by being generic and safe.  The look of the "exo-suits" for example while rather well-designed look like they could be out of any generic sci-fi game or film of recent memory.  So in other words, it's well implemented, but not particularly memorable.

The one PC advantage that the game doesn't capitalise on -
the ability to have and use dedicated servers - is a huge omission

Let's not beat around the bush here: with time to get in the game being as long as the actual matches, the matchmaking system Advanced Warfare uses is absolute pants.  In addition to that, it doesn't do a very good job of balancing teams, and teams are not balanced mid-game (if people rage-quit, for example), and as such, you can suddenly have a very pointed shift in power - not fun considering the connection problems that the game often seems to have leaving many people I was playing with disconnecting frequently.  So often you'd end up with this kind of snowball effect where a couple people would disconnect, the match would become heavily skewed as a result, and then other people would quit out of frustration.

There is a forced intermission between matches as well, which, since you have people often will quit and leave you needing additional players to make the minimum amount for the game mode, only lengthens the time to get into a match.  Literally half of the time I was playing AW was waiting to get into a match, which was very frustrating, and often left me sitting around tweeting or playing another game in another window meanwhile.  That's ... basically when you'd lose a lot of people, and it needs fixed.  Having the ability to run your own server would mostly alleviate that.

Speaking of connection issues, as a result of the matchmaking system, host advantage is a real thing, and cheating is fairly common.  It makes an already sub-optimal experience all the less fun.

There are a variety of game modes available,
but the cooperative play mode is mostly an afterthought

Advanced Warfare supports a bevy of different play mode, though most of them that aren't the usual deathmatch variants such as Kill Confirmed are simple objective based modes, either finding and destroying/recovering an item, holding strategic points, or hardpoint which combines that take and hold with mobile, changing capture points other than static ones.  I quite prefer that hardpoint mode, because it plays well to the highly-mobile nature of the new Advanced Warfare's fast-paced and fast-moving combat quite well.

The game also includes an "exo coop" mode that is in the multiplayer game's launch options and I almost glossed over entirely.  It seems that this wouldn't be entirely unjustified, as the game mode does not influence the usual Call of Duty meta progression, is not played very often, and is a fairly generic horde mode.  It actually is decently well-done for a horde mode, varying objectives well and keeping you on your toes, but at the end of the day, its a game mode that becomes very repetitive, quite quickly.

The time-to-death is still pretty brutally low.

This is a complaint I left for last because honestly, some people will actually enjoy this, but I consider it to the detriment of the game.  While the quick pace of the game is mostly held up with the game, a combination of poor spawn points on maps which leave you dying to enemies right on top of you with no spawn protection (you will find a plethora of forum threads complaining about the poor spawns on a couple of maps), and many hit-scan weapons that don't require much real accuracy to hit with, you can often be left essentially feeding your enemies' score-streaks if you get on a bad run.  Most weapons if you hit the right hit-box on your enemy are one hit kills, so it can be very frustrating.

This is, of course, the essence of the "twitch" shooter, so some people will absolutely thrive on this.  Myself, between connection problems, poor spawns, and the hit-scan weapons, find it to be a frustrating design flaw, however.

The Final Word: Recommended - Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare offers a lot of change to the standard Call of Duty formula, most of which I find to be a breath of fresh air to a highly-stagnant franchise. The movement system in particular makes the game a fun run-and-game shootfest that is stymied by the baggage of its progenitors.  It plays well, but whether it lasts or not in the PC market will depend on if dedicated servers are provided as an option or not.