I wasn’t in the room when recently founded developer Sledgehammer Games conceived “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare,” but I suspect it went a little something like this: “Let’s use the latest technology to place the player firmly at the helm of a runaway Michael Bay movie – complete with giant robots, cool gadgets and, of course, limitless explosions – and grab an A-list celebrity that we can build a predictable-yet-fun script around.
If that wasn’t how it went, you’d certainly have no way of knowing it after playing “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.”
This year’s entry in the annual powerhouse is probably the best one since 2009’s “Modern Warfare 2.” It features some of the most beautiful aesthetics seen in the history of gaming, and it provides tons and tons – sometimes too many – action-packed thrills. Kevin Spacey is clearly written into as much of the script as was humanly possible, but his recognizable and immaculately captured digital persona doesn’t overwhelm his co-stars, video game veterans Troy Baker (“The Last of Us,” “BioShock Infinite”) and Gideon Emery (“Wolfenstein: The New Order, “ “Killzone: Shadows Fall”).
The first thing that struck me about “Advanced Warfare” was the motion-capture graphics. This technology, commonly abbreviated as mo-cap, allows actors in special suits covered with tiny sensors to act out scenes as they would a play, with the sensors translating their exact movements and facial expressions onto digital projections in the game. Even if you have never touched a video game, you’ve seen mo-cap in movies such as the “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies, the recent “Planet of the Apes” franchise and “The Avengers.”
Publisher Activision told media members at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in June that Sledgehammer Games had “unlocked the secret” to one-of-a-kind motion capture technology, and they showed us what I suspected was fake footage of beautifully rendered soldiers.
I was wrong. The characters in “Advanced Warfare” are the most realistic physical depictions of human beings in a video game to date. Players are able to recognize actors by their appearance, not just the sound of their voices. I didn’t realize that Baker was the star until I saw a him doing shots with Spacey and Emery. His freckled face, not his million-dollar gaming voice, exposed him. I’ve never had that happen before in a video game.
“Advanced Warfare” also delivers some of the craziest in-game action scenes I have ever seen. It is not uncommon to be hanging on to a speeding car or crashing helicopter with one hand and shooting terrorists with another. Each mission debuts a new set of insane circumstances fit for any blockbuster action film, complete with new gadgets like magnetic gloves for climbing buildings or a magical bomb that somehow negates all sound waves.
In fact, I think Sledgehammer went a little overboard on this point. The amount of technology available overwhelms the player. How is someone supposed to remember 50 or 60 button commands, prompts and combinations in the middle of a firefight?
I became accustomed with the tricky grenade controls and frequent quick-time events as time went on, but this high learning curve makes “Advanced Warfare” difficult to just pick up and play. Unless you have extensive experience in the first-person shooter genre, you will want to crank the difficulty down and follow the tutorial instructions carefully.
The constant jumping from flaming building to flaming helicopter to flaming car and other Arnold Schwarzenegger-worthy feats grows stale after awhile. Sledgehammer reduced
the potency of their awesome action scenes by shoving in so many of them back to back for every mission.
I understand why the company felt the need to make gameplay as loud and gaudy as possible, but it was just too much for me.
I also wasn’t a huge fan of the lack of variety in the multiplayer maps. Most of the maps are either quite small or cluttered enough to force players into tight zones of carnage, which doesn’t really work well with the game’s fast pace and unending supply of fancy tools. I would say 80% of the team death-match and domination matches I played deteriorated into players just running in, maybe killing one other player, then dying immediately.
This is a real shame, because the combat in the “Advanced Warfare” multiplayer modes is solid. When I had a moment to breathe, I found the gun and gizmo mechanics to be tight and balanced. I enjoyed my online experiences as a whole, but I wish there were a few more maps that let me stretch my bionic legs.
Overall, I believe the strengths of “Advanced Warfare” far outweigh the minor weaknesses. Its visual elements are impressive enough to warrant a look, and it also adds solid weapon mechanics and plenty of great action to the table. This is definitely one of the most impressive shooters of the past few years.