This Year, Call of Duty Might Actually Shake Things Up

For a few years now, new Call of Duty games have been met with cynical weariness. There's this feeling that, despite yearly iterations, the franchise hasn't actually changed much.

Whether or not this pessimistic outlook has always been warranted is debatable, but it's hard not to give it some credence when considering that last year, the lackluster Call of Duty: Ghosts absurdly boasted about things like "advanced" fish AI.

It's not like the game didn't have its merits, of course. Riley the dog was a fantastic addition to the campaign, and the multiplayer offered the signature fast-paced Call of Duty experience. But personally, even in moments when I was having fun with Ghosts, there was this fear that, with both Titanfall and Destiny looming, it was only a matter of time before Call of Duty was left behind.

And then Sledgehammer Games pulled the curtain on Advanced Warfare. Everyone saw soldiers wearing advanced mech-like suits that let them pull off superhuman stunts. They saw hover-bikes. They saw gadgets that could scan an entire room and highlight enemies. They saw soldiers who could turn themselves invisible. And they saw Kevin Spacey, rendered in CGI, giving a speech about democracy.

The franchise went full-on sci-fi, and people seemed open to the idea that this game could be different from the others. Who knows, maybe it'll even be good. Light-hearted trolling aside, I've never seen a new Call of Duty be met with such little snark!

Last week, I got a chance to sit down with the multiplayer segment of Advanced Warfare, and to chat with the game's multiplayer director. After playing a few matches, I got general sense of what Advanced Warfare has to offer. Here's what you need to know about it.

  • First off, Sledgehammer Games, the developers behind Advanced Warfare, would neither confirm or deny that there is a new dog in the game. Bummer! I'm crossing my fingers, though.
  • Okay, but more seriously: I can tell you right now, for the first time in a long while, it doesn't feel like Call of Duty's marketing is bullshitting us in an attempt to sell us a new game. Advanced Warfare doesn't feel like the same old Call of Duty, only with prettier graphics. I mean, yes: the core twitchy feel of the game is still there, so if you hated the way Call of Duty played before, you're still probably not going to be impressed by Advanced Warfare. But there are enough additions to what a player is capable of doing in multiplayer that the game manages to feel fresh in some ways.
  • Nothing that I saw last week was new; chances are good that if you've played other big shooters, you're probably acquainted with some of what Advanced Warfare incorporates into Call of Duty—elements which are new to Call of Duty. While playing, the comparison that came to mind the most was Crysis, mixed with a design sensibility that seems similar to that of Mass Effect. I mean, look at this:

This Year, Call of Duty Might Actually Shake Things Up

  • Your exoskeleton suit lets you do many of the things that the nano suit in Crysis does. To be more specific, you can boost jump, boost dodge, boost slide, boost dash, as well as do things like grapple onto surfaces. There's even a ground-pound-like ability, which lets you slam down into the ground after boost jumping. These abilities can be chained together, assuming you have enough battery power for them.
  • Your suit also grants you special "exo abilities" which you can activate during matches, provided you have them equipped. These include a special shield ability, a speed boost ability, a regenerative ability, a cloaking ability, a hover ability, a "trophy system" that destroys nearby grenades and rockets, and a "ping" ability that shows you where enemies are in your HUD. It's all very fancy and futuristic.
  • Think of it as a souped-up, more intense version of Call of Duty: you have more mobility, you have more agility, and you can boost in and out of action—and a lot of that action takes place in the air. If the games made you feel like you were old before, it's only going to get worse.
  • In order to accommodate your advanced scaling abilities, maps have become more vertical, multilayered and complex. This Call of Duty requires you to look up.

  • So far, there are at least four multiplayer maps: a snowy secret base called "Biolab," a devastated prison called "Riot," a a futuristic Space Elevator terminal called "Ascend," and an abandoned bunker called "Defender."
  • Of these maps, Defender stood out the most—it's near the Golden Gate Bridge, and every so often, a map-changing tsunami will hit. This tsunami can drown inattentive players, or be used strategically by sharp players. Not every map will have dynamic events like this, but some will. Aside from Defender, Biolab also stood out. Large canisters containing mysterious orange liquids can be detonated by players on Biolab, and anyone hit by this liquid will take serious damage. It's kind of annoying, actually, but I only say that because it kept being used against me. Less impressive was Riot, but that's only because I feel a little weird about making a playground out of a prison.

