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.
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Having touched on Advanced Warfare's campaign yesterday, it's perhaps the multiplayer mode that represents the bigger hold over the Call of Duty series' fans. After seeing the PS4 struggling to hold 60fps at points in solo play, and with Xbox One's image quality diminished by its dynamic resolution, one question remains: does the single-player mode's performance profile have any bearing on online competitive play?
Right off the bat, we can confirm that while we do see the Xbox One version creeping to a full 1920x1080 resolution in the campaign's less taxing scenes, the same is not true of multiplayer. When pixel-counting screenshots gleaned from all 13 available stages, the 1360x1080 resolution is a constant fixture. Even with non-intensive, small maps featuring no players on-screen, the Xbox One refuses to increase its native frame-buffer dynamically based on load. Meanwhile, the PS4 remains locked at full 1080p, just like its campaign counterpart.
By matching shots at spawn points, the impact of this resolution differential is clear to see. A cut-back framebuffer on Microsoft's hardware causes foliage elements - grass, trees and so on - to appear aggressively filtered and upscaled, while the PS4's visual make-up remains crisp and defined throughout our testing.
Texture quality, meanwhile, is a match between PS4 and Xbox One, a state of affairs that is also true of alpha resolution on Semtex grenade explosions and even object LODs. But while the border of each map is plainly visible on each, there's a drop-off in clarity for Microsoft's platform past a certain distance. The reduction in motion blur and depth of field - in the interest of upping clarity on both platforms - makes its lessened 1360x1080 presentation more obvious. It's unlikely to affect gameplay, but it's certainly a downside to the Xbox One's overall presentation when switching across from PS4. It's an interesting contrast to the campaign mode, where the heavily post-processed aesthetic hides the worst of the resolution deficit.
Firing Semtex grenades is enough to kick into gear some light physics-based destruction on objects. The resulting alpha is identical in quality between the PS4 and Xbox One.
Interior areas in the Ascend multiplayer stage rely heavily on reflective mapping, impressively mirroring all its specular highlights and particle effects. Neither platform loses out
Both platforms utilise the same 'striped' effect on shadows, for players and environments alike. Unfortunately, darker areas on the Xbox One are slightly crushed, despite both platforms being set to the same brightness setting.
While texture quality is indistinguishable between the PS4 and Xbox One in multiplayer (much like the campaign), the 1360x1080 native resolution on Microsoft's platform is locked in place - causing foliage and distant elements to become blurred over.
Whether playing 1v1, or engaging in huge 18-player Ground War tussles for map domination, the resolution on Xbox One seems to remain at 1360x1080. Texture filtering on long roads, meanwhile, is fairly weak on both platforms - an area the PC version is able to address.
Object draw distance is a match between the PS4 and Xbox One, with interactive elements, such as the monorail at centre here, playing a role in the ensuing shoot-outs.
Last but not least, lighting is overhauled for Sledgehammer Games' engine, translating well to the online component. While motion blur is significantly dialled down for multiplayer, this area thankfully shines.
Clearly, locking to a lower resolution on Xbox One is key in hitting the sustained 60fps gameplay that is the Call of Duty trademark. Having ascertained the pixel counts, we moved on to determining just how solid performance is on both consoles. In order to stress-test both platforms, we select the Ground War mode, allowing for a maximum of 18 players in big team games - and the results are intriguing.
On record in our Xbox One video, we hit a lowest 56fps on the opening Instinct stage test - kicking in just as a shader effect disrupts the screen. Paired with that are a few torn frames, with the upper 33 per cent of the screen cut in each case. However, much like the Xbox One's campaign mode we rarely see many drops below the 60fps line at all, and v-sync is almost always intact barring exceptional moments. A few odd, missed frames are caught while charging around Instinct, but for Detroit and Defender this simply isn't a problem.
With PlayStation 4 operating at full 1080p, we had suspicions going in that multiplayer would be a more robust experience than its 50-60fps campaign offering - and that proves to be quite true. A lurch down to the low 50s is the absolute worst we have on record, occurring during the Detroit level in this case. This is one of only two likewise dips across hours of test footage, with both coinciding with kill-cam replays rather than actual gameplay.
Xbox One multiplayer tested across three levels - Instinct, Detroit and Defender - shows a well optimised game that locks to the target 60fps much better than Call of Duty: Ghosts. To watch this video at 60fps, use Google Chrome and select 720p or 1080p resolution.
For the PS4's typical run-and-gunning though, the multiplayer frame-rate is much like the Xbox One's. Singular frames are occasionally dropped as we boost around the level, but as a baseline, Sony's platform holds to 60fps almost perfectly. In this respect, it's a far better performer than its campaign equivalent - and as a bonus, it holds v-sync throughout too.
All of which makes this comparison quite simple. If competitive multiplayer is your calling, Advanced Warfare has you well covered on both platforms - each servicing gameplay with a strong 60fps delivery that only occasionally flakes out. In the Xbox One's case this is due to a shader effect, and on PS4, it's from alpha buffers overlapping during a kill-cam replay. In both cases, gameplay is not impacted, with each console handing in a broadly like-for-like experience. The only tangible downside is on Xbox One, with its poorer, fixed 1360x1080 presentation coming to bear more obviously than it does in the campaign mode, while PS4 offers a noticeably cleaner presentation.
Stress-testing the PS4's multiplayer across three levels shows a much better optimised game than the campaign mode. Here, it's 60fps as a rule with only occasional blips interrupting actual play.