Thursday, November 6, 2014

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare Review

Gamers who play first person shooters are always looking for the next big thing. That game changer, that alters how shooters are made. Bay Area company Sledgehammer Games may just have that in their brand new installment of Call of Duty. Why is it special though? Is this reviewer just perpetuating internet hype, or is there something to this latest installment of the storied Activision Franchise. Based on my time with the game, I can say that Sledgehammer Games has the pedigree of a great design company, as well as the wisdom to innovate and borrow from other games to make the one of the best first person shooters out on the market.

Sledgehammer Games' Roots
 Sledgehammer games was started by Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey. They are veteran developers who left Electronic Arts developer Visceral Games, after starting the Dead Space franchise, to start their own company. Their first work as a new company was to co-develop Modern Warfare 3 with Infinity Ward. If anyone reading this has played those games, then you will know that those are some solid bona fides. If you’ve been living under a rock and never played either Dead Space or Modern Warfare 3, I suggest you start educating yourself. They were both seriously great games. Either way, Sledgehammer’s owners made a killer and down right deviously scary horror/shooter for EA and their new company cut its teeth on a previous Call of Duty game. They were ready to develop this one on their own.

Multiplayer; its what really matters right?
Since Valve launched Counter Strike, multiplayer has become the driving force of shooters.  Since then, new games have to evolve to survive. Whether it was increasing the number of players on a map, adding vehicles, or a slew of other options multiplayer can be what makes or breaks a game. We saw that with Mass Effect 3, who’s multiplayer mode felt like an almost complete part of the game. It was a survival mode instead of team deathmatch; admittedly it tied into the story portion of the game to drive players towards it. Previous COD titles have had varying structures of multiplayer design. Whether it's adding on new modes or adding new options for custom classes; Activision's developers have always tried to add new things.

Instead of going for something new, Sledgehammer borrowed from aspects from a variety of titles and perfected them. Players who played Call of Duty Black Ops II will enjoy a return to a familiar mechanic: the fully customizable load out system pioneered by Treyarch. Here players can alter their guns through attachments, equip exo suit abilities, change perks, alter their killstreaks, and add Wild Card perks. Unlike Ghosts and Black Ops I, there is no money or coin system that earns new guns or attachment faster, so players will have to be patient and level up to get new guns. New to the game are Exo abilities. Exo abilities are specific perks that have a battery life. Once activated the battery drains and does not recharge. The Exo abilities allow you to do very Crisis-like things, like run faster, or cloak.

Another borrowed mechanic that is “new” to COD is the Supply Drop. This is not like the killstreak reward, but rather a post match reward that unlocks new rare items. Those familiar with Mass Effect 3 multiplayer will remember either spending hard cash or grinding out in game currency to purchase supply drops for new guns, buffs, or new playable characters. In Advanced Warfare players earn them by leveling up or by completing challenges. They contain random items that vary from a free in game reward like a supply drop, different cosmetic clothing or armors, to rare varieties of base weapons earned in the game by leveling up. The values are denoted by colors: Enlisted (green), Professional (blue), and Elite (orange). Slegdehammer has also reintroduced the competitive ranked modes from Black Ops, for those players who either play professionally or want a greater challenge than offered in public matches. There is a survival mode that plays similar to Halo ODST's Firefight mode, but allows players to choose between 3 Exo frames ( light, heavy, or specialist) each with its own available weapons, as well as benefits and drawbacks. Finally, Zombie mode will also return to the game at an undisclosed time as DLC. 

Story: It's Important, and in this case, worthwhile!
For the competitive player who enjoys first person shooters, story mode is an afterthought. In the case of Advanced Warfare, Sledgehammer added a gimmick that may just drive players to play through their story to earn a competitive edge against their friends and opponents.

Before the gimmick, let it be said the narrative for Advanced Warfare brings new emotional currents to the well known COD story. There is a formula to COD stories: Exposition, Act One, Conflict/Betrayal, Act Two, Climax, Resolution, and finally a cut scene set up for next game. I won't be revealing the story in this article, but play the campaign, its worth it for the story alone. I will say that what the writers at Sledgehammer Games injected emotional life into their shooter that is rarely seen outside of a role playing game. The writing team encourages, nay drives, players to emotionally connect not only with the character they are playing, but with the villain as well. The writers inject real emotions to each glimpse of joy, frustration, or sorrow that occurs in the game.

The gimmick added by the game developers is tied into the Exo Suit upgrade systems. Throughout the campaign, players are encouraged to complete challenges: getting a certain number of kills per level, headshots, grenade kills, and the ever present "collect the intel." As each level of the challenge is completed, an upgrade point for the Exo Suit is earned. Players can upgrade their suits to get better passive better response from their suit. Upgrades range from increased reload speed, to threat detection, to sprint duration. There are 2 upgrade levels, with level one costing one point, and level two costing two points. As upgrade levels are maxed out, players will unlock multiplayer supply drops earning players a potential edge to online combat.

Design for the sake of art and brilliant mechanics
Call of Duty hasn't always been the best looking game. Granted, the franchise has stayed abreast of industry standards but rarely can I say that the game was beautiful in the same way Skyrim or Mass Effect 3 were beautiful. That being said, the artists and creators at Sledgehammer Games have made a beautiful looking game. Game levels have depth of field, and beautiful texturing that grab the eye. The cut scenes are film quality with principal character faces and bodies are completely motion captured. The dialogue helps bring emotion to the campaign as well as creating a stage for Kevin Spacey to run wild with acting chops worthy of Calculon! Looking at this game is a feast for the eyes. One can tell that the developers took time and care making this game.

The game mechanics for this game feel like a return to Modern Warfare 3, with bits of Black Ops and other games tossed in. The speed of multiplayer is reminiscent of that game. Players are not being slaughtered left and right but now players need to think in new directions. The Exo suit allows players not only to boost jump but to dodge quickly on the ground as well as in mid air. Possibly borrowed from Titanfall, this dodge ability feels smoother and more practiced in its new home. Players now can reach new heights in their attempts to find sniper hideouts, as well as new avenues for escape to dodge incoming fire. Exo abilities grant players timed bonuses to make them tougher, faster, quiet, or nearly invisible. This grants each player with new avenues for strategy to deal death upon their opponents. These new tools breath fresh life into Call of Duty while retaining the core values that have made the IP great.

Play it all

When it comes down to it, this new addition to the Call of Duty family is a great game made by a company that cares about quality. They borrowed and adapted aspects and mechanics from previous games to bring new life to a multiplayer franchise that had started to feel stale, as seen in Call of Duty: Ghosts. The return of the ranked competitive playlists will surely make competitive gamers happy and content in an arena designed for professional tournaments. For myself however, what made this game great was the story. A story of a man tired of the failure of governments who takes a step too far. Like the Greek tragedies of old hubris brings the downfall of a man who reached to far, and the player is the deus ex machina that resolves the imbalance. A great cast led by Kevin Spacey dives into a story that touches our current problems and provides a cautionary tale of loss, sorrow, righteous anger, and ultimately the futility of attempting to end violence with violence. Sledgehammer Games has released a classic that has set a new benchmark for the Call of Duty franchise as well as shooters as a whole.

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