This Year, Call of Duty Might Actually Shake Things Up

  • Call of Duty now has a loot system, which come in the form of "Supply Drops." You'll still gain experience, rank up and unlock gear as you have in the past. But you'll also receive rewards through Supply Drops, which are awarded through time spent playing and completing in-game challenges. The more you play, the more you earn. Supply Drops come in three different levels of rarity, and will give players weapons/attachments, character gear, and reinforcements.
  • Reinforcements are basically things like low-level scorestreaks, or special abilities you can use in-match. If you've ever used a burn card in Titanfall—it's basically like that, only more randomized. Once you receive a reinforcement, you'll have to use it in the next match—Sledgehammer didn't want people doing things like saving reinforcements up, only to unleash all of them in a single match, since that would make things kind of unbalanced. Either way, players shouldn't expect to unlock too many reinforcements—they'll be a tad rare.
This Year, Call of Duty Might Actually Shake Things Up
  • I happened to receive at least a couple supply drops during the matches I played, and I can already tell the game is going to be full of STUFF. Sledgehammer says there are at least 350 customizable weapons out of the box, and there are thousands of different unlockable rewards in the game. Opening a supply drop feels surprisingly gratifying, which is not good news if they decide to add microtransactions into the mix.
  • Thanks to the new loot system, you can have a situation where levelling up nets you an OK-ish weapon—but then you'll receive a super rare attachment, which can take that weapon to the next level. I'm not sure how this will work out in terms of balance; the system, while potentially cool if it works in your favor, has the potential to make things unpleasant for other players who haven't had good luck.
  • There's a new weapon-type called a "directed energy weapon." These weapons basically make it look like you're shooting lasers at other players—which sounds outlandish, but apparently they're based on actual research (as are other weapons!) These weapons don't have ammo and you don't have to reload, though they will overheat. I wasn't the biggest fan when I tried out these heavy weapons during matches, but that's entirely because of my play-style: the weapons require you to hold down the trigger and continuously land a ray of energy on an enemy. I'd much rather just use a weapon which lets me burst fire, especially given how mobile players can be now. You might feel differently.

This Year, Call of Duty Might Actually Shake Things Up

  • You can deck out your character with all sorts of stuff, like eyewear, gloves and knee-guards. There were a handful of stock soldiers to customize in the demo I tried, including three women. Speaking to other people who toyed with the cosmetic customization, we agreed that the game allows you to make your character look cool, or like a giant douche. You can, for example, equip a cool exo suit that's layered with scratch marks denoting your kills, as well as graffiti, and tags—making the gadget look like it belongs to a real human being. Or you can put on Oakley-like sunglasses and make your character look like a bro. I imagine things will only get worse should Advanced Warfare ever unleash special weed DLC, as Ghosts did. Either way, thanks to a virtual lobby that renders your character in full, players can admire your style during matchmaking.
  • Remember the pick-ten system, which let players build a class with ten different custom elements? That's back, only now it's Pick 13. Like before, you can choose your scorestreaks, your attachments, and your perks in addition to your new exo abilities. Each of these elements is worth a certain amount of points, and you can stack on as many of them as you like so long as you don't go over thirteen points. Your character can be tailored to your playstyle.
  • Scorestreaks are changing, too. Say you have a scorestreak which allows you to pull out a turret after getting six hundred points in a match. You can add a module to turn that machine gun turret into a rocket turret. It'll cost more to activate, but it'll be better. Other scorestreaks will feature different types of modules. In addition to that, there will be co-op scorestreaks. These will also cost more, but they'll allow you to have other players join your scorestreak. For example, a player might earn a warbird scorestreak. You'll get a notification, which asks you to press X to assist—and your character will pull out a tablet, a little bar will fill up, and hey, suddenly you're up in the warbird yourself. You won't have the main warbird ability, but you'll be able to offer some support to the person who actually earned the scorestreak (and, let's be real, get some kill-stealing).
  • I'm not actually convinced the average player will splurge for these scorestreaks, considering how much Call of Duty encourages the lone-wolf mentality. But I can maybe see someone equipping it in order to be nice to their lesser-skilled buddy. Who knows, maybe the Call of Duty community will surprise me.
  • Perks are back. You have classic ones, like low profile, fast hands, and cold blooded. There are also new perks based around the exo suit, like one that lets you to fire while sprinting and sliding, one that gives you extra battery time, and one allows you to move more sneakily around the map. All of these take up a slot on your pick 13, though.

This Year, Call of Duty Might Actually Shake Things Up

  • There's a firing range now, which lets you shoot at digital targets. This way, you don't have to hop into an actual match to see how your loadouts come together—you can just try your build out in the firing range, in between matches. Not the most exciting feature or anything, but it'll be useful.
  • There are twelve multiplayer modes, though they didn't show us all of them. So far, I can confirm that team deathmatch, domination, kill confirmed, capture the flag, search and destroy, and hardpoint make a return. There are new game modes, too. We were told about "Uplink," a mode where teams fight over control of a satellite drone. This satellite can be held, passed to teammates, and even given to enemies to render them temporarily weaponless. It reminds me of Halo's Grifball. Also "new" is Momentum, a mode with capture points. You'll need to control specific areas of the map, and the more control points and kills you have, the more your momentum meter fills up. It's a neat idea, though I didn't get to see it in action.
  • Team Deathmatch didn't feel as exciting as the other game modes—maybe that's just personal preference, but it seemed like modes that didn't revolve solely around killing also saw more usage of the special exo abilities.
  • Finally, I am actually somewhat impressed by the visuals in Advanced Warfare. They're not on the level of what Destiny offers, and there's bound to be some sacrifice given that the game is releasing both on last-gen and current-gen consoles, but still—compared to Ghosts, the game looks pretty good.

Okay, so, clearly the new Call of Duty has a lot of FEATURES. How's it feel? It's a little hard to say based on what I played—there's a stark difference between what you see in the exciting sizzle reels of the game and how people new to the game might actually actually handle it. If you saw some of what I played, you might think it's just the same 'ol run-and-gun Call of Duty, even though that's not actually the case.

Part of it, I suspect, is that everyone will need to rewire their Call of Duty programming to take the new abilities into account. The first few days of Advanced Warfare's online will likely be a learning experience even for the most seasoned players. Personally, I took to jumping high, scaling and hovering quickly—which made the game feel a bit more floaty and Halo-ish.

Abilities like these also make it so that encounters aren't completely dictated by who can pull the trigger first. The game is still ruled by reaction time, but there's a bit more of a strategic element to it thanks to new fancy gadgets, attachments, and exo abilities which you can use to change the course of a skirmish. I wasn't really able to pull off anything particularly impressive during my limited playtime, but I'm looking forward to learning how to play the game with style.

This Year, Call of Duty Might Actually Shake Things Up

With Advanced Warfare, something curious is happening: it seems like Call of Duty is no longer resting on its laurels, like Sledgehammer games is hungry to remind people why Call of Duty is king. Where last generation was defined by other franchises trying to ape Call of Duty, it looks like the time has finally come for Call of Duty to learn from other games. You can see some Crysis in the exo suit. The floatiness is a bit Halo. The mechs—that's obviously a bit Titanfall. I'm sure some people will still be cynical about this, but I get the feeling that Sledgehammer games is eager to move Call of Duty forward—literally, given that this sequel is going to the future. I'll leave you with the most telling segment of my interview with the game's multiplayer director, Greg Reisdorf:

Kotaku: What's been the most surprising part about working on Advanced Warfare?

Reisdorf: "The response has been overwhelming positive with everybody that's played the game—"

Kotaku: "...were you not expecting a positive response?"

Reisdorf: "Well, it's Call of Duty. There is a stigma there, it has a long history, and it's easy for people to hate on it. And to be able to put in a lot of time into it, three years of my life...I could have gotten a law degree! But you know what, I chose to make a game. And, just to see people [reacting so positively to it] is awesome. I love that."

Advanced Warfare, as exciting as it is to play, did not blow my socks off. It's another shooter, and it's not like we have a shortage of shooters. All the same, I'm feeling hopeful and optimistic about where Call of Duty is headed, and it's been years since I've been able to say that.

A couple more screenshots for your enjoyment:

This Year, Call of Duty Might Actually Shake Things Up

This Year, Call of Duty Might Actually Shake Things Up

This Year, Call of Duty Might Actually Shake Things Up

To contact the author of this post—especially if you have awesome stories of mystery and dedication—write to patricia@kotaku.com or find her on Twitter @patriciaxh